A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Ill-Fitting Theological Shirt

John Byron has written an excellent post on the difficulty of theological labels especially the labels that land across the liberal/conservative spectrum. he writes,
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Over the years my shirt size has changed.  For a longtime I wore a medium, but then all of sudden I noticed that mediums were too small and I had to move up to a large.  But then one day I noticed that larges were too big and I was back to the mediums that I had always worn. I suspect there is a conspiracy among the clothing manufacturers since my closet now has a variety of medium and large shirts. This of course presents a challenge for me since, as my wife knows, I hate ill-fitting shirts. It is not unusual for me to put a shirt on and take it off immediately with the comment "well, that's not happening today." Sometimes I find the medium a bit too tight and would rather go with the large. Other times the large makes me feel unkempt since it seems to just hang on me.


I feel the same about theological labels. Many years ago I would have readily identified myself as an evangelical. But, like the medium size shirts in my closet, I began to notice that it was a bit ill-fitting. It didn't allow me to move freely in the areas where I needed some space and was more restricting than freeing. Later I thought of myself as a liberal, but that too didn't seem to fit very well.  Like the large shirt, I had to find too many things to help fill out the shirt so it would fit and what I realized is that the shirt/label no longer revealed who I am. Like the shirts, I had begun to find labels to be ill-fitting.

Next week I will attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. And like the dance I sometimes do in my closet when deciding what shirt to wear, I will find that the labels other want me to use to identify myself won't fit. I will spend time in groups or sessions where people proudly proclaim they are liberal (or some variation thereof) and I will realize that the shirt is too large and make me look like someone I am not. I will then spend time with those who proudly proclaim to be evangelical and I will realize that the label is a bit too tight and doesn't give me the room to move that I need. I have been experiencing this situation for some time. In the past I would go to the conference and come home amazed at the situation in which I find myself. Now I think I have adjusted to at least know what to expect.
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I'm with you, John, but I would add a personal note-- For some time I have refused to identify with any labels that simply reinforce the liberal/conservative scope, since it is based too much on modern assumptions that are not helpful. In other words, I refuse to wear such a modern theological shirt. Some may find that obscene, but so be it.

I am not opposed to all labels, as long as they don't become stereotypes. We cannot avoid labels entirely. They help to locate people's views in a general way, but in reference to Christianity and theology I think such descriptors as Wesleyan, and Orthodox, et al are much more helpful (and no... Orthodox is not a synonym for conservative, any more than being progressive is synonymous with liberal).

And how people label me is something which has never concerned me.

4 comments:

Susan Moore said...

How 'bout we all agree to dismiss with the labeling?. That way Jesus won't get confused when He returns for His one, unified Church (and none of us will miss our marriage supper because we are too busy squabbling about what name to call each other).
When some one asks me what I am (theologically), I say I am a child of God. When someone cleverly asks me what makes me different than the others, I say I have God in me.
Pretentious sounding? Perhaps; but true nevertheless.
Susan

Allan Bevere said...

Susan,

Thanks for your comments.

We indeed need to be careful about labels, but rightfully employed they serve as general markers where someone might generally stand in reference to theology or politics or economics, etc.

The problem is they get employed in order to pigeon-hole someone or they are used as caricatures to stereotype a particular group.

Moreover, not all labels are created equal. I find the labels of Wesleyan and Calvinist to be more helpful theological labels than liberal and conservative.

Susan Moore said...

I'm confused, though. What exactly does that mean when one refers to oneself as a "Wesleyan"? Thanks.
Susan

Allan Bevere said...

Susan,

To say one is Wesleyan, for example, is that one stands in a tradition that approaches the reading of Scripture and doctrine and mission in a certain way. I find that more illuminating than someone telling me they're liberal or conservative among other reasons is that those terms are too broad.