Several years ago, while giving a workshop, I was approached during a tea break by a couple of participants who asked me: "What are you? We've been trying to figure out whether you are “liberal or conservative."
My response: "What difference should that make? Why don't we just weigh the value of what is said as to truth or falsity, depth or some kind of fad, without having to consider whether a liberal is driving it or a conservative agenda? Labels aren't important. What is important is truth, depth, God's consolation and challenge, things helpful to build up the community. No ideology has a monopoly on these."
That needs to be said aloud more often. It is generally unhelpful to label others. As soon as we define others in terms of their ideology, ecclesiology, politics or agenda we insert an extra, unneeded, interpretation-filter between them and us and become more selective in our acceptance of truth.
Granted, we are always somewhat selective in any case. As we were taught in out three years of Philosophy, everyone operates out of a certain software (philosophically termed a "pre-ontology" and more commonly called a "bias"). The discipline of Epistemology (more recently renamed, Hermeneutics) has forever put an end to any naiveté about this. Nobody is completely objective and the route towards objectivity is best pursued when everyone precisely tries to name his or her biases rather than assuming that he or she does not have any and are in a position to point them out in others. My time in studying and lecturing in Sociology called me to drive this point home repeatedly. Whenever we label, we further distort our perception of reality.
That's also true when we label ourselves. As soon as we self-define and label ourselves as liberal, conservative or even as someone trying for middle ground, we become unhealthily selective in our listening.
Sadly, both in societies in general and inside of theological and ecclesial circles, we are obsessed with labeling. Moreover, we do it equally on both sides of the ideological spectrum: "She's a liberal! He's a conservative! She's a feminist! He's one of those young neo-conservatives! He's fundamentalist! She's a missionary freak!"
The most helpful response might be: So what! None of these labels determines the truth and none of them, in se, distorts it. God's house has many rooms, just as truth lies in many places, and God's consolation and challenge is always somewhat coloured by the biases of those who bring the good news: liberals, conservatives, feminists, Protestants, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, New Age people, Social Justice advocates, Prayer Book Society members, Charismatic.
The challenge is precisely to be open to the truth beyond labels, beyond our own temperament, beyond our circle of ideological intimates, and beyond what is prescribed for us as politically correct by either the ‘left’ or the ‘right.’
Part of this openness, too, is having the courage to ask ourselves: In what am I ultimately interested? The truth or what fits my ecclesiology? The truth or what's politically correct? The truth or my being right, even if being right means being bitter and at odds with many sincere people? It is not easy to ask these questions because, once we ask them, we have to admit that a lot of truth lies outside our own circles.
Recently there was a survey done on the reading habits of both Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy. Each was asked: "Other than the bible, what authors do you read most often to help you in your ministry?" Here are their top five picks in each tradition:
1) Henri Nouwen,
2) John Paul II,
3) Raymond Brown,
4) William J. Bausch,
5) Walter Burghardt.
1) Henri Nouwen,
2) William Willimon,
3) Frederick Buechner,
4) Max Lucado,
5) Eugene Peterson.
What's interesting is that everyone on both lists defies simple classification in terms of liberal or a conservative. Some will probably object and immediately label John Paul II as a conservative. But that can only be done if we have not read his social encyclicals or his apologies for the historical sins of institutional Christendom or witnessed his prayer and gestures as he walked in the old city of Jerusalem.
The same is true of those who would simplistically label Raymond Brown a liberal. That is more easily done if you have never met or read Raymond Brown.
Recently I was again reminded when a conversation turned to psychological and church labels: "What's your Myers-Briggs personality chart?" "What's your Enneagram number?" "Where do you place yourself on the ecclesial, ideological scale?" There was an eager and animated sharing in this.
One person, however, a young mother and nurse, remained silent throughout. Finally, someone prevailed upon her: "Where do you land in all of this?" Her answer: "I have an unlisted number!"
There is wisdom in her answer. We need to let go of labels and try to let the truth speak independently of them. We need, too, to have the courage to face up to where our own ideologies are blinding us to truth, keeping us in unnecessary anger, and dividing us from others of sincere will. The truth can set us free, no matter which pulpit it comes from.
That is fast becoming Good News for me!