In the unity of the Holy Spirit, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, but each element’s distinctiveness and individuality as a creature is preserved.
When we mention the Spirit work in the creation we think his bringing unity, drawing together, and reconciliation: the Spirit is unifying. But any such stress carries with it twin dangers.
First, that we then assume that somehow that is all the Spirit does, the Spirit is there – almost functionally – to produce unity and the bonds of peace (Eph 4:3).
Second, that we then further simplify this action of bringing unity to it being the sort of unity that we produce: uniformity, rigidity, and blandness.
So it is useful to remember that the Spirit is simultaneously the giver of diversity – and that in divine economy that unity and diversity are not in contradiction. It is this richness that can be the richness of a synodal Church.
The notion of synodality scares many in the Church – they see it only as messiness and chaos. They never see this the other way: diversity is richness.
The Spirit’s gifts
The Spirit unities, heals, and any true unity is the fruit of the divine presence. When we recall our unity in the Christ, our unity in baptism, and in discipleship we are not recalling our common commitment, nor shared acceptance of a system of ideas, nor collective adherence to a structure; rather it is the Spirit’s presence that makes us one royal priesthood, a chosen people, and a holy nation.
It is through our sharing in the Spirit that we become what we are.
And it is through the Spirit’s power that we are able to know and declare the wonderful deeds of the Father who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light (cf. 1 Pet 2:9).
This unity that is formed by the Spirit is manifold: it unites us with the Christ, it reverses the human tendency to fragmentation, challenged us to reject asserting differences to bolster our sense of identity, it helps us towards a true Catholicism which is the overcoming of sectionalism, and confronts our pride and jealously.
The gift of unity is a positive addition to our human state, it is not to be imagined along the lines of human unification which thinks in terms of mergers, alliances, pacts, and the destruction of differences so that all looks the same, works together, and behave with the sort of unity that is essential in a clock, a computer, or a regiment.
In the unity of the Holy Spirit the whole is more than the sum of the parts, but each element’s distinctiveness and individuality as a creature is preserved. When we think of the Spirit’s unifying and reconciling presence we are hard pressed to find parallels in human experience.
So rather than search out ‘parallels’ it is more useful to think of the Spirit as the source for what we imagine as the opposite of unification: the act of diversification.
Diversity is a mark of the Spirit’s work
The Spirit is present in all the creation, yet everywhere we see its diversity.
How many types of life are there?
How many species of plants and animals?
How many human beings are there: each clinging to their individuality, distinctiveness, and identity.
Diversity is everywhere.
Diversity is richness, and the source of beauty.
Diversity is what makes life worth living.
The Spirit is giver of life, and life is filled with difference, interest and wonder. This is the diversifying Spirit at work.
Paul rejoiced in the diversity of the human body as part of the creation so that he could recall the diversity of the Church in the Spirit.
Before any talk about the Spirit in the Church it is a good ideas to read 1 Cor 12:4-30.
A Church sharing in the same Spirit is full of diversity and is not short of the multiplicity of talents, each distinctly expressed that will build the community of love.
By contrast, when we forget that the Spirit diversifies we tend to imagine the community of the Church as a structure, become blind to the richness of his diverse presence and gifts in those around us, and even begin to wonder if the Spirit is abandoning us.
Enlighten our hearts and minds
The Spirit brings enlightenment, and this too takes the character of its richness from diversity. It is the diversity of human insights that build up human knowledge, is the spark of excitement, interest and genius.
And again, only diversity allows us to appreciate the wonder of the good and the beautiful: what if there was only one beautiful image or poem?
Why is a diversity of languages better than just one?
Why is it better to have four rather than one gospel?
Why is there such diversity of insights in the Church?
Those who would reduce diversity have a low view of human nature, a lower view of the value of human living, and little or no awareness of the transcendent.
Every tyrant in history has eventually sought to destroy differences of opinion – in everything from politics to art – and then usually sought to eradicate humans that appeared too different from his image of perfection. In contrast, the Spirit produces diversity upon diversity, and we can marvel and rejoice in the Spirit’s creativity.
Many clergy fear diversity
Diversity has a bad history in Christian practice.
Diversity is not richness but fragmentation, schism, heresy.
We look back to the story of the Tower of Babel where as a punishment for pride. In this myth the earth had only ‘one language and few words’ (Gen 11:1) and all acted as single people (11:4 and 6), then people came to think that nothing would be impossible for them (11:6), so God confused their language to thwart them and he scattered them (11:7-8), and so the place came to be called Babel (11:9).
It is a powerful myth: sin splits and destroys unity– and we so easily convert the idea and imagine that diversity is the result of a broken unity!
So whenever we see variation, difference we do not see this as distinct aspect of a mystery greater than us, where all those aspects might call us to see the limits of any one of them, and seek to grow in understanding and appreciation?
Yet just reflect on the rhetoric that we have used over the centuries to stress the lack of diversity as a sign of unity of faith: one ritual, one language, one method of doing things, one standardised theology, and on and on – it was as if we could not imagine that God could be greater than our love of imposed orderliness and uniformity!
By complete contrast, in his presentation of the coming of the Spirit, Luke presents his myth to counterbalance Babel.
On his great day of Pentecost the many nations, the Spirit does not remove the diversity of languages but rather enables the gathered community – itself a diverse bunch of men and women (Acts 1:14) – to begin ‘to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance’ (Acts 2:4).
Those who heard them did not hear new single language – neither Latin nor Esperanto – but each heard in his own language (a point Luke repeats: Acts 2:6, 8, and 11).
In Luke’s myth, the Spirit, even in a miracle of uniting the nations, values diversity.
In the Babel myth that people set out to build a city as a function of their uniformity – there was only one people and they had but few words – and this provoked divine punishment; in the Pentecost myth a new city is being built by the Spirit upon the riches of diversity.
This is the Spirit given diversity of languages, cultures, peoples, and insights. From out of this diversity, the mighty works of God become known and praised in each language.
When we are thinking about the Spirit and seeking to speak about the Spirit we need to ask ourselves which myth is most powerful in our own minds.
At the end of most homilies – or bits of writing like this one – there is a natural human tendency to sum up, to put it all in a sentence, or to attempt a synthesis.
After all, is this not what a good communicator should do? So we might then speak of the Spirit being unifying in diversity and diversifying in unity, or some such seemingly synthetic formula that draws together the conflicting aspects of our reflection.
We see the same tendency in among those who are fearful of synodality: they praise it, but then imagine it can be predictably packaged.
However, such synthetic formulae almost assume that the mystery of the divine can be comprehended or neatly wrapped up. Rather we should live with the staccato insights and not seek to reduce them to what seems to fit our minds.
The Spirit is unifying. The Spirit is diversifying. The Spirit can be seen in any number of other ways. The Spirit is, indeed, infinite, or as we should constantly remind ourselves: Deus semper maior.
Thomas O’Loughlin is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International and Rev Thomas O’Loughlin.