Monday, July 9, 2012

On Diversity Domains

When I first came to Regent University, I taught a course on Community Psychology. I remember preparing a lecture on diversity issues and I was speaking to a staff member about it. He is from a racial minority group. He shared with me that there was no need to teach on diversity or to cover multicultural aspects if we are Christians. He proceeded to share that the story of the Tower of Babel indicates that such diversity is a result of human pride, and the current efforts to promote diversity or multiculturalism were of little to no value in light of a Christian’s primary identity in Christ, which he viewed trumping these other diversity domains. 
I recently co-conducted a diversity workshop for another Christian psychology program, and I was asked to reflect on a theology of diversity. As I began to look into it, I was surprised at how little had been written from an evangelical Christian perspective. Most of what had been written dealt with race or ethnicity but not other areas of diversity, such as age or disability, let alone the more controversial topics of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

If I were to organize the thoughts that are out there, I would say that it can be helpful to organize arguments about diversity with reference to the four acts of the biblical drama: Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Glorification. Some people discuss diversity with reference to Creation, primarily discussing gender complimentarity.   

Those who discuss diversity from the perspective of the Fall often cite the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11, much as my colleague did. However, most of what I read on this is also tied to the act of Redemption, primarily Pentecost and the ways in which different languages were used for redemptive purposes: “Pentecost redefine the division of language as a divine gift for the lucid communication of the divine message” (Park, 1996).    

Judith-Gundry Volf describes it this way:
When the Spirit comes, all understand each other, and yet each hears (and speaks) his or her own language. Pentecost, as the beginning of the new age of God’s salvation, is not a reversion to the unity of cultural uniformity; it is an advance toward harmony in cultural diversity. (p. 9)

Still others, such as J. Derek McNeil (2005), bring these different stories together so that they are not read independently of one another. 

The fourth act of the biblical drama, Glorification, has also been a point of focus. In the multiethnic church I attend, the Scripture passage often referenced is Revelation 14:9: “…to every tongue, tribe and nation.” The idea is that in Glorification, a diverse community will praise God (Rev. 5:9), and this diversity can be appreciated this side of eternity. 

Of course, “to every tongue, tribe and nation” suggests diversity of race, ethnicity, and culture. Many mental health organizations discuss several other domains of diversity, and they are not all equally accessible to the Christian, by which I mean that they are not all equally easy to understand how to relate to as an expression of diversity as a Christian. For example, the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code will discuss age, gender, socioeconomic status, disability, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Of these, my own guess would be that age, gender, socioeconomic status, and disability are more accessible, in the sense that the conflict seems less acute for the Christian psychologist. Perhaps this is due to passages such as Lev. 19:32, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord,” which carries a high view of aging and older adulthood. 

Likewise, Luke 14:12-14 is a story that highlights valuing the disabled and the poor:
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

Many domains of diversity are, then, quite accessible to the Christian psychologist. Of course, challenges remain around race and ethnicity that may be tied to some extent to the unique history and context of the United States, but even these areas of diversity are accessible to the believer in light of the passages discussed above, particularly the sense that there is a redemptive element in the range of cultural experiences and ways of honoring and praising God that reflect a remarkable diversity of experience. The experiences of believers in multicultural churches bear witness to these redemptive themes.

Perhaps the least accessible domains of diversity discussed in secular mental health organizations are sexual orientation and gender identity. As I close this article, let me just take the example of sexual orientation. The Christian can certainly recognize that this area of diversity exists within our cultural context, that is, that there are those who integrate their same-sex sexuality into a gay identity, are part of a meaningful community of like-minded others, and who celebrate this aspect of diversity as particularly meaningful and salient to them. The Christian might indeed have in mind a different way to respond to same-sex sexuality, a more redemptive approach that to their understanding is tied to sanctification and Christ-likeness (see Yarhouse, 2010), but clearly others are walking out their identity in ways that contrast with such an approach. 

The challenge for the Christian psychologist lies in finding ways to respond constructively to all of these domains of diversity, even those that may seem less accessible. In his discussion of race, Andrew Sung Park discusses the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 and suggests that “seeing well” those who are marginalized is important to a Christian understanding of at least racial diversity. Seeing these differences well is a place to begin as we seek to relate to one another sometimes out of, sometimes despite, and sometimes through these many differences.  While some areas may be more difficult than others, often because of the polarization that occurs, the moral considerations, and other questions that may arise, the Christian can at least recognize the challenges of experiencing same-sex sexuality in a cultural context in which such an experience is often difficult to discuss or receive support or direction. This can be particularly true in evangelical Christian contexts in which the topic is either not discussed or discussed in a way that makes it difficult for the very people who experience same-sex attraction to think about and respond to their experiences in ways that are outside of existing cultural categories. 

The many domains of diversity vary in how accessible they are to the Christian psychologist. We need wisdom and discernment in how to respond in a cultural context in which many of Christians choose to practice as licensed, public mental health professionals. Relating with “convicted civility” (to borrow from Richard Mouw) and learning how to “see others well” are at least starting points for the Christian who wants to respond to the various domains of diversity with integrity and grace.   

Gundry-Volf, J. M., & Volf, M. (1997). A spacious heart: Essays on identity and belonging. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.

McNeil, J. D. (2005). Unequally yoked? The role of culture in the relationship between theology and psychology. In A. Dueck & C. Lee (Eds.), Why psychology needs theology: A radical-reformation perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Park, A. S. (1996). Racial conflict and healing: An Asian-American theological perspective. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.       
Yarhouse, M. A. (2010). Homosexuality and the Christian: A guide for pastors, parents, and friends. Minneapolis, MN: BethanyHouse.            

Mark A Yarhouse, Psy.D.
Professor of Psychology & Endowed Chair
School of Psychology and Counseling
Regent University

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