21 June 2010

Reality is Diverse

to be nobody but yourself -
in a world which is doing its best,
night and day,
to make you everybody else -
means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight .
never stop fighting.

e.e. cummings

It is really just in the last generation that we've become aware of how diverse was the world of Christianity in the 3 to 4 centuries after Christ's death. The Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi Library, among other finds, have revealed various gospels and epistles that never made it into what we know as the Bible. Most of these were obviously not written by any of Christ's original disciples or by Paul and for this reason alone were omitted from inclusion in the approved canon. (But it is worth noting that most serious scholars today think that other forgeries did make it in. For instance, 2 Timothy seems to have been written in the second century after Christ and most certainly not by Paul.)

In the fourth century, the canon was defined and various and competing ideas about Christ were consolidated into a (mostly and sort of) uniform view in the form of the Bible. Soon, the church that owned this "true" view even used torture and death to enforce this pure view. Most people look at the Inquisition as evil but I think that the evil originated when the church decided that God could not tolerate diversity of thought and sought to make uniform the theology and teachings that professed to represent his views. Surely God loves uniformity. This might seem reasonable. It does not seem to be backed up by evidence.

This notion that God's will obviously tends towards the uniform does, I think, miss an important suggestion from nature. (I say suggestion because it may or may not be a "lesson.") Nature suggests that the creator loves diversity. There are about 1.75 million species on the planet. Some have bones and some do not. Some breath under water and some drown in water. Some walk around and some are rooted. Some are really cute and some are hideous. Some are peaceful and some are dangerous. Some are huge and some are too small to see. It's not obvious that you can draw many conclusions from nature other than the fact that nature loves diversity. The life form that works depends on so many things that one would be at a loss to predict them all in advance. Diversity, it seems to me, is the lesson of nature.

As communities become more developed and free, a similar thing seems to happen with the human population. That is, diversity seems to spring up. We have goths and hippies, the driven and the laid back, the flirtatious and the prudes, the athletic and the slothful, the intellectuals and the disinterested. The list goes on. It may well be that we have something akin to 1.75 million species of humans.

Ultimately, the Church was forced to use force to try to squelch this great diversity of people. To this day, Protestant churches reject Catholicism but tend to accept the central claim that diversity is wrong (although the diversity of ways that they reject the notion of allowing diversity does, itself, create a fair bit of diversity, from Mormons to Baptists to Presbyterians to Anglicans to Jehovah's Witnesses, to ...). It could be that they are right. It could be. But then how to explain the motives of the creative force behind the massive diversity of nature? And how to explain how attempts to make human life all one way led to one of the Darkest and most violent periods of history when the Church largely ruled the West between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of the modern, secular nation-state?

The more I look across time and communities, the more convinced I am that one of the simplest measures of advancement is how many kinds of people can make their place in the world. It seems to me that diversity is not just a wonderful thing in nature - it works in communities too. And that suggests to me that the Church's attempt to go against this trend meant it was destined to become evil. Next time someone says that they know what is best, ask for who. Some things that make people feel alive really are universal: oxygen, for instance. Other things that make people feel alive really are true for just a minority of folks: live jazz, for instance. Reality is diverse. Any explanation of it ought to accommodate rather than deny this, it seems to me.