Every January, the Catholic Church dedicates a week to praying for Christian unity. For eight years—even after I had left Catholicism—I joined them in that prayer. As a believer in Christ, I knew how instrumental Christian discord is in sowing doubts in the minds of outside observers. For if Christians cannot bring themselves to agree on what mandates of God are, is it not at least an indication that they are not guided by the same omnipotent deity but rather by their own interior preferences and prejudices?
Christians are often defensive about this charge, quickly discounting their deep differences, and insisting that they are in agreement about the key issue—Jesus Christ.
However, it is not just pesky atheists who think that Christian division poses a threat to the faithful’s credibility. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus knew that the faithful’s disunity raises doubts:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world (John 17:20-24).
There are two noteworthy issues in this prayer of Jesus. First that he realizes that the lack of unity signals to the world that there are reasons to not believe and secondly that a prayer by none other than Jesus remains unfulfilled 20 centuries after they were allegedly spoken.
Notice Jesus is said to be pleading not for current believers but for future, potential believers. It is their salvation that is at stake by the fact that Christians cannot agree. It’s hard enough to believe the claims of one person that he is in communication with a divine, invisible being and that through that communication, he—and it is usually a “he”—has knowledge about how you should conduct your life and that you should give him money. But if another one should interject with a competing perspective on that same deity, we can be assured that at least one of them is mistaken, and moreover, we now have good reason to suspect that both of them are either deceived and/or deceiving.
However, the fact that most nagged me about this prayer in my last year as a Christian is the fact that Jesus prayed it. And I am not referring to the mind-bending notion that an omnipotent being needs to address a prayer to his father, who is simultaneously himself. That bit of nonsense I had rationalized by calling it “mystery”—that dark hole of non-answers where all demonstrably false theistic assertions seek shelter from reason.
I am talking about just the plain fact that Jesus, who presumably excels in faith and virtue, made an important and reasonable request to his father, who allegedly gives good gifts and answers the righteous and yet, here we are 2000 years after the fact and Christians are divided into ever more numerous factions with views spanning the political and theological spectrum.
You cannot know by the fact that someone uses the label “Christian,” whether she believes in a literal Hell where there is physical torment, a spiritual Hell where one is separated from God and lives in “darkness,” or no Hell at all. All are however united by an eagerness to point out that not everyone who claims to be a Christian is an authentic one and that it is the other guy who has got it wrong.
You cannot know by the fact that someone uses the label “Christian,” whether she believes in a literal Hell where there is physical torment, a spiritual Hell where one is separated from God and lives in “darkness,” or no Hell at all. All are however united by an eagerness to point out that not everyone who claims to be a Christian is an authentic one and that it is the other guy who has got it wrong.Yes, yes, I understand a delay in the fulfilment of God’s action does not mean God has not answered. How do I know that God is not going to bring about Christian unity in his time? God’s timing—that other dark hole.
Here’s the problem, Christians. God’s delay poses an eternal threat to millions, if not billions of well-meaning souls who would have otherwise accepted Jesus and gone to Heaven. If even just one person does not believe and goes to Hell all because God has delayed in clarifying the myriad theological disagreements among Christians then God’s delay is responsible for the perishing of that soul. And is not one soul worth God getting off his throne and making himself clear?
Yes, yes, I understand that he made the issues perfectly clear the first time he revealed them just the way your particular denomination now interprets it. I understand if all would just follow your pope, your pastor’s view of the plain meaning of Scripture, your sacred tradition, there would be no problem, but would it be such a divine inconvenience for him to send another memo?
Yes, yes, I understand that all atheists really know that God exists and are resisting the knowledge of God because they want to sin, but what might there not be five, just five atheists in the whole history of the planet, who have been dissuaded from faith because there are so many competing views of God? And did we not learn from Abraham that the God should be mindful of just five?
And we know that there must be a few. We know that Christian disunity causes people to not believe for the Bible tells us so. Jesus said so.
After about eight years of praying for Christian unity, it one day occurred to me that if God has not yet answered this very important and reasonable prayer of Jesus, what use was there in adding my own voice? In fact, what basis was there for me to imagine that God would answer any prayer at all?
Today, with the benefit of some distance, I can better imagine the social setting of this strange story arose. I can imagine the early Church breaking up into factions, and I can imagine onlookers pointing out that their factions demonstrates the falsehood of their proclamations. The Scripture writer cannot deny this fact and wants to compel believers to shape up so that their community is not disparaged. What better way to encourage good behavior than to place the words in the mouth of Jesus. Jesus, right before he was crucified, prayed that we be united; surely, we can do it for him.
What the evangelist did not seem to anticipate is that this was easier said than done. He probably also did not anticipate that Jesus would delay his second coming for two millennia allowing ample time for Christians to discover numerous areas of disagreement.
Yet, what should give us even more reason to be skeptical than the fact of Christian disunity is the indisputable fact that God has not answered the prayer of his only begotten son. God does not answer prayer; not even the ones he makes to himself from himself.