Unity Does not Exclude Diversity

The love of Christ has moved Christians and their churches since time immemorial. One expression of this love is and has been mission. But not always with purely positive results. Anthony J. Gittins, professor emeritus of theology, sheds light on various aspects of Jesus’ love, both structural and personal, and shows where the challenges lie, especially for the Roman Catholic Church, with regard to mission and ecumenism.

There is no single, universal Roman Catholic. I write as a cleric and social anthropologist/ theologian, with considerable experience in overseas and domestic mission, who happens to be a Roman Catholic endeavoring to become a better Christian. A recurring childhood image is of my grandmother or mother reacting to some childish faux pas of mine, with: “For the love of God (don’t do that!).” It was not simply exasperation but a form of honest prayer invoking God’s assistance and implying that my love for God was not all that it should be; and it was a call to (my) conversion to more Godly ways. As a child, I thought “the love of Christ” referred to my love of Christ, but in my late teens I studied Latin and learned that Amor Christi (“The love of Christ”/“Christ’s love”) meant Christ’s own love for me. This was a profoundly significant discovery. And yet sometimes still, my instinct is to make myself the subject, forgetting that Jesus Christ is the one who loves first (1 Jn 4:7–19, [passim]).

So, there are two valid ways of understanding the phrase. Christ’s own love for us (and the whole of creation) is expressed throughout his earthly life. We say he was “sent (co-missioned) by the Father”; but not like a child sent on an errand: he came to us as God incarnate, loved us to the end, and gave his life’s blood for us. For all of us. We Christians are called to keep that love alive through our lifelong imitation of Christ (imitatio Christi).

Become an instrument of Jesus

We are not only recipients and witnesses of God’s love, but ambassadors too. We are to love as he loved us first, and to invite others (but without proselytizing) to trust that God-in-Christ continues to care for each of us. Jesus called everyone, then and now, to be instrumental: in the words of Teresa of Avila, to be his hands and feet, spreading that love in word and example among God’s people. That is one way “the love of Christ moves the world”: through his own example, and through his inspiration of his disciples.

Our love for Christ then, should be visible in our daily response to his example, and in his co-missioning each of us to “do this in memory of me.” But the “this” cannot refer exclusively to liturgical Eucharistic celebrations, but to everything Jesus himself did for our benefit (cf Gospel of John 14:12, and the entire Last Supper Discourse, in John chapters 14-17). “By this they will know that you are my disciples: that you love one another.” Loving one another is our challenge. The early disciples understood the second part of the greatest commandment – to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” – to apply to two groups of people: those we already know and those we have not yet encountered. This makes a world of difference to our understanding of mission and ecumenism, not to mention our encounter with people of different faiths or none.

God’s grace brings change, not the missionary

There was a time when the Catholic Church taught that there is “no salvation outside the Church (of Rome)” and that the Jewish people as a whole were “perfidious” Christ-killers. Such an attitude was a significant driver of the Catholic missionary outreach, especially after the fragmentation of Christianity during the sixteenth century. The concern over salvation or damnation was evident in a theology of evangelization rather narrowly understood as seeking to “convert” others, whether Christians of different denominations or “pagans”. This emphasis shifted the missionary initiative from God as the primary agent (with the Church as an instrument), to the (Roman Catholic) Church as the primary agent of Mission. In the words of Ramsey MacMullen, this was promoted “by flattery or battery.” Not only was conversion effectively understood to be in the hands of the missionary, but proselytization (by some forms of coercion) was deemed justifiable. But it is God’s grace that converts, not the missionary per se. Thank God that, from the World Council of Churches and the Second Vatican Council, there has been a very serious revision and repudiation of such belief and behavior, particularly in regard to the Jewish people. Coercion is immoral, sinful.

Catholics also understood the prayer of Jesus “that they all will be one” as justifying building a universal uniformity, such that “The (Roman Catholic) Church” became co-extensive with the whole world: a world-wide Catholic Church with its center in Rome. “Sheep-stealing” between different Christian communities was widespread where there were few catechists or clergy. Every Christian denomination was characteristically different in doctrine, discipline, ritual and daily life of believers. The famous 1910 Mission Assembly in Edinburgh, Scotland, had, as its bold banner heading “The world [will be] Christian in this [20th] century.” Catholics had a token presence at best. A century later, in 2010, a much more inclusive ecumenical gathering in the very same Assembly Room was far more modest in ambition, respectful of denominational and theological differences, and keenly aware of creeping secularism. And yet, though we all, then as now, proclaim One Lord, One Faith and One Baptism, we are still not one in communion, and have not resolved the challenge of living in unity with our diversity.

Mission and Church in a process of change

More specifically, from a Roman Catholic perspective, the emphasis has shifted considerably: from “Mission is confided to ‘the (RC) Church’,” to “Mission is of the nature of the Trinity”; from “The subject of mission is the Church,” to “The subject (fount and origin) of mission is God”; from ”The Church has the mission,” to “God’s mission has the Church”; from “A Church-centered mission, to a mission-centered Church;” and “from the purpose of Mission is to extend the visible Church to the whole world” to “The purpose of Mission is to embrace the whole of humanity (and creation).” It is not only Roman Catholics who now see margins and marginalized people as center of God’s Mission, and every Christian being co-missioned to help bring in the Realm or Kingdom of God. We have moved considerably, from “Missionaries are the few, the elite, and the ‘lifers’,” to “’The People of God’ (all the baptized) are called and co-missioned to outreach, boundary-crossing, and authentic, respectful encounter with ‘the other’, in Jesus’ name”; and from “Interdenominational competition and suspicion,” to “Ecumenical collaboration and mutuality.” We still have far to go, but there have been some monumental shifts of understanding and practice in recent decades.

There has always been a structural tension between hierarchy and subsidiarity (or synodality) the Roman Catholic Church; that is, between the universal and the local. The more insistence there is on the Church as universal and united, the more the tendency to uniformity – in liturgy, language, and canon law. The more hierarchy is emphasized, the fewer possibilities there are for the development of authentic local differences and diversity; consequently, the development of thriving local communities is undermined. This is an ongoing challenge to our understanding of “that they may all be one.” Does it mean one in faith or one in practice? The Roman Catholic Church emphasizes the latter (or universality), while many other denominations emphasize the local, at the cost, sometimes, of universal solidarity or fragmentation.Clear distinctions between “us” and “them” help to define and defend ourselves as human groups, but, as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (in his book The Dignity of Difference) reminded us, God created unimaginable differences and diversity, and saw that it was (very) good.

Discover diversity as a source of enrichment

Unity does not preclude diversity, but unity without diversity equals uniformity. Those who are different can grow through mutual give-and-take, while uniformity does not allow for much exchange and mutual enrichment. The Letter to the Ephesians addresses this issue, with a beautiful image. First, the writer (ostensibly Paul) is addressing the those who have just become Christians and contrasting their present circumstances with their previous (pagan) lives. Until recently, he claims, they were ’dead’, as indeed were Paul and many others, by the grace of God, they are now united in faith, fellowship and discipleship (Eph 2:1-10).

Then he continues
But now, in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far … have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For he is the peace between us and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in his own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single [humanity] in himself out of the two of them. (Eph 2:13-15)

Christian mission is taking part in God‘s mission of encounter

This, surely articulates a divine image for a humanity united in its innumerable differences, not only Jew and gentile, but in a whole spectrum of perspectives, opinions, understandings, traditions, cultures and creeds. We are a single humanity, one human race, and each of us searching for life’s deeper meanings, everyone capable of grasping a sliver of God’s limitless revelation, yet none of us capable of comprehending the mystery that is God. Christian mission is a participation in God’s mission of encounter, mutual respect, exchange, and growth in the ways of God. No single person or religion can possibly contain all of God’s self-revelation. But we can work together, to understand our limitations, to share our insights, and to ‘stand under’ what we cannot completely understand.

In fact, we must work together: diverse in histories, ethnicities, genders, denominations and the rest, we are called as disciples to discover in our diversity, the mutual enrichments God offers us, and to pledge ourselves to an active commitment to mutual reconciliation for past wrongs, misunderstandings and condemnations. Otherwise, we betray our calling as Christians and make a mockery of our claim to worship One Lord, profess One Faith and share One Baptism. May our lives, individually and collectively, demonstrate our belief that Christ’s own love for all humanity and our own love for Christ, has changed, is changing, and will continue to change the world.

Anthony J. Gittins for the EMW Magazine 2021

About the Author

Anthony J. Gittins, PhD, is professor emeritus of theology and culture at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, U.S.A.

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