The harmony of cultural diversity
May 5, 2017
Our founding fathers gave us a wonderful gift: a nation that is united, yet separate. Our nation is made up of 50 individual states. Each has its own personality and government. They are unique individuals, yet they are connected by a transcendent entity that is America.
Being in Christ is similar to this. We are individuals, yet we are a part of something bigger. Each individual is a part of the Church, which is a transcendent entity, which unites us with people from all over the world.
It is this unity in diversity that makes the church truly unique. God unites us at a much deeper level than the things we hold in common. He unites us at a transcendent level. Unfortunately, we tend to work against God’s plan of unity, and we work for uniformity.
In Genesis 11, we find the account of the City of Babel. The people of earth, who all spoke one language, said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (vs. 4). The people of Babel sought to make a name for themselves and to unify, so that they would not be separated. To accomplish this, they began building a unified society, complete with a city wall to keep them separated from those that would hold contrary views, and a unified religious system. They sought to bring unity through uniformity. If the entire city thought the same way, acted the same way, and believed the same things, they would be truly united. However, they would only be united because the people would lose their individuality. They would cease being unique. God abhorred this, so He “confuse[d] their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (vs. 7), and He “scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth” (vs. 8).
The parallels between the story of Babel and Pentecost (the birth of the Church) are truly remarkable. The story begins by saying, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). Being together in one place sounds like Babel. In fact, over the first two chapters of the book of Acts, there are no less than eight references to the people “being together,” or “being of one mind” (1:14). God had brought together “men from every nation under heaven” (2:5), and when the disciples “began to speak with other tongues” (2:4), the crowed “was hearing them speak in [their] own language” (2:6). It seemed that the world had been reunited. At first glance, it seems that God was working to reverse what He did at Babel. He was bringing the scattered world together in Jerusalem, and He was bridging the communication gap created at Babel.
However, there was something much more beautiful taking place. God was not reversing what He had done at Babel, He was showing us what His plan for unity had been all along. He wanted the world united by something much deeper than cultural, political, social and even religious uniformity. He wanted them united by something that would transcend all cultures – Himself.
Pentecost overcomes the confusion and the scattering of Babel but “it does so,” says Miroslav Volf, “not by reverting to the unity of cultural uniformity, but by advancing toward the harmony of cultural diversity.” Babel sought to build a tower at the center that would control the entire circumference of the city. All of humanity would be controlled by one central government. There would be one culture, and one belief system. However, the tower of uniformity was replaced when the Spirit “filled all” of the believers. Thus, the transcendent Spirit, now indwelt man, and He could unite man from the inside out. He could unite without losing the individuality. At that moment, the world was united by something much deeper, and by something more profound, than cultural uniformity. The world could now be united by something that transcended culture, beliefs, borders, and even languages. It could be united by the Holy Spirit.
That truth creates two haunting questions. 1) What is it that unites us? 2) What are we building?
What is it that unites the church? Are we united by our culture, our traditions, our desire for a specific style of worship, or even for a specific doctrine? Or, are we united by something that transcends all of that – something that rises above all of those peripheral issues? Are we united by the American flag, or the Christian flag?
What is it that we are building? Are we building a city with walls that will keep certain people out? And I am not referencing immigration. Or, are we building a kingdom consisting of people from every tribe, tongue and nation?
If we are united under the American flag first, we will always find ourselves pushing others away. However, if we are united by the Holy Spirit, we will have our arms wide open. We will be ready to embrace whoever God sends our way.