Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Labels, labels

Every time I write a post, I apply a label to it, so that it is easily categorized on the right side of the page for future reference. It would be almost impossible to find what you were looking for by simply clicking through my posts, so the thought is to provide a manageable set of categories which are more easily browsed.

The human brain does the same thing. According to some scientists, the brain is capable of maintaining stable social relationships with somewhere around 150 people as a maximum. It is called Dunbar’s Number, and while you may casually know more people than this, it says that the total number of people you can actually engage with—colleagues, church members, friends, and family all included—is around 150. (Dunbar chose the rather specific number of 148, but others put it anywhere from 100 to 150).

Yet all of us interact with far more people. We all interact with hundreds of people every day. So how do we handle it?

Well, unfortunately, we approach them just like a blog post: we label them.

By labeling someone, we are able to more easily interact with them. We no longer have to maintain a stable social relationship, see them as a real person, and understand their motivations and actions. Instead, we can simply put them in a nice, clear-cut box and filter everything through that box.

For example—last week I watched a play that had a lot of teenagers in it. Like most teenage boys, they were kind of weird awkward and skinny and acne-riddled. This is probably 80% or teenage boys. Yet what was my initial emotional reaction? “Drama kids are such geeks. I hope my boys don’t grow up that way.”

I had to stop myself. What an unfair, judgmental thing to think! Yet that is how we do with most people. We label people by their job or their skin color or their background or their education or some other attribute. We take this single attribute and all decisions are filtered through that.

Rather than deal with someone as a real person, we see them purely as a “pastor”—that is, we respond to their label rather than their person. Rather than engage the person as a real child of the living God, made in His holy image, we dismiss them, saying, “She’s a stay-at-home mom”, or “He’s just a Catholic” or “What do you expect from a Democrat?” Because it is much easier to be dismissive, rude, and uncaring about a label than it is about a real person.

With that being said, let’s have a look at some common examples of how we label people, rather than treat them as people:


Liberal or Conservative
Of course, lots of people label themselves or their friends as liberal or conservative in a positive light. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about when someone calls another person a liberal or conservative as though it were a swear word. I’m talking about using the word “liberal” like Glenn Beck uses it, or “conservative” like Al Franken uses it. When we reduce someone to the label of “liberal” in this way, we are essentially calling them godless socialists bent on destroying America; when someone is called a “conservative” in the hateful way, they are seen as greedy corporatists who don’t care about people. So immediately their thoughts are discarded.

Consider the examples I just gave. How many liberals can actually listen to Glenn Beck and say, “You know, he makes a valid point here.”? None. Because to them, he’s a crazy right-wind conservative. In the same way, because conservatives see Al Franken as a smarmy liberal, they completely disregard everything he said. Why? Because they fail to see the people as people, but rather as simply a label.

Arminian or Calvinist
Oh, here’s the big one for us Protestants. If someone is labeled a Calvinist, then they are seen as a cold-hearted, predestination, hard-liner on election. If someone is labeled an Arminian, then they are seen as denying the sovereignty of God and believing that you can lose your salvation. But by putting that label on someone, we reduce their complexity and theological searching to a simple check-box. Of course, this is silly. There are five points of Calvinism, and five opposing points of Arminianism. I don’t know of hardly anyone who, if questioned, are not a mix-match of the two philosophies. For example, most evangelicals agree with Calvin that they cannot contribute to their own salvation (total depravity) and that they cannot lose their salvation (perseverance of the saints). But notice the difference: do you call them “a three-point Arminian” or a “two-point Calvinist”? Notice how easily that is shortened to simply “Calvinist” and “Arminian”, as though every person were at an extreme of every theology. We treat everyone thrown in the Calvinist box as though they were hyper-Calvinist (the non-elect should not be evangelized and cannot choose faith), and we treat everyone in the Arminian box as though they were Pelagians (who reject original sin and depravity).

So rather than take the time to get to understand our fellow Christians—“do you believe that God’s grace can be turned down?”, “do you believe that Christ died for only some?”, etc.—we instead toss them into one of two boxes (no matter how bad the fit) and call it a day. Then we are free to over-simplify their thoughts and actions, reject their philosophies. If there is anything they say that we disagree with, we chalk it up to them being a Calvinist or them being an Arminian.

Evolutionist or Creationist
This may sound weird to say, as I have well-documented my creationism in the past. However, what I am talking about here is our tendency again to reduce a complex issue with many different valid philosophies into two big label-heavy buckets. Evolutionists are portrayed as godless scientists bent on destroying belief in God; creationist are portrayed as backward hillbillies who deny science and think Jesus rode on dinosaurs. Rather than engage a very complex situation with regard to its complexity, we over-simplify everything into these categories.

We ignore the fact that there are very smart, very well-meaning Christians whose beliefs range everywhere from Theistic Evolution to Progressive Evolution to Old Earth Creationism to Day-Age Creationism to Gap Creationism to traditional Young Earth Creationism. We ignore these very real possibilities and instead say that everyone is either a godless scientist or a stupid Christian—rather than engaging them as real, intelligent people who are simply seeking out the truth.


My point is not that any of the above philosophies are right or wrong. My point is that reducing a complex, thinking human being, made in the image of God to a single label is wrong. It belittles the person and ends any effective chance to grow a relationship.

And that is why my motto here has always been, and will always continue to be, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.”

1 comment:

  1. I like your stance of "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love." Above all things, love must take priority. Its the core of the "great mystery" that regards the triune nature of our Father and the highest mortal relationship, marriage. Its important for us all to remember in our personal lives, we must be slow to label and attack ways that are not our own. We should be concerned when others, especially loved ones or "neighbors/brothers", are not on the path in the essentials; but when it comes to the non-essentials we must remember that the Lord our God is the Most-High Judge, and its not our place to take. Rather, we should take a "stance" in the method of Joshua: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." As Paul speaks about the positions of "eating meat" in Romans 14, he said "22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin." That is not to say that there are not wrongful practices out there in existence.. But we should certainly be convinced of our faith and methods/practices but be slow to judge and condemn on non-essentials. If we catch ourselves doing that, it would be better to redirect the judgement back at ourselves for self-analysis and the further renewal of our own mind.

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