Labels Out: Stripping Back the Limits we Put on God

We all get labeled at some point in our lives. We’re labeled as the smart girl, or the jock, or the bitch at work, or the Donald Trump supporter. True, some of them be deserved; these labels might reflect something about our personalities but they’re probably not comprehensive. There are definitely things about us as people that simply can’t be captured in a label. We humans, we’re complicated. The smartest of us still make some dumb mistakes. And support dumb candidates.

Labels stick with us. They’re both reflective of some part of who we are but they’re also predictive. We have the term self-fulfilling prophecy for a reason. When we are labeled, we can be limited. We can begin to believe what the labels says about us. We can start acting in a way that the label becomes more and more true. In the deep recesses of our being, the way that the label influences those with whom we interact also lays helps us build a schema of what the world thinks about us. It’s a cycle. If the people in my world think that of me as a pushover, then maybe I’m a pushover. Maybe the next time that a conflict comes up at work I should just give in and refuse to speak my mind. Then more people will see me as a pushover and, if the cycle holds, more people will try and take advantage of me. There’s a recursive effect of label reinforcing characteristics reinforcing label, ad infinitum.

Labels aren’t always bad and I’m not trying to make that point. They can lead us to pretty negative places – especially when these cycles operate outside of our awareness. That said, they can really accentuate positive aspects of our character too. How nice is it to know that someone things you’re kind, or loving, or gracious? What can be better than being told that people trust you?

For all of the good and bad, labels are pretty convenient. They’re a quick way for us to talk about all kinds of things. We use them all the time to make assumptions and in general conversation. Labels often come from a place outside of our experience too. We inherit them. They’re around us in our culture, swirling around, and teaching us things about people that are blatantly untrue.

New Yorkers are mean. Muslims are terrorists. Christians are intolerant. Conservatives are assholes. Democrats are socialists.

None of these are true. They’re culturally believed to some degree and some of the people in those groups might align with their labels. On some level, they help us to make sense of things that we might not otherwise easily understand. There are conversations about each of them and a few brave people step up from time to time to challenge these labels. But they’re part of a larger social fabric that, for all too many of us, we take for granted; they are generalizing in a way that can lead to prejudice and injustice. Perhaps we’ve never been to New York and our only reference are a caricatures in movies and on TV. Maybe there have been some significant conversations we’ve had with Christians who were unwilling to budge on some issue and actually tried to tell us we were going to hell for not believing. I’ll go on record as saying that the talking heads at Fox News don’t represent the calm and courteous conversations that I’ve had with real life conservatives.

Labels are what they are. They can be good or bad. But we need to be aware of them. And we need to be aware of what they’re doing to our brains and to our relationships.

And to our faith.

When Richard Rohr claims that he is “on the edge of the inside” of the Christianity bubble, there is something in me that hums. That’s where I am. I know the labels and I’m not the labels. My desire is to distance myself from the things that don’t represent me. I also realize that, by any stringent assessment of my faith, I’d probably be classified by mainline Christianity as something other than Christian. They would see me as being outside the bubble.

Still, I’m part of this tradition. There’s a curious pull within me towards something that is divine and unexplainable and a frustration with the labels that we have in our faith.

Labels are limiting.

Of course, I also get that these labels are the ways that we try to make sense of the unbelievable notion that there is some consciousness behind all of this mystery we call life. We say things like God is good, that Jesus was God’s son and a sacrifice that gets us into heaven. We read a passage that talks about two people working in a field when one mysteriously vanishes and we label it rapture. We deduce from a lot more reading that God must exist in three completely different forms and we label it Trinity. Hell, we even label God as a man because she’s much better as a dude.

In this case, our labels are about accessibility; they are an opening into thinking about things that we can’t be sure of. Labels allow amateurs an entrance into conversations that they don’t fully understand. They lower the bar which, in turn, allows more voices in the mix. They’re macro, not micro. They’re a starting point: useful, but only if you move beyond them.

But for those who truly want to be immersed in an issue, they move beyond the labels. They dive deep into the subject they’re studying. They begin to become comfortable with the intricacies. They understand that there are no pat answers and that the deeper they go the more questions they uncover. Whether politics, or faith, or philosophy, or mechanics, or painting, or jazz music, there are always new places to go. New experiments to try. New questions to raise.

My perspectives on God have all come from a place like this. For a long time, the labels worked. If for no other reason, they gave me a language to use when talking about these things. They gave me a starting point that I could always return to if I felt like things were getting to scary or weird. But at some point, they stopped working or I stopped caring. Either way, it was time for something else.

A quick word about the Bible. What most Christians believe about God comes from there and how people have wrestled and fought and accepted what the Bible says for a long time. The labels that we have come from there. The bible is complex and mysterious without question. But, part of my premise here, is that we’ve given it a lot more credit than it gives itself. We have transplanted words from a time when truth was relative and interpreted them through a lens that insists truth is fact. We make claims that the bible is infallible because, in many ways, that’s the only way the labels hold up.

When I say the Bible is true and perfect, I mean it in a completely different way than most people want me to mean it today. I mean it’s true that a group of people wrote down their stories as they wrestled with what it meant to live life in a time when they didn’t understand much about what it means to be alive. Thousands of years before we learned about evolution, we wrote down words to explain where we came from. We have always been curious and want to know our history. The difference is that, thousands of years ago, we simply didn’t know what we know now. These words were honest explorations of what it means to be human. It’s true in that the parables and teachings are valuable lessons in how to live our lives, not that the data is historically accurate.

It is a collection of memoirs of people wrestling with the same questions we wrestle with today who brought their own set of tools and thoughts and ideas to the mix.

God is bigger than the Bible.

God is much bigger than the words that we’ve written down as people, even if they were inspired by the divine magician. The bible is a great place to start but a silly place to stop. If we are going to dive deep and understand this thing we call God, we’ve got to be able to move beyond the words of the Bible and look to our own experience and the experience of others. We’ve got to look at science and understand the truths that it has given us too. And we’ve got to at least contemplate a world where what we have called God for a long time might be better described in some other terms.

In fact, we have put labels on God not to show how amazing she is, but to bring her down to size. We have added labels to give people a starting place from which to explore. It’s unfortunate that so many of these labels have been understood as the way that things actually are. It’s unfortunate that man-given labels have limited our ability to pursue the energy that fuels the universe.

How arrogant is it to say that these labels are the end of it? That we’ve got the God market cornered? Are we pursuing being correct? Are we pursuing some affiliation that will keep us from burning in hell? Or, are we pursuing truth? Mind-numbing, heart-filling, soul-satisfying, unverifiable, undeniable truth?

For me, I’m pursuing truth. Because I believe that the truth is out there. That we can know it and it can set us free. And it might not look like what we have always known it to look like, but it’s good. But it can be scary because it involves taking several steps back from certainty and refusing to rely on the labels that we’ve been using when we’ve talked about God in the past. We have felt pretty secure in our certainty bubble for a long time. The problem is the resolution that these labels give us is grainy at best. We don’t get the real picture. We get a poorly pixelated representation. It’s the equivalent of a holy Rorschach test.

By refusing to perpetuate the labels of who God is supposed to be, we get to compose our own, more intimate picture. When you do your own work, you find out that there might be all sorts of other systems that don’t rely on guilt or shame. And people are welcome. It might be surprising to see the types of people that a label-free God actually starts to accept and love like one of His own.

Label free God is for us.

All of us.