Ideological disagreement appears to be an unavoidable part of the human experience. The bitter rhetoric in the US over health care reform is only the most recent high profile example of this truth. People look at the same thing, hear the same words - and come away with two completely different interpretations.
The centuries old hope (at least in the "West") that science, education, and technology would unite the world has collapsed in the wake of the unprecedented human strife throughout the twentieth century. Postmodern efforts to build unity center less around grand meta-narratives (science, religion) and focus more on respecting diversity and learning to live together without killing each other.
In light of these observations, I will offer two reasons why I think unity is important.
The first reason is functional and applies on a wider, sociological level. It is mutually beneficial for human beings to be united around particular principles that promote human dignity and life. People will continue to disagree with one another. But if people can agree on the fundamental need to protect human life/dignity, then all other disagreements no longer become a reason to kill one another. This is where I think interfaith and religious-nonreligious dialogue is so important. It is safe to assume both that the multitude of human religions are not going away tomorrow and that all nonreligious persons will not suddenly be convinced of the divine. In the meantime, then, it would be beneficial to work toward a set of agreed upon principles that promote and protect life.
The second reason is particular to the Christian narrative. The search for Christian unity is not an idealistic effort to sit around and sing Kumbaya. Neither is it an effort to throw away all the particulars of Christianity and settle on the lowest common denominator. I believe that unity is absolutely essential to the integrity of the Christian story - to the good news of Jesus Christ (incarnation and reconciliation) and the proclamation of that news to the world (evangelism). United by faith in the gospel, there is room for natural disagreements over what Wesley called "opinions" within the Church. We may not all think alike, but reconciled to God and to each other, we are called to love alike.
INCARNATION: "For just as the body is one and has many members...so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)
Christians believe that the defining moment in human history is when God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not some invisible life force limited to the spiritual or intellectual realm. No, as Christians recite in the great Creeds of the Church, God became "truly human," embracing the messiness of physical human existence in order to restore our capacity to be in relationship with God. Christians celebrate this truth each year at Christmas and in the use of the physical elements of water, bread, and wine as a means of encountering God.
Why, then, is this central conviction suspended for Christians when it comes to the Church? The same loving God who entered into history and became truly human desires the Church to be the continuing embodiment of God’s love - "the Body of Christ" in the world. Christians' satisfaction with an "invisible" Church contradicts their belief in a God who became the visible Body of Christ.
RECONCILIATION: "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation...entrusting the message of reconciliation to us" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
This gets to the central point of why God became human in the first place. Through Jesus' atoning work on the cross, humanity is reconciled to God and able to enter into a restored relationship of love by faith. The New Testament is clear that a loving relationship with God overflows with love for neighbor.
How, then, can the Church be faithful to the Scriptural witness of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross and yet remain unreconciled with one another? Instead of remaining content in its divided state, the Church is called to return to the foot of the cross and embody in its visible life the unity and reconciliation given to all people through Jesus.
EVANGELISM: "I ask on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:20-21)
Finally, Christians believe that God's Spirit empowers the Church to be the community of reconciliation and love that fulfills God's purpose for the world, where "all flesh will see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6). Christians are called to be agents of God's reconciling love to people in every nation and on every continent.
But how can the world be expected to believe in God's reconciliation when the Church remains an unreconciled fellowship? Thus, when the Church is actively engaged in proclaiming its Gospel, it is able to see Christian divisions for what they are: an intolerable scandal that contradicts the Church’s witness to God’s reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ.
What do you think? Is unity important to you? For similar or different reasons?
Can we agree on a common set of principles that promote human life? What qualifies as "opinion" within the Church?