A Review of
Uncommon Unity: Wisdom for the Church in an Age of Division
Reviewed by Karen Altergott Roberts
This is a volume of orthodoxy and optimism, two qualities not often combined in contemporary theology. This book seems to take a strong stance: we do have a core Christianity in common. This commonality is among all who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ and the three-in-Oneness of God. The unity referred to in the title is the basic acceptance of the gospel. Agreements across “diverse interpretations of the gospel” can be celebrated once wisdom reconciles us. Renouncing self-righteousness and leaning into the wisdom of the gospel will hopefully allow us to be comfortable with diversity.
Christianity’s early movement into the multicultural world outside the Jewish realm initiated the practices required for unity. Diversity and democracy set the stage. Today, the global culture makes us aware of the shrinking areas of agreement within humanity. Accepting our enormous diversity, Lints still believes in reconciliation and the potential for inclusiveness.
Countervailing forces, such as the exclusion narratives, the realities of our diverse immigrants, disparate moral frameworks, and secularization, all challenge any sense of unity within the U.S. context. The late 20th century saw a rise in cultural fairness as defined by the “shared beliefs with secular people.” This omits reference to any religious principles whatsoever, which could suggest an assumption of disunity.
Lints challenges readers to accept the strengths of the inclusion narratives of democracy and the gospel’s inclusion narrative. Yet, he too questions whether Christianity in its highly diversified faith map can be a unifying force at all. He points to the rapid multiplication of Protestantisms, including several varieties of evangelicalism. Yet, historical analysis, interpretation of Genesis, human capacities for creativity and meaning, and social and personal histories set the stage for his deep hope for unity across all our brokenness.
Jesus was born in a world of empires and pluralisms. Diversity was expressed in the four gospels and the variety of writings that coexisted from the beginning. Lints reviews scriptural accounts of redemptive history, marriage, and the Trinity in order to help us understand unity in diversity. Leaping forward in history to what he considers the divisive nature of denominationalism (preceded of course by the schisms of 1054 and 1517), he addresses diversity and unity in the church.
Empires, variations in authority structure, different versions and canonizations of sacred texts, varieties of confessions of faith, theologies, and denominations, and the autonomy of some congregations all provided strong movement against unity. Lints himself is dismissive toward some recent aspects of the movement toward unity, such as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. He implies that their ‘flattening’ of differences and sociopolitical convictions hindered rather than assisted in the attempt to find unity in Christ.
So, you may now understand why it is difficult to accept what I thought would be the main thrust of the book – the idea that unity in the age of division is possible.
Is missional unity the source of uncommon unity? Not really considering the fact that mission is and ought to be contextualized. Can taking a strong stance unite churches? No. Neither can separation. The Christian right became a political entity and split. The author, searching for a Protestant denomination with a ‘theology of collaboration’ comes up with nothing but the networks of churches sharing the concept of evangelization. Lints both acknowledges and laments that local churches have become singular communities of friends in homogeneous clumpings. Given that, since he later says that “principled and pluralistic” forms are the “only option available to us against oppression or anarchy” (198), and these aren’t to be found, what hope is there for unity?
We have lost our unifying message and practices. We insist on individualism in our beliefs. The globe seems to spin on an axis of secularism and technology, leading to tribalism. Diverse interpretations of the Bible don’t really help, yet Lints asserts an “alternative reality” or a potential reweaving one “great big story” from the entire Bible (217). Acknowledging at last that “different communities will read the Scriptures in different ways,” (231) whether it matters or not, and messiness is inescapable, is the solution to be found in the final chapter?
Here, we turn to Wisdom. It seems that wisdom is the answer to the puzzle. Yet I remain puzzled. We need wisdom to discern which differences make a difference, given the enormous diversity in the sacred conversations that are going on today. This is the gist of the wisdom we need, according to Lints; We are humans, not God, and learning God’s patterns will help us. Right now, the world is not right. Wisdom adapts to different contexts; a wise person “pivots as circumstances change. Wisdom can be learned and will help us sort out the differences. He goes on,
“The wisdom we need is the gospel. Add the democratic impulse, take away self-righteousness, to reconcile with those that differ with us, and discern between an individual’s voice and the voice of the church. Then you may have hope of accessing wisdom. It may also be found in others. The bearers of wisdom are likely to be older, having had suffered, and may not be the smartest, wealthiest, or most powerful, but when we bump into them, ‘our hearts are strangely warmed’”(252).
Scholarly research was diligently reviewed and analyzed by Lints throughout his work. Many search for an ‘uncommon unity of faith,’ and in different ways. This book shows one author’s struggle toward wisdom. The truest news provided is “This sort of wisdom is aspirational in nature.” We must work for unity as we live but wait until the other side of the grave to know what it is.
Karen Altergott Roberts
Karen Altergott Roberts has been a faculty member at several midwestern universities, a pastor in Indiana, and a writer. She writes on social issues, teaches public speaking, and paints as a spiritual discipline.