Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Christian Unity and Diversity

Humans like to categorize. In many cases, we categorize based upon similarities. Apples, bananas, and oranges are fruits. Green beans, corn, and broccoli are vegetables. There is almost always disagreement about what belongs or does not belong in a particular category. Some people think tomatoes are vegetables. Others think they are fruits. We categorize almost everything: food, houses, plants, minerals, gases, solids, ideas, politics, nations, races, and people. This process helps us understand our world. Most words in and of themselves are categories. Food is something that humans eat as opposed to things we do not eat. Categories are how we think. Categorizing helps us understand our reality and communicate with other people.

Christians, by way of a long and complicated history, have attempted to define what a Christian is. How do you know if you are a Christian or not? Who qualifies to be a Christian? Christians have attempted to define the category of “Christian” and to establish the boundaries of the category. One of the earliest controversies within Christianity was over whether a non-Jew could be a Christian. Did one need to become a Jew first in order to be a Christian? Increasingly, Christians defined the category by what beliefs were necessary in order to be a Christian. If one did not believe certain things, then one was not a Christian. Christians would claim that the value of being a Christian was a happy life on earth and eternal life with God. If one was not a Christian, then life would be incomplete and eternity would be spent apart from God. For many Christians, “correct belief” was very important for how they defined the category of Christian. If one did not have a “correct belief”, then one did not receive the Christian reward.

Today, “correct belief” remains the way that many define the category of Christian. However, it is obvious to everyone that those who claim to be Christian hold a great diversity of beliefs, many of which are contradictory. With all of the competing ideas about what is “correct”, how can one ever know what is right? Is Christianity really about being “right”? Increasingly, some Christians embrace this diversity as a good thing. Beliefs result from many influences that result in our own individual perspective that is right for each individual but cannot encompass the whole truth. Our beliefs may not even be “correct”; however, our Christian perspective guides us to a life that is whole, complete, and satisfying.

Generally, when I try to express an ecumenical perspective of Christianity, I observe three basic reactions. From those who embrace diversity, I observe a resistance to any description of what is common to all Christians. I think they resist any common description of Christianity because they fear that it will be prescriptive. It is no wonder that they have this kind of fear; because, for those who emphasize unity, I observe a tendency to make Christianity exclusive to their own understanding of the faith. Orthodox Christians emphasize the authority of tradition, Roman Catholics emphasize the authority of the Pope, and many Protestants emphasize the authority of the Scriptures. Each has a tendency to use authority to enforce a particular set of “correct beliefs” which almost always results in excluding someone from the faith. Others fear that “ecumenical” means reducing Christianity to the “least common denominator.”

For myself, diversity is obvious and good. Each of us needs to decide for ourselves what is bad, good, and better. Diversity of opinion is not going away, and openness to different opinions may enrich and improve your life. However, there must be some unity or commonality to the category of Christian in order for the category of Christian to have any meaning at all. Finally, Christianity is not arithmetic. Ecumenism may emphasize commonality but it has nothing to do with diminishing Christianity by calling it the “least” nor does it have anything to do with the arithmetical concept of denominators.

So, from my own ecumenical Christian perspective:

1. A Christian SELF identifies as a Christian.

2. A Christian starts and founds Christian identity in the Jewish and Christian writings contained within the Bible.

3. A Christian experiences and reacts to reality from a life orientation of faith and trust.

4. A Christian centers life in an understanding of Jesus Christ.

5. A Christian acts for the common good of all, even in the face of hate, anger, or malice.