Monday, May 27, 2013

The Difference Between Different Differences Makes a Big Difference

By Mark Davis, dabbler in many things, expert in none.

There is no secret that the Presbyterian Church (USA), along with many other church bodies, is beset by differences that threaten to undo us. We consider those differences so critical that not even our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord is enough to keep us from severing from one another into separate worshiping communities. Many are the analyses and passionate pleas for us to find unity within our differences, to practice a kind of compassion that will help us to overcome our differences, or to tolerate one another despite our differences. However, what we do not often do in times of differences is to differentiate between different kinds of differences. Some differences may require dividing into separate worshiping communities, but most do not. Even the kinds of differences that do seem to warrant separation can contain a hidden grace that may surprise us.

Different Kinds of Differences
Consider these different kinds of differences:
1.    "The difference between night and day."[1] This familiar phrase suggests a kind of oppositional difference where the 'two sides' seem utterly incompatible and their positions irreconcilable. One can argue whether or not the assumption that there are ‘two sides’ is correct in the first place, but this is often the kind of difference that seems to warrant dramatic action such as dividing a worshiping community into separated communities. The tension indicated by this kind of difference is that one cannot have both night and day, but must have one or the other.
2.    "The difference between month and day." Now we're talking about a difference, but not an oppositional difference. There are ways that one might compare a month and a day, since both of them signify ways of marking time. But, when we compare a month and a day, we do not imagine that one must choose between them as incompatible co-existents. At most, their difference is that one is the subset of the other.
3.    "The difference between salt and day." Now we are comparing two categorically different referents, so different in kind that to speak as if their difference means anything is almost akin to speaking nonsense. Salt is one kind of thing and day is simply another. So, while salt and day are indeed different, their differences are both obvious and fairly meaningless.

We've identified three different types of differences. There may be more, but for now the differences between these three different types of difference at least give us pause to consider this question: When we discuss our differences, what kind of differences are we discussing?

To be sure, most of us would presume that the differences that have divided us for some time now are the incompatible, irreconcilable oppositional kind of differences indicated by the phrase "as different as night and day." Marriage is either only between a man and a woman or it is not. The church will either ordain women and men who are engaged in same-sex relationships or it will not. There seems to be no middle ground to consider, so that in the end there must be a 'winner' or a 'loser.' Therefore, as the General Assembly convenes there are pre-Assembly caucuses, mid-Assembly strategy luncheons, and post-Assembly interpretations, most of which reinforce the ‘win or lose’ mentality. What often results is that a process, which should be an act of discerning God’s direction, becomes a process where people from every side and at all points in between experience anger, despair, elation, or knots in their stomachs at the whole process.

To describe these differences with the adjectives, 'incompatible, irreconcilable, and oppositional' may sound a bit strong, but dividing the body of Christ into separate worshiping communities is no small thing. Strong language seems warranted to show the critical seriousness of where our differences have taken us. Indeed, it would be shameful to imagine that a church would sever itself over trivial matters. And so we name our differences starkly: The love of God v. the holiness of God; upholding the marriage covenant v. honoring loving relationship; integrity in ordination standards v. affirming the diversity of the Spirit; etc. While we may not like the terms given to the debates (especially when others do the naming), they are not simply the product of strategic spin-doctoring. The terms are stark because the passions run deep.

If we take for granted that the differences that divide us are "the difference between night and day" kinds of differences, there are reasons to take heart. One thing we might appreciate in one another - especially those with whom we disagree most ardently - is that 'both sides' seem to share a true passion over our differences. We disagree passionately only because we agree that our differences are meaningful differences. In other words, the platform of our differences and what gives passion to them is actually constructed out of the things we hold in common. People matter. Theology matters. Identity matters. Covenant relationships matter. The authority of Scripture matters. How we interpret Scripture matters. Even policies matter. Without this platform of agreements, our differences would be as passion-less as "the difference between salt and day." Different, yes. Meaningful, no. What we hold in common is that our differences matter. They matter precisely because we agree on so much. 

So, even if the differences that divide us are "different as night and day" kind of differences, perhaps we can build on that platform of those things that we share in common in order to explore those places of difference boldly. When we do so, we may find ways to consider those night and day differences other than as utterly incompatible, irreconcilable, and oppositional. Below are three theses that can make our “night and day” differences opportunities for hope.

Night and day need one another to mean anything
When we explore differences that are "as different as night and day," we discover something quite promising. 'Night' and 'day' are partner terms, correlate terms, that need one another in order to make sense. One way that we think of 'night' is that it is 'day' without light. One way we think of 'day' is that it is night with the lights turned on. The oppositional difference between them shows that day and night depend on one another for meaning. That is how oppositional differences work. The contrasting poles of oppositional differences are not two arrival points that have nothing to do with one another. They are only meaningful insofar as they depend on one another. They need one another. They feed on one another and they feed one another.

Even if we believe that that the differences that divide us are "different as night and day" differences, as such, "each side" needs the other to be whole. Tradition needs the emergence of something new, because it is a constitutive part of the Presbyterian tradition that we are "Reformed always being reformed." Emerging ways of being church or of being in covenant relationships need tradition, because it is precisely the tutelage of tradition that prevents an emerging movement from being merely a passing whim and instills in it the notion that 'doing theology' has significance. Any ‘new’ understanding of marriage relies heavily on the ‘old’ existing understanding of marriage to give the word meaning. And so on. What looks at first glance like simple opposition becomes on further reflection an interdependent correlation where ‘both sides’ need one another.

Night and day are not the only possibilities
For those involved in oppositional differences, the opposing sides seem to be the only two options. Think of the oppositional difference between Jews and Samaritans in the New Testament era. When the Samaritan woman at the well poses the question to Jesus, "Should we worship God on our mountain or yours?" she was staking out the 'two sides' that had divided these theological cousins passionately for many years. However, she was also asking a question that only had significance for Jews and Samaritans. The occupying Romans, for example, thought the question was utterly meaningless. As far as they were concerned Rome had thoroughly conquered both mountains, so the question was over two piles of Roman dirt. But, for Samaritans and for Jews, the oppositional difference behind this question of sacred geography warranted enmity strong enough to divide them into separate and rival worshiping communities.

Frankly, Jesus' answer to the Samaritan woman's question of sacred geography has more in common with what a Roman soldier might say than what a Jew or a Samaritan of that day had been trained to say. In answer to the question, "Which mountain, ours or yours?" Jesus says "Neither." Likewise, later in John's gospel Jesus will encounter another question of oppositional difference, "Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?" with the same answer, "Neither." What Jesus' answer suggests is that the Roman soldier may be on to something here - the oppositional difference that provokes us to separate ourselves from one another may be fairly meaningless in the larger view of things. The Roman soldier's jaded view that both mountains are conquered territories actually opens the way for Jesus' beatific view that all mountains can be sacred geography. What is important is not the mountain itself - as hard as it might be for those of us who adhere to one side of the oppositional difference or the other to hear it. What is important is the Spirit that makes geography sacred in the first place - something that both Jews and Samaritans can lose sight of when differing.

When we differ over the question of ordination, for example, we imagine that the ultimate issue is the degree to which we tighten or loosen the ‘standards’ for ordination. Attempts to guard the 'sanctity' of ordination vows are grounded in real conviction that when a church discerns and agrees together about the calling and vocation of its elders, it is practicing the presence of the Spirit. Likewise, attempts to change the requirements surrounding ordination vows feed off of that very same sense of sanctity – that part of practicing the presence of the Spirit is to discern anew how God is calling and leading God's people into ministry in the church and the world. No one 'side' of our differences has a corner on meaning or on the Spirit. Just as Jesus’ answer to the Samaritan woman suggested for their oppositional difference, the primary matter in ordination, covenant relationships, and other issues that divide us is not the position that we hold. It is the Spirit that holds us.

Night and Day only describe perspective, not essence
There is a riddling question that my dad once asked to break up a long car ride:  "What color is a white house at night?" My brother and I immediately answered "black," to which my dad responded, "No, it's still white, you just can't see the color in the dark." The point of the riddle was to show that the primary differences between night and day were changes in perspective, not changes in things-in-themselves. That riddle has always intrigued me when I hear the phrase “as different as night and day.” What that means is that however stark the differences are, they are differences of perspective, not essence. They are real differences, to be sure, but they are real differences in perspective, not in essence. How liberating and appropriate humbling would it be if all of us who are embroiled in oppositional difference would agree that our differences are differences in perspective. That would not diminish our passion, or compromise our conviction. It would, however, relativize the whole conversation. We cannot presume that we are speaking for God, for all time, for truth itself when we differ as different as night and day. We can only presume that we are speaking for our perspective of God, our best understanding in our moment, and our interpretation of truth.

Red flags warning of “relativism!” will immediately rise at the suggestion that our differences are perspectival and not essential. But, I would argue that those red flags are actually red herrings. Even John Calvin was never presumptuous enough to speak of God ‘in God’s essence,’ but only of God has God has ‘accommodated’ Godself to our understanding. What Calvin rightly understood was that God’s ways are indeed higher than our ways and God’s understanding beyond the reach of our understanding. Any statement we make of God is, to that extent, perspectival. That is why Christian theology must always be grounded in humility, not arrogance. It is not that “everything is relative; nothing is true.” It is that we, qua humans, can only see as far as our eyes are able, can only understand as our minds are able. And God accommodates Godself to that limited entity known as humanity.[2]

When our “night and day” differences collide over the issue of ordination, acknowledging our perspective gives us both courage and humility. We argue over whether we should ordain persons in same-sex relationships or whether we should limit ordination to persons in heterosexual relationships or chastity in singleness. We feel the passion because we agree that ordination is an act of the community that speaks of how God works among us today. We have convictions because we agree that the incarnate presence of the Spirit continues to gift and empower persons for service in a variety of ways. We argue because we disagree over how we most faithfully exercise authority – the act of authorizing persons to practice the leadership role of ruling or teaching elder in the church. Our differences are rooted in how we perceive God working among and calling us to exercise this authorizing role.

If we begin with the assumption that our differences are differences of perspective, we might open ourselves to remembering the wonder that God has invited us to participate in this joy at all. Ordination is, beneath our perspectives of how it is rightly practiced, a gift from God. The candidate for ordination is – first and foremost – called by God’s grace, an act that witnesses to the activity of the Spirit among us. God’s initiating call is then confirmed by the community. That activity is also initiated by God’s grace. Heck, the gathered community itself exists only by the grace of God. The whole presumption of ordination is chock full of grace! As such, there is no room for human presumption or arrogance. What lies beneath our entire act of ordination is the recognition that none of us in worthy of ordaining or of being ordained. Unless our humility in this activity is a feigned humility, we can only engage in ordination as a “debt of gratitude.” Before we ask the question, “Why would God call that kind of person?” we first ask, “Why would God call the likes of us?” And with humility, we can only answer, “Not for any reason other than God’s sheer grace.” In the end, our perspectives on how to exercise the authorizing act of ordination is an indication of how we experience a grace that none of us deserves.

Our differing perspectives, then, are genuine and real. But, they are perspectives that rely on grace. We may not all come to genuine agreement when we begin with that humble starting point. But, at least we might be able to see our way together in the grace that unites us.

[1] I need to note that references to 'night and day,' as well as references to 'black and white,' are often used to connote moral difference, with darkness denoting sin or evil and brightness denoting good. That is not at all how I intend these terms to be understood. I am simply noting that the phrase "as different as night and day" speaks to a presumed oppositional difference, without any assumption that either night or day is superior, preferred, or better. If the history of these terms makes it too difficult to hear them amorally, then I apologize and invite the reader to help me arrive at better terms that make the same point but do not involve the same overtones

[2] This quality of God is what Robert Scharlemann has in mind in his delightfully entitled article, “The Being of God When God is not Being God.”