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Celebrate Theological Diversity

If you live in a highly developed country with no war on its homeland, no nationwide natural disasters, and  little economic turmoil, you might have certain expectations. What would you think, for example, if you went to a florist shop and it had just one kind of flower? What would you think if you went to the meat counter at your local supermarket and the butcher sold but one cut of meat? What if you wheeled your cart from the counter and pushed it through the aisles, only to discover one brand of mustard, one kind of pasta, and only one cereal? In each instance, you expect variety, nothing less. You’d be surprised and likely annoyed if you experienced anything besides a variety of choices.

It’s reasonable to state that we humans are usually comfortable with variety. We typically celebrate diversity. We’re not easily satisfied with sameness and predictability when it comes to food, flowers, plants, and, well, you get the point. But we may be picky and less amenable to variety and diversity when it comes to people. Most people I know will turn their heads and  offer opinions upon spotting a teenager with blue hair, a dozen facial piercings, and tattoos all over. Some also will look askance at a person of an ethnic origin or gender preference different from theirs in an unexpected place. People appreciate variety and expect diversity, but not necessarily in all places, times, and circumstances.

Theology is an area where rigidity is the norm, not diversity and variety. A dogmatic, orthodox definition of religion often is thought to be the only correct one, with little tolerance for any deviation from that which has been established. Some who think like this even declare that this lack of diversity and variety of understanding and opinion is God’s will. People with scrupulosity tend to think this way, not necessarily because of a deeply held theological position, but because they falsely believe a firm viewpoint will be certain, comforting,  and predictable.

Let’s contrast rigid understanding with the evidence. Is God—who created diversity and variety in plants, animals, grains, people, personalities, sunsets, climates, seasons, genes, and DNA molecules—intolerant of the diverse ways his creation understands him? Does God affirm there’s only one way to understand him, one way to experience him, one way to worship him, and that other ways are wrong, lacking, incomplete, unsatisfying, and—most importantly—heretical?

In short, no. That thinking doesn’t reflect the divine opinion or judgment of our Creator God. It lacks the creativity and energy of humanity’s experience of God. It does, however, sound like the opinions of those who have lost the ability to see the big picture, who are threatened by what they can’t control or organize, and who want to make rules for everyone else to follow so they don’t have to deal with the truth that overwhelms them. The louder the rule, the more intense they insist it be obeyed. Their rules represent and generate fear.

In truth, a diverse appreciation and understanding of theology is historically accurate and biblically based. For example, St. Paul sings the praises of Abraham. In his praise of our ancestor in faith, Paul praises a man who was quite comfortable living in the midst of diversity and many different points of view, none of which made him less of a believer in God.

In an ancient world of diversity and variety, in a world of many gods and many understandings of what God expected from his creation, Abraham recognized the presence of the One God. His profound, revealed, and foundational experience of God gave birth not to unity or sameness, which you might expect from such an awakening and encounter with the sacred, but rather even more diversity. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the three great monotheistic religions of our day—all claim Abraham as an ancestor in faith.

Unfortunately, also born was a world of violence and intolerance. Again and again, some heirs of the experience of Abraham demand the primacy and correctness of their experience and are intolerant of other faiths and beliefs.

Life is difficult. Life is challenging. Every day we’re blessed with many possibilities. We experience great joy and deep sadness. We have terrific successes and monumental failings. Hopefully, all of us are blessed and continue to be blessed with people who love us. We can gather together with friends and neighbors and enjoy the fruits of our labor. With an abundance of God’s blessings filling our lives, we have so much to be grateful for. As we express our gratitude to God for our experiences, it’s also important for us to understand and appreciate the diversity and variety we face every day.

No matter how we understand or experience God, might it not be God’s will and hope for his people—everyone—to resist the urge to demand from others that which seems to be in conflict with what God has created? Might a better stance in life be to celebrate and respect even that which we might not understand or prefer, recognizing that other ways of believing are expressions of variety and diversity? As we ponder, let’s close with this Easter prayer: “May our creative God continue to bless us this day! Amen!”

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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