This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to talk with Bishop Craig Berland on the Christ Enlight Podcast. We spoke quite a bit about the various social roles we play in society. We talked about how people try to define and label their sexual orientation, their economic class and how their stories are crafted in obituaries.
There was one area of social labeling that we didn’t directly touch on. I was reminded of it by a post on Rev. Thomas Perchlik’s blog. He describes an interfaith book reading group and one of the books they read. It was written by Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright. Perchik quoted the following passage:
“Just as many who were brought up to think of God as a bearded old gentleman sitting on a cloud decided that when they stopped believing in such a being they had therefore stopped believing in God, so many who were taught to think of hell as a literal underground location full of worms and fire…decided that when they stopped believing in that, so they stopped believing in hell. The first group decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of God, they must be atheists. The second decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of hell, they must be universalists.”
— N.T. Wright (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church)
Universalists, Athiests, Fundamentalists, Agnostics, Evangelicals, Pagans, Muslims… What is your spiritual orientation? What label do you place on it? (According to the Belief-o-Matic on Beliefnet, I am a “liberal Quaker.”)
We choose our labels through church shopping or book reading or by an accident of being born into a certain faith. Yet what we most fundamentally believe and perceive about the nature of the divine, the transcendent, the universe and how to get along with people on earth is fluid. It changes throughout a life and as our personal situations change. The wisdom a person needs to deal with loss is different from the wisdom a person needs to deal with happiness.
But once we have given a label to what we find most sacred, we feel a pressure to be consistent to that label. As we try to make our feelings conform to all that we think these spiritual labels mean, we voluntarily limit our mental options. “I’m a Universalist, I don’t believe in Hell, so I can’t read Blake.” (I’ve never actually heard anyone say this, but you get the idea.)
There are, of course, benefits to labels or we wouldn’t be so keen on them. They are a shorthand that allow us to build a community of reasonably like minded people without having to spend months with each individual trying to sort out just what each one actually believes and values on a whole host of topics. No one has time for that, and as much as we would like to love all of humanity in an abstract sense, the number of people with whom we can actually maintain that level of intimacy is finite because we are mortal and finite.
Still, it is useful to ask from time to time how much of what we think we believe based on our own free will and rationality is really a way of reinforcing our self-definitions. How many of our conflicts with others derive not from real differences of opinion, but the desire to defend our labels?