In a recent review of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, Paul Louis Metzger wonders, “What leads people to associate with those who are similar, while distancing themselves from diverse others? What causes us to categorize other groups in distorted ways?”
I remember reading H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism early in my seminary career, and Niebuhr’s analysis made a very strong impression on my admittedly impressionable sensibilities. It was clear to me then, and still is now, that much of what constitutes disunity in the Christian church is imported from the broader culture and has nothing to do with a people in which there is “neither Greek nor Jew.” These concerns for principled ecumenical unity are in large part what animated my later book Ecumenical Babel.
And yet in denouncing the tribalism that is an endemic temptation for all forms of fallen human community, we must be careful not to embrace a simplistic, milquetoast version of Christianity that papers over our real differences, and our uniqueness as individual persons created in the image of God, each one of us with our own perspectives, callings, hopes, fears, and trials.
We need to embrace an understanding of diversity without falling into disunity, a diversity within unity that mirrors in our own creaturely way the call to unity expressed in Jesus’ high priestly prayer.