Summary: How can Christians be united when there are so many things we can’t agree on? That is the wrong question. The real question is, how can we imagine that any of these human differences can break the unity among us that God has already created?
Do you know what the Zen Buddhist said to the hot dog vendor? "Make me one with everything." English is a remarkably flexible language. You can play wonderful games with it. "Make for me one hot dog with everything on it" is a far cry from "to become One with everything," which is the Buddhist ideal. By that they mean to lose all sense of self-differentiation, to blend into a seamless union with an ideal "other" that is somehow the sum of everything that lives, like a single drop of water losing itself in a river and then finally arriving at fulfillment as an undifferentiated part of the ocean.
That’s not what Paul means when he talks about unity. Jesus does call us to give up our egos - that’s what he mean when he told his disciples that "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." [Mk 8:35] Yes, we’re to give up our preoccupation with self... but in that way we find our true selves, which are made whole in love and service. There are so many ways to understand - and to misunderstand - what Christian unity is all about. Is it about everybody looking and sounding alike? Is is about never disagreeing about doctrine or mission or the color of the choir robes? It’s like the argument about how to deal with immigration. Should we be the classic melting pot, or should we be more like Canada’s tossed salad?
One author describes the cultural mix in Los Angeles as being even more divided than a Canadian salad - she describes it as a smorgasbord or buffet, where the only thing the different dishes have in common are the table the plates are put on. And at the other end of the spectrum is the puree, where the soup gets cooked down until everything is mush and then gets forced through a food mill so that it all becomes practically the Buddhist "One".
I think Christians belong somewhere between soup and salad ... Close enough together so that they change and enrich the other, but not so mushy that you can’t tell one bite from another. But it’s easier said than done, isn’t it. What’s important enough to argue about? What can we compromise on? Who gets to join? How hard is it? What do you have to believe, or do, or be?
There’s a lot of talk about ecumenism in all denominations nowadays, with most Christians beginning to understand that historic antagonists like Quakers and Catholics, Baptists and Episcopalians, Pentecostals and Presbyterians have a whole lot more in common with each other than with non-Christians, as for the first time in 1500 years people called Christians do not dominate Western culture. And so many well-meaning people talk about some kind of structural union, arguing over such things as Apostolic succession - which is extremely important to Episcopalians - and infant baptism vs. adult or believers baptism, and whether or not we should have bishops, and what happens when the celebrant blesses the elements at the Lord’s Supper. And so we seem to be stuck. How can we be united when there are so many things we can’t agree on?