Unity, Diversity and God’s Salvation

Unity, Diversity and God’s Salvation

Third Sunday of the Year. Fr David McLean preaches on unity and difference according to the Christian Gospel.

There is a human tendency to create dualisms or divisions. So we perceive opposing forces of good and evil at work around us. Human beings are seen as being made up of a body and soul.
And to a great extent perceiving dualisms or divisions is probably not a wrong thing to do. However, as is often the case, taking matters to extremes leads to error.
We are today finishing the week of prayer for Christian unity. Unity is almost seen a virtue. To be one is good. To be divided is bad.
At the same time though, it is untruthful, and therefore unhelpful, to pretend there is one, when there is in fact, two or many. In Christian ecumenism, there is always a tension between recognising the scandal of division and valuing the Gospel work of individual churches and traditions.
So ecumenism is a practical lesson in how we see the virtue of unity, of being one, but still appreciate the reality and value of separate parts. A rule of thumb emerges that states that it is right to identify plurality where that plurality exists, but unity is to be valued and emphasised. Likewise to perceive plurality where there is none is a mistake and undermines the unperceived unity.
For example, in the case of ecumenism, identifying divisions between the churches that do not exist is not just a misperception, but creates the danger of bringing about those very divisions. The end result is to undermine the valued unity.
The rule of thumb can be applied elsewhere, specifically, to popularly perceived dualisms. First we have the human anthropology of body and soul. Much traditional theology gives us the image of the human person made up of body and soul. An image that is very useful because it makes it easier to talk and distinguish between the physical and spiritual.
Fair enough. However, it is not correct to think we are talking about two separate entities, that the human person is not a unity. It is important to keep in mind that the body and soul are two aspects of one unity.
Then there is the popular dualism of good and evil. There are certainly some aspects of the world that we want to describe as good and others we want to see as evil. However, that is not the same as thinking that are two existing principles, one good the other evil, that are the same in nature but directly opposing in direction. Such an understanding undermines the very unity of God.
Good is the force of creation. There is no force of uncreation. Existence is good. There is no thing that is non-existent. To equate evil with goodness undermines the unity and pervasiveness of goodness in creation and existence.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t talk of evil and that it isn’t real, but that evil should be kept in perspective and certainly not put on equal terms with goodness, which is divine in origin. ‘Evil’ properly describes shortcomings in existence, things falling short of what God intended them to be, but that is very different from evil being similar in nature to goodness and existence.
A further division human beings like to make is between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’. There is a lot more to Christianity than intellectual assent. Sitting at home believing in God does not get the believer, or anybody else, anywhere. We have to be doing something as well. The thinking and the doing have to become a unity.
Thinking and doing has to be become a one unified activity in such a way that the thinking and the doing become inseparable. This unity is what the Dominican theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, calls the Christian ‘praxis’. The Christian praxis is action that redeems and saves people, bringing them to the ultimate unity with God.
We only need to look at today’s Gospel to see what that activity is. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus announces what he going to do — bring good news to the poor, free captives and the oppressed, and cure the ill. These actions are all about fulfilling people’s humanity, making them whole, and making them one.
With any dualism, we have to make sure we see the unity behind it. Otherwise: we are scandalised by a divided Church rather than appreciating the Church’s achievements; we become obsessed with the body or the soul at the expense of our wholeness; we exaggerate evil and underestimate the goodness of creation; and our religion becomes reduced to thought and no redeeming action occurs.
If we keep division in perspective and fully appreciate the unity around us, then Christ’s saving work will take place.

Readings: Neh 8:2-6,8-10 | 1 Cor 12:12-30 | Luke 1:1-4

fr. David M. McLean O.P. is a chaplain to the Royal Navy.