Friday, June 20, 2014

On Pragmatics, Purposes, and Purity: How Much Unity Will We Have?

We have to talk about real things.
Christian groups sometimes unite behind causes, even if that cause is only that they should have a cause, some “purpose” to unite around. Likewise, individuals sometimes claim to pursue Christian unity in isolation, so that the purity of their unity with others (metaphysically existing by divine decree) remains undamaged by others’ impurities.
Another path seems simpler and more attractive…until you try it. But even among “Pragmatics” (judging ideas by their consequences, so that “the ends justify the means”), so attractive is this path’s promise that the absence of results rarely hinders the pursuit and prescription of this ineffective strategy: To establish and maintain unity, any and all issues of potential conflict will be ignored. (i.e., “Don’t talk religion, or politics.”)
This simpler path is rarely successful, though. Ask any family whose hopes for a peaceful Thanksgiving dinner lasts only until they’ve exhausted their opinions on the weather, the food, and its likely aftereffects on the elderly gastrointestinal tracts in attendance. Ask politicians (whether governmental or churches’) who are forbidden even temporary silence. Instead, for the sake of unity within 51% of their constituency, they cocoon every utterance in plausible deniability. (“I didn’t mean what it sounds like I said.”) We have to talk about real things.
A simple fact: We should rejoice in the simple failure of this simpler strategy. Otherwise, it would decimate the conversations necessary to any relationship. Thankfully, that damage is rarely inflicted for long. We have to talk about real things.
And yet, this simpler path is still prescribed for members within local congregations, congregations within their denominations, denominations within their traditions, traditions within Christianity, etc. Somehow, “with God’s help,” this should work in the church, despite failing everywhere else. But God’s call to “fellowship” requires more, not less authenticity and integrity in our communication. We have to talk about real things.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger asked recently, “How seriously do we who are Christians take Jesus’ words recorded in John 17:23?” ( He discusses a more complex, more difficult, and more rewarding path. I find the trailhead of that path marked by authenticity and integrity among some claiming to follow Jesus Christ. Such authenticity and integrity requires us to accept the authenticity and integrity of the words and actions of Jesus Christ Himself. We cannot take His words too seriously.
So, what did Jesus say about our unity as followers of Jesus Christ? Dr. Metzger includes John 17:23. I would add the prior petition: “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:20-21, NASB)
We see the authenticity and integrity of “one God, eternally existing in three persons” engaged in openly and intimately communicating. Therefore, we should be cautious about relegating “unity” to mere metaphysics. Likewise, we cannot pretend that “unity” relying on mutually-assured silence reflects that God whose image and likeness we bear. We have to talk, about real things.

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