Uniformity and Multiformity
As I sit down to write this blog today, I have to begin by admitting I try not to write about things that are in the contemporary controversial conversation. I don't think this blog needs to become a place of debate. However, I have been tracking a discussion that is happening in the my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America, henceforth PCA). As I watch this conversation, I am convinced that what we are talking about is bigger than just the PCA. Without delving into the details of all that is being said, the main thrust of the exchange happening in the PCA focuses around two different visions. The questions surround race and gender, and the roles these play in our life as the church.
On one side of the conversation, some are calling for people to just come together, put all differences aside and unite. It is summed up in the thought that once we become Christians our background no longer matters, "We are united to Christ and we are a new creation." In this dialogue, the focus is on what unites, and we do not need to (nor should we) talk about anything that makes us different. There is much to commend in this discussion. It is true that as Christians our identity is no longer wrapped up in our racial, ethnic, or cultural background. We are now located in Christ. We are now united to a new community. Who we are is defined by the person to whom we belong - and we belong to Christ.
On the other side of the conversation are people who recognize that there is diversity in who we are. They want others to recognize that diversity. They say that God created us different. We are people from different backgrounds and different cultures. Some of us speak different languages. We need to celebrate those differences. We need to learn from those differences. Even in the new heavens and new earth those differences still appear.
After this I looked and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes. — Revelation 7:9
When we are in the new heavens and new earth, the differences we see now will still be present. Thus, diversity is not a bad thing. It isn't something we should try to avoid or downplay but something that should be celebrated.
Yet, on both sides there is a danger. On the one hand, to paraphrase Bavinck, there is an emphasis on unity which can degrade into a bath of deadly uniformity. That is to say, there can be calls for unity that ignore the fact that there are differences. There can be calls for unity that downplay any sort of cultural background or the way different people have experienced the world. This is a unity that demands conformity to "my culture" whatever "my culture" is. On the other hand, the talk of diversity can degrade into a call for multiformity. That is to say, we emphasize the differences so much that we no longer see anything that unites us. Differences become so accentuated that the very possibility of unity seems bleak at best.
Going to these extremes is only natural. Even as redeemed people, we feel the effects of sin, we will naturally gravitate to one of these extremes. Interestingly, more often than not these extremes collapse in on each other. Uniformity becomes multiformity and multiformity becomes uniformity. What are we to do? How do we respond in the midst of conversations about diversity in the church?
I think that Kuyper and Bavinck can help us in these conversations. The thrust of much of their work was to put the Trinity at the very center of all thought and life. How does this solution help us? Well, what we find in the Trinity is the antidote to uniformity and multiformity. We find a unified diversity, a unity-in-diversity, a three-in-one. The Trinity gives us the resources to be both unified and diverse.
Both sides of the current debates in the PCA are right. We are united. We are diverse. We need to be celebrating both. We need to look to what unites us rather than what divides us. Yet, we also need to understand that we are different, different people from different backgrounds. My experience of life, solely because of the color of my skin and the place I grew up, is different from the experience of some of my good friends in the PCA who grew up with different skin color and in different places. Instead of ignoring these differences we need to understand them, we need to celebrate them. We need to listen to each other. And on both sides we need to have grace in the midst of this.
The conversation in the PCA has been focused pretty exclusively on race and gender. However, I think that these principles can move into many areas and can make our churches richer. If we embrace an understanding of a diverse unity or a unified diversity, we can see our churches grow. There are many things that divide us that are not Gospel issues. They may not be as obvious on the outside as race or gender, but they can cause just as much consternation. (How are we choosing to educate our children? How did you vote in the last election? Did you vote in the last election? The list could go on and on.) The beauty of the Gospel is that we are a diverse people with diverse cultures and backgrounds being brought together as a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people of God's own possession. The unity does not trump our diversity and our diversity does not destroy our unity.
James Eglinton when writing about multilingualism says, "God-talk requires multilingualism, albeit not for every individual language user.... The task of appropriating the self-disclosure of an infinite God requires more, rather than fewer, languages. Such a claim should hardly surprise Christians, given that the Christian Bible itself is no monolingual work." This same thing is true of the church as a whole. To express the infinite God more fully, we need to embrace the diversity in which he has created us. We are need the diversity of cultures, races, ethnicities. We need people who are different from us, so that the church can faithfully proclaim the truth of who God is. We need that diversity, so that we can know things about God that we would otherwise not know because we do not have the same background as the person teaching us. Yet, we also need to remember what holds us together. Christ's work in his life, death, and resurrection and the giving the Holy Spirit to the church have created a people that were once not a people but now are the united people of God. What used to divide us, no longer does. We are have been brought together and given a new identity. We cannot emphasize diversity at the cost of unity, we cannot emphasize unity at the cost of diversity. The church's unified diversity shows forth our Triune God more fully than either uniformity or multiformity ever could.