Difference as Essence
It is not at all uncommon for me, as a pastor, to encounter some variation of the question, “So, what’s the deal with all the different denominations in Christianity? Why can’t you all agree on anything?!”
Often, this will come in the context of a puzzled query as to what, exactly, a “Mennonite” might be and why anyone might want to self-identify as such. Even though I think I can offer a decent enough explanation/rationale for Anabaptist vision and identity, I often leave such conversations thinking, “yeah, it sure must look ridiculous from the outside—all of these people claiming to follow the same God, yet seemingly capable of accomplishing little more than endless splintering, infighting, and redrawing and fortifying boundaries between one another!” Whatever positives might come along with denominations—and there are a few, to be sure—their existence does not often make a very good or coherent impression upon a watching world.
A few weeks ago, I received a copy of a series of lectures called “Reframing Anabaptism” delivered to Mennonite pastors in 2011 by Conrad Grebel professor Jeremy Bergen. I have not yet had time to finish every lecture, but I was particularly struck by part of Bergen’s first lecture where he talked about the historical “problem of the true church” in the context of multiple emerging denominations:
After the Reformation, there emerged what I would call “the pastoral problem of the true church.” Given a diversity of churches, how do I know that the one I’m part of is the true church, and thus a gateway to salvation? Each church had to give an account of itself that justified its existence, especially in light of what a serious thing it was to have schism among Christians. As we might say it today—each church had to come to the marketplace with brand differentiation.
The subfield of theology known as ecclesiology became increasingly important as it attempted to answer this question. And while this is an existentially understandable question, the answers the various churches gave to it had an unfortunate consequence: the differences between churches came to be seen as their essences.
Bergen’s claim here resonates on a number of levels. Certainly as someone working within a denominational structure in a cultural context characterized by the default mindset of consumerism and by a plurality of religious options, this explains how it often feels to speak for and from within a specific tradition. When the “customer” can very easily just go down the street to the next church, it can feel like the role of this or that church or denomination is to “sell” their brand in the most convincing manner possible. And, in order to do this well, we have to emphasize what makes us unique and special (and right)! Whether it is theological distinctives (Mennonites = peace!) or worship styles or programs offered or promised experiences, everyone has to have something to draw and retain the customer. The logic of the marketplace dictates that to fail to stand out is to die. This is often no different in church-land than it is in the world of hamburgers or jeans or smart-phones.
The problem of denominationalism highlighted by this passage from Bergen’s lectures is structurally identical to some of the problems of multiculturalism as described in a recent lecture by Kenan Malik on CBC’s Ideas. In the context of a political ideology that celebrates (and often demands!) diversity, specific ethnicities and cultural expressions have increasing incentive to stand out. And when you have to stand out to justify your ongoing existence, to take advantage of certain political programs, or to avoid being swallowed up into some kind of generic postmodern ethnic stew, you emphasize what is unique, what is different, what is exotic. Thus, it is often the most conservative and radical elements of a particular faith or culture that come to represent its most “authentic” forms. They stand out, after all. They get our attention. And in a world where the consumer almost always rules, our attention is a most prized and coveted thing indeed.
Is it possible, in our current cultural climate, to celebrate diversity without requiring that our differences be seen as our essences? Is this possible in the church of Christ? Must we see ourselves (and others) as competitors for a limited “market share?” Can we speak confidently, respectfully, and joyfully from within this or that particular denominational framework without feeling like we are simply trying to “sell” our unique flavour of Christianity in the crowded marketplace of theologies and practices?
I think we can. But whether in the broader culture or in the church, I think we will have to learn how to hold our identities a bit more loosely. Or at least differently. This is not to say that we forget who we are and where we came from, nor is it to say that our reasons for being (whether historically or currently) do not matter. Far from it. It is simply to acknowledge that our identities are necessarily fluid and never 100% fixed (thank God!). The issues that divided the church in the mid-16th century are not our issues, nor will the issues facing the church generations from now be the same ones we are facing today. As followers of Jesus—whenever and wherever we live—our identity is located, first and foremost, in the person and work of Christ, not in how we differ from others, important as these differences might be (or seem to us).
In addition, to refuse to locate our identity primarily in our differences might just be to offer a necessary rejection of the logic of the marketplace in a place where this logic has no business. Such a rejection would allow us to truly honour the choices of others and to sincerely celebrate when they find a spiritual home (even when that home isn’t our church!). None of this requires that we “go soft” on what matters to us as churches or denominations. It simply acknowledges that we do not see everything as clearly as we might think, that others might see some things more accurately than us (imagine!), that the church is God’s thing, not ours (and that God can be trusted with it!), and that, more often than not, a bridge is a better thing to build than a wall.