Guest post by Dr. Matthew Tan.
Someone once told me that in order to be Catholic, one had better conform.
Maybe he was not aware of it, but implicit in that argument was the idea that salvation is dependent upon sameness. Moreover — and again, he may not have been aware of it — there was the insistence that one had better be the same as him in order to be saved.
It must be remembered that there is one path to salvation, which is the incorporation of a person into the Body of Christ. Be that as it may, does incorporation and conformity to Christ mean a standardized conveyor belt leading from the threshold of our earthly city towards the gates of the City of God?
Now, most might instinctively know the answer to be no, but the question then is “why?” Are we just falling back on the liberal call to preserve our individual autonomy, saying “Jesus is Lord” while simultaneously singing Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life”? We can turn to three sources to answer this question, namely Scripture, Philosophy and Sociology.
First to Scripture. The Apostle Paul makes no bones about the uniqueness of Christ as the path to salvation. He takes seriously Jesus’ claim that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6), that is through the Body of Christ. At the same time, however, in the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul also says that the body of Christ is one of many different parts. Moreover, these parts have an indispensable relationship to one another in their functioning. Paul says in his letter (14-21):
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.
And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.
If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?
But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
It is not as if the parts can then relativistically “do their own thing”, since all of them exist to together serve a single higher purpose. That higher purpose is the functioning of a body, which is much more than the sum of its parts. Be that as it may, the way in which this purpose is served by that part may legitimately differ.
This affirmation of difference as a precondition of common flourishing is also recognized in the philosophical and sociological literature.
Aristotle, for instance, once said that “the city is composed of different kinds of men” and that “similar people cannot bring the city into existence”.
Riffing of that line, the sociologist Richard Sennett also noted in his book Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, that a lamentable side effect of modern life has seriously eroded the ability of people to communicate generally. This side effect is the inability of people to deal with those who are unlike themselves.
The project of modernity, which finds its prime manifestation in the state and market, seeks unity through sameness, and tries to expunge any appreciation of difference. Postmodernity has further intensified the inability to live with difference, by shifting the standard of what is “normal” from the level of the group, to the level of the atomised individual. In other words, harmony can only exist when everyone becomes like “me”. In an increasingly securitizzed environment, the pressure to conform is even further applied, since difference is now regarded as an existential threat.
If Aristotle is correct, the continued survival of our cities must be predicated on a new basis on which to deal with difference. Christians, moving as a Church towards the heavenly city, are not exempt from this task.
In rightly affirming the unique path to salvation in Jesus Christ and His body, the Christian must also be careful of the modern tendency to equate that with the same path to salvation in Jesus Christ and His body.
This task does not mean the cheap grace of “tolerance” often called for by advocates of particular lifestyles and cultures (my friend Kristen Johnson has literally written the book on this). Tolerance plasters over differences rather than further the craft of engaging them. For the Christian, it means two things.
The first is resisting the temptation to say that faithful discipleship or the extension of the Body of Christ can only be predicated on making everyone the same or by eliminating any trace of difference where it does not count (indeed, if faithful Christian discipleship really does involve the rejection of Modernity, it must involve also the rejection of unity via sameness).
More positively, the second thing is recognizing that Christians can make a unique contribution to the City of Man on the matter of engagement with difference because of their belonging to the City of God, not in spite of it. The liturgical traditions of both East and West, the manifold charisms present in an ecosystem of orders, congregations and ecclesial communities, these altogether make up the singular path of salvation in Jesus Christ.
We need to delve into those traditions and charisms, not to hermetically seal ourselves from others, but as a precondition of opening ourselves up and better appreciating that which is not ourselves, and to perceive in that difference flecks of the same Divine light which shines through the darkness.
Dr. Matthew Tan is a Sydney-based theologian, blogger and author. He was born in Singapore and has lived in Australia, Europe and the United States. After completing undergraduate studies in Law and Arts (majoring in International Relations and History), Matthew went on to complete his Doctorate in Theology at the Australian Catholic University. He then became a Russell Berrie Fellow in Inter-religious Dialogue, where he received his License in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Matthew now works in the Archdiocese of Sydney, and is an adjunct Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia.