“Autonomy and independence involve taking care of yourself—not doing things that diminish you.” – David Schnarch
In the previous article, I introduced a simple approach to the doctrine of Christian unity as the one doctrine among all the others which—while often ignored in an academic or apologetic sense—happens to be the one Jesus declared would give traction to his messianic claim. In this sense, the doctrine of Christian unity is one that deserves our focus and attention, perhaps even more than the other aspects of theology we tend to focus on. However, before the doctrine of unity can occupy the place Jesus intends it to occupy, we must rid ourselves of faulty perspectives. The fallacy of homogeneity is perhaps one of the strongest counterfeits to unity because it creates a cultural expectation where everyone thinks, acts, and looks generally the same. When this homogeneity is refused, a person may then be viewed as “less Adventist” or perhaps not Adventist at all. This repressive and coercive vision of unity then results, not in the attractional and spiritual “enosis” that Jesus calls us to, but a rather repulsive cultism that pushes people away from Christ.
However, distancing ourselves from homogeneity is not the only way to capture a meaningful vision of Christian unity. Once we have identified that unity functions in diversity and not in its absence, we must then understand the paradox of attachment and the divine oneness we are called to reflect. These two elements I have found to be extremely valuable in navigating unity with a secular culture.
The Paradox of Attachment
The paradox of attachment is a very simple concept. It means that as human beings we are relational creatures who were designed not simply to experience community but to attach meaning, value, and even a sense of ourselves to that community. In other words, there is something about reciprocal relational connection that we do not merely experience outside of ourselves but within ourselves. It changes who we are and through the emotional linking we experience with others, we develop and construct a mosaic of our own authentic selves.
However, there is a counterpoint that is equally true. Attachment with others only works when a person is differentiated from those others. Recall from our articles on God that differentiation is an aspect of who he is, meaning God does not derive his value, grandeur, or sense of self from us but rather he affirms his own existence independent of us while simultaneously loving us more than himself. In the same sense, no human being is healthy unless they are differentiated beings who affirm their own existence irrespective of others. What this means is that while you derive great value from reciprocal relational connections, those connections do not define the totality of who you are. To the contrary, you are valuable because you are you, not because you are in proximity to “another you”. Your value, identity, and meaning is self-affirmed. You endorse your own existence and seek no one’s permission in order to accept and love yourself as a fully conscious, consequential being. This detachment works in harmony with attachment in that while you may affirm yourself independently of others, you nevertheless love others more than yourself. This is the paradox of attachment.
The lack of balanced differentiation often leads to severe relational instabilities. For example, in his book “Passionate Marriage” American Psychologist David Schnarch demonstrates this by borrowing from his many years as a marriage therapist. Schnarch explains that in a marriage relationship a husband may derive his sense of manhood and worth from his wife’s eagerness to respond and engage sexually. When the wife does not, the man automatically feels as if his own value is being questioned or attacked (this scenario can also be gender-flipped). Over time, this can lead the husband to pressure his wife for sex which only causes more damage. Schnarch argues that one would be foolish to conclude that what the man is pursuing is mere sexual release. On the contrary, he is pursuing an affirmation of himself through his wife. Not only does this eventually wear the wife down and lead her to resent her husband but it also never really works. The man never experiences true affirmation and healing because he is emotionally dependent on someone else to provide that for him. Differentiation then is the capacity for the husband to affirm his own existence. When his wife is not in the mood for sex then, the man’s sense of value and manhood is not threatened because it does not depend on the wife. On the contrary, she is liberated from the burden of having to stroke his sense of meaning. In this scenario, with a differentiated sense of self, the husband can now loosen the pressure on his wife because his value and manhood are self-affirmed. The paradox is that in these scenarios, the husband is learning to love himself independent of his wife, while at the same time loving his wife more than himself.
Coming back to our topic of unity, the paradox of attachment is basically this: that true unity is manifested in the dance between me affirming my own value and existence while at the same time maintaining close, intimate proximity to a community of people whom I love more than my own self. What this means at a pragmatic level is that unity, from a three-dimensional perspective, far transcends agreeing with people on an ideological level. Even if we share a basic set of beliefs, true unity must then draw us into a symphonic dance that celebrates the paradox of attachment. I can love you more than I love myself, while at the same time existing within an experience of non-derived affirmation. Church, in this sense, is a community in which we are all attached to each other but likewise detached. In this sense, our relationships can be intimate and deeply defining, but without the danger of being so emotionally fused together that spiritual peer pressure, manipulation, or coercion toward a homogenous “standard” takes place. All of this can be avoided if, in our aim to be united as a community of faith, we learn to derive great meaning from one another while simultaneously refusing to surrender our conscience to others in the name of “unity” or “acceptance”. On the contrary, we learn to affirm our own experience and existence before God while being in proximity to those who may not always agree with us.
Failure to engage in this paradoxical dance often leads churches to draw thick lines that delineate who is in and who is out. A conservative church, for example, will only allow those who fit its traditionalist box to be in the “in” crowd. All others may attend but never feel like they truly fit in. In these scenarios, a guest or young person may feel pressure to abandon their autonomy and independence and instead, engage in patterns that Schnarch suggests “diminish you” as a person – all in an effort to be accepted and loved.
The same can happen in a contemporary “cool” church where only guys with tattoos and beards, or girls in boho fashion, actually feel like they belong. These scenarios are about much more than mere styles or fashions. They are about uniformity, homogeneity, and the refusal to engage in paradoxical attachment. Naturally, we humans want to be attached to the people around us and derive our value from them, so we engineer an environment where the kind of people we can derive the most value from (those we deem “cool” or “acceptable”) are drawn in, while the kinds of people we derive little to no value from, are filtered out. To borrow from Schnarch once more, this kind of conduct is what he refers to as “borrowed functioning” – a state of being in which we “borrow” our sense of self from those around us. This, of course, means that the people around us must always be the kind of people we can borrow from. If I cannot borrow my functioning from you, then why be around you?
While this kind of conduct may be expected in non-faith environments, the church itself, I contend, must transcend this because it is rooted in the ontological character of God’s agape love. Our communities, therefore, ought to be trans-carnal communities where believers derive value from their own selves – or more accurately from their own selves in relation to God – while simultaneously loving others more than themselves. This kind of milieu is what can truly give birth to an intergenerational, multicultural fellowship because, in the paradoxical dance, I learn to see those different from me as beautiful beings whom I love more than my own self and abandon the need to borrow meaning, value or function from them. However, in the absence of this paradoxical dance, I will always gravitate only toward those people from whom I perceive I can borrow my value and meaning in life. This leads to toxic cliques and exclusivist environments where those odd, socially awkward people from whom we seldom derive meaning, are easily ignored. Likewise, it fuels generational tensions because younger generations do not see the older generations as people they can derive value from and vice versa. Multiculturalism also suffers because those people from that country with those odd backgrounds and customs are just not “my kind of people”. This is code for “I don’t get anything out of being around you.”
Embracing the paradox of attachment as an element of true Christian unity not only nurtures an environment of multi-cultural and intergenerational intimacy but also what I have historically referred to as “poly-expressional”. By poly-expressional what is meant is “many (poly) expressions”. Every culture has a cacophony of subcultures each expressing themselves in such divergent ways that seldom do subcultures ever engage in crossovers. The geeks hang out with the geeks. The jocks with the jocks. And the emo’s with the emo’s. In churches, this often means that the dominant subculture of teens will automatically exclude any subcultural expression that doesn’t harmonize with it. For example, in a church with upper-class preppy kids, an emo kid may never feel accepted. Likewise, in a church with academic professionals, a blue-collar construction worker may always feel out of place. But if the paradox of attachment is explored in these scenarios, teens, and adults will learn to derive meaning from their own value in God as opposed to their social contacts. This then liberates them to spend time with people whom they would normally assume they cannot derive meaning from. Because their desire for value has been satisfied in Christ, they can now pour love into those whose expressions they would normally find alienating. This, in turn, gives birth to poly-expressional church environments where the geek is loved unconditionally, even if the rest of the youth ministry is composed of sports enthusiasts. Likewise, the lawyers and doctors do not attach their meaning and value exclusively to other lawyers and doctors, but can unconditionally welcome the truck driver as one of their own.
In short, the paradox of attachment is a relational environment in which the people are attached and detached from one another at the same time, fueling an unconditionally accepting environment for all people. Rather than borrowing value from one another, we receive it from Christ and in turn, begin to see people as inherently worth loving irrespective of what they can offer our egos. It is my personal belief that this is the true grounds for an inclusive culture – one in which people experience attachment and detachment from one another at the same time.
The Divine Oneness Reflected
This experience, in turn, gives birth to what I believe true unity is meant to reflect. Jesus said it best in his prayer for the church’s unity when he said, “that all of them may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:21)
This text then births the question – to what degree are Jesus and God one? For Adventists the answer is very clear, Jesus and God are one, but not to the degree that one is absorbed within the other. Jesus is not the Father. The Father is not Jesus. And the Holy Spirit is a distinct personality within the Godhead as well. So they are one, but they retain their individualities and authentic selves within the experience of oneness. And I believe this singular-plurality sets the foundation for what true unity looks like in the church. It is not something that can be mandated or coerced, and likewise, a church in which everyone looks, thinks, and acts the same – where the individual persona of each member is absorbed into a kind of ethereal code – is not true unity anyhow. To the contrary, this homogenous, hyper-attached vision of unity is more in harmony with eastern Hindu metaphysics where all beings proceed from the universal oneness and whose individuality is ultimately deleted and reabsorbed into that oneness than with the biblical vision of eternal community in God in which oneness exists in harmony with otherness.
Therefore, in an ultimate sense, it is this conceptual dance between oneness and otherness that establishes a vision of unity that is diverse, differentiated, and biblical as opposed to uniform, coercive, and erroneous. If, as a church, we aim to nurture a culture of oneness and otherness, unity in diversity, and individuality in attachment we will manifest a way of being in and among that is not merely attractive and meaningful, but one which affirms the messianic claims of Jesus as undoubtedly true.