Finding Unity in our Manyness

Jonas Ellison
Nov 5, 2019 · 3 min read
Photo by Annie Spratt

There seems to be a cultural longing among a good amount of people in today’s increasingly pluralistic, secular, postmodern world (not to knock it at all — just sayin’). In my experience, I’ve gravitated towards this more progressive narrative that (in excruciatingly simplistic terms) says that every religious faith might look different, but is — at its essence — the same. It might even go so far as to say that humans are all — in our essence — the same, so why don’t we all just come together as one (without anyone getting offended, of course).

This is the narrative ideal of unity. Unity just sounds so nice. And so reasonable. Why don’t we just have one church, for example, that we can all feel comfortable going to (where, again, no one is offended)? Why do we have all of these differing outmoded cultural beliefs and narratives that keep us apart? So many of them are archaic and are merely holding humanity back from progressing towards this ideal of unity.

And then I heard a sermon…

It was last year during mass at my seminary here in Chicago. I wish I remembered her name, but the guest pastor was Indian by descent. She spoke about this ideal of unity not in a good way, but in a bad — even harmful way. She spoke of how many tyrannical leaders use unity as a way of ethnic cleansing (aka the mass murder of ‘the other’). She talked about how so many rituals and traditions have been outlawed and silenced in the name of unity.

That’s when she dropped a beautiful bomb in her sermon. It only took one word to rewire my brain and the way I look at ritual and the human condition…

She said something to the effect of,

We must find peace and harmony in our human manyness, not in the ideal of unity.

Now, hers was an extreme example. I don’t think the progressive ideal of unity carries any intention of murdering anyone deemed to be ‘other’. But in order to achieve this unity ideal, we must blend things together. We have to cut this and that out — mostly the things that ‘others’ find ‘offensive’ (which is a whole other bag of worms) — in order to make it palatable. Soon, we’ve trimmed away the essence of everything and have ended up with nothing.

It concerns me that so many (faith) traditions are being forgotten, particularly in this country. Narratives, poems, stories, and anecdotes that have served as symbol systems and gotten people through so many centuries are being abandoned in order to fit in with the modern American nihilistic ideal.

As Richard Rohr recently wrote…

God is clearly more comfortable with diversity than we are, and God’s final goal and objective are much simpler. God and the entire cosmos are about two things: differentiation (people and things becoming themselves) and communion (living in supportive coexistence).

We are alike in our divinity but unique in our humanity…

There’d just be something — well, off — if my predominantly white church were to throw a traditional Swahili worship song into the mass (sung, of course, by a white vocalist). This would be appropriating something that isn’t ours (well, that’s exactly what it is!). This is us trying to institute unity.

But why can’t we just do our nerdy Bach and chamber music thing over here while holding heavy respect and reverence for the predominantly African church that does Swahili worship music extraordinarily well (and owns it as their true tradition)?

This is manyness... No one way is THE right way or the wrong way (unless people are being harmed by it, of course). This is merely OUR way, and we own it and do it well. Yes, you’re welcome to come. But we’re not going to try to take your thing in order to feel righteous about accomodating you — not because we don’t like or respect it, but because that’s how much we DO like and respect it.

Now, there is a distinction between manyness and exclusivity. Exclusivity says, this is our way and it’s the only way; your way is wrong and it must be stopped. Manyness says, this is our way and the world is much more interesting with your way as well; how can we support you?

Grace Incarnate

A collection of thoughts about life in this grace-starved and Christ-soaked world.

Jonas Ellison

Written by

Midlife ELCA Lutheran seminarian with big Catholic energy MDiv-ing at LSTC Chicago. He/him. Blogs daily(ish) at http://jonasellison.substack.com

Grace Incarnate

A collection of thoughts about life in this grace-starved and Christ-soaked world.

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