Two years ago, we moved from a rather hideous 1970s breeze block house to a detached Victorian former farmhouse. It has lots of lovely features, one of which is a walk-in pantry off the kitchen. One member of our family (who shall remain nameless) has a thing about Tupperware, so several shelves of this pantry have neat rows of containers, all carefully labelled. It is actually very useful—when you need to find something, there it is in front of you. Kitchen life would be a good deal more complicated if we had to lift the lid of everything before we knew what was in it.
But labels are rather out of vogue when it comes to faith and theology. No-one wants to be ‘labelled’—no-one wants to be put in a box (after all, it doesn’t help creative thinking, does it?). Every time a new bishop is appointed in the Church of England, I wait for the opening speech ‘I am not an X, I am here for everyone in the Church’ (though some Xs are, strangely, more quickly disowned than others). In an interview a couple of years ago, Nicky Gumbel notably disowned the label ‘evangelical’ in the name of rejecting labeling.
NG: This may sound pernickety but I wouldn’t describe myself as an evangelical. These are labels, which I don’t think are helpful. If I was going to use any label it would be Christian, and if you push me any further I’d say I’m an Anglican – that’s the family of the Church that I belong to. There’s nothing wrong with any of the other labels, but if you have any of them I want them all. If you’re going to say, ‘I’m Catholic, liberal, evangelical…’ let’s have them all.
But it’s worth asking a few questions about this. First, is it really honest? If you walked in Holy Trinity Brompton, I think you would have a rather different experience from walking into the Brompton Oratory just around the corner. It is all very well saying ‘I am evangelical and catholic’ but HTB really isn’t ‘catholic’ in the way most people would understand it! Conversely, the term ‘evangelical’ appears to have become very flexible, and instead of any recognisable continuity with past evangelical commitments, it is often used to mean ‘I quite like reading the Bible.’
And this highlights another key issue. Do labels create differences between people, or do they function as a way to identify and recognize difference? The rice and the pasta sitting on our pantry shelves are not distinct because we have labeled them; the labels help us recognize the differences that are already there. My theological differences with others don’t arise because I own a different theological label; my label is simply a recognition that I have particular convictions about faith and theology, and not everyone is going to share these convictions.
I quite understand why people might dislike labels—after all, they are easily misused. It is knowledge to recognize that a tomato is a fruit (in biological terms); it is wisdom to avoid putting it in a fruit salad. Labels can mislead, can put unnecessary limitations on someone—and can be used in a power play. I don’t look with envy at the various contests currently being fought across the pond concerning who is allowed to call themselves ‘evangelical’.
But it is as much a power play to say ‘Anyone can call themselves evangelical’ as it is to say ‘Only certain people can’, and the same is true of any label. None of us is immune from the dangers of such strategies, and rejecting labels can be as manipulative as claiming them. Last week on television news, two people were debating ‘that’ issue, and at one point one of the guests turned to the other and commented ‘I value the Bible just as much as you do’. But it was patently obvious at every turn in the discussion that the one thing most separating these two people was the way they read the Bible, and in particular the way that they related it to their own personal experience (or failed to). The claim that ‘We aren’t very different; we have the same label’ actually obscured the issue and stifled proper debate.
And this takes us to the heart of the issue. We seem to be living in times where wider culture finds it increasing difficult to handle difference. We are happy as long as everyone signs up to (some rather nebulous) British values, which of course includes the idea of being ‘tolerant’ and ‘inclusive’. But tolerance appears, all too often, to involve eliminating differences of view rather than recognizing that people have genuinely different views, often for very good reasons. It is only when we recognize these differences that we can offer genuine respect, genuine interest, and a genuine willingness to listen and learn from others.
This is why I find particularly odd the idea that I need to disown my label or my tradition in order to be ‘here for everyone’. Is it really not possible to respect, value, even encourage someone in their own tradition without leaving go of mine? Is it not possible to empathise and support someone else with whom I have genuine differences? It could be argued that I can only exercise empathy when I recognize how different the ‘other’ is from me. Empathy is about entering into the different and distinct world of the ‘other’, not imagining that we inhabit the same world as each other.
In the New Testament, there are two words for ‘other’. One of them (allos) means ‘another like the first one’ and this is the term Jesus uses when he talks of ‘another Counsellor, the Holy Spirit’ (John 14.16). But when Paul encourages his readers to ‘think of others ahead of yourself’ (Phil 2.4) he uses a different word (heteros)—another who is not like me. Over the years, I have learnt many things from people who are not like me. Learning from them has changed me, but it has not made me identical to them. I have, for the most part, retained my identity, but incorporated the insights of ‘others’ and valued their wisdom.
In our walk-in pantry, proper labeling makes differences clear, and allows us to find what we need and use the right ingredients at the right time. In faith and theology, proper, careful and thoughtful labeling can help us recognize difference, respect other traditions, and foster conversation. That doesn’t mean that everyone who owns a label speaks for everyone else with that label; we remain individuals with our own views.
In case you hadn’t spotted it, I am an evangelical. What’s your label?
(This article first appeared in Christian Today on 22nd January 2016.)
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