Unity vs. Uniformity

I just finished reading Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope, by Christian Salenson (aspects of which I’ve already written about here and here). When my friend Richard gave me the book, he described it as transformative, and that is no understatement.

Salenson’s book is “intended as an introduction to Christian de Cherge’s theology of ‘religious encounter,'” particularly the encounter between Christianity and Islam. Salenson uses the term “theology of religious encounter” rather than “theology of religions” to underscore de Cherge’s understanding that “it is a matter not solely of considering Islam from the point of view of Christian faith but also of how this encounter allows Christian faith to be deepened.”

De Cherge was not an academic theologian. His thoughts were born of his lived monastic experience in Algeria during a time of tremendous conflict and are shared not in books or academic journals, but in his homilies, chapter talks, supplemented by a few retreat and lectures.

There is much in de Cherge’s thought as reflected in Salenson’s book that will impact my prayer and reflection. Let me share here two related observations of de Cherge, which I think are so necessary for us to keep in mind in the pluralist world in which we live: “seeing things differently does not mean that one is not seeing the same things,” and “speaking otherwise of God is not speaking of another God.”

De Cherge understood that we are all united in having our source on the oneness of God. We may pray differently, we may call God by different names, we may have different conceptions or ways of talking about God.

But those differences do not change the reality that there is not a Christian God, a Muslim God, a Jewish God – but only God, the one God from whom we flow and the one God who constantly calls each of us to union with God and each other.

De Cherge takes this further, saying something else we might also profitably reflect on. “Could we not imagine that the difference which identifies someone as belonging to Christianity or Islam is rooted in the One God from which it proceeds?” That is, not only our unity has its origin in God, but so too do our differences.

If we can see that, then we can more easily understand the difference between unity and uniformity. Our quest is not for (in Salenson’s words) “a uniformity that is merely a caricature of unity,” but rather an understanding that difference itself “is a sacrament of unity to God.”