Blast from the past: On Labels…

I’ve decided to use my Sunday posts to share some old thoughts. This one comes from April 2016, but in many ways is even more relevant today – especially having read this post from Theos (posted 6th April 2018).

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.


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