What is a zero-sum mindset?
It is when a person subconsciously thinks: If I affirm you and your tradition, then by consequence I reduce me and my tradition by the same amount.
The cartoon below reflects these same sentiments in a different way:
The problem with this zero-sum mindset is inherently expressed in the term itself: Everything always adds up to a complete zero. Your differences and my differences cancel each other out when put together. The resulting logic is that the only way for any interaction between two people to be fruitful, one person needs to change their beliefs, practices and ultimately change who they are to be more in line with the other. It leaves few options for contact: People either clash, neutralize each other, conform or simply avoid each other altogether. Those become the only possible outcomes when diverse groups come together. Your unique qualities call into question the validity of my unique qualities and we end up either fighting to establish who is right or living at a polite distance in an awkward tension.
We may not realize all of this consciously, but if we truly carry a zero-sum mindset then that is ultimately what we are saying. It could be argued that this is a depiction of where many communities today stand—filled with churches of many denominations keeping a quiet distance from each other. We have agreed on what we can agree on, and we simply do not know what to do with the differences left that we cannot find a way to converge into some kind of agreement. Some choose to ignore those differences. Some choose to downplay them or even assimilate with others. However, acknowledging true differences and still being in some sense united is something that often eludes us.
This is a challenge for Christians who take seriously the missionary call to go out and spread the Good News. Can they do it in such a way that does not turn interesting, wonderful people who are already reflecting God's wonder as Creator into some kind of carbon copies of themselves? Dare I say it—is this ethnic cleansing in a different form? It is often heavy handed to make that kind of a comparison, but it is hard not to ask that question as yesterday marked the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The comparison between some traditional forms of missionary conversion and genocide were raised by Katherine Wilson of the Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion when I heard her talk at the Wild Goose Festival last summer. We are at risk of violating one of the deepest revelations of the Christian tradition—the dignity of the human person.
Relationships, collaborations, joint efforts, and even dialogue can be seen as a complete loss this way. It is easy to see why people who would avoid ecumenical progress when it seems like the potential for loss is huge and the gains so small.
So is that it—are we just doomed? Is the quest for Christian unity simply an exercise where the only inevitable outcome is that one side ultimately will assimilate and eradicate the unique aspects of the others?
Are there other options?
Over and over again, Scripture promises abundance when we cast aside our worries and reach out to God. Zero-sum ecumenism is fear in disguise. Remember, it is based on the assumption that nothing good will come out of ecumenical interactions. That assumption could be flat out wrong.
It can be valuable to explore the mystical dimensions of the Christian tradition and practice a dose of contemplative non-attachment. It can be hard to recognize the good in someone else if our identity, self-worth and pride is rooted too heavily on our specific theological conclusions. We would be better off rooted in the awe and wonder of the Mystery of God. There is nothing wrong with being a people of conviction as long as those convictions do not turn into false idols keeping us from delving deeper into the Mystery of God and reaching out to others in charity and solidarity.
The subject of attachment in religious traditions is a tricky thing and deserves at least a post by itself. It is enough to say here that a tradition by its very nature has a history and a familiarity that goes along with it. The trick is to honor the tradition without being attached to it and risk missing the God it points to.
For example, I love the old wooden pews in the church where I grew up. I love the country feel in the yard outside. I love the way the sun would steam in through the stained glass windows. All of these can evoke and raise my consciousness to God. A long tradition has identified these as good qualities for a church to have. However, it becomes a problem if I were to say that the only legitimate religious experiences are those in old, country churches with wooden pews and stained glass windows. In that case, I would be making a false idol out of my personal experiences, linking my identity to these fleeting items of this world rather than to what is eternal. I would be fighting tooth and nail over them as if my life depended on it—and in a sense, it would if I have attached my very identity to these markers—and making it difficult to recognize the Revelation of God elsewhere. This is the false self that Jesus told us to deny so that we can find the Kingdom within which is eternal. It is silly actually—an eternal soul not realizing its nature staking its claim on something as fleeting as so much confetti.
Endless liturgical battles play out along these lines, as well. Some people find a worship service with guitar music difficult to accept compared to other instruments which have been in use for longer periods. The nastiness of these debates can be astounding. Are they just attached to something familiar, or are they really cautioning to introduce change slowly so as not to risk losing a tradition that has been refined over a long time? Some folks are so dug in to their viewpoint that "cautious change" does not seem to be an option for them at all. If they have attached their false ego self to something like organ music instead of guitar music, then organ-led services will end up affirming them—their group or their viewpoint is being represented so therefore they feel validated. The problem is that what is being validated is their false self, the very one Jesus told them to deny because it obscures their view of the eternal.
Pope Francis warns against this:
"And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought." He adds: "Already the Apostle John, in his first Letter, spoke of this. Christians who lose the faith and prefer the ideologies. His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness."
In Saffron Cross, Baptist minister Rev. J. Dana Trent shows us new calculus—God's math is not our math when our difference enhance rather than diminish us. Through her interfaith marriage to a Hindu monk, she discovered that her own Baptist faith had been deepened, that is, after a rough period of struggle and discernment. Her marriage forced her to evaluate, dig deeper and see her own tradition from a different perspective. The view was not always easy but at the end of this turmoil she found herself renewed in her faith on a higher plateau.
Longtime friend of Glenmary, Rev. Carroll Brownlow Hastings was a pioneer in Baptist-Catholic dialogue (pictured at left with Glenmary President Fr. Bob Berson at right). As an official liaison to Catholics with the Southern Baptist Convention, "he made lasting friendships, from Catholic bishops to the monks at the Conyers, GA, monastery, and helped countless others understand and appreciate the Catholic faith, even as he helped them understand Baptists, who he admitted, "are the confusion and amazement of all the Christian world." Although he garnered a deep affection for what he learned about Catholic faith and practice, he noted that paradoxically the experience profoundly deepened his own commitment to and admiration of Baptist principles. "
In fact, I have heard testimonies like these so many times it is bordering on cliché. People will say that when they begin dialogue with people from a different faith tradition, at first there may be moments of excitement or skepticism. Those moments often pass away into an inner roller coaster ride with their own beliefs swinging back and forth like a pendulum. However, if they hang in there long enough, they often say something uncannily similar to: I am a better __[my original faith tradition]__ for having gotten to know __[others from a different faith tradition]__ in a meaningful way.
An Exchange of Gifts
An alternative to zero-sum ecumenism begins with a couple of thoughts that seem contradictory at first: Yes, I am rooted in my own beliefs and tradition. So are you. I can assume that both me and my tradition bear some responsibility for the divisions among Christians—divisions which contradict the will of Christ. This humility may orient me in the right way to begin dialogue. Perhaps God is sharing gifts with you that I can be better off to learn about. You may as well benefit from hearing about what God has worked in me and my tradition.
This "exchange of gifts" that Pope John Paul II referred to is a new standard for ecumenical relationships. It goes something like this:
I have something to learn from you and you may have something to learn from me. We both share a full witness of what we believe God has revealed to us and our respective traditions, including all the messiness, confusion and conflicts we may find. We stand committed to working to fulfill Christ's prayer for Christian unity, even though we do not know where this may lead or what the outcome may be like. We do not seek to change each other, only to continue to testify until we understand why each of us has arrived at her or his respective beliefs and practices. We listen in patience and kindness as 1 Corinthians illustrates. We rely on the Holy Spirit to work in us as we seek that Scriptural ideal of unity in diversity.
Perhaps that is all that can be said right now.
All kidding in the above meme aside, we actually do know that is going to happen. In his famous address to Copeland Ministries, Pope Francis said it best with the following:
"A famous Italian author named Manzoni, once wrote in his novel, of a simple man amongst the people, who once said this, "I've never seen God begin a miracle without Him finishing it well." He will complete this miracle of unity."