A Way Forward (Part Three): Resisting Labels

My argument began with a call for us to separate Christian Faith from the cultural baggage we’ve assumed, whether that is the syncretism of political dynamics or the sacralization of cultural patterns. The second leg of the argument privileged religious practice, regardless of denominational affiliation, over issues of self-identification. These two components lead to a third part of the argument: the labels we toss around in our intra-Christianity fights are counterproductive and need to go.

It’s not uncommon for sociologists like me to try to make distinctions between forms of religious groups. We have labels like Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainline, Spiritual But Not Religious, and Religious “Nones”. We are more likely than theologians to define these in terms people actually use rather than through some pedigree of intellectual history. But such definitions are as varied as the people who use them.

In fact, I’m coming to believe that the primary function of these labels is negative. Decades ago, Richard Quebedeaux said Evangelicals were “polite fundamentalists”. As I’ve written, certain mainliners want people to know that they aren’t like “those evangelicals with all their political stances”. Evangelicals distinguish themselves from mainliners who hold an “anything goes” mentality. The SNBR folks say that faith is important but don’t want anything to do with the corruptions of organized religion.

If I’m correct that the labels operate as negative referents, then we wind up doing serious damage to the way the church is viewed within larger social discourse. It’s easy to pick out extremists, to caricature positions, and write blog posts castigating others (or others as they exist in the author’s imagination).

For a long time, my social media feeds have been the window through which I could see these label battles play out. Someone will post something, others will respond, the initial poster or a supporter will write on what’s wrong with the responders, and the whole thing goes on ad infinitum. I’m not casting stones, here, just making sociological observations — I’m guilty of this as my next post is a direct response to things written about millennials. Mystery of faith

But today, my social media feeds don’t allow me to distinguish between labels. Today, Easter Sunday, the communications are all about what the liturgies refer to as the Great Mystery of Faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Facebook is full of call and response: “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!” In these historic sentiments, as well as in the creeds, we get the heart of the church as both theological and sociological expression. We believe in God, creator of heaven and earth. In Christ’s incarnation, passion, and emerging reign. In the Spirt who brings together “the holy catholic church”. In the mystery of the trinity, where all this is caught up together in the Godhead that I cannot begin to fathom.

As I was working on this post, Scott Emery posted the text of an Easter sermon N.T. Wright gave four years ago.  I recognize that many of the themes therein were related to the ideas Wright later developed in When God Became King. The entire sermon is worth reading, but this passage stood out to me.

The resurrection points the way to a new sort of life, a new way of life, a way which is neither the brittle pseudo-correctness of a church out of touch with the people, nor the cloying pseudo-righteousness of a pontificating press, but the humble yet clear testimony that though we are foolish and ignorant, God is all wise and all knowing; that though we get it badly wrong, when we face up and say ‘Sorry’ God forgives us because of the cross of Jesus Christ and shows us how to live out the implications of that costly forgiveness; that though death, corruption and deceit appear to have the last word, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Too much of the church’s history and the church’s present has been caught up in determining who was in and who was out. But the focus has primarily been on those on the outside of the circles we draw. This may stem from old-fashioned status anxiety — if we can define right belief and practice by separating from some others we can feel more confident in our standing with God.

But this is a a snare. The more I look for reasons to think I’m more faithful (because I reject the idea of labels as all good Christians should) then I’ve shifted the grounds for my salvation from the mystery of the resurrection to my own efforts, commitments, and arguments.

What binds us together as people of faith are these simple declarations. He is Risen Indeed! Nothing more than that. To be sure, the farther we walk in faith, the more complicated the implications Wright addresses become. But we are walking together in this journey of faith. We don’t stand in superiority to others, looking down on them from our certainty. We didn’t win some cosmic battle with white hats and black hats. We are pilgrims walking by faith. Frederick Buechner puts it like this:

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anybody else. Just better informed.

This is the embrace of what C.S. Lewis, in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, called The Deep Magic. The recognition that we have all benefitted from a truly incredible act. One that brings us together and allows us to live into the New Kingdom.

One of my all-time favorite sociology quotes is from Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology, written in 1963. Berger wrote: “Only he who understands the rules is in a position to cheat.” This sentence summarizes why I study sociology.

It also summarizes what it means to walk in a community of faith with people with varied theological presuppositions. We understand that we are connected to the reality of God’s plan as expressed in creation, covenant, exodus, diaspora, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, pentecost, and emerging reign. We know the story and that allows us to live as brothers and sisters instead of competing factions.

Sharing that story without condescension will provide a bright path forward for faithful Christians in a world where religion holds less of a central role. That’s Good News for all of us.

 

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