On Why Unity Requires Distinction.

This post is my contribution to the Rally To Restore Unity hosted by Rachel Held Evans.


When we say that God is ‘one’, what do we mean? Do we mean that God is ‘one’ in the same sense that I have one wife? Is God’s oneness a countable oneness? In light of the New Testament revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when we come to speak of God’s oneness we must do so trinitarianly. To be sure, God is one, but this oneness is not a countable oneness. There is unity in God, yes, but this unity does not result from the fact that God is a simple monad. Rather, God’s oneness, His unity, is the sort of unity that results from a “being in communion” (to borrow a phrase from John Zizioulas).

The theological term for this is perichoresis. Now, while this is a somewhat difficult term to understand I would suggest that it is an important one for our discussion here among folks seeking to “restore unity”. The term is used to describe the sort of relation that we find in God (in light of the Trinity). To use technical language for a moment, it’s a way of showing the ontological interdependence and reciprocity of the three persons of the Trinity (a phrase borrowed from Colin Gunton). This is simply a fancy way of saying that God’s ontology, that which makes God what He is and no other thing, his “being” if you will, is fundamentally a being that consists of an interdependent and reciprocal relationship between three distinct persons.

Phew! OK, now that we got that out of the way perhaps you’re left wondering what all of this has to do with a desire to restore unity. Well, I would argue that if this really is what God is like, if God is a fundamentally relational being, and if it’s also true that God made all things that are not Himself, then it’s no stretch of the imagination to suppose that the created order, human creatures specifically (we are made in His image after all), are some sort of perichoretic beings also. This is important for a few reasons.

1) Unity is not the same thing as homogeneity. This is important to note because in our modern Western culture the two are often confused. We live in a society which values egalitarianism. Everyone is equal! Now, while there is certainly a lot of truth to this it can become problematic for the Christian who wants to maintain that creation bears a resemblance to the triune God. The problem, at least one of the problems, of homogeneity is that the distinctive individuality of persons and things is endangered. There is a sense within this sort of egalitarianism in which each person loses it’s substance, that which makes it what it is and no other thing. I, Jonathan Turtle, am who I am by virtue of a particular substantiality which has been bestowed upon me. This means that I can be myself and no one else. Another way of saying this is that I am a particular person. You are a particular person. Therefore, any sort of regime or “coalition” which seeks unity at the price of particularity is oppressive and offensive.

2) However, while we want to talk of a unity that allows for the particularity of persons (against a homogeneity in which particularity is lost) we want to talk about this particularity in such a way as to avoid another modern pitfall, namely, individualism. I am a particular person, yes, but I am not a particular person alone. There are three distinct persons within the Trinity, but it is vital to understand that these distinct persons receive their particularity in relation. Each of the persons is what they are by virtue of, not in conflict with, their relation with the other persons. The Father is what He is by virtue of the reciprocal giving and receiving which He participates in with the Son etc. Each of the Divine persons constitutes the particularity of the other. So then, in the same way, the particularity of human creatures is bestowed upon them by virtue of their relation with others. I am what I am by virtue of my relationship, not only with God, but with other human persons. We make one another what we are as we participate in a life of giving and receiving. In relation we constitute one another’s particularity.

3) This is important for our discussion regarding unity because true unity not only respects the other but actually helps to constitute the others “otherness” by virtue of being in relation. This is why Paul’s understanding of the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 is so important for how we are to understand community in light of the Trinity, for it implies a richness and variety rather than homogeneity.

God is what He is only as a community of distinct persons. Therefore, the particularity of created beings is established by the particularity at the heart of God’s own being. This particularity-in-relation challenges and subverts the modern tendency towards homogeneity by giving space to each person and thing to be itself and not another person or thing. The problem with a Christian “unity” that seeks to make us all alike by believing exactly the same things in exactly the same fashion is that it fails to respect the particularity of persons. It’s not a real unity, it is coercive and divisive. So, when we form “coalitions” with friends of ours who all believe the same things in the same way, while this may appear as “unity” it is anything but because the particularity of persons is collapsed into a boring homogenous monad. This is why prematurely bidding brothers and sisters “farewell” is not just an affront to unity, it is an affront to the very God in whose image we are made.

I may disagree with you but I will refuse to coercively force you to agree with me. And, if in the end we disagree, then that’s OK, there is space for that. There must be space for that for unity is not homogeneity but is distinction in relation. The “distinction” bit is important. This must be the path we chose. We must chose to give space to persons to be what they distinctively are and not another person (Lord knows we don’t want a million Jonathan Turtles roaming the earth). We are what we are in distinction from other persons and things by virtue of the relation that we have with our creator and with each other. So then, truly, unity requires distinction.

  1. Meg said:

    Aren’t you supposed to have a funny picture to go along with this… 🙂

    • jt* said:

      Ha! I’d love one. Any suggestions?

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