Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
July 5, 2017
Galatians 3:26-29 • Qur’an 23:51-72


What is the relationship between the many and the one?

Image courtesy

This is the question that preoccupied the thoughts of the ancient philosophers. They would look a forest of trees and note that all the trees were different, but yet also the same. Likewise, human beings all displayed individual differences but were obviously the same kind of thing. What was the relationship, they wondered, between the individual distinctiveness that they could observe, but the obvious sameness between all those different entities.

And so they began to posit that perhaps everything visible was merely a derivative “shadow” of some ideal. The trees you’re seeing are mere shadows of the ideal tree in the realm of forms. Or perhaps what we were seeing in the individuals were mere accidents, outward measurable variations and that which unified us was our substance.

That’s all well and good for the philosophers, I suppose, but how do we understand the relationship between the many and the one? Other than confusing undergrads in our philosophy and religion courses, what good does this do us in real life? How do we understand the relationship of the many and the one in our daily life?


Our religious traditions are fairly clear on the concept of unity within the community. In the Hebrew scriptures we read “How good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity.” The Christian New Testament reminds the church that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And in the Qur’an, states: “And truly this Brotherhood Of yours is a single Brotherhood, And I am your Lord And Cherisher: therefore Fear Me (and no other). 53. But people have cut off Their affair (of unity), Between them, into sects: Each party rejoices in that Which is with itself.” A state which the Qur’an goes on to describe as “confused ignorance.”

Indeed, our religious traditions are clear in the essential unity that binds together the community. The divisions of the world no longer matter. The differences in theology or practice are not as significant. Social status no longer plays a role. Within the community of faith, there is unity.

Now, I stand here as one ordained in a denomination—the United Methodist Church—which is the result of a merger in 1968 of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (from whom we took the “United” not the “Evangelical”), itself a merger of the United Brethren and the Evangelical Association. The Methodist Church itself was the merger in 1939 of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Churches, all of which had gone their separate ways from each other nearly a century before over the issues of slavery and elected bishops.

Prior to that, of course, the Methodist Episcopal church was an outgrowth of a movement within the Church of England started by John and Charles Wesley in the 18th Century. The Church of England separated itself from the Catholic Church in the 16th Century for political reasons at the same time the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist Churches were separating themselves for theological reasons.

Five centuries before, that same Catholic Church had excommunicated (and been excommunicated by) the Orthodox Church over issues of married clergy, leavened or unleavened communion bread, and the arcane theological question of the procession of the Holy Spirit as being from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son. Six centuries before that, the Church saw the departure from communion the Monophysite and Nestorian churches over the question of the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures.

All of this is to say that I am fine person to stand here and talk about the unity within a community of faith when my own community is the result of schism after schism after excommunication after schism and so on.

However, a community of faith can generally agree that there should be unity within, even if they cannot agree on what that unity should look like.


But what of our other communities?

Even if there were complete unity within our communities of faith, our broader society is made up of people from many faith backgrounds, or from no faith background. Where does unity come from in our broader society, in our body politic?

Before “In God We Trust” was our national motto, our first national motto was “E pluribus unum”—“out of many, one.” On some level, I like it better than “In God We Trust,” because it is so obvious that we trust in so many more things than God in this country that it strikes me as a little disingenuous. But that’s another sermon.

But even so, is E pluribus unum any more accurate a reflection of our national purpose than “In God We Trust”? Are we truly, out of many, one? Perhaps if we are limiting the question to the union of 13 colonies into one republic, then maybe. But it seems hard to affirm that on any other score.

For too long we have viewed our political opponents not as fellow citizens with whom we disagree, but as something fundamentally “other.” We deride the other side as libtards or rethuglicans; we toss around terms like “traitor” and “fascist.” We declare that someone elected by a majority of votes through the electoral college, as chosen by the electorate of the several states, per the dictates of the Constitution, is nevertheless “not my president.” And in all these things we do damage to the very idea of community.

It is hard to have community, especially the kind necessary to a democratic republic, if we are quick to demonize one another, if we are inclined to imagine the worst motives for the other, or if we never make any effort to understand the other. If we do not see one another as fellow citizens, worthy of dignity and respect, then it will become impossible to build any sense of shared community.


In recent years, we have only seen the divisions increase, we think of our selves as red and blue states. We divide along urban and rural lines. Democrat and Republican.

A map that was designed by Tim Russert to keep track of electoral college victories by assigning colors to states that voted a particular way, has come to define us. We see division despite the hopeful admonition of one political leader who said, “There are no red states or blue states, there are only the United States of America.”

But the reality is that we are feeling divided from one another more than ever before. The nation no longer whole, but cut into red and blue swaths.


There is, of course, another community defined by red, white, and blue: our University community.

We have had our own struggles to find unity in our diversity, of becoming out of many, one. We have seen breakdowns in our own community across racial lines, political lines. We have seen a decrease in civility on campus that mirrors the decrease in civility in the country at large.

Our ability to have civil discourse, to have civility, is entirely dependent on our ability to recognize our fellow civis (“citizens”) in our common civitas (“city” or “community”). Civility doesn’t make community, it flows from a shared sense of community.

How do  we find that shared sense of community?

There’s a reason our Methodist founders named their national university “The American University.” We were meant to train leaders in service to the church, nation, and the world. Leaders in service.

What we were here to do had a purpose that went beyond the acquisition of knowledge or the provision of job competencies. We were creating a culture of service to the broader society. Of making a meaningful difference in the world. Of helping to lead the great institutions of our society to make a better, more just society.

There is a mission to our work here. A vision. A set of values of open and honest inquiry, of servant leadership, and of affirming the human dignity of all that provides a core around which this AU community exists. That is our common identity. That is the Unity which binds us together in common purpose and common destiny as a university community.

And that purpose gives us the oopportunity to model something extraordinary. Because if we can reclaim our common purpose, then we reclaim our common identity—our oneness despite our manyness.

We have an opportunity. If we can claim that mission, that purpose, and those values that define us—and to understand them as the foundations of our unity—then we can build common community in our diversity. And in so doing, we create not just a better climate on our own campus, but train generations of leaders who are able to do the same everywhere they go.

The relationship between the many and the one was a problem that vexed the ancient philosophers, and continues to vex us. But here in this place and time, we can demonstrate that true community is not defined by our ancestry, our age, our race, our sex, our gender, our sexual orientation, our ideology, or our creed, but by our coming together around a common sense of mission and purpose, guided by a shared set of values that we cherish.

This is a very American enterprise. And if we can model that work at American University, then we can help to bring healing to a divided American people. We can help to forge out of many, one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *