Monday, November 11, 2013

Positively Labeling

I was reading a story the other day about some religious topic where the writer got off topic and referenced an incident that occurred in a bookstore.  A man of Hispanic origin (I don't know why he felt the need to include the man's ethnicity in this) ran into this writer in the Bibles section of a bookstore asking if the writer could help in selecting a Bible for him, but with the insistence that the Bible be a Catholic Bible.  The writer asked why and the man responded that he is a  Catholic, not a Christian.

There are probably any number of variants upon a story like this which end with  "I'm not Christian, I'm (fill in the confession here)."  Of course, we could spend hours arguing with this man in the article that Catholics are Christians but not all Christians are Catholics ad nauseam.  And, it won't do a lot of good.  Of course, there is the reverse situation. Many people will identify themselves as Christians but go out of their way to insist that they are NOT Lutheran, they are NOT Methodist, they are NOT (Roman) Catholic, they are NOT Presbyterians, etc.  So, what are we to do with labels?  Should we embrace them?  Discard them?  A little of both?

The fact is that as human beings we have this need to categorize and define.  In fact, I would argue that our western civilization's existence is predicated upon the need for nice and neat categories, following the lead (or we think we are following the lead) of Aristotle who held that all that is known is knowable.  And because what is known is knowable, there are different categories to explain how something is known.  I've always thought Aristotle was the most boring philosopher.  If anyone takes the time to read him, his works read like dry lecture notes from a college professor who has been teaching the same college course for 45 years in the same tweed jacket.

We label both positively and negatively.  We label ourselves by what we are and by what we are not.  I would submit that we do the latter more than the former simply because it's much easier to say what were against and thus be vague to proclaim what we are in favor of.  So, what should we do with labels in the Christian world? 

I argue that we keep the labels and we keep them positively.  Rather than define ourselves by what we aren't, Christians of all confessions need to state emphatically what they are.  And my reasoning is simple: it's the honest thing to do.

How many people have left one church for another because they heard good music at the new church, or they heard the pastor's sermons were good, or they had a good kids' program?  So they go to the new church and later on they hear a sermon on something doctrinal which leaves the recent converts in a state of shock.  "What?" they ask.  "That's what this pastor, this church, this congregation believes?  I didn't sign up for this."  They leave as quickly as they came.

Of course, it helps if the label is defined consistently across the board.  Seventy five years ago, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans didn't have the internal differences from church to church they do now.  One person's Lutheran church is often not the same as another person's Lutheran church.   Lutehran does not mean the same for an ELCA Lutheran as it does for an LCMS Lutheran.  What's more important then?  The name or the meaning behind the name?

We Orthodox have many problems in this country.   One of our big problems is that as we are being introduced to more and more people across the USA,  too often we end up defining ourselves in terms of what we're not.  Oh, we're not like those Protestants and their clappy happy praise services.  We're not like those Catholics and their allegiance to the pope or opposition to birth control.  Defining yourself in terms of what you're not leaves too much room for people to guess who you really are.  Is that the kind of introduction you want to give to seekers?  No one introduces himself by saying, "Hi, my name is not Mr. Smith or Mr. Williams or Mr. Jones."

The would-be Bible purchaser above probably knew exactly what he meant by Catholic.  We, Orthodox, too should know exactly (as far as human speech allows) what is meant by Orthodox and articulate that positively.  Saying who we're dislike only invites antagonism.  If we begin saying that we're not like the Presbyterians, it would not be completely unfair to hear the retort "what have you got against them?"  Let us use the label Orthodox positively, let it be defined and, most importantly, practiced positively. 

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