Diversity is humanity's greatest gift but also greatest challenge

Posted: Friday, October 06, 2006

Being human can be tough, and I suspect that at least a billion other humans would agree. We are a very clever species, but that may be the problem - we seem overqualified for the challenges we face. We have little trouble making mountains out of molehills, which makes life difficult not just for ourselves, but for others as well.

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In graduate school back in the early 80's, a professor of philosophy named Jim Hamby taught me that there were only two questions in philosophy. The first was: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" And if that's not enough to make your brain itch, he posed this one: "How is the One related to the Many?" This article is about this second question, which relates to the challenges of unity and diversity, and reflects the ideal printed on our currency: e pluribus unum, or "out of many, one." Confusion about the One and the Many is a big reason being human can be so tough.

The One and the Many are ever in our world. Within us, many atoms, cells, and organs unite to form the one human being we are. And around us are many more atoms, swirled into rocks, plants and animals, forming planets, black holes, and galaxies. All together we consider this vast diversity of the many things within us and around us as one thing, a uni-verse.

Being human is hard because we cannot be human alone. In 1992, Kurt Vonnegut expressed this wonderfully in a speech he gave at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Vonnegut said that every argument is simply one person screaming at another, "Why can't you be more people?" Vonnegut's speech came soon after the L.A. riots, and echoed Rodney King's plaintive cry, "People, I just want to say, can we, can we all just get along?" Unity and diversity, the One and the Many; it's not a question we can easily, or safely, ignore.

So why pry into philosophical mysteries when there are meals to prepare and bills to pay? For me, I pry partly because as a pastor I busy myself about such questions in behalf of the faith community I serve. Faith communities are communities because they choose to come together to pursue common values like peace and justice. They are faith communities because they believe that the way to such a life lies in a power beyond themselves. For many of faith, that power is God.

The most important reason to delve into the mystery of the One and the Many is to remind ourselves that such questions are indeed mysteries. Too many of us, both in the U.S. and abroad, confuse faith with certainty, and turn to religious fundamentalism as the answer to social turmoil and private fear. When faith becomes certainty, humility becomes arrogance, and violence becomes justified. To put it plainly, when any one faith believes it has a monopoly on the truth, bad things happen.

A lively unity protects diversity. This season, we have a great opportunity to give up our quest for certainty, and embrace the mystery of the One and the Many. The earth's three largest monotheistic faiths - Islam, Judaism, and Christianity - are each celebrating an important religious event. For Muslims, the fast of Ramadan began on September 23. On September 22, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, began at sunset. And on October 1, many Christians will celebrate World Communion Sunday. The near congruence of these dates comes every thirty years, and there is no better time for all faiths to contemplate a unity that transcends all the diversity in our world. We cannot be certain what this unity should be, but we can be certain that humanity has not yet solved this great mystery. Diversity, I believe, is God's gift; what a holiday it would be if every human being could celebrate this Many as One.

• Jesse Perry is the pastor at Northern Light United Church.

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