on labels…

Another thought that has been occupying my mind recently has been how quick we are in wanting to apply labels to identify both ourselves and others.  I know that this isn’t exactly a new problem, or even something that might not cause too many people too much concern, but even in an era of inclusion and diversity, we seem to want to categorise groups rather than truly seek to know the individual.  In particular I want here to focus on religious faith and practice, but so much of what I’ve noticed could apply well beyond this area.

What sparked off some of this thinking was a series of articles written over the last year or so on the theme of the rise of the ‘nones’, both in America and the U.K. (have a read of both of the articles if you’ve got time – loads of interesting ideas therein).  Put simply, a ‘none’ is someone who when asked about their religious beliefs or affiliation would answer ‘no religion’.  Amongst the under forties (or millenials to use another label!) in America about 30% would answer ‘none’ – in the UK that figure rises to 60%.  Indeed, in both societies the overwhelming evidence is that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be ‘not religious’.

Clearly, this is a huge issue for religions – and it isn’t a solely Christian problem – with many resources, services and evangelism programmes being developed to try to reach out to this growing number of those who seem to be far outside of the reach of what currently exists.  I remember hearing a someone describe young people who would fall into this category as having a ‘whisper of an echo of a memory’ of religion – the last meaningful regular religious participation within their close family and social network being two to three generations earlier.  These are people for whom all the traditional models simply don’t work.  

Britain (and I’d imagine America within a generation) could accurately be described as post-Christian – an increasingly secular society where the privileges that established religion once had are gradually being stripped away.  This can cause all sorts of angst – including a persecution complex amongst some – particularly with the liberalisation of social attitudes and acceptance as the norm of traditionally ‘unchristian’ behaviour.  

What sustains hope within the religious community is the strong number who would say they were ‘spiritual but not religious’ – people who may still believe that there is some kind of ‘higher power’, but aren’t entirely sure what that means in terms of how it affects them and how they live their lives.  They may even have what might classicly be described as religious experiences, or hold close to what religion claims about key figures and religious texts – but for whatever reason they don’t want to be identified as being ‘religious’.  

Indeed, closer examination of the research tells us that only a small minority (roughly 7% in the US and 13% in the UK) are strongly atheist or anti-religion.  So, fundamentally, to state that under forties are not religious isn’t necessarily stating that they aren’t awake to the possibilities of the spiritual life.  Religion no longer plays an important role in their lives – but exploring the ‘other’ may be something that they would still be willing to undertake, given the language and space to do so.  Church may be viewed as ‘boring’ or ‘irrelevant’ – but to claim that updating worship styles and the style of communication would deal with that is an adventure in missing the point.  Nones are just as likely to find rich meaning in and through liturgy and plainsong as through pop-culture influenced outreach programmes.

I’ve written elsewhere on our own journey away from established religion (de or un-churched), but I guess that I would be very comfortable in identifying myself as a follower of Jesus. However, I might be very careful in describing myself as Christian.  I think that this is more than just semantics – nor am I ‘ashamed’ to be linked with the rich tradition and heritage of Christian thought and practice.  

Reflecting on this, I think there could be two things at work here. Firstly, to state that I were Christian might (falsely) imply that I regularly attended a church service or were a practising member of a specific denomination.   Religion, whichever way we seek to define it, is as much about a set of rituals and practices as it is about what we believe.  It implies certain things about the person carrying that label which cannot be sustained if one is beyond that place.  I still read the Bible and find the narrative of the people of God and the story of Jesus utterly captivating – I even occasionally try to pray, but I don’t do this within the context of a religious community…or at least one that might be recognised a such by others.  

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, for many (including at times myself), the word itself has come to be loaded with all sorts of unhelpful baggage around intolerance and exclusion.  Put simply, I don’t believe that following Jesus is about pointing out who is or isn’t part of my tribe.  I’m not interested insetting up barriers.  It seems to me that the Jesus of the Bible was all about inclusion, throwing open the doors of the kingdom to those considered far outside.  Indeed, his harshest words were often focused on those who placed their religious beliefs and practices before their (God-given) humanity.  Christianity, meanwhile, has become increasingly identified with traditionalism, with fighting a rearguard action against the (evil?) forces of liberal secularism.  I just don’t think Jesus would be sitting on that side of the discussion.  Jesus is counter-cultural, radical and revolutionary. 

Strike that.  Jesus is beyond words and steadfastly refuses to be labelled. I’ll happily follow that.

Labels don’t help me here.  They require too much energy in establishing and defending.  They’re useful in giving us a sense of where people might be, but they can possibly give us a false impression of what people might actually think and do.  They may even close doors where we would want to keep them firmly open.  They limit. They separate – creating ‘them’ and ‘us’.  I want more than this.

I may be described as a millennial, post-evangelical, post-Christian progressive liberal, but I’m me – a complex mess of thoughts, dreams, hopes…someone who is trying to make sense of a whole lot of different things whilst trying to figure out how best to be fully human and to leave the world a better place than when I arrived.  

Surely that’s the point, isn’t it?  That would be worth gathering together with others to do and be? That would be something we’d be willing to sacrifice ourselves for.

I don’t want to defined by what I’m against, but by what I’m for. That’s a label that I might settle for.

6 thoughts on “on labels…

  1. Labels – Yes how quick we are to want a label on anyone/anything so we can apply our existing preconceptions. Now thankfully retired when people ask me what I do I throw them by saying ‘I simply am’.

    On the subject of the decline of religion and religious traditions, it comes from the family by and large – and I have found the definitions by UNESCO on endangered languages give me a way to think about this. Both my wife and my wife’s parents were devout Anglicans, and brought us up in this tradition. Now my wife and I would describe ourselves as religious, but barely engage with organised religion – and our children would be among the ‘nones’. This is courtesy of Wikipedia:

    UNESCO operates with four levels of language endangerment beyond “safe” (not endangered), based on intergenerational transfer: “vulnerable” (not spoken by children outside the home), “definitely endangered” (children not speaking), “severely endangered” (only spoken by the oldest generations), and “critically endangered” (spoken by few members of the oldest generation, often semi-speakers).[2] Using an alternative scheme of classification, linguist Michael E. Krauss defines languages as “safe” if it is considered that children will probably be speaking them in 100 years; “endangered” if children will probably not be speaking them in 100 years (approximately 60–80% of languages fall into this category); and “moribund” if children are not speaking them now.[3]

    1. Thanks for that Stephen. I really like link to language – after all religious practices are a form of language aren’t they? I’m fascinated by the transference/transmission of belief, especially as we have two young daughters who (by the choices we’ve made) are not growing up in a faith community. How do I help them to grow into faith when so far removed from what I experienced as I grew up.

  2. Working through your thoughts after being away for a couple of days.

    I’m not sure the rise of the nones is a cause for angst, having people encounter Christianity without the watered down version of childhood Christian thinking some receive or being forced to adopt their parents version of Christianity/ spirituality in my opinion is a good thing. I am thankful to God that I was raised in an atheistic family and so my encounter with Jesus was very personal and my situation gave me the chance to explore all versions of faith. Perhaps those who are afraid to allow their children to think for themselves may feel angst but I am more positive about a post Christian environment. As a minority religion I accept that general social ethics will not be Christian and I have no right to expect non Christians to adopt Christian values. I am a stranger in a strange land. Interesting research I read a while back about the different stages of Christian faith in first second and third generations.

    Moving on, this sense of spirituality links in with the concept of authenticity and how people’s lived experiences in some way do not match their desires, aspirations to live out a full life. This is something that Alan Mann, Atonement for a sinless society explores, he was interviewed recently on Nomad.

    One of the problems with the term ‘religious’ is all the historical baggage that comes along with the term. By using this word you leave yourself open to being misunderstood and ‘labelled’ since you can not control the meaning of the term. (Oops see you raise this later on.)

    Communication is an important issue, as ones use of language is. Worship is not ultimately about style but the underlying communication and engagement with ideas lived out in experience and hence changing style may work for some – I have my particular style which speaks/reflect my faith position but it may not speak to another.

    My main point is that labels are used because it is a short hand for understanding someone. Not in a negative way but in a way of processing information quickly. Throughout life we use technical terms as shorthand for concepts and ideas which would take a lot longer to explain otherwise. These labels can be be used negatively or positively. Unfortunately the same label can mean different things to different people and that is when miscommunication happens. Moving beyond labels requires more time to interact and gain knowledge and perhaps to listen more which perhaps is not where our culture is at present. Being more radical, surely what you are complaining about are when other people label you because you do not have control over the concept behind the language. You want to control the label/language/concept

    I personally have a problem with all this talk about Jesus being counter cultural etc there was so much about him that was not. I would argue he embraced his cultural heritage more that anyone else since he explored the significance of it. I know why people label him counter cultural but this is being equally lazy.

    Very happy to chat more.

    All language and actions require interpretation. Language and behaviour have cultural contexts and shared group assumptions. It is difficult but not impossible to move away from labels. Each community has a shared understanding of language, action and concepts so are you looking for a new community to evolve a fresh set of labels and actions which only those in the know understand?

    1. As ever it’s fantastic to hear your thoughts Richard. Lots to mull over, and I’m sure you’re right in most respects. Labels are useful, and provide us with a way of self-defining – a tribal identity as it were. I think where I want to dig beyond to is where we don’t stop at the label, that we move on to explore the people who lay behind them.

      You’re also right in challenging me to think about setting up a whole new system of labels as part of a new way of doing and being whatever it is that I’m trying to explore. It is inevitable – but again, I think the ideal to aim for is a place where labels are quickly set to one side, appreciated for their usefulness but also their limitations. I’m interested in multi-dimensional interactions and understanding. Labels have a habit of being mono-dimensional.

      Interestingly, I agree and disagree with you on the point about Jesus. He was a faithful Jew in an unfaithful (in terms of religious system of his day) society. I remember learning at some point in the distant past that to be radical means to return to the roots of whatever it is you are pursuing. In that sense, counter-cultural for me is an expression not of a 21st century reading, but of a first century Palestinian Jew who seeks to point his peers back to the real source of life and kingdom values (and therefore radical). He is literally moving against the religious culture that he so powerfully critiques on multiple occasions.

      I wonder if you’re around towards the end of the week to catch up for a chat?

  3. One final thought – my chief concern with labels is really about creating an ‘other’ from whom we differ, or perhaps more easily described as ‘them and us’ attitude. I have an idea for a post coming up which wants to explore this further – but as a brief synopsis I think that I’ll say that rather than spending too much time critiquing and pointing out how different (and therefore better!) we are, I’m interested in learning from the ‘other’, and valuing where I have come from, rather than running from it. Brian McLaren has, of course, done this far more eloquently than I ever could in his ‘Generous Orthodoxy’ – a book which was a crucial part of my journey.

    By the way – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your last few posts/book reviews – lots to chat about there too.

    1. Hi again,

      We are certainly two people divided by a common language – I think we have a huge amount in common about where we are coming from but perhaps have different solutions regarding the dilemma we face with the church communities we find ourselves amongst in Exeter.

      Classic – you loved McLauren and I fell asleep reading him and never got to the end.

      Communities require compromise since if we go down the everyone is an individual then you arrive at a community of one! therefore there will always be a compromise with language and the larger the community then perhaps the less satisfactory the language/label is.

      I totally get the use of labels as a negative and that is why I am never sure what I am anymore although I do like the progressive evangelical label since it probably annoys two traditions at the same time!

      I totally agree that difference does not or should not imply superiority although there always has to be an evaluation/truth claim made about knowledge. The classic example ‘there are no metanarratives’ is of course a metanarrative just as the value claim that everyone is equal and so no one is wrong claims superior knowledge over someone who believes they have the truth. – not sure I explained that well.

      I was just being a pain about the Jesus thing – I just wanted you to define it in more detail because labels…

      Chat later this week – I need more sleep than you youngsters.

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