Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us

By Layton E. Williams. Westminster John Knox Press, 2019. 236 pages. $17/paperback; $13/eBook.

As a southpaw youngster, I learned early that society regarded me as somehow different. When I learned what “gauche” and “sinister” meant, I was troubled for years trying to figure out why I was often told there was something wrong with me. Only later did I recognize these words as harmless folklore, and with further maturity eventually learned being different was a gift that significantly stimulated and guided my path to self-knowledge.

This simple example illustrates more or less how Williams uses the key word “gift” in this book. The first of the 12 disunities in which she discovers a gift is “difference.” It is the most widespread; there are almost innumerable ways in which people may be on the wrong side of being different. Her personal difference is that she, an ordained Presbyterian minister, belongs to the LGBTQ community, an identity that generated many personal experiences she refers to throughout the book. As an Enneagram Type Four (the Individualist), her long feeling of being rejected proved to be the point around which she built her sense of identity, and thus became a gift. Identifying and accepting differences has a much wider meaning: all our relationships to each other and to God are made possible, and allowed to grow, thanks to these very differences themselves.

The rest of the complex disunities in which she identifies a gift are paraphrased in the next 11 paragraphs: 

The inescapable human reckoning with doubt can be a doorway to discovery, sending us on journeys that lead to new truths.

We avoid disagreement as improper, but arguments that have a foundation of trust can turn into sacred dialogue: “We are called . . . to talk back.”

We often find ourselves in a tension between two truths: for instance, our insignificance and our significance. We are called upon to live in the space between the two, holding at the same time two seemingly opposite truths, and this gives us the gift of awareness that there is always more to the story.

Space is required for growth, and those spaces left by separation can be the fertile soil in which seemingly impossible things can grow.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable has transformative power, uncovering our authentic selves and fully seeing the struggles and humanity of others.

We flee from trouble, but it is better to see it for what it is: “that which troubles us seeks to tell us the truth.” It is the doorway to empathy that recognizes troubling truth for the purpose of responding to it.

Protest names that which may not be named, functioning as an inescapable mirror of a truth. We should, Williams tells us, be willing to give more offense.

Common to our humanity is our hunger for sustenance of body and spirit. The gift here is that this hunger reminds us of our connection to the rest of creation, a craving for some sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. It is our hunger that leads us to the Divine.

Being human means accepting limitations, and their gift to us is humility. The many kinds of limitations invite us to rely on each other, and overcoming them can lead to unanticipated things.

We are not good at seeing anything positive in failure, yet it does have gifts to offer us. It is our fear of failure that drives much of our fear of all 12 disunities. The gift is our chance to learn and grow.

We have little choice but to accept the reality that our journey is full of uncertainty. The more unassailable convictions and certainties become, the more hazardous they are as they prove to be illusions. Faithfulness in the face of uncertainty leads to its gift: the motivation for letting go.

Each chapter discusses how a particular disunity separates us, and concludes by urging how it can save us—what gift it offers. The numerous examples come from Williams’s own experience and that of her parishioners, and one section is always devoted to examples from the Bible. She does not claim that the 12 she has chosen are the only disunities, and it is easy enough to think of more. By letting go of the idol of unity, we can see what is holy in disunity. Each disunity is an opportunity for growth and transformation.

William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. He attempts to identify the gifts to be discovered in the recent separation of “social distancing.”

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