The Theology of Difference
by Thandazani Mhlanga | 1 February 2022 |
Since the completion of the human genome project in April of 2003, scientists have, in their own way, been spiritually in awe of the wonder and beauty of life.
Physicist Riccardo Sabatini captured this wonder in his 2016 TED Talk with this illustration: that the genetic code for one human being would occupy some “262,000 pages, or 175 large books.” But of the 262,000 pages, added Sabatini, “just about 500 pages would be unique to any individual.”
In other words, we are genetically more similar than different.
It is astonishing and somewhat confusing. If all living things are genetically nearly identical, how can they be so different? If I am 99.9% genetically the same as you, why am I also so different in so many ways?
Different by Design
In Genesis, the book of beginnings, we are told that difference is a part of the Creator’s original intent. In the creation of the universe the Creator made all things different. In many species God made not just unique differences within the species, but also divided us into genders.
The differences are Divinely intended and are good—a reflection of God’s essence. After a week of creating ordered diversity God declared all of creation “very good (Genesis 1:31).”
Diversity is God’s signature of love on creation. It’s no wonder, then, that the enemy of everything that is good is on a mission to weaponize our differences against each other. Sad to say, the enemy has been quite successful in this endeavor. A disturbingly significant number of our conflicts are rooted solely in our differences.
Religion is one such area of contention. It seems like in the DNA of every religion is the idea that we are right and all others are wrong. This arrogant self-righteousness is at play in every religious conflict, from the wars in the Old Testament, to the Crusades, to the Northern Ireland conflict, to the endless conflicts today in the name of innumerable faiths in every part of the globe.
If, as I’ve argued, diversity is part of God’s original good creation, could it be that differing religious systems are also a reflection of the Creator’s essence? After all, the source of most religions is a complex social construct of a culture’s search for the Transcendent.
Religion exists because faith exists. That people crave spiritual things is proof to me of the presence of an Omniscient One. Could the differences in our religious practices be a reflection of the course each people group has taken in their pursuit of Transcendence?
Christian missiology should not be only about teaching others. It should also be about learning from them, and incorporating our stories into the others’ stories, so we can all be better for it. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 is about making disciples and friends, not producing converts as though it were a religious assembly line. The best disciple-making model was, and remains, Jesus’ gracious interaction with all people from all walks of life.
How easy it is for most of us to identify what we find wrong with other religions, instead of learning from the spiritual strengths of those faiths!
Take, for example, the three largest monotheistic religions in the world. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all trace their origin to Abraham. On that common foundation these three faiths have built three different religious ideologies that are, in spite of their common root, historically hostile to each other. Each group is quick to point out the wrongs of the others before appreciating the picture of God the others have constructed.
Yet is it possible that each has a vital contribution to the story of God? Could it be that this diversity of our monotheistic faiths is of Divine origin, but (like our physical and cultural differences) it has been weaponized by the enemy?
The Meaning of Babel
The tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is the go-to story for those who see diversity as a threat to Godlikeness. The story, simplified, says that humanity didn’t trust God, so they built a tower to save themselves. God responded by confusing their languages, creating in that moment all the languages spoken to date. In this telling, diversity isn’t a gift, but a curse, a way to keep humanity under control by dividing us from one another.
But let us consider the story of Babel in its larger biblical and historical context.
The book of Genesis often tells the same story in different ways. Sometimes the stories appear almost to contradict each other—for example, the differing creation stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. We who are heirs to the Greek philosophical thought process, where things must be either one way or another, find this confusing. But seeming contradictions are acceptable in Jewish thought, which is why, for example, Jesus can both be the lion and the lamb.
Genesis 10 and Genesis 11 also tell the same story in different ways. Genesis 11 is set in ancient Mesopotamia, which was, arguably, the birthplace of the idea of empire. Empires grew through brutal subjection of the defeated to the conqueror’s culture and authority, which is something the Israelites understood well from their time in Egypt. The construction of ziggurats, tall temple towers whose purpose was to bring the worshipers closer to the heavens, was commonplace, and emphasized imperial power.
While Genesis 10 describes the natural growth and spread of the human family with their 70+ languages (Genesis 10:5,20,31), Genesis 11 describes the same situation through the philosophy of empire: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” (Genesis 11:1).
What we find in Genesis 11 is what Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin called “the idea of totalitarianism,” a type of imposed uniformity that doesn’t reflect God’s desired ordered diversity.
God addressed the idea of empire in Genesis 11 by implementing His original plan. He dissolves empire in order to restore diversity. The result is a world of different cultures, and different faiths, in different lands.
Genesis 11, far from being a curse, is an act of undeserved grace like that offered to Cain (Genesis 4:15) and to Noah (Genesis 6:8). It is God stepping in to save humanity from ourselves by taking us back to the Genesis 10 ideal of difference and diversity.
There are things in this world that are sacred and ought to be treated accordingly. Knowing what is sacred and what is not helps us navigate everyday living. Marriage, family, and time are sacred, and knowing this guides our everyday choices and keeps us focused as genuine ambassadors of God’s Kingdom.
I believe that diversity and difference is also sacred, and embracing that will change our families, churches, businesses, and communities. And, as I’ve argued here, I believe that includes the diversity of our many ways of understanding, talking about and worshiping the Transcendent, by whatever name we call it.
Every time we appreciate diversity in all these ways, we are practicing God-likeness.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have been blessed with three beautiful girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.