Unity, diversity, foundations and coercion

Posted: February 17, 2012 by J in Book review, Church, Theology

I’ve been reading an arresting article by Colin Gunton about whether God (or a god) is a necessary foundation for any society (in his The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). It’s raising some interesting questions for me about our church scene.

In the article Gunton talks alot about unity and diversity. (I never would have believed how important those two suckers turn out to be!) Our society is on the surface devoted to diversity (pluralism), and suspicious of attempts to identify unifying foundations. Such attempts are thought to be oppressive, trying to force people into moulds. But Gunton makes the point that diversity alone without unity is unsustainable for a society, leading to violence and oppression. Without a shared vision of who we are and how we should be, we have no protections from coercive and totalitarian forces. Pluralism itself becomes a force for intolerance, crushing any point of view different from its own.

If I can give a juicy quote,

…in the absence of an acknowledged basis of unity, social coercion, perhaps as an intolerant form of political correctness, but probably more institutionalised, will fill the vacuum.

Gunton describes how when unifying, shared stories and values (what he calls myths) are weakened, politics steps in to fill the vacuum – coercive politics. It’s a great article.

I want to do two things with this. First, push Gunton’s view a little further. Second, apply it to that particular society called ‘the church’, and in particular the evangelical church scene.

First, to push Gunton’s thinking a little further, it’s not hard to see how a lack of unifying foundation for a society generates insecurities. Who is to say what the group stands for? How can deviant or destructive behaviour be identified and dealt with? How can the communal goods most valued by the group be safeguarded? Identity crises are likely to be ongoing. Not surprising if these insecurities lead to violence, as coercive politics try to achieve what the weak foundations couldn’t do: provide shape, structure, meaning and protection to the life of the group. And not surprising if the average group member accepts these harsh measures, for the sake of preserving the group. Unity is important, even if it has to be imposed…

Perhaps we could turn this around and propose that the stronger and more focussed the underlying unity in a social group, the less need for police and totalitarian leaders. In a group where all agree on basic issues of identity, a high degree of freedom is possible. Much diversity and even disagreement can be tolerated, it will not be felt as a threat to the group’s existence.

I think what Gunton is getting at is that unity (whether ‘underlying’ is the best way to think of it, I’m not sure) is ultimately the safe-guard for diversity. It gives space for difference without insecurity or fear.

Or to put that negatively, you can’t really impose unity: when you use coercion, what you get is unity’s evil twin, uniformity. I.e. a unity that squashes instead of facilitates diversity.

Now to apply this to our little group, the evangelical church movement!

If this account of things is half right, then it raises interesting questions about us. For one thing, politicking is a rather prominent feature of our movement. Both internal, and towards extra-mural church groups.

Also there is a fair bit of trying to define who’s in and who’s out. And rather than occurring largely naturally through the choices people make about their affiliations, this defining often occurs through more ‘intrusive’ means – warning, critique of others, ostracism, promotion of ‘approved’ leaders. Our leaders are trained in how to maintain the ‘approved’ position in the current lot of controversies (they really are!). We are used to all this, we hardly notice it, but what it amounts to is that we have a strong habit of imposing unity on our people.

Accordingly, diversity is not a strong point. People or churches expressing their faith in non-traditional ways are likely to create worry and tension – are they ‘kosher’? The tendency is rather to look for approved phrases and metaphors to speak in; approved ministry models for churches to follow; approved leaders to have the ideas; approved colleges to source leaders from. We aim to create a fairly high level of similarity amongst the graduates of our colleges. We tend to be suspicious of ideas that have not come from our leaders. We recommend the same small group of books for our people to read, year after year. We tend to invite the same small group of ‘reliable’ speakers to address our conferences again and again. Etc, etc. The evil twin seems to be fairly active in our scene.

Now rather than moan about how bad all this is in good pluralist style, I want to explore it from the point of view Gunton has proposed, outlined above. And what it suggests, of course, is a lack of underlying unity. A high level of intervention to ‘create’ unity and discourage diversity, hints at a weakness or lack of focus in the foundational story or values that unite us into a community. Could that be true?

What is there at the core that gives unity to our movement? We’re looking for a story, an idea, a set of values or commitments. And we’re asking, could that core be weak or unfocussed, leaving a unity vacuum which gets filled by overfunctioning institutional habits of imposition?

I think these are intriguing questions, and would love to hear people’s thoughts.

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