The Creation Principle of Separation, Binding, and Interdependence

The Catholic political philosopher Charles Taylor distinguishes between the "politics of dignity" and the "politics of difference." Taylor defines the politics of dignity as a search for equality in what is "universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities." The politics of difference, on the other hand, involves

recogniz[ing] the unique identity of this individual or group, their distinctiveness from everyone else. The idea is that it is precisely this distinctiveness that has been ignored, glossed over, assimilated to a dominant or majority identity. And this assimilation is the cardinal sin against the ideal of authenticity. (Volf 18-19)

At its heart, the politics of difference is a politics of identity, one that assumes that our selfhood is formed and shaped by our social and cultural environment. Suppressing this difference or uniqueness is felt to be an instrument of political and social oppression. The post-colonial experience, in particular, seeks to come to terms with the suppression of difference that took place in different ways under colonial hegemony. Such an experience is often one of trying to recover or reinvent what was degraded or lost under colonial rule. The problem is further compounded by the complex, even fluid, nature of our racial, ethnic, and national identities. As a group and/or person seeks to reassert identity, what makes certain shared traits authentic? This is a question of the "essence" or "whatness" of a group. Miroslav Volf notes that "tribal" identities have the following characteristics in (post)modern society:

  1. They are complex. There is no final "essence" or "pure identity." Instead, various tribes interact with each other and cross-pollinate each other.
  2. They are strong, yet they are competing and often situational. Someone may be drawn to multiple identities.
  3. They are impermanent. While such identities are long-lasting, they do shift over time, and the resulting loyalties that come with them shift as well. (19 n.3)

This makes the politics of difference both problematic and yet deeply important. An oppressed cultural group wants to affirm its value, dignity, and importance. Yet it has been changed, even irrevocably altered by being a colony. Is there a way to account for both the differences that are so important to our self-concepts and for the fluidity of human identity? Volf suggests that Genesis chapter one reveals a pattern that God has set into place in the creation itself.

Volf, following Cornelius Plantinga, notes that in Genesis 1, God is about both "separating out" various aspects of creation, distinguishing between light an dark, earth and sky, sea and land, plant and animal, and "binding together" these creational entities in a web of co-dependence. God, especially, binds human beings to his creation with the responsibility of being its stewards and caretakers. In God’s pattern, differentiation encompasses both "separating-and-binding (65-66). Human nomenclature, logic itself, requires that we distinguish things one from another. What this model of differentiation reminds us of is that a thing can be understood not only as a point in and of itself, but also as a part of a larger process or system. The human self, for example, can never be pictured as a completely autonomous self. Each of us is who we are because of others. When we define or differentiate something, we place boundaries around it, but to place boundaries around something is not to close it off from the larger system. Boundaries are permeable.

What this suggests is that God designed human beings for difference/diversity. We shouldn’t be shocked that humans take on differing cultural characteristics and patterns. Nor should we be surprised when these shift and evolve. A biblical balance is needed that not only recognizes boundaries but also sees how porous they are. We must also recognize how these differences bind us together. The post-colonial experience is one that has suffered from imposed, outside control. As a person or people seek to recover the dignity of a self-identity, indeed perhaps even self-definition, the temptation is toward an impossible ideal of some essential or pure state that has been lost. A more manageable goal may be one that comes to terms with how our identities both distinguish us yet also bind us to others, even our former oppressors.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding