Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Want a more united church? Make some friends.

This is the tenth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

This blog is the latest in a long series of posts discussing the problem of unity in The United Methodist Church. How do we stay together and stay talking to and working with each other when we’re so divided by theology, politics, race, ethnicity, class, culture, and a whole host of other characteristics? I think figuring out how to balance diversity and unity or diversity and cooperation is one of the foremost challenges of the church and the world.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us offers an answer to the problem of disunity. Putnam is worried about social disunity. As a political scientist, he’s worried about Americans becoming divided and atomized in ways that cause the civic arena to suffer.

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell set out to answer a question: How are Americans able to be so religiously devout and religiously diverse, while avoiding large-scale religious conflict? Sure, there are tensions around religion, as reflected in many of the culture war issues. But religion is not the source of violence in this country in the way it is in many places around the world. Putnam and Campbell set out to figure out why.

The main answer that they provide is that we’re able to tolerate religious diversity despite being serious about religion because we know people of other religious backgrounds who are part of our friends and our family. Putnam and Campbell talk about “Aunt Sue” and “My Pal Al,” both of whom are hypothetical people of other religious traditions who are nonetheless good people and important parts of our social networks. Because we’re willing to accept Sue and Al, we’re more willing to accept people of other religious convictions in general.

Thus, it turns out that the solution to the problem of balancing diversity and cooperation may be simple: making friends. If you want the church to be more united, make friends with someone who understands the church differently than you do. If you want the world to be a better, more tolerant place, make friends with someone who is not exactly like you.

This finding of Putnam and Campbell’s is entirely consistent with the aggregate model of unity I have been discussing. I noted the importance of bridge-builders in this model. Another way of thinking about bridge-builders might be to see them as those with a diverse set of friends.

Of course, friendships work better when people have something in common, but friends need not have everything in common. Indeed, it may be a good source of personal and spiritual growth to learn from a friend who is different from you, in addition to facilitating unity.

This prescription to make friends also highlights one of the dangers of contemporary American society. As algorithmic newsfeeds, niche marketing, exclusive neighborhoods, and social sorting of all sorts proliferate, it becomes ever more possible for us to be friends only with those who are already like us.

There is a real danger in this, as well as a loss. The loss is a personal one, that we may miss out on knowing wonderful people who nonetheless differ from us in some regards and that we may miss out on learning from them.

The danger is religious, social, and political – that if we do not learn to get along with others who are different from us as friends, it will make it more difficult for us to get along with them as neighbors, co-workers, fellow association members, fellow citizens, and ultimately as fellow Christians.

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