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Diversity and Christian Identity
Allan M. Parrent
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Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you [my brothers and sisters]. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." (1 Corinthians 1:10–12)
So, we might ask, what else is new? So there are quarrels or divisions within the Church. There have always been divisions in the Church. There will always be divisions in the Church. The same is true of the political and social life of this country and I daresay of every country. There are divisions within even the human community and institution made up of Adam's sons and daughters.
And is that after all such a bad thing? Do we really prefer a stifling conformity to the rich creativity of human diversity? Indeed, precisely because we are Adam's sons and daughters, to whom might we be willing to entrust the determination of what is to be conformed to, and the power to enforce it? And what is wrong with Paul, Apollos, and Cephas anyway? They are, after all, as Paul later informs us, servants through whom many came to believe. And a diversity or pluralism of religious approaches, or theological emphases, or expected norms of moral behavior can in fact attract different people and even swell the roster of communicants.
But on the other hand (a phrase that any good Niebuhrian will always interject at some point), there are clearly limits to diversity within any community that is concerned about maintaining its integrity, its coherence, and a clear sense of its identity. At some point a group or community or institution will be forced to clarify its identity, to proclaim its distinctiveness, to set limits beyond which it can no longer conscientiously accept further diversity.
One of the purposes of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission (meeting at this seminary as of the writing of this chapter) is to seek to define with some specificity Anglican identity, Anglican distinctiveness, the theological integrity of Anglicanism. In an earlier document the Commission, noting the danger for a church that has consciously attempted to embrace pluralism, said: "For too long Anglicans have appeared willing to evade responsible theological reflection and dialogue by acquiescing automatically and immediately in the coexistence of incompatible views, opinion and policies."
Anglicans are of course not alone in raising the questions of identity. A recently concluded four year self-study of the United Methodist Church found that one of the most serious problems for United Methodism was the perception that there are no theological norms beyond which it is impossible to go and still be a Methodist.
It seems that today we are experiencing in both the Church and in the broader society two conflicting pressures or movements. One is toward greater diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism, manifestations of which are to be accepted and incorporated within the inclusive arms of the Church or the culture. The other pressure is toward distinctiveness, particularity, identity, and the drawing of lines in the name of theological or cultural integrity that may of necessity exclude. As Christians we are called to be agents of reconciliation, but also not to be tossed about by every wind of doctrine. We are warned about being judgmental, but also about not calling evil good and good evil. The fact of the matter is, of course, that each pressure or movement has its own validity, within limits, and each can offer a corrective vision to and for the other. Conversely, each has its own dangers, dangers that will surely be realized if each does not have the other to keep it within necessary bounds.
The Dangers of Each
George Kennan once wrote, in a different context, that any idea carried to its logical extreme becomes a caricature of itself. That is certainly true of these conflicting movements as we experience them within the Church and in our culture. Reinhold Niebuhr was constantly alerting us to the dangers of both Scylla and Charybdis, those two hazards of Greek mythology on either side of the Straits of Messina and endangered ships that veered too far to one side in order to avoid the danger on the other side. He used the imagery in seeking to maintain the ever-shifting balance in political ethics between freedom and order, or liberty and equality, and to avoid both the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny. The same warning is important in dealing with the pressures for greater diversity, pluralism, or multiculturalism on one hand and for maintaining distinctiveness, particularity, or identity on the other.
When diversity is elevated to the role of a first principle, as in some parts of academia today, there is little room then left for maintaining a distinctive identity or cultural or moral norms that someone might find offensive. One result is moral relativism, for who are we to say that one sub-group is right or wrong? Another result is a litany of "isms"—oppressive devices of which anyone is guilty who is so perceived, or who makes truth claims that would give priority within the larger community to one vision of truth over others. The opposition to such perceived exclusiveness can get humorous at times, such as the demand on one college campus for unisex bathrooms on the grounds that having different bathrooms for the sexes was akin to having separate drinking fountains for the races.
But equally, when the emphasis on the distinctiveness and particularity of group identity becomes excessive, it can devolve into a new tribalism, into theological or political or cultural balkanization. At that point, as one wag put it, "groups are us." People come to identify almost exclusively with their own race, gender, ethnic group, lifestyle enclave, interest group, or sect, to the virtual exclusion of common commitments and allegiances to more inclusive communities.
In politics I need only to mention places like Bosnia, the Sudan, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and to a lesser degree Quebec, where tribalism seems to be reasserting itself. In education we are aware of the denigration in some places of any larger universal human intellectual tradition, and the belief that the purpose of education is ideological brainwashing.
In philosophy, "perspectivism" has become popular in recent years, the view that there is no objectivity, there is only solidarity with those who share the same perspective, or the same "story," as we, as if we were totally culturally conditioned all the way down and unable to transcend our historical context. Theologian Carl Braaten, among others, is concerned about religious thinkers who "are surrendering to a neo-tribalism in which some distinguishing mark of identity—gender, color, class or ideology—dominates the entire theological spectrum."
The Necessity of Each
But in spite of these dangers, both of these movements are fundamentally important for the life and health of both the Christian community and the broader community. In the search for inclusivity, some emphasize the need for greater diversity and pluralism, and properly so. In the search for identity, others emphasize the need for greater clarity about distinctiveness and particularity, and properly so. One legitimately asks, "Are we too narrowly exclusive? Should we be more open to other perspectives and life experiences?" The other legitimately asks, "Do we stand for anything distinctive? What is our identity?"
Paul's appeal in our text to "have no divisions among you," and to be united as Christians "in the same mind and the same purpose," is in part a call to inclusivity. There may well be distinctions among the Paulists, the Apolloists, and the Cephasists, but let us focus rather on that which transcends our quarrels and our divisions and unites us. Christ is not divided. At the same time, however, that same appeal from Paul is an appeal for clarity about identity. We are to be united, not just for the sake of unity, but in order to be united in the same mind as Jesus Christ and for his purposes. That is distinctive.
So, not unlike our larger contemporary society, the church has a Scylla and Charybdis problem. One shoal is hyperpluralism or multiculturalism, diversity for the sake of diversity, and a surface unity made possible only at the expense of the social and moral ecology of our common life, something that is threatened today at least as much as the ecology of the natural world. The other shoal is tribalism, polarization, and exclusivity made possible only by group self-absorption and a false sense of superiority.
Unity and Identity in Baptism
How might the Christian community maintain what is essential in both of these movements, while avoiding the destructive shoals that loom on either side of our passageway toward faithful and responsible Christian living? The beginnings of an answer may lie in Paul's reference in our text to baptism, and to the identity of the one in whose name all are baptized, the Lord, Jesus Christ. That baptismal unity makes rather unimportant the diverse persons who performed our baptisms, be they Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. And it certainly makes it all the more wrong to appeal to that symbol of Christian unity, baptism, to justify factions. Just as Christians do not define ourselves by who baptized us, so we do not define ourselves fundamentally by race, gender, ethnicity, or interest group. We are defined rather by our union with Christ in baptism and our participation, with a diversity of Christian brothers and sisters, in the body of Christ. That baptismal unity is indeed the source of our identity, our distinctiveness.
But Paul's appeal for unity in mind and purpose is not referring to just any old mind and purpose, so long as they are broad enough to encompass the diversity of all possible factions. Rather it is a call for unity through conformity, not with this world, but with the mind of Christ and his purposes. And that can be exclusive. That can set limits on diversity. That can mean reminding ourselves, as did Luther when he faced temptations, "I have been baptized." That is, we have a particular identity that sets some boundaries, boundaries that are set, paradoxically, for the sake of real Christian freedom.
C.S. Lewis once observed that "If all experienced God in the same way and returned him an identical worship, the song of the church triumphant would have no symphony; it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note." Gilbert Meilander, who is Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University, says that that image from Lewis gives a transcendent ground to our affirmations of diversity. But, he continues, it does not invite a flaccid relativism which supposes that it is just fine to want to play in this symphony while constantly hitting wrong notes, or I might add, using an entirely different score. The image is grounded fundamentally not in a commitment to individual diversity, but in commitment to, and love for, what is ultimately true and good. If our commitment to diversity is grounded only in individual self-expression, without regard for that more ultimate truth and goodness against which its divergence is measured, it will only lead to further disarray.
Paul's word to the church in Corinth, then, is a word for the Church in every place and time: "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose."
Diversity and the Tea Lady
Richard J. Jones
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Can we still keep her on? She sees to it there is tea on hand, cups and saucers washed, and old newspapers and stray staples put in the trash. But the tea lady belongs to a past way of living. If she goes, who looks after the common room to keep it attractive? Today's drive for cultural and ethnic diversity in American social institutions threatens to leave the house with no tended common space. Under a rule of self-service, with no host, who makes welcome?
Christians in the United States partake with others this year in a season of elevated self- consciousness about our society. We discuss the relations between subcultures and the general culture in which all share. A presidential election evokes incessant calculating and speculating about the black vote, the Hispanic vote, women's votes, and the white- and blue-collar votes. Voting behavior is observed to vary between the constellations of our several subcultures. Yet subcultures' voting behavior is evoked and guided by the ideas, the legal sanctions, and the physical communication devices and vote-tallying products characteristic of the general culture.
The meshing of subcultures within general American culture reminds me of the meshing of gear wheels in a drive mechanism. Some wheels are large, some very small; some rotate in one plane and some in another; sometimes the wheels are engaged with one another, sometimes they do not touch. I want to ask how the Holy Spirit—God at work among us, even now—might be working in our day to clean, lubricate, or reconfigure these wheels. Could the tea lady still be visited by the Holy Spirit?
Groups and Their Cultures
When I speak of "culture," I follow the Mennonite anthropologist Paul G. Hiebert, who spent much of his life in south India but taught in Seattle and Chicago. In his 1976 textbook Cultural Anthropology, Hiebert recognized that "human beings are biological, psychological, social, economic, political, religious and historical beings—and even more." Hence he proposed a very broad definition of human culture: "the integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas, and products characteristic of a society."
I find each element of Hiebert's definition helpful as I seek to discover my part in the unfinished, cultural-boundary-crossing mission of God's Church in this world, and as I encourage others to play their parts.
The first element calls attention to patterns. There is of course change and chance in human life, but to the observant there also appear repeating patterns. Empirical scientists seek these patterns. Artists detect these patterns.
Reviewing a recent English translation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, James Wood observes how the vividly rendered characters are also, in their creator's eyes, types. Tolstoy ponders and plays with the simultaneous truths of individual uniqueness and involuntary similarity.
The old prince, ignoring his son Andrei's efforts to tell him about Napoleon's designs, breaks into creaky song and sings "in an old man's off-key voice." A few pages later, we see "the old prince in his old man's spectacles and his white smock." An old man with an old man's voice and old man's spectacles: Tolstoy pushes such characterization towards the simplest tautology: What was the old man like? He was like an old man—that is to say, like all old men. What is a young man like? He is like a young man—that is to say, like all young men. What is a happy young man like? Like all happy young men. The Austrian minister of war is described thus: "He had an intelligent and characteristic head." A character will tend to look characteristic in both senses of the word: full of character, and somehow typical.
A good student of culture, like a good novelist, cannot be content with cherished smells and flashes of memory, with particularities and captivating uniqueness. A good understanding prizes all these, yet also notices patterns. Hiebert notes that the patterns build on one another. They combine to form recognizable, orderly, predictable structures. The patterns, if one can ever succeed in taking them all in and mapping them, form an integrated system.
These patterns, occurring within an integrated system and helping to sustain it, are not the inventions of one individual, or of one generation. Nor are they innate. Biological processes are innate, but cultural patterns are learned. We respond to our social environment, just as our bodies respond to our natural environment. We adapt to what is offered to us. We respond to stimuli. We imitate our mother's speech, just as we suck her milk and take as food what she dishes out. We imitate our parents, elders, and coevals. We make their ways ours. Patterns can of course be unlearned, and thus are cultures changed. But to mature as a social being is first to learn your mother tongue—and everything else your mother has to offer.
Excerpted from Staying One, Remaining Open by Richard J. Jones, J. Barney Hawkins IV. Copyright © 2010 the contributors. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Foreword Peter James Lee
Editors' Introduction Richard J. Jones and J. Barney Hawkins IV
Diversity and Christian Identity Allan M. Parrent
Diversity and the Tea Lady Richard J. Jones
International Students at Virginia Seminary: A Long History with a Rich
and Transformative Practice J. Barney Hawkins IV
The Theologian is the One Who Prays Timothy F. Sedgwick
Will We See the End of Common Prayer? Robert W. Prichard
Opening the Table Stephen B. Edmondson
The Vocation for Unity in Theological Education Mitzi J. Budde
Outside the Camp: Imitatio Christi and Social Ethics in Hebrews 13:10–14
A. Katherine Grieb
Theological Exegesis of Genesis 22: Wrestling with a Disturbing Scripture
Stephen L. Cook
Reading Race in the New Testament: Diversity and Unity John Yueh-Han
Don't Forget to Remember: Identity in Deuteronomy and Ruth Judy Fentress
No Side, but a Place Katherine Sonderegger
The Preaching Congregation, a Mirror of the Gospel Judith M. McDaniel
The Love of Lernen and the Desire for God: On Seminary Training and Its
Afterlife Roger Ferlo
Afterword Ian S. Markham
List of Contributors