November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
March 11, 2021
During an Easter Sunday mass celebrated under unprecedented circumstances, while the world sat in isolation, Pope Francis addressed the “whole human family,” urgently proclaiming that “this is not a time for division.” Encouraging unity, he said, “The whole world is suffering and needs to be united in facing the pandemic.”1 It is an odd pandemic experience—uniting in our agreement to separate.
The global disorientation provoked by COVID-19 has given way to reflection on fundamental questions. What does it mean to be human or to be in community? How shall we connect as persons who both pose risk to one another and provide life-giving energy to one another? The 2020 project of global disorientation continued in the aftermath of the killing of another Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of white police officers. The conversation that broke open in the aftermath of his death has given way to new questions: What is it to be a community across inequity? What does it look like to be for human rights when embedded in institutions and systems that benefit from inequality and systemic oppression?
As I have reflected on these questions, the words of the philosopher Massimo Cacciari have echoed through my mind. Cacciari cautions us against standing on top of the rubble in moments such as these and projecting hopeful messages:
It’s a horrible habit that trendy intellectuals have: it consists in taking whatever is going on in the world and interpreting it as a turning point in history; imagining piles of rubble everywhere and climbing to the top, and from there announcing that “this is over,” “that is over,” pleased to be the first to speak of an epochal turning point. For God’s sake.2
Moving from lament to hope too quickly is a way of defending against the terror and injustice of the moment. That is, in tragedy, it is important to not skip over the terror, lament, and disorientation by being too quick to point to some newly emerging hope of society’s coming transformation. It is this fear of sugarcoating the terror and moving too quickly to proclamation that has paralyzed me at times when crafting this essay. I fear dismissing the lament of this moment by joining a choir of voices suggesting how humanity can and will be better.3 And so, with hesitation, I suggest that as we pause in this moment of history, broken open with trauma, reflecting on the meaning of humanity and community, we are also tasked with the work of reconceptualizing the concept of community, togetherness, and individuation. We have an invitation here to reconsider our ways of being in relationship and community with one another. Thus, with much imperfection, I offer some considerations of unity, diversity, and connectedness in a time of disorienting separation.
I recall tracing the fine lines of my mother’s palm while sitting in wooden pews in my Quaker church. The act of tracing those lines offered a reprieve from the boredom of sitting still for an hour. My understanding of Jesus, God, and justice were forged in those pews. I would later say my wedding vows within those one-hundred-year-old brick walls. The personal-formation-per-square-foot ratio in this building runs high for me.
And yet, I have not set foot in that building in four years. We worked at it for over fifteen months, attempting to find a way forward as a community despite our differences, but ultimately my church family would endure a grueling and painful split over the issue of gay marriage. Communities, families, and individuals divided and cast themselves into sides, and that resulted in the creation of two different religious communities.
I wish I could say my experience is rare, but of course it is not. Religious communities frequently separate and go through metaphorical divorces. Lines are drawn, and entry into these communities is determined by theological similarity as unity of belief becomes essential to the fabric of many religious communities. And exacerbating matters, as we divide into different communities, our beliefs, attitudes, and biases are vulnerable to being confirmed by the echo chambers our separate communities create.4
In polarizing and divisive times like my church separation or our current racially charged pandemic, the work of missiologist Andrew Walls is particularly poignant. Walls explores the cultural significance of what he calls “the Ephesians moment”—a decisive point in early Christianity where unity and diversity belonged together.
The Epistle to the Ephesians offers a bold vision for how Christian community may gather across difference. To understand the novelty of this vision, it’s helpful to recall the general landscape of the early church. The early church primarily consisted of two cultural expressions: Jewish and gentile.
Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. He followed Torah, honored Jewish rituals, and attended the temple. Understandably, then, Christianity was initially connected to Jewish culture; those individuals who wanted to become Christian took on Jewish customs and rituals (Acts 21:21–26). As persecution drove many Christians out of the city or into metropolitan Antioch, they shared their faith with their Greek neighbors. After much discussion, the leaders decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to apply the same lifestyle requirements—circumcision and observance of Torah, for example—to gentile Christians. Rather than insisting that gentiles take on Jewish customs, they understood that it was important that the gospel be expressed in Hellenistic terms. With this decision, the parameters around Christianity were suddenly removed—the common lifestyle markers no longer signaled who was in and who was out.5
A natural fallout from this collision of two distinct cultures would have been the formation of two distinct Christian communities. Two parallel communities certainly would have been much neater, and many communities indeed fell into this pattern. For instance, Acts 15 paints a picture of two distinct Christian lifestyles being created. Even Peter seems to have succumbed to the pressure of maintaining such boundary markers and not wanting to commune with gentiles when there was the possibility of being observed (Gal. 2:11–14). But in the Ephesians moment, two different groups converged and were invited to gather at the very institution that represented their “ethnic and cultural division: the meal table.”6
Traditionally, the distinctiveness between these two different lifestyles was highlighted by when and how they ate. Jews communed with Jews; gentiles with gentiles. The table marked their division. The table also had significance for early Christians, as it was a symbol of unity and togetherness, a marker of doing life together. Within Christianity, the table had thus suggested unity whereas within the larger cultural landscape, the table suggested ethnic and cultural division. And so, naturally, as communities of gentile and Jewish believers converged, many questions arose:
What was to happen when there were also Gentile followers of Jesus, uncircumcised, following Hellenistic eating patterns? Would it still be the mark of the followers of Jesus that they ate together? The test was the meal table, and clearly many old believers found it difficult to break the tradition of centuries and sit at table with fellow servants of the Messiah who still bore all the marks of their alien background. . . . The shared table was the acid test. It stood for diverse humanity redeemed by Christ and sharing in him.7
The Ephesians moment marked the coming together of two cultures, historically divided by the meal table, to experience Christ. The meal table, a place that historically divided people became the marker of unity. They understood that the community was made more whole when diversity and unity walked together.
Within this vision of community, diversity itself is essential to the fabric of the church’s unity. We are not unified despite our diversity; we are made whole because of it. Unity and diversity walk together.8 That is, Walls suggests that neither expression of Christianity was complete in and of itself; they were both necessary to “complete and correct the other; for each was an expression of Christ under certain specific conditions.”9
Another way to think of this is that it is unwise to translate and interpret Christ on our own. We are better when we interpret and translate Christ in relationship to one another. Each expression of Christianity represents a culture converted to Christ and gives form to something the whole body of Christ needs. We need one another’s vision “to correct, enlarge and focus our own.”10 For example, when Christianity was brought to the Greek-speaking gentile context, the term messiah did not carry the same rich, traditioned meaning as it did in the Jewish context and required “endless explanation.” They needed “to translate, to find a term that told something about Jesus and yet meant something to a Greek pagan.”11 The term kyrios, or “Lord,” which had long been used in relation to Hellenistic divinities, was thus adopted. Among Jewish believers, the title of Messiah was integral to their understanding of Jesus—the purest expression of his identity. The translation of this word, “Messiah,” wrapped with its Jewish history, tradition, and belief into a word used among heathen cults must have felt a risky move. And yet, what resulted was not a distortion of who Jesus was but an expansion. This concept not only enabled gentile believers to more deeply comprehend the meaning of Jesus; it also enriched our collective understanding of Jesus, opening up new conceptual space to think about new dimensions of Jesus. The process of translation therefore enhances and expands our understanding of the gospel, and throughout history cultural translation has led to rich and expansive discoveries.12
Christian community flourishes when unity and diversity walk together. And yet, sadly, this pairing was short-lived. And by 70 CE the Jewish state had been destroyed, the Jewish church disbanded, and gentile Christianity expanded. The church once again became monocultural, even if it was distinctly Hellenistic in this iteration.13 This monocultural expression of Christianity has since regularly partnered with violent impulses: the Crusades, colonialism, the slave trade, and more recently, white nationalism and white supremacy. The tendency of monocultural expressions of Christianity to merge with cultural dominance and power has left blood on our hands and a lasting stain on our history. We have a long, sordid history of building unity through sameness.
Walls suggests that as the church rapidly expands, taking on local expression across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the church finds itself in a moment where it once again can reimagine the Ephesians moment. As Christianity continues to expand, new conceptual spaces for understanding open. And yet, one does not need to think globally to consider the multiple cultures, values, and worldviews that already exist under the umbrella of Christianity. Within the United States, Christianity is expressed through many different cultural, political, and ideological worldviews. And we are invited to reimagine the Ephesians moment in our current time of ideological polarization.
While the invitation to dine around one table in celebration of our diversity sounds lovely, it turns out that this process is messier than a rose-colored viewing of early church history captures. Cognitive dissonance is one byproduct of sitting with those who differ from us—culturally, ideologically, or politically. We experience cognitive dissonance when there is a disconnect between what we believe and what we experience. This tends to create a sense of uncertainty, which is one of the most intolerable experiences for the human mind, and so, naturally, humans have a hardwired tendency to resolve cognitive dissonance as rapidly as possible.14
These swift efforts to resolve cognitive dissonance are seen in the ways we often respond to encounters with difference. Walls identifies two potential pitfalls, though I like to think of these as two ditches on either side of a safe road. On one side, we face the temptation to guard Christianity as we have experienced it in our particular culture. This error led to the Crusades, colonialism, and the eighteenth-century missions project. The second ditch, on the other side of the road, is a sort of detached acceptance of plurality wherein everyone’s individual faith is said to be valid for that individual. The first ditch seeks to destroy diversity in the name of unity, whereas the second ditch rejects unity in the name of honoring diversity. Both scenarios miss the Ephesians moment, which honors and values both unity and diversity.
Psychological discourse offers us another way of articulating these tensions. Another way of describing the two ditches is to consider one ditch the overemphasis of togetherness at the sake of losing differentiation or individuation and the other ditch the overemphasis of differentiation or individuation at the sake of losing togetherness. In the Ephesians moment, we see a community forging ahead, holding together unity in diversity. In fact, it could be suggested that there is not true unity unless it is unity forged through the navigation of difference. This sort of unity involves a high level of differentiation and an ability to allow for uncertainty.
Murray Bowen’s family systems theory suggests that healthy family systems have the ability to balance differentiation and togetherness. His theory, I suggest, provides a helpful psychological map from which to explore the significance of the Ephesians moment more fully.
Bowen, a pioneer of family systems theory in the mid-twentieth century, highlighted the importance of both differentiation and togetherness. Differentiation describes our ability to maintain an individualized sense of self while balancing autonomy and connection and navigating the “relational dialectic of independence and togetherness.”15 We demonstrate good differentiation when we regulate our self-esteem, self-soothe, and maintain our personal ideas while staying connected to those who differ from us. Differentiation results in the ability to hold onto our deepest desires, emotions, and values while simultaneously appreciating the other who has “equally complex and meaningful” desires, intentions, and needs.16 A healthy level of differentiation facilitates intimacy and connection by allowing for emotional closeness without fusing with the other’s emotional world. It opens up relational space to connect as we are, without the risk of being engulfed by the other or pressure to conform in order to achieve intimacy. This is also true in our navigation of cultural, ideological, or religious differences.17
In undifferentiated families, members are often emotionally overinvolved, and they become fused to a point where differentiation is nearly impossible. Rather than a group of individual egos, such overinvolvement leads to the development of a family ego mass that takes on a life of its own. Under such circumstances, one might experience physical sickness, temper tantrums, or anxiety due to another member’s unconscious anxiety or hostility. This tendency for over emotional involvement can lead to emotional fusion, enmeshment, and chaos.18
Enmeshment occurs when there is too much togetherness without differentiation. The opposite extreme of enmeshment is fracture or relational cutoff, which occurs when there is differentiation without togetherness. In healthy family systems, difference does not limit the capacity for connection. Connection does not depend on holding identical political beliefs, lifestyle values, opinions, or religious beliefs. A well-differentiated and connected family system is able to find connection, meaning, and togetherness across difference in values, ideas, and opinions. Individuals are freed to find and hold on to one another when they experience the freedom to hold onto themselves. Sameness, it turns out, is not a mandate for connection.
Although Walls does not use the psychological concepts of differentiation or enmeshment, I argue that such concepts are crucial to the Ephesians moment. In the Ephesians moment, the early Jewish and gentile church joined around a common table. Their ability to connect deeply was partly due to their ability to differentiate and hold on to their particular customs, rituals, and values. They were able to engage in intercultural, interideological relationship because they did so from a well-differentiated space. Their ability to differentiate enabled a countercultural, provocative, and missional way of being in the world.
Different seasons in a family’s developmental process create unique challenges to differentiation and togetherness. For example, during adolescence, teenagers frequently desire more autonomy and differentiation. This forces the family members in the system to change patterns, often resulting in tension, anxiety, or stress. Likewise, when a family migrates from a collectivistic culture to the United States, different members of the family may be at different levels of acculturation and may therefore embody various ranges of collectivistic and individualistic values.
The church is similarly prone to experience developmental and contextual factors that may cause unity and diversity to be more challenging at specific points in our life together. Developmentally, the church is going through a particularly sensitive time. This cultural moment is rife with challenges as we experience massive cultural and religious changes. To paraphrase Phillis Tickle, every five hundred years or so, the church experiences significant political, social, and cultural shifts, resulting in a massive “rummage sale.” We are currently living through such a rummage sale, as the church decides what to get rid of and what to keep. We’re living through a massive paradigm shift from a modern to postmodern frame of reference, and we are swiftly moving into a postreligious context. Additionally, we find ourselves in a heated sociopolitical climate that is more ideologically polarized than ever before.19 The context and developmental process the Western church finds itself in is one that makes differentiation and togetherness nearly impossible.
Bowen was concerned with family-of-origin issues. He believed anxiety resulted from unresolved family-of-origin issues, and he famously suggested that there are always three generations in the room whenever you work with a family. That is, we inherit patterns and stories from the generations that come before us. As patterns are transmitted from generation to generation, this can lead to reactionary responses. For example, when enmeshment continues through a multigenerational process, someone within a family may get fed up. And this person may swing, like a pendulum, to an emotional cutoff, which is exactly as it sounds—the family member may cut others off relationally and emotionally. Take Steve Martin’s character in Father of the Bride as an example: his overinvolved and enmeshed way of relating to his daughter becomes the axis point of humor. One might not have to imagine how, over time, Martin’s daughter—or her future children—might feel smothered by those over-the-top dynamics. At some point, someone in the system will get fed up and feel their only chance of escape is to sever relationships and thereby establish autonomy. Family-of-origin issues are ideally addressed while keeping relationships intact, but this is often not possible.
Right now, the American church has a lot of family-of-origin issues to work through. When we gather on Sunday mornings, at church meetings and denominational conferences (now via Zoom), there are three generations in the room. Our predecessors’ unresolved issues live on in us. One of these unresolved issues has to do with our relationship to culture. We have seen an enmeshment between Christianity and culture in slavery, anti-abolition laws, colonialism—we have a long history of conflating patriotism, power, and Christianity. This is our family of origin.
It would be easy to turn this essay into a scathing review of American Christianity, but let us practice a hermeneutic of generosity and remember that this practice of enmeshment between culture and faith is not new. And let me pause to reflect on how difficult it is to see one’s own family dynamics, enmeshments, and dysfunctions when we are embedded in a system. The descriptors I have chosen to illustrate the tendency for Christianity to become enmeshed with culture show my own biases. They are based on my subjective experience and the more progressive Christian family I have chosen to align with. In my liberal church family, though, I am no more immune to the temptation of conflating culture and faith than anyone else. And I am sure my brothers and sisters in more traditional communities would be quick to point out ways that I conflate Christianity with my own cultural biases.
This is the constant temptation we face. Whenever Christianity enters a new culture, we must avoid letting the host culture hijack the gospel. The point is not to be overly critical of this human tendency—it is a natural and understandable process that is difficult to avoid. One has to be vigilant, like Peter, to avoid this.
Still, this drive to be with and differentiate from culture is one of the unique aspects of Christianity among the world religions. It is what Walls referred to as the “translation principle.”20 Christianity was initiated through a divine translation—the translation of God’s being through the life of Jesus. Integral to the Christian gospel is the drive to be translated to new cultural frontiers, taking on new forms, rituals, and practices. No culture owns the gospel. The gospel is always simultaneously differentiated from and manifested through culture. It is embedded in culture and transforming culture. Where there is a lack of differentiation between culture and gospel, the gospel loses its power to be transformational, and we lose our ability as religious communities to hold the tension of togetherness across difference. When we get tied to frozen cultural versions of the gospel, we get in trouble. When we are frozen in Christian narratives, our worlds become rigid and small.
The tendency to become frozen in a dominant culture’s narratives is also reflective of our family of origin issues. We have become enmeshed with our culture, failing to differentiate. According to Bowen, enmeshment eventually becomes so intolerable that cutoff occurs (i.e., decisive emotional shutout). I sense this kind of cutoff is emerging in our Christian families today. Some communities continue the enmeshment project with the dominant culture whereas others go through an emotional cutoff experience and risk forging new enmeshment projects with subcultures where values, politics, religion, and culture merge into frozen and rigid narratives.
The irony of drafting these words while physically isolated from my community due to a pandemic is not lost on me. Perhaps at the time that you read this, some communities will have returned to one another with a fresh sense of connectivity and aliveness as they thrill to be in each other’s physical presence again. Many communities will have lost loved ones, experienced ongoing financial hardship, and faced increased mental health concerns. The myth of certainty has been unveiled, and we are floundering in our existential disorientation and grief. The illusion of buffered selves has been broken; we feel vulnerable as we encounter our very porous and vulnerable human selves. Disease has been transmitted through our porous nature. Perhaps, too, our healing may be found in embracing our porousness.
Together, we face a collective trauma. Or perhaps we will face this collective trauma separately, cut off and angered at one another. To be honest, even as I write these words, I struggle with some of the nuances and implications of these ideas. What does it mean to be together with someone whose voice and values threaten someone else who is at the table? What does it mean to find connection when we have a vastly different understanding of what it means to love our neighbors?For some, loving our neighbors means practicing social distancing, whereas for others, loving our neighbor means allowing our neighbor to return to work.
The divide within our church is evident. The divide between our ideas of safety, equality, and justice lay there like gaping wounds. Even as I suggest that unity and diversity walk together, I worry about the potential of this narrative for revictimizing and retraumatizing the exploited. I fret about what potential voices we may silence when we insist that we all be at the table. In a family system, there may come a moment where an individual’s behavior and relational patterns are so toxic that the healthiest response of the family is to create boundaries. When possible, it is best to separate the abused from the abuser and to have them reconcile and reunite only when safety can be maintained. When do we work toward unity and when do we erect boundaries to protect the vulnerable and to protect the health of the community? There are no simple answers to these questions. If there were, we likely would have figured this out by now. I do believe there is nobility in sitting with and asking hard questions, all while striving toward a different way of being together.
The wisdom embedded in traditional religion and traditional Adinkra symbols became particularly meaningful to me when I pastored in Ghana. The funtunfunefu denkyemfunefu or conjoined crocodile symbol feels particularly poignant.
This symbol represents crocodiles who share one stomach. Instead of fighting over food, they need to cooperate and work together in order to survive. This cultural symbol is traditionally evoked to remind communities of the wisdom of cooperation and the uselessness of fighting between religious or cultural groups, for as it were, we share one stomach.21 We share one world, and as I write this, it is a world afire with disease, racial injustice, and terror.
How then, shall we be together?
Megan Anna Neff
Megan Anna Neff holds an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and an MA in clinical psychology from George Fox University where she is currently a doctoral candidate. Neff’s research interests include the integration of Christian theology and psychology, twenty-first-century pedagogy, intersubjectivity, and existential philosophy. She enjoys curating digital resources on these topics at meganannaneff.org. Her book, Embodying Integration: A Fresh Look at Christianity in the Therapy Room, was recently published by IVP Academic.