Unity and Diversity


When Christians elevate uniformity, "alikeness," over Paul's dream of unity-in-diversity, shunning, excommunication, heresy trials, inquisitions, schism, crusades, and religious warfare are among the predictable results. As a historian of religion, I never cease to be astonished at the prevalence of this theological mistake--and its tragic consequences. The Christian West has been marked by a twisted insistence on sameness--especially on belief--that has led to a sadly ironic result: vast numbers of people who doubt or reject Christianity on the basis of its hypocrisy. How can a religion that speaks so eloquently of love so brutally destroy its questioners, its dissenters, its innovators, and its competitors?
--Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us
A few months ago, the outgoing pastor of the UCC congregation that I attend held a conversation with me about membership. I mentioned that, with my heretical views, I felt that I was on the fringes of Christian belief, and wasn't sure that membership really made sense for me. What I discovered from her response to that was that there was apparently more diversity of belief in that church than I had realized. I think I still had in my mind the model of a Christian denomination that I had acquired from my fundamentalist upbringing, where membership in a faith community was strongly tied to adhering to a set of "correct" beliefs. The idea of diversity of belief within a self-consciously Christian community was more than a little alien to me.

With respect to disabusing me of this notion with respect to the progressive church that I attend, it didn't really help that theology doesn't get discussed much among the laypeople at that church. At coffee hour after the service, people may talk about their jobs, their landlords, the music they like, or the movies they've seen. Maybe they'll talk a little about denominational politics. But hardcore theological discussions don't seem to come up. Maybe this is because people know that there is a diversity out there and are afraid to go places that might stir things up? Or maybe that just isn't what gets talked about during coffee hour. I'm not sure.

Don't get me wrong. I like the congenial atmosphere of the coffee hour. But when the only theology you run across at the church is what the pastor tells you in his or her sermon, then, knowing as I do that I am on the fringes to begin with, I sort of feel like I am out there swimming alone. God knows I am not looking for heated debates, but at least some indication that an open exploration of issues is more than acceptable might have helped me to overcome the resistance brought on by some of the scars that I carry from my fundamentalist days. Although, come to think of it, I'm not sure anything can be done about those scars.

In any case, this question of diversity ties back to Marcus Borg's concept of the four kinds of faith. He refers to the kind of faith that means subscribing to a fixed formula of belief as assensus. But there are other meanings of faith as well--faithfulness (as in a relationship), trust, and having a vision that defines one's way of being. Assensus is the preferred definition of faith by those of a fundamentalist bent. The problem is that this kind of faith, when it is enforced as a doctrinal standard, results in the sorts of consequences that Diana Butler Bass described in the passage I quoted above. It is a disaster for Christianity.

Diversity and conformity can and do exist in tension with one another. Sometimes the tension snaps in one direction or another. In the case of Unitarian Universalism, the tension resolved itself in favor of diversity and intellectual freedom, often at the cost of Christian spirituality. In the case of fundamentalism, it snapped in the opposite direction, but at the cost of intellectual freedom. What I felt most drawn to was participation within the Christian tradition. But I didn't want to check my brain at the church house door either. This tension has always been a problem for me, from the time I started attending services at a liberal Christian church. Sometimes the tension disappears for a while, but other times it pops up again for me.

The discussions that I had with that pastor on the subject of membership were not at my instigation. I was flattered by the interest in bringing me on board, and felt somewhat reassured by her indications of diversity within the congregation. But, ultimately, I preferred to stay on the outside, at least for now. I am still trying to make sense of it all.