I have long claimed that people who castigate religion for being divisive either do not know what they are talking about, or secretly fear the power of religion not to divide but to unite -- and, specifically, to unite against them and their own unacknowledged interests. First, while it is true that Islam has had bloody borders, it is not otherwise true that most wars have been fought over religion. A cursory look at history shows that wars are fought over territory, or goods, or either of those masquerading as an offended national pride. Rome fought wars almost constantly, from the time the Romans wriggled out from under their Etruscan overlords, to the time the last emperor was send packing to a monastery by Odoacer, and none of those wars were wars of religion. The Greek city states were ever quarreling, although they shared pretty much the same religion; and indeed, religion was one of the few things that could suffice to unite them in celebrating the games, or driving out the Persian invaders. Nationalist wars were fought under the guise of religion for a relatively brief time during the early modern period, but a glance at what France was doing under Francis I, or under Richelieu, should dispel the notion that religion, rather than what was perceived as the national interest, was the main motivation for French foreign policy. I say this, knowing full well that people hardly need an excuse to pick a fight -- and that religion will sometimes serve the purpose.
In general, however, people are not united by a common pursuit of lower things, as Hobbes and the atomists thought, but by their common adherence to a good that transcends them all. The reason is easy to see. If life is conceived as nothing more than the race to satisfy appetites, then, whether we live in a commonwealth or not, we are essentially at war with one another. You are my rival. What you gain, I lose. It does not matter, either, that we may live in a commonwealth with an expanding economy. If my neighbor gains, then I must gain to keep up appearances; his very gain spurs in me the appetite of emulation. Nor can I rejoice in his advantages. If he is good looking and intelligent and lucky, while I am plain and average and unlucky, he stands as a reproach to me. I can only be glad for him if we are united by something that relegates such things as the building of a nice house or the securing of a prestigious job to the lower order where they belong. I can meet him in the realm of higher "values," says the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. In friendship, all that he enjoys is transformed for me; it is as if I enjoyed them likewise for his sake. But without friendship, nothing can really be enjoyed at all. It would be like sex without love, a feast without laughter.
Now friendship in its highest form, the ancient pagans almost all agree, is founded upon a common vision -- of the Good, as Plato calls it. That is, you are not my friend because of your usefulness to me; Aristotle and Cicero both roundly deny that utility is the bond of true friendship, because once the occasion for the utility disappears, the bond dissolves. You and I rather are friends because together we behold something beyond ourselves, and this something serves to make each of us identify the other's good as his own. All of which is but a natural preamble to the Christian faith. What, after all, does Jesus pray for his disciples, but that they may be one, as he and the Father are one? And what is the bond of unity among Christians, says Saint Paul, if not that Spirit of love that makes of them one body, the mystical body of Christ? It is of the essence of prayer, says Pope Benedict, that it be undertaken in solidarity with one's fellow Christians, for even when we retire to our rooms to pray, we must not think that we are praying alone, but rather in communion with others.
Something that happened to me at my school may help illustrate the point. There was a certain professor who had long been severely critical of our school's signature program in western civilization. So critical was he, that the man who ran the honors section of the program -- a saintly man who passed away a few years ago -- invited him to teach in it. That changed his life. A year later I found myself standing beside him at Mass -- he was preparing for baptism. I had not suspected it. But there I stood next to him, praying the Our Father, falling to our knees together, and I felt a wave of generosity come over me; for the first time I saw him not as the rival who sought to undermine the program I loved, but as a brother. In the years since, he has never met me with anything other than a smile; and I hope I have returned the same.
In Christ, we are one. In Christ, we are set free -- free to dispense with ourselves and our appetites, free to lavish one another with love, if only we would avail ourselves more often of that offered freedom. How good it is when brothers and sisters come together in unity! Allow me another illustration. Last year I met a man who for four years was the roommate of one of the nation's most prominent despisers of God. He told me of the man's deeply unhappy childhood. and said that he prays for him all the time. It is a fearful thing to consider what would happen if once, just once, his former roommate would deign to return the favor, or but endeavor to return it with sincere intent. Theirs would be a communion and joy so great as to transform all the past years and flood them with light and laughter.