Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;
and there are varieties of activities,
but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (I Cor. 12)
Religions, as we know, tend toward the absolute—especially the monotheistic ones. They want to unify everything into a uniform whole, to lay exclusive claims to truth, and to emphasize the oneness of all things.
And so, you get statements of faith like creeds, which are designed to clarify what is ruled in (“orthodoxy”), and what is ruled out (“heresy”).
Now, it’s true that each religious tradition has to have its own internal coherence and consistency, so such statements play an important role. But the words of today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians puts me in mind of something rather different: instead of the uniformity of Christian faith, Paul talks about the variety of it. Varieties of gifts, varieties of services, varieties of activities. The emphasis here seems to be on how the one God is behind a great diversity of expression. And that’s the line of thinking I’d like to explore here today, because the appropriate range of diversity is one of those things that lies at the heart of our society’s current struggles to hold together.
One of my favorite theological essays is a piece done by Rowan Williams back in 2002 in honor of Henry Chadwick, a renowned church historian who was Regius Professor at both Oxford and Cambridge. In his essay, Williams explores the question of whether it makes sense to speak of pre-Nicene orthodoxy—or in other words, whether before the Council of Nicea in the year 325 (which ultimately produced the Nicene Creed), there really was any commonly agreed-upon idea of what Christianity is.
Williams’ conclusion was that in the early church, there was such a wide variety of practices, texts, patterns of belief, and organization that about the most you can say is, that there were a great many communities of faith that had in a common a shared allegiance to certain events in Jerusalem (namely Jesus’ death and resurrection). Church communities in places all around the Mediterranean understood themselves to be followers of Jesus, but exactly what that meant and what it looked like varied greatly from place to place.
And if you think about it, the way the church evolved over time is not so different. Despite the drive toward uniformity that characterized the Roman branch of Christianity, the wider Christian community has developed globally into a dizzying variety of expressions: African Pentecostalism is a heck of a lot different from Greek Orthodoxy; high church Anglicanism is a far cry from American Quakerism; Chinese house churches are nothing like big box evangelicalism. In fact, the World Council of Churches now has some 349 distinct denominational members!
And we haven’t even begun to talk about the variety of religious traditions outside of Christianity. By some counts, there are upwards of 4,300 different religions amongst us human beings. As you’ve heard me quote Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “It seems to be God’s will that there should be a variety of religious expressions of the divine in the current eon.”
So diversity is just a fact of religious life. There is nothing uniform about it.
And for that matter, there is nothing uniform about any aspect of our lives. No one person is like another. No one member of a species is exactly like another. No one snowflake is like another. Diversity is woven into the fabric of existence itself.
So given such an obvious and inescapable fact as the diversity of all things, why is it, that we human beings seem to have such an instinctual drive toward sameness? We want to associate with our own kind. We are suspicious of people different from ourselves, whether through language or culture or race. You would think we would just take it as a given that our lives have to incorporate an awful lot that is different from ourselves.
I’m not sure that these thoughts are what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians that there are varieties of spiritual gifts, but it certainly is not contrary to it. I’ve said many times over the last few years that to be Christian, is to be profoundly counter-cultural. And I think this is yet another instance of that: to be Christian ought to mean having the intention and capacity to embrace the diversity of peoples and cultures and gifts that is the authentic nature not just of humanity, but of nature and even the cosmos itself. In that regard, it seems to me that the tribalism and nativism that runs rampant in contemporary society is profoundly non-Christian—even when it tries to masquerade as a defense of Christian faith.
One of my great friends and mentors died this past week: J. Robert Wright, the St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery Professor of Ecclesiastical History at The General Theological Seminary in New York City (what a title!). Well, Fr. Wright was a great ecumenist, who worked tirelessly his whole professional life to try to bridge the divides between Christian denominations. Our agreement of full communion with the Lutherans, for example, was largely drafted by him.
He once quipped that the greatest obstacle to overcoming the estrangement between Christians is the presumption that if we can get another church to agree to a common statement of faith, then we ourselves ought to disagree with it, because by definition we disagree with them! What a self-defeating circularity! His point was this: in the pluralistic world of faith, you simply cannot assume that the norm is alienating disagreement, because if you do, alienation is inevitable and inescapable. You have to come to the table ready to engage and appreciate what Paul called, the “varieties of spiritual gifts.”
This coming week has traditionally been designated as a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This would be a good time for us Christians to own up to the fact that the history of our own tradition argues for a diversity of practice, of belief, of culture, of language, of identity, of class, and of everything else that distinguishes us from one another. It is simply the nature of things, and unless we accept that, we are destined to conflict. Diversity—difference—is the very nature of the universe that God created, not sameness. And one might therefore even say, it is also the nature of God. Amen.