While reading an assigned chapter for my sacramental theology class, I came across a throwaway line about the divisions among Christian denominations: despite our divisions, we are united. Probably because I was highly caffeintated at the time (I'm not, now--fancy that), I wrote on my white-board: "Are we united in spite of our divisions, or are we divided in spite of our unity?" I can understand the optimistic impulse in ecumenical dialogue--it's healthy for progress. At the same time, I have a deep suspicion of throw-away lines meant to sustain a polite veil over what really is an ugly situation.
I am not saying that we definitely are divided in spit of our unity; but the question should be looked at.
To explain myself: the term you want to emphasize is always the second term in the sentence. I.e., "In spite of our [superficial quality], we are [deeper, underlying quality]." To say that we are united in spite of our divisions, is to imply that the divisions, real though they may be, occupy a superficial category relative to our unity. This can be taken in the extreme sense that the superficial category is actually illusory or trivial; the "divisions" mean nothing, and we can get along fine if we exclude discussion of them entirely, and focus only on the deeper unity. There is a powerful impulse in that direction in ecumenical dialogue, as well as interreligious dialogue. The fatal flaw in it is that it takes a category of details--i.e., those which are "superficial" relative to another, deeper category; and it makes them "superficial", absolutely. E.g., if belief in Mary as Mother of God divides us, and it is relatively more superficial than our agreed upon belief in the Trinity, then it is "superficial" can therefore can be discarded.
There is a logical confusion here. Relative superficiality is not the same as superficiality. Eyes are superficial organs relative to the human heart; that hardly means life would not be devastatingly affected if we plucked them out.
But even when the "superficial" category, i.e., the alleged divisions amid Christians, is not regarded so flippantly, it is still considered of less importance of the "deeper" category. It's a post-Vatican II truism--not to mention a doctrine as laid out by Ut Unum Sint, that the things that bond all Christians together as One are more profound than the things that divide them.
"If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow ever more united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what unites them" (UUS #22). (I can't believe I actually found that quote. Yay me.)
But bring the question into the philosophical realm (*note the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the background*), there remains a problem with speaking of more-or-less superficial categories of either division and/or unity" the referent.
Things are never simply relative to one-another. Why? Because to be relative to something else implies some level of distance (conceptual distance or phsyical distance); and wherever distance is implied, the limits of that distance are implied.
[I'm going to cut off this reflection, started last Friday, here. It was interrupted that night by a couple of beers with friends, thereby making analysis impossible. My mind has gone on to other things, and I no longer have motivation to finish. Yay, beer!]