There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.
As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.
from 1 Corinthians 12
The attitude of “tolerating” difference just doesn’t seem to cut it when we read this letter of Paul’s. This is clearly a celebration of difference. Embracing difference with confidence and trust, excited about how the Spirit is at work in so many diverse ways, seems to be more appropriate language for describing what Paul is talking about to the Corinthian community. In much of the history of Christianity, this breaking open of new insights about what God is up to among humans has coincided with many concerted efforts to rein in the new growth. Sometimes the reining in has gotten the upper hand, sending the Holy Spirit packing. Sometimes the new growth has happened in such vigorous and chaotic ways that the Christian world has been thrown into great turmoil. This sounds more like a series of battles than like a uniform Church moving forward through the ages. That’s the reality we have to live with.
The question facing the Christian world, in times of great change and upheaval, is how to embrace different manifestations of the Spirit while holding it all together. This involves a clear consensus on exactly what the “essentials” of Christianity are and on how these essentials can be identified in different times and places. This is a demanding and never-ending task.
Another question facing the Christian world is one that asks about authority in deciding what the essentials are, in fact, and how they must be identified. For example, is one of the essentials of the Christian faith intellectual assent or agreement with traditional doctrines and dogmas that are deemed to be unchanging? We have all become aware of the great embarrassment of the Roman Catholic Church when it reflects on the fact that in the 1600s they so strongly resisted a new understanding of astronomers that they felt it necessary to place Galileo under house arrest due to his heretical position. It turned out that Galileo was right, whether or not Church officials believed him. The Holy Spirit, it seems, erupted through long-held conviction to intellectual positions deemed orthodox within the Church with a blinding flash of new insight.
Genuine authority should rest with the truth, not with who has more power in a given situation. When faced with new and different evidence, deep reverence to long-held doctrinal and dogmatic positions should not be put before the truth of the new evidence. Sure, we need to discern and scrutinize, but the first reaction to new evidence about what the Holy Spirit is up to should not be denial. In order to develop a character that allows for this kind of freedom, the Church’s members must be in touch with the true essentials of Christian faith. Compassion, love, freedom, solidarity, reverence for God and neighbour, justice, empathy, devotion to truth, charity, mercy – these are the essentials. When they are being lived by Christians, we witness the best Christianity has to offer the world that it professes to love in Christ’s name.
It seems that when these essentials are brought to bear on situations requiring love and justice, every situation adds to the diversity of the Christian expression of faith without depleting its power or placing restrictive boundaries around who can “belong.” Stubbornly rejecting the new ways of understanding and living the Christian mission in the world is nothing more than an echo of the Church’s distortion of power in the 1600s when the Inquisitors imprisoned anyone who questioned the traditional ways of perceiving reality. Taking a look around the world, we read a tale of two Christianities – one a living movement of love and justice erupting into local environments in new and exciting ways, and the other standing in a posture of rejection to anything speaking of diversity and new life.
Diversity in wholeness is a guiding principle for those who have no time to reject new promptings of the Spirit. Integrating the newly discovered works of love and justice becomes the goal when Christians seek a world-wide community that consistently adds depth and breadth and height to its self-understanding and identity.