It was a good talk, an intelligent talk, the sort that makes you think about things instead of simply taking for granted that you already have all the answers. The guy who spoke to our diocesan conference on spirituality set out, in personified terms, several different Christian ways of operating, none better than the other, each with its virtues and faults. Contemplative, activist, evangelical, charismatic, sacramental: each strand with its own particular bent and emphasis, its own beliefs, its own needs: all part of the great Christian tradition.

Probably he doesn't have all the categories, and would be the first to admit this. And categories never work very well; there are always blurry edges and people who don't fit anywhere. But in real life, let's face it: people do tend to fall into roughly defined camps, groups where they feel more at home than they do elsewhere. All too often, sadly, each camp is convinced that it's got a stranglehold on Truth and everybody else is wrong and really should be converted. And often, the need to convert others is a matter of urgency, spilling over into outright wrong when we believe that the ends justify the means. It becomes terribly easy to slip into TEAPOT mode, seeing Those Evil Awful People Over There, instead of another bunch of God's beloved, if imperfect, souls. Just like us, in fact. Only just a tiny bit different.

Why do we do this? In part, I think, it's because we like to feel that we're in harmony with each other, and that's most comfortably accomplished when we're with like-minded people--people just like ourselves. Also, being tidy-minded, we like to make sure that our peas aren't touching our mashed potatoes, which aren't touching the stuffing, which isn't touching the turkey on our plate. Separateness feels tidier, purer, less suspicious than messing stuff together. Besides, who knows what the mixture might get up to, unbeknownst to us?

And (contradictorily, but who ever said we were all of a piece?) anger at others is so invigorating, almost refreshing--gets the blood moving and the adrenaline joyously surging. Also, looking down on others makes us feel so much better about ourselves. That combination's a real killer, I can tell you. Often quite literally.

I wonder, though, if another factor isn't a deeper, less conscious shift that we aren't really very aware of. In the Good Old Days, when most of us lived far too close to the edge of survival, each bit of grain was precious because starvation was something that really did happen to people we knew, even to ourselves sometimes. We lived in clans with definite enemies, and so in-grouping was a good and necessary thing. Because life was hard and risky, we needed sharp edges and watchfulness for the enemy and carefully fenced fields (because there really were wolves to snabble the sheep). When you depend starkly on your own grain to get you through until the next harvest, then weeds among the grain are a real problem. You wanted wheat and nothing but wheat, no tares both to steal land and nutrients from your wheat and to contaminate its seed with theirs. You wanted to grow only one strain of plant, a monoculture. That was the world in which our Lord spun his parables. (And it's still that way in far too many parts of the world.)

Now and in most of the western world, we still prefer monocultures, sometimes because we need to get the most out of the land (because otherwise we'd have to pay more for our food!), but sometimes because we've decided that monocultures are handsomer/purer/better than diversity (e.g., lawns). But in fact, we face a more subtle, more dangerous problem than tares in the wheat patch. Scientists worry about the loss of genetic diversity. We plant enormous fields full of exactly the same strain of corn or peas or soy--monocultures, acre after acre of them --and other strains disappear because we don't value them enough to preserve them. And then, when some resistant bug or blight goes after the plant, it lacks the genetic diversity to respond. So we have to find some new chemical to attack the blight or bug, and it becomes resistant, so we develop a new monoculture resistant to that bug or blight... and so it goes.

We need our differences. We need them desperately, because without them we lose too much of our resilience. Those categories that we heard of, contemplative, activist, evangelical, charismatic, sacramental: these are strands of distinct colour, rich and significant; and the weave of Christianity would be much the weaker, blander and more impoverished for the want of any of them. Unfortunately, sometimes we are like weavers who value the warp and dislike the weft. But how on earth can anyone produce a web of any strength and substance without the threads running crossways to each other? And how can that web have pattern or beauty if there are no contrasts?

This diversity has little to do with the fundamentals: we all believe the same basic things. That God is God; that God is Love; that God ventured Godself into our world to reconcile us to him; that Jesus died to redeem us and rose from the dead; that the Holy Spirit came into and among us to keep us moving ever Godward --we believe these things because we are Christians. But we play out our belief in ways that have much to do with who we are and where we find ourselves. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that diversity. It gives us a richness and strength without which church would be terribly shortchanged. And it makes the landscape a whole lot more interesting.

I drove home from the conference through a countryside just coming into full spring: the wild, sturdy, independent lilacs are just starting to bloom, with or without anyone's permission. Nothing about that scenery was particularly tidy. True, I passed newly tilled fields that will shortly be sown with monocultures, but not all that many, because much of the land around here isn't suitable for farming. For the rest, it was pretty much a mixture --maybe a poorer mixture than was here before we invaded and imposed our controlling, disapproving, monocultural ways on the original ecosystem, but still a mixture. As all life usually is.

And what does that say about God's tastes and intentions?

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 12 May 2001
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