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Labels and Categories and Language

In following this Rob Bell fiasco, I’m reminded of some of my own misgivings in my failures as I am judged or I judge others. Categories and labels are thrown around so we can better identify what we like and don’t like about what someone presents about themselves.

A few years ago, I used to go around and randomly in conversations throw out the ‘fact’ that I was a communist. I didn’t really know what this meant, but I said it for two reasons. What I did think about communism was a good and beautiful way to live and I loved the reactions that I got from people. I just saw communism as a system built on equality instead of insatiable greed. This was good. Communism was where no one was allowed to think just of themselves and run away with no limit but all wealth was created for the wealth of community. So when I said I was a communist, that’s all I meant. I was confused as to why people reacted so strongly and I’m sure they were confused as to why I was promoting an oppressive economic system as if it was the latest movie I just went to see. Some who knew anything at all about communism, especially in terms of historical realities of it, would have certainly thought I was nuts. The issue here was not communism. In fact, this really had nothing to do with communism. The issue was always that I was unable to express my thoughts of equality and selflessness without finding some sort of label to attach to it. That label to anyone else who actually knew what they were talking about, when heard, meant something completely different than what I was actually trying to say. I needed to learn to speak better about what I thought, I needed to be more informed and I needed to be less agitating just to get a rise and play on people.

This same thing happened in my recent ordination interviews. For the most part I used terms or was labeled with terms to try and explain where I was coming from and what I actually believed. It ended up being a disaster. By the end of it, no one knew what I believed so I ended up getting stuck with labels that I never would have used myself. As a result, the folks that were interviewing me assumed one thing, I thought another but I always did a poor job of communicating it to them. They did a poor job of looking past labels and trigger words and I did a poor job at speaking in a way that made sense to them. In the end I don’t think my interviews were ever about the theological misunderstandings. I think it was about an inability to look past scary labels and do the hard work of expressing myself in a way that not just was true to how I felt, but also made what I said to be true to how they understood me.

I am a universalist.

That sentence, to my readers, instantly either brought a sigh of relief, a AHA moment or a bit of anger. But really, those four words mean nothing. I didn’t define it. I didn’t explain myself. All those emotions that you may or may have not felt are completely created inside of you, they have nothing to do with me. You don’t have a clue what I’m talking about and you don’t have a clue what I mean by it. Even if we both knew what it meant, I can guarantee you they are probably different definitions. Yet there is something you feel towards me. You either feel on my side or you feel like finally the line has been made to prove that we are against each other. Yet, the phrase means nothing. It’s nothing more than a tool to create some type of reference point to how you feel towards me. Unless we are in relationship, and we are having the hard conversations about these kinds of issues, labels don’t fit. Even then, I am not sure if they do.

Rob Bell is a universalist to anyone who has decided that they know what he believes and they know what universalism is and they are the same. Congratulations, you put him in a category. You now have something to fight against. Who cares about reading his book, he’s a flaming liberal universalist, you already know the nonesense he says, why bother? Labels are for those who don’t want to do the hard theological work of explaining and re-explaining why he isn’t accurate in his understanding of our faith.

I don’t really have any problems with siding with an universalist. I don’t have any problem siding with a neo-calvinist. I do have serious issues with those that refuse to enter into a debate and offer anything of value and would rather sit at the sidelines and toss out useless opinions (like this post most likely). Just read more, better understand why you disagree with someone, then research the issue, and then formulate as to why you don’t like it. Use your beautiful language to explain the shortcomings, and then use your language to create an alternative that you think is better. That is a proper way to disagree with someone.

Now that I have officially called myself out for the way that I have disagreed with people in the past on this blog, I hope that I may have inspired a few to be more silent and speak wisely.

2 Comments

  • Thanks Nathan, beautifully said.

  • I think our lives are going past at such a furious pace we don’t have the time to have the conversations. Sad. Very sad.

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