November 11, 2019

A Reflection on Unity and Disunity

I recently wrote an essay entitled “What Catholics Can Learn From Buddhists.” A reader responded by stating that Jesus is his “everything,” the “servants of Satan” aim to mislead us, “love and truth” lead to unity whereas  falsehood leads to disunity, and thus Buddhists have nothing of value to offer Catholics. That was essentially it. He did not comment on the specific facts I presented or my comments on their relevance.

At first thought, the disunity between this writer and that reader seems total, the gap between our positions unbridgeable. Yet here, as in so many other cases of seemingly irreconcilable differences, there are actually areas of agreement. For example, we agree that unity is good and disunity bad, that there is evil in the world and that some people perpetrate it, and that falsehood is a serious obstacle to unity.

If these areas of agreement exist between the author and the reader, where does the disagreement arise? And how exactly does it obstruct a meeting of our minds?

The core of the disagreement seems to be that I believe we can learn from those whose beliefs differ from ours and my reader does not, at least in the matter of religion. 

By learning from others I mean understanding not only what others believe, but how they believe it. That is, whether the belief is closed to any modification or open to new or deeper insights. The closed perspective is not unusual. It can take different forms. It can be triumphant and judgmental—“My beliefs are true, those that differ from mine are false, and those that hold them are therefore agents of Satan.” Or it can be politely assertive: “My beliefs are very personal and I cherish them, but I don’t impose them on others and I hope they treat me the same way.”

The open perspective can also take different forms. For example, lukewarm and wide open to change: “I’ve changed my beliefs many times and may believe differently tomorrow than I do today.” Or firm but humble: “My beliefs are strong, but I realize that they might not be as well-formed or deep as they might be, so I pray for the grace to be open to new insights.”

I submit that the firm and humble perspective italicized above is the most intellectually and spiritually beneficial one, not only for Catholics and people of other religions but for those who seek truth about any subject.

Unfortunately, religious people are frequently tempted to closed-mindedness about their religious beliefs. Catholics in particular (and Fundamentalist Christians) have acquired a reputation for being unwilling to read or listen to the views of other faiths, including those of other Christian denominations, sometimes going so far as to assign those who hold them to everlasting torment. (The reader who disagreed with my essay about Catholics and Buddhists seems to have this perspective.)

Such closed-mindedness is not only an obstacle to harmony among religions but also a virtual guarantee of the mutual animosity and suspicion that has led to religious wars and persecutions. Moreover, ironically enough, it is not Christian! Here is why:

Jesus told us what to do but in most cases not how to do it. For example, he told the Apostles to be in mutual harmony but He didn’t specify the ways to achieve this, any more than he offered a blueprint on ways to overcome anger or avoid self-indulgence or practice charity. He left these matters to be discovered by those who came after Him, including all of us, using our God-given intelligence. In other words, we are to seek the fullness of truth by our own efforts, guided of course by God’s grace.

Learning about the Catholic (or more broadly, the Christian) faith is not simply a matter of memorizing doctrines but also of taking note of people’s deeds in living the Gospel. Why their deeds? Because “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matt 7: 21)

The words “he who does the will of My Father” clearly do not refer only to people of our own faith because those of other faiths or no faith often provide better examples of living the Gospel than Catholics do. Jesus Himself made this clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). In that case, it was the outsider—a Samaritan despised by the Jews—who showed greater mercy and charity than either the priest or the Levite.

Christ’s Gospel is centered on love—both God’s expression of love of all mankind and Jesus’ command that we love one another as he has loved us. (Jn 13:34) And Jesus makes clear that the command applies not only to our friends: “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despise you, and persecute you . . . .” (Mt 5:44) Elsewhere, Jesus calls the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves the second most important of all the commandments. (Mark 12:30-31) And St. Paul says that among faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

As Christ made clear, He desires “that all may be one.” (John 17:21) It is true that He said so in specific reference to the apostles, but the intention surely extends to all of humankind. (It is impossible to imagine that He meant, “I want you to be in harmony with one another but in disharmony with everyone else.”)

Among the key questions these five facts suggest is this one: “How can we love our neighbors as Christ commanded in a way that makes harmony possible despite our disagreements.”

The fundamental principle governing love of neighbor, found in both moral theology and ethics, is RESPECT FOR PERSONS. In Catholic teaching it is reinforced by the belief that all people are created in the image and likeness of God—all people, not just those who share our faith. Specific ways of applying this principle include the following:

Give others the benefit of the doubt. Unless there is compelling reason to doubt that their religious beliefs or lack thereof are sincere, we should assume that they are sincere. (Note: the fact that they disagree with us is not compelling reason to doubt their sincerity.)

Refrain from reading other people’s motives and intentionsTo do so is to pretend we know what only God can know. In other words, to commit the sin of presumption. (Note: not infrequently, the person’s motives and intentions are at least in part hidden from her as well as from others.) If others offend us in any way, we should remember Jesus’ reaction to His crucifixion—“Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.“

Never judge others worthy of eternal damnation. There could be innumerable circumstances that prevent a person from accepting Jesus as Lord. For example, growing up in a country, culture, and/or family that did not acknowledge Him. Or having had a horrible experience that resulted in loss of faith in the Church or even (illogically) in God. The most obvious example today is sexual abuse by a priest. We have no way of knowing other people’s history. Nor is it our business to know. We need to remember that faith is a gift from God that is bestowed in the time and manner of His choosing. We should also remember Jesus’ caution “Judge not lest you be judged.” When we refuse to heed that caution, we not only close the door to unity with others—we effectively slam it shut and lock it.

Treat others with the same courtesy we would expect. When hearing or reading someone else’s words, we should make the effort to understand what is said in its entirety—the facts and the examples, as well the conclusions the person draws from them. If we tend to disagree with what we hear or read, we should identify the parts of what is said that deserve our agreement (there will almost always be some) and acknowledge them, rather than pretend that nothing in the person’s belief has merit. And we should never attribute to others statements or beliefs they did not express or distort their statements to make them easier to reject.

Catholics (and other Christians) pray for God to end divisiveness and bring peace, harmony, and unity to our world. But it we truly want that prayer to be answered, we should do a better job of following Christ’s command to love our neighbors.

Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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1 comment
  • I do love my neighbor, but I also need to learn more about my own religion, the TRUTH, than to spend time discerning other religions. I do not know who is going to Heaven or Hell, but I do know that I need to learn more about, and live, the TRUTH.

Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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