Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs — we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Acts 2:5-11 NIV
What a beautiful scene! In what is arguably one of the most defining moments of the church, divine disclosure is not disseminated to the world through just one language or culture. Instead, we witness a scene where the actors are able to claim that they have heard the wonders of God directly in their own tongues. There was no dominant or “normative” ethnic group that was used to proclaim the glory of God. We witness a multiplicity of voices.
As I reflect upon this Pentecost narrative, it fosters a sense of hope in a world that is currently engulfed in unspeakable violence. Much of this violence (whether it is defined as terrorism, war, threats of war, ethnic cleansings, mass kidnappings, domestic violence, child abuse, sex-trade, modern day slavery, etc.) is funded by our collective human propensity to fear, demonize, and abuse all that we perceive and experience as different. Unfortunately, history has taught us that once this process of human denigration is complete, it leads to death. What is it about difference that invokes discomfort and anxiety in the human experience?
Conversation about diversity is in vogue in many institutions today. Indeed, it is conversation that is much needed, admirable, politically correct (whether we like that phrase or not), and is long overdue. Yet, I find that the language of “diversity” seems to be incomplete and runs the risk of short-circuiting the potential for a more robust dialogue. In some respects, the discourse of cultural diversity presupposes the existence of a norm by which we can actually delineate what is different. In many instances, the existence of this norm resides more in the realm of the unconscious than in the realm of awareness. However, in the Pentecost narrative, what we witness is not necessarily diversity, but intentional multiplicity. In the inaugurating moment of the church, God seems to be very intentional about using a multiplicity of cultures and voices to proclaim His glory. In this one act, He seems to suggest that all of these voices are necessary and required to bring honor to Him. And if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that many of the nations and cultures that are named in the Pentecost narrative (Egypt, Arabs, converts to Judaism, etc.) are not groups that are typically held up in a positive light in western media. Like the sea shells that populate the shore line, we see multiplicity in God’s creation. In many of my pastoral care/pastoral theology courses, I caution students that if we truly believe that omnipresence represents one of the attributes of God, we should not be so quick to assume that in a pastoral encounter, we are the sole carriers of the gospel of Christ. Instead, intentional multiplicity suggests that a more empathic point of departure would be to ask ourselves, “What is God already doing in the life of the person I am seeking to provide care for?” Intentional multiplicity compels us to ask, “Where is God already at work in the place that I am going to?” Taken further, a posture of intentional multiplicity demands a heart of humility, as we must be prepared (and expecting) that God can (and will) use those who we experience as being “the other” to actually reveal His power and love to us in ways that we have never before imagined.
I am reminded of my years as a commercial banker, when during the underwriting process we would gather an abundance of financial, economic and company-specific data from clients in order to determine the most appropriate capital structure and financial package. Because the available data could be limitless, we would often divide the data in two categories: information that is nice to have or nice to know, and information that we need to have and need to know.
Intentional multiplicity in the church is not a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” It is not simply admirable, politically correct, and nice to know about other cultures. The Pentecost narrative suggests that it is absolutely necessary to dwell with and experience other cultures if we are to realize the full potential of the Kingdom of God here on earth (both individually and collectively). Intentional multiplicity is necessary for human flourishing. Let us not make the mistake of fearing that intentional multiplicity is somehow mutually exclusive to maintaining the infallibility of scripture and the integrity of our faith tradition. As both Jonah and Job humbly learned, intentional multiplicity compels us to realize that the particularity of our human experience does not represent the center of God’s creation, but instead, only reflects a singular aspect in God’s vast and beautiful creation.
By Professor Danjuma Gibson, Ph.D.