Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Unity and Diversity

The Pope approving the statutes of the Order of the Franciscans,
by Giotto, 1295–1300,
from Wikipedia page on Francis of Assisi.

This comment on a previous post got me thinking:

I agree that there is a diversity of doctrine among the members of congregations, I wish you had addressed the limitations of such diversity, instead of just blessing it. It seems that, if the diversity becomes too great, the church becomes paralyzed and is never able to speak or act as one--Frank Ruff


It is impossible to explore the topic of Christian unity before diving headlong into a discussion of unity and diversity.  That’s the crux of the matter, no pun intended.  How do we congregate together into some kind of a unity while also acknowledging and respecting all the differences among people and in their beliefs and actions?

You might even say the history of Christian denominations is a history of this very question. Denominations have broken off either because people perceived there wasn't enough breathing room for diversity or because people thought there was too much and wanted a stricter observance along certain lines. Has there been any split that didn't occur along these fault lines?

Too much unity and we can end up with uniformity--everyone looking, acting and speaking identically. It can be suffocating and brittle. People have to dampen or hide part of who they are in order to belong. It doesn't respect the full, unique dignity of every person who was created by God with a myriad assortment of attributes and temperaments.

On the flip side, too many differences and we can end up with chaos. People may simply dissipate from each other, not in a cataclysmic fight but more of a gradual drifting away. There has to be some underlying principle of unity that bonds people together, otherwise there's no reason to have anything to do with each other.

Even when people disagree over doctrine they often can still be united enough in their practice of the faith.  Too often, Christianity has focused on having the right beliefs but Jesus is the Way as well as the Truth.  Many longstanding Christian denominations have a detailed list of doctrinal beliefs that the tradition has handed down. But even with that, the actual members of any congregation may be divided in what they actually believe and practice. Churches like to pretend everyone is on board, but that is simply not reality.  In those cases, the people are still united enough to congregate together, do service together, worship together and work out their spiritual walk together.

It's not a question of unity or diversity. It's not simply about unity and diversity, either. as if those attributes could sit side by side somehow. We are looking for something much more intricate and woven together. We are all looking for that unity within our diversity.  They are not opposing concepts, even though their dynamics can appear that way. We can't harmonize our differences to the point of wiping out differences. Some groups have tried, but the differences did not actually go away--they were just painfully swept under the rug, only to reemerge later.  And we shouldn't accentuate our differences to where we forget what we mean to each other and how we are related.

So then where is the balance between?  Well, that's the million dollar question. I think our churches, and the whole human race, struggles with this question every day. I've experienced (near) perfect unity in diversity only momentarily in this life, but it's amazing to get a glimpse of it.

I’ve always been impressed studying Catholic Church history and looking at Pope Innocent III.  When St. Francis and St. Dominic came onto the scene and started their orders of mendicant friars, the Church could very easily have splintered into different factions.  The Franciscans and Dominicans were different enough in so many ways--from each other and the larger Church--to warrant breaking off.  Instead, the pope was able to hold it all together. Likewise, the friars were willing to do their share to stay part of the universal Church.  A couple hundred years later when Martin Luther proposed reforms, there was no room for diversity--or even room for discussion and debate--and the Church splintered.  That splintering continues today. 

That same inability to tolerate diversity—or stay in communion during times of disagreement—is a sin that stains all of western Christianity.  To this day, the theological beliefs of Franciscans can be tremendously different than those of Dominicans, yet they stay together. I think most people would be absolutely shocked to find out exactly how different those different schools of thought actually are. For example, they have monumental differences in how they understand Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Dominicans lean much more toward atonement theology while Franciscans affirm something more incarnational.  Catholic theologian Hans Küng even said once that the differences between Catholic schools like these are often greater than the differences between Catholics and some Protestants.  Yet, in the genius of the 13th century, the decision was made to stick together while the decision made since the Reformation is to split in response to disagreement. 

Who's at fault for the Protestant Reformation? That's a 500-year old debate and one I'm not likely to solve here! That's like asking who is at fault in the case of a divorce. Usually, it's a safe bet that both sides are equally responsible. It's almost always best to start with this assumption unless circumstances strongly prove otherwise. It's always possible that one party was just too unwilling to cooperate or that one party was able to reach out and create an opportunity for reconciliation when none seemed possible. In the 13th century,  both sides were willing to pull together and make compromises. Both sides were stubborn and willing to split in the 16th.

Too much rigidity and you break. The people who love strict rules should realize that rigidity also precedes schism. Yet, too much compromise and you can end up compromised. I don't know what the right formula is, but I think there is something in the example of Francis, Dominic and Innocent III that we should take seriously.

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