Key to the Science of Unity

January 19, 2009 | 9 comments
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Our ward has been exploring the idea of Unity in our sacrament meeting talks this month, and I’ve heard the same attribution to Elder Dallin H. Oaks several times. It apparently comes from a “News of the Church” article in June 2007 which discusses the growing diversity in the Church. According to the article, Elder Oaks “said that the growing diversity among the members is simply a condition, not a Church goal. The real goal is unity, not diversity.”

Perhaps’ I’m not listening closely enough, but the  discussions of this idea seem to have missed the balance of what was attributed to him in the article, in which Elder Oaks says, “We preach unity among the community of Saints and tolerance toward the personal differences that are inevitable in the beliefs and conduct of a diverse population.”

In my view this is actually the key to unity (be it science or art). The key to unity is, in fact, the tolerance of diversity.

In a sense, what Elder Oaks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are teaching are really very close. And, I think a reading of the history of the civil rights movement in the U.S. as a struggle between unity and diversity might bear that out. [Please excuse the U.S.-centered analysis. I'm not sure I know enough about other countries to make the relevant arguments.]

We have, I’m told, a natural tendency to prefer and trust what we are familiar with over what we are not familiar with. So we trust thinks that we know over what we don’t know and things that look familiar, things that look like us for example, over what isn’t familiar and doesn’t look like us. So we have throughout history grouped ourselves into tribes and nations and races. Our comfortuable groups become us, while everything else becomes them, something to be mistructed, and feared, and sometimes hated.

So even when we in the U.S. realized an obligation to give others basic political rights, there was still an instinct to segregate, to redline, to keep those who are different apart from those who look like us. Whatever unity we had then as a nation was based more on the idea that we, to a large extent, all looked the same, believed the same and thought the same. (Although, the US had, in fact, already assimilated many that we believed did not look, believe or think as we did — they were Germans, Irish, Italian, Polish, Scandinavian and other “white” races who, by 18th and 19th century thought, were different than the English and French that made up most of the country).

At least one of the changes the civil rights movement brought to our culture is a change in our assumptions about unity. We now talk about and even value diversity. The belief is that everyone should be able to participate and benefit from our government and society.

But that doesn’t mean that we want a divisive society. I’ve heard political scientists, and even members of the general public overseas, who believe that it is not possible for a diverse society to remain stable. They argue that the interests of different groups will never be reconciled, and will eventually tear any nation that tries to accommodate those differences apart. Our recent history has seen that happen. There is at least a racial or ethnic element to most conflicts around the world today, and racial elements have led to the disintigration of Cechsolvakia and Yugoslavia and the division of India that created Pakistan (I’m sure there are more).

I hear this argument here in the U.S. among those opposed to immigration, who argue that those coming don’t look like we do, don’t believe like we do or don’t think like we do. The cultural disparity they bring, we are warned, will tear our nation apart.

Regardless of whether they are right or not, these elements seem present in our debate in the U.S. today. I’m sure I’ve argued both sides of this question on different occasions, sometimes arguing, without explicitly saying so, for limiting a question to a particular group (some argued as much with the recent Mormon of the Year recognition) and other times arguing for including everyone. And I think some times considering just a particular group, or taking pride in membership in a group is fine (when it is fine is probably another post). I suspect most of us today end up arguing both sides of this question from time to time.

In U.S. society today diversity has become a kind of social good — many Americans assume that diversity is something to be desired. But I think they assume something like what Elder Oaks says in the quotation above, that the diversity will not come at the expense of the basic unity we need to preserve a nation. The question for the nation is then, how much diversity can we manage without loosing the unity we need?

From a gospel perspective, however, we can learn an important lesson here.In the past, both the U.S. as a nation, and the Church as a people, found it much easier to achieve unity. Unity is relatively easy when everyone looks, believes and thinks the same. The challenge comes from trying to achieve unity when those things are not true.

As Elder Oaks suggests, “We preach unity among the community of Saints and tolerance toward the personal differences that are inevitable in the beliefs and conduct of a diverse population.” In the context of our experience in the U.S., it sounds to me like diversity might actually be an important step toward learning true unity. I can even see an argument that the Lord may have given us increasing diversity to help us learn to be truly united.

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9 Responses to Key to the Science of Unity

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 19, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Unity is not uniformity. We don’t all need to look the same or speak the same language. It is apparent to me in a half century since my own baptism that the church has made a concerted effort to identify what is the core of the gospel and the church, and not impose burdens on church members in other cultures that are not required by the gospel.

    At the same time, the things that ARE at the core of the church and its teachings are highly demanding and require that any Latter-day Saint must separate him or her self from the mainstream of their home culture. For example, Japan’s obsession with material advancement through conformity to a social structure that leaves little room for real individualism in choosing a life path, a legacy from the military regimentation of the entire society created in the Tokugawa shogunate, pushes strongly against anyone adopting a Mormon “family and church first” lifestyle. Japan’s businessmen are expected to spend all their time at work, and to work often six days a week, and then on Sundays participate in group hobbies. Alcohol and tea are ubiquitous social lubricants.

    The decision to redefine “gathering” as a strengthening of the church in each nation, rather than turning all Mormons into Americans through immigration, was a major step toward creating local unity within the context of a global diversity of members. But the scriptures, the temples, the BYUs, the Liahona, and Sunday School and Priesthood/RS curricula, along with oversight from GAs and the constant coming and going of missionaries and college students, are constant forces for unifying Mormons across that shared artificial culture.

    In a way, Mormonism can be compared to Americanism. While becoming American involves a geographic relocation, it also involves adoption of an ideology and identification with a sacrificial and noble history. Becoming Mormon involves social migration and adoption of a new culture. Both ethnic Americans and non-US Mormons can preserve many aspects of their ancestral cultures, but to obtain all the value that is in either new culture requires some sacrifice and abandonment of old beliefs and practices. The core of both Americanism and Mormonism is stronger precisely because diversity in non-core aspects of society can be accepted, in a way that is more difficult in many other nations or even religions.

    Where I part company from many professional purveyors of diversity is in the goal of managing diversity through oversimplification of people and their cultures. Trying to balance the true multitude of ethnicities in America is too hard for human beings, so they make it easier by denying the existence of the true diversity of mankind, even to the point of declaring that “Asians” is a category that includes anyone form outside Latin America and Europe, and then delcaring that the “Asians” can be lumped in with “whites” for purposes of calculating the degree of “diversity” in a school or company or government agency. Such imposed uniformity is the exact opposite of accepting real diversity, and it focuses on only one aspect of humanity, ignoring religious and political and economic and linguistic and and cultural diversity. The notion, that reduction of people to one aspect of themselves is the key to establishing justice and equality and economic well-being, is facially ridiculous. It purports, through the use of numbers, to be “scientific”, but it is the exact opposite of real science, which deals in messy reality, and rejects oversimplified doctrines that do not represent reality.

  2. aloysiusmiller on January 19, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Yes but we do not need to cling to our “natural” diversity. In my part of the world English speaking Hispanics seem determined to have “Spanish” stakes. I know it is a reaction to the rejection they felt in prior years but it no longer serves a purpose. 80% of the adults have perfectly adequate (to superior) English skills. Many of the youth classes are taught in English. Their youth dances are great (ours stink). Our scouting and seminary programs are excellent by comparison. We would be so much better off if we were united in the same stakes and mostly the same wards. (They may need one ward or branch per stake to accommodate non-english speakers. )

    Diversity is incidental. If we are all seeking unity then diversity is trivial.

  3. DavidH on January 19, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    President Eyring made a similar point to Elder Oaks’ about the relationship between differences (diversity) and unity:

    “That same principle applies as we build unity with people who are from vastly different backgrounds. The children of God have more in common than they have differences.

    “And even the differences can be seen as an opportunity. God will help us see a difference in someone else not as a source of irritation but as a contribution. The Lord can help you see and value what another person brings which you lack. More than once the Lord has helped me see His kindness in giving me association with someone whose difference from me was just the help I needed. That has been the Lord’s way of adding something I lacked to serve Him better.”

    Henry B. Eyring, “Our Hearts Knit as One,” Ensign, Nov 2008, 68–71

    Come to think of it, so did the Apostle Paul. See 1 Cor. 12.

    With respect to language-based stakes, in a few geographic places in the US, Spanish speaking units outnumber English speaking units. I wonder how the English speakers would feel if their English speaking units were folded into the Spanish speaking stakes, i.e., if there were 7 or 8 Spanish speaking wards, and 1 or 2 English speaking wards in the stake?

    A separate issue is whether there should be non-English speaking units at all. I think that has been discussed on other threads. And, in California, there is some experience in dissolving and then reconstituting such units.

  4. Anon. on January 19, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Bishop Gene Robinson:

    “Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.”

  5. Alison Moore Smith on January 20, 2009 at 1:08 am

    Kent, thanks for the thoughtful post. Similar ideas have been on my mind for the past couple of days.

    The current issues of unity and tolerance and diversity utterly baffle me. None are good (or bad) in and of themselves, they can only be deemed so in a particular context.

    Aren’t the Gadianton robbers, the mob, and Al Qaeda examples of unity? Should we tolerate child abuse? If you want more diversity, why not invite a couple of pedophiles to move into your neighborhood? Similarly, isn’t discrimination often good?

    I just finished a post that touches a bit on the idea of unity–inspired by Star Parker. As long as we (as a country, as a culture) discuss these ideas in a vacuum–refusing to (gasp!) judge when they are good and when they are bad–we’ll get no where.

  6. queuno on January 20, 2009 at 1:15 am

    In my part of the world English speaking Hispanics seem determined to have “Spanish” stakes. I know it is a reaction to the rejection they felt in prior years but it no longer serves a purpose.

    Last I checked, English-speaking Hispanics aren’t making the decision to create their own Spanish stakes (although, I will agree that there are many attendees to Spanish-speaking units who probably would be fully integrated into English-speaking units).

    (My stake has two non-English-speaking units, although they aren’t Spanish-speaking.)

  7. comet on January 20, 2009 at 2:14 am

    Great post.

    I guess it goes without saying that “unity” will necessarily assume its (subordinated?) opposite-what is it, “diversity,” “plurality”?–in the life of the church. [Moment of zen].

    Swenson:
    “At the same time, the things that ARE at the core of the church and its teachings are highly demanding and require that any Latter-day Saint must separate him or her self from the mainstream of their home culture.”

    The seperatism mentioned here has tended to result in a kind of cultural shallowness in Japanese members that I’ve observed having lived four years in a non-expat Japanese ward. They tend to reject or ignore the best of their own tradition (even those parts that are clearly superior to the artificial culture of the gospel imported from abroad i.e. distant Utah) and cling to the comparative crumbs that float across the Pacific. The result of rejecting what’s nearest for what is most distant is a cultural sensibility that is neither fish nor fowl. It is a double dominated position, as they have alienated themselves from the mainstream trajectories of their birth society and are equally remote from their adopted ideological center in Utah.

    “For example, Japan’s obsession with material advancement through conformity to a social structure that leaves little room for real individualism in choosing a life path”

    I’m assuming you are referring to the US, not the LDS Church, by way of contrast.

    “a legacy from the military regimentation of the entire society created in the Tokugawa shogunate, pushes strongly against anyone adopting a Mormon “family and church first” lifestyle. Japan’s businessmen are expected to spend all their time at work, and to work often six days a week, and then on Sundays participate in group hobbies. Alcohol and tea are ubiquitous social lubricants.”

    There’s certainly some truth to this characterization of modern Japan (though it isn’t as crushing as it was a decade or so ago, from what I’ve gathered).

  8. mlu on January 20, 2009 at 3:41 am

    The key to unity is, in fact, the tolerance of diversity.

    I would rather say the key to unity is progress toward the truth.

    Only truth makes unity in freedom possible.

    The ways we vary will always be legion, but the ways we agree are the key. These core agreements make tolerating or enjoying or celebrating our differences safe.

  9. aloysiusmiller on January 20, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    6. You wanna bet? I didn’t think you were such an idealist or is it naivete?

WELCOME

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