Christian Diversity – what does it really mean?

Chinese Cardinal John Tong Hon of Hong Kong joins prayer service

We are accustomed to hearing that the prodigious multiplication of Christian, especially Protestant, denominations – some estimates bring the number close to 30,000 – is evidence that Christians are hopelessly divided, confused and fragmented. But paradoxically, each of these various communities hails back – in one form or another – to an imagined ‘one, true Church’: it may be to a pre-Schismatic and pre-Reformation Catholicism, or to an anciently conceived Eastern Orthodoxy, or to a pristine primitive church idealized by Protestants. Each of them typically claims to be the one, even when they break off into yet more of the myriads of sectarian schisms or reforms. It would be naive to underplay the harm such divisions have done to Christianity’s claim to bear witness to the one Gospel. Still, I wish to suggest that we are overlooking a deeper cause of this proliferation, and are missing the fact that, although it creates more branches on the top, it actually reveals a deeper fecundity in the roots.

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Christianity, in virtually all of its forms, is predicated on the belief that a free and personal God both created a world and populated it with free creatures, and then, when the liberties he had bestowed were abused, intervened – again, as a free act – in an Event we call the Incarnation (with its correlates: the Redemption, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and all the rest). However – and this is important – no sustainable, mainstream Christian theology has ever taught that God choreographed, or scripted, all of his creatures’ reactions and responses to this intervention. He respected their freedom even after it had been abused, and allowed their multiple reactions and unpredictable responses to be generated – in all varieties and with occasional chaos – in the long and complex centuries of Christian history.

If one of these multiple Christian churches is ever to successfully maintain its primacy in the eyes of the others – I obviously have my convictions about this, but that’s not the point here – it will only become visible in the sanctity of the human beings it has produced. Don’t look first at the arguments (important as they are), nor at the bunglers and sinners on display in each tradition, but instead look at the holy ones that this or that assembly of Christians has bred. For whatever else the vast multiplication of confessions of those who follow Christ may mean, at the very least it means this: the Event of Christ’s Life, Death and Resurrection was one of unparalleled impact, unequaled audacity of claim and indelible effect on the human imagination. Even non-believers seem unable to shake free of its tenacious hold, as we witness in secular art, literature and cinema. The huge variety of responses to it is not even close to a proof of its fiction; if anything, it is an overwhelming demonstration of its towering profile in human history, and of its uncanny fecundity. It teems with a life that is not of this world, and keeps germinating shoots not because it is afflicted with confusion, but because it has injected into creation a fruitful Fact we will never be able to tame.

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