Can you root for one football team without loathing the others? Can you do the same with Religion?
Two primary characteristics of life are diversity and variety, yet our stubborn minds want consistency and sameness. From there begins the endless cycle of factions and war, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, Packers and Vikings. What are we so afraid of?
When a man and a women produce a child, a new creature is born. Maybe that creature has similar features and color (hopefully not the mailman’s), but it’s definitely a new creature. I often wonder what spacecraft my own kids came in on. Yet there’s my wife’s dimple, my own eyes, and even a familiar furrowed brow. All three are very much my children and yet totally unique.
Life bursts with diversity and variety.
Darwin demonstrated that through separation and natural selection species can change. It’s the same thing we’ve been doing for thousands of years on farms and in kennels. We’ve managed to alter and breed hundreds of different dogs, food crops, and domesticated animals through artificial selection. We’ve turned a tiny bud of yellow starch into a stalk of corn. On a larger time scale, the same thing happens naturally in the wild.
Life thrives on diversity and variety.
Scientists have described 1.7 million different species (sadly, one million of those are insects), and most agree there are many more.
This is what makes life so interesting: variety and diversity. I certainly would not want my kids to be exact replicas of me. One is plenty. I would not want everybody to think like I do.
Variety, the saying goes, is the spice of life.
Get the point? Variety and diversity are the essence of life.
So what’s wrong with us, the supposed smartest of the lot–us humans? Amidst all this variety, we stubbornly want sameness. We want our ideas to be set in stone. Pick a religion, an ideology, even a football team, and stick with it. Write a creed. Defend it. Fight to the death to protect it.
I was struck by this human problem while listening to Yale professor Dale Martin discuss the “early Christianities” of the first and second centuries. He uses the word Christianities because there were so many different types. The history of Christianity, in fact, is a case study in the sameness versus diversity problem. In the very beginning, as Paul roamed the Mediterranean frantically trying to establish and grow churches, the variety was great, even greater, perhaps, than today. Different groups used different stories of Jesus and alternative theologies and varying codes and rules. Oral tradition was the primary source of information. Woman were fully included. Some early theologians spoke of two Gods, the jealous Old Testament God and the God of Jesus. Some early Jesus clubs (we really can’t call them Christians yet) remained practicing Jews. Variety and diversity. Many of the groups we now call the Gnostics—but that’s just a name given after the fact to a diverse bunch—developed interesting cosmologies and theologies. It was much later, hundreds of years after Christ, that councils took over and Bishops united and a specific set of doctrines and creeds were developed. In traditional human fashion, a movement was formed that demanded “unity” or sameness. And all opposition (or, we could say, variety) was banished. People felt the need to squeeze the vast, all-powerful God into a creed.
This, of course, isn’t the end of the story, because nothing alive can thrive in stubborn sameness. Eventually The Reformation occurred and the splintering began again. This splintering has made growth and change possible in some of the most stubborn organizations, even the Catholic Church. The splintering continues, now over gay rights. We argue over marriage as if it has meant the same thing for thousands of years (historically, it was often a loveless exchange of property for security). But people want rules established. Sameness.
But this splintering is the natural course of life. It is inevitable. Nowhere on this planet is sameness maintained without brute force.
So let’s be honest: diversity of theology is as unique as the individual soul. People scoff at cafeteria Catholics (like me–though I’m only 33% Catholic) who pick and choose which doctrines to believe in, but the truth is, whether we mean to or not, we all have our own personal theology in our head and heart. Part of this is due to experience and culture, but a lot has to do with the words we use. Much of the confusion over differing theologies is wrapped up in words, words which have been translated and reinterpreted over many years. As a Buddhist, I practice meditation. As a Catholic, I pray. I personally see very little difference between the two. Others object. We disagree. Some Buddhists say there is no God while others consider it a question that cannot be answered. But all Buddhists agree in the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the community, and the teachings. Thich Naht Hahn compares these to the Trinity. So one could argue that the three jewels, at the core, are the Buddhist God. The historical Buddha didn’t like to use the word god, because he was teaching in India around 500 B.C., a time when the term god meant a very different thing. Vocabulary gets in the way of seeing how similar things are.
Very similarly, the Gospel writer John said the word became flesh. God is the Word. I believe that means the same thing as the Buddhist view of the three jewels. Stephen Hawking recently gave what I believe to be the best short definition for God: the name we give to the reason we are here. For him, that’s physics.
All these ideas are wrapped up in our limited vocabulary, meager intelligence, and myopic life experience. God is bigger than all of these. God is bigger than one book and one building and one preacher.
I wonder what was lost in those early centuries when the powers that be attempted to make everybody the same? What unique viewpoint? What alternative look at God? What lost Gospel? People were so close to the historical Jesus at that point. It breaks my heart to think of some nuance or idea that was lost. I’m often struck by how limited our look is at this person we worship as the Son of God. We only have four short, often repetitive books.
We spend too much time trying to pin God down to a specific set of ideas. We should be opening ourselves up to the variety and diversity of God. God created a world that thrives on its diversity and variety—let’s not question Him.
Give Up and Die to (even for a second) your rigid view of God. Perhaps he’s just a little bit more interesting than you suspected.