Why diversity matters in Christianity

If you have been around Christian churches long enough, you will know there is often both subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to conform to a certain understanding of Christianity — whatever that might be in your tradition. There is no small amount of anxiety that one might not be a ‘proper’ Christian, believing the ‘right’ things and thus one of the elect, saved, in-group. I’m sure many of us have seen pretty awful situations where someone is excluded on the grounds of their failure to conform in some way.

In my experience, this anxiety around believing the ‘right’ things is much more prevalent in protestant traditions, particularly the non-liturgical ones. I also read that it is these non-liturgical traditions that are more likely to morph into cults. Which seems ironic, given the deep concern and anxiety around believing the ‘right’ thing.

Because of moving around a lot, I am lucky enough to have been exposed to a pretty wide range of Christian traditions and churches, including spending my formative years in the Catholic Church. I have been a member of several churches in the Baptist/congregational tradition, several in the pentecostal tradition, housechurches in the anarchist tradition and also some in the Presbyterian/elder led tradition. I have been in evangelical conservative and some quite liberal churches, and also some that defy categorisation using those tired old terms. What this means for me is that I have also been part of different ‘families’ of faith with diverse beliefs and practices with regards to expression of that faith.

As Jameson says with regards to the shift to postmodernity, multiplicity can provoke terror in some. But I think there is something about multiplicity or diversity that actually keeps people in the broad umbrella of the faith rather than having to reject the whole thing outright. Here are some reasons why I think this:

  1. There is less anxiety about whether one believes the ‘right’ thing, and more attention to participation in the act of faith and belief in God. One morning I woke up and realised that in the Catholic church, the main requirement for being a Christian was a) being baptised in the church and b) taking communion. I mean the point of church is just communion, communing together, sharing in the body and blood of Christ. You don’t have to agree with the pope or the church on anything really. I mean, that allows for incredible diversity of belief, including on such hot topics as same-sex marriage, universal salvation, abortion, women’s rights, ecumenicism and more.  What a relief this was to me, as a young person at the time. I don’t have to have a certain belief on those topics in order to be a ‘real’ Christian, at least in the Catholic tradition, I just need to be willing to commune.
  2. Resistance is not futile. Not only is there diversity in this generation of Christians, but there is huge diversity throughout history, and a lot of alternative orthodoxies with regard to belief. For example, in a previous post I explored the Franciscan versus the Dominican views of atonement. I’ve also previously drawn on mystical traditions of contemplation, indigenous, feminist and environmentalist interpretations of Genesis, nineteenth century Pentecostalism, the Nestorian Christians of Mongolia in the thirteenth century, the Jesus movement of the 70s, the Quietist movement of the seventeenth century and more. When you look at the big picture of Christian history and tradition, there is always resistance to the mainstream, always alternatives. The men in robes or suits don’t have the final say one what to believe. Even the bible has diverse traditions of spirituality and scholarship within it, and strong undercurrent of resistance to the priestly classes.
  3. Cultural diversity allows for us to find the expression of faith that fits with our background and worldview. No matter how many times I hear the phrase the ‘Christian worldview’ I can’t help but add an ‘s’ on the end of that. Worldviews. If we really believe that God is creator, that the Christ atoned for all, and that the Holy Spirit acts in and through people in history, we can’t really believe that there is one Christian worldview that happens to be the one that ‘we’ currently hold and everyone else through history or in other cultural traditions is ‘wrong’. I have found the faith expressions of my brothers and sisters in the housechurch movement in China incredibly inspiring, even as the worldview on which their faith has been grafted is somewhat different from mine. But far be it from me to say they must conform to what may be my screwed up version.
  4. ‘Evangelism’ becomes a more authentic sharing of stories and experience. “Friend, I don’t have the answers,” might be our opener. And “Friend, I still don’t have the answers,” might be the closing remark. What might come in between is “here is what I have learned in my walk. How does that compare to what you know?”

As I grow and age and hopefully get more mature, I am much more comfortable with diversity not just in culture and church background, but in worldview and belief. I sometimes think back to my early twenties and think “Wasn’t it lovely when I knew everything for certain?”, but really, I wouldn’t trade this current position of not-knowingness for anything else. For it is in the not-knowingness that I find my faith is enlarged and made real.

This post originally appeared as a contribution to The Daily Marinade: Contemplation for Progressive Christians at http://thedailymarinade.com/why-diversity-matters-in-christianity/.

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