Labels, Categories and Belief
Labels, categories and concepts – We all need them. We all use them. They provide a kind of shorthand that enables us to communicate with each other without having to go into detailed explanations every time we mention a theme. Because they are a kind of shorthand, labels often form stereotypes. If I use the label ‘Burglar’, then certain stereotypical images tend to come to our minds with regard to what a burglar looks like, how they speak and how they act. We use stereotypes all the time because we have to make value judgments concerning the situations we find ourselves in as well as the people that we meet. We stand there and do nothing until we have all of the facts. We have top respond and act in a particular way and in order to do so we quickly label and evaluate the situation/person, often using stereotypes.
When it comes to Christianity, I try to minimise my use of labels. I can’t avoid them altogether of course – ‘Christianity’ is itself a label, a shorthand descriptor of a category of religious/spiritual belief and practice. When I was a younger Christian, my Christian friends and I used to use labels all the time – ‘Baptist’, ‘Roman Catholic’, ‘Arminian’, ‘Charismatic’ and so on. I don’t think that we were malicious in using the labels that we did, but for a while they served as ‘badges of identity’ if you will.
But there were a few problems. First, other people did not always mean the same thing when they used the same label as me. The very use of a label – say for example ‘Evangelical’ – might produce a swift negative reaction in the person that I was talking to because they understood it to mean something different from what I meant. Because labels are a kind of shorthand, they are also a little vague – they are open to different definitions and interpretations. The label ‘God’ is a very good example. Unbelievers may say ‘I don’t believe in God’ to which you may be able to reply ‘Which God is that then?’ When they define what they mean by ‘God’ you may well find yourself able to say ‘No, I don’t believe in that ‘God’ either!’ You see, people mean different things when they use the label ‘God’.
Second, by subscribing to or defining myself by a label I am also defining what I am not. If the object in front of me is an ‘elephant’ then it is not a ‘bird’. But this too is vague. Let me give you an example. Let’s take three categories – a, b and c – and lets consider two people – person 1 and person 2. Let’s label the three categories – a = English, b = European, c = Asian. Both persons 1 and 2 subscribe to category a – they both define themselves as ‘English’. By defining themselves in this way, they also both place themselves outside of category c – they are both ‘not Asian’. But when it comes to category b they differ. Person 1 says: ‘I am English therefore I am European – I am part of the continent of Europe’. In effect, person 1 says ‘I belong to categories ‘a’ and ‘b’ but not ‘c’. Person 2 says ‘I am English but I am not European. I don’t want anything to do with a Federal Europe or with political decisions affecting England being made in the European Parliament in Brussels.’ I effect, person 2 says ‘I belong to category ‘a’ but not ‘b’ or ‘c’. In psychology theory the boundary lines of labels and categories are seen as ‘fuzzy’ and this example illustrates this ‘fuzzy’ quality.
So when I subscribe to or define myself by a label then other people may use these terms to define me in a different way than I intend, and they may assume that I exclude myself from something when in reality I actually include myself. For example some may conclude that because I use the label ‘Christian’ I am therefore opposed to Hinduism or that I am anti-Muslim.
People who are interested in the process of ‘radicalisation’ need to be aware of this double-edged quality of labelling and categorizing. We could say that Person 2 in the example above is more ‘radical’ – the label/category that they identify with is more narrowly defined and more exclusive – it is defined in part by what the person is opposed to and what they seek to exclude themselves from.
As a younger Christian I began to find that as I used certain labels in my communications with people, a process of mutual exclusion began to occur. I excluded them as being ‘outside’ of my ‘circle’, and they excluded me – sometimes because they understood and interpreted my ‘labels’ in a different and more negative way than I intended. Sometimes, communication exchanges became a dialogue of the mutually deaf and blind. If I described myself as ‘charismatic’ – as a believer in and practitioner of spiritual gifts – for example, then more reserved and conservative Christians would simply put up barriers, or pull down the shutters in order to defend themselves against ‘this emotional enthusiast’. Any common ground in Christ was lost, or at best, treated with suspicion.
You see, we all defend the labels and categories that we use to define ourselves and identify ourselves with. When I identify with a label/category, then I am not just using that label as a descriptor of my beliefs, orientation and practice, I am saying I am that label. In other words, I am not just describing myself as a ‘Christian’ I am saying I AM a Christian – criticize Christians and Christianity and I may feel that you are criticizing ME. If I identify with a particular label/category and that label/category comes under attack from other people – in debate, in the form of ridicule, in the form of plain opposition – then because I identify with that label/category then I myself will feel as if I am under attack – so protective and defensive barriers will go up. I may even consider that attack is the best form of defence.
So labels and categories are funny things – and not necessarily funny in a humorous sense. Coming back to the concept of the ‘Statement of Faith’ mentioned in other posts, such statements are, by definition, a selection of interrelated shorthand labels that seek to categorise and provide boundaries to a certain set of basic beliefs and practices. They are often a set of label/categories that people identify with and those people who do not subscribe to them may be understood not only as ‘outsiders’ or as ‘not part of this group’, but more radically – as ‘opponents’, as ‘enemies’. Once we put ‘God’ into the mix then we potentially have ‘ultimate opponents of God’ or ‘enemies of God’ – ‘infidels’ and ‘antichrists’. But you can perhaps see why I am reluctant to go beyond what the Bible seems to present as the basics, and why I have not made a big issue about a ‘Doctrinal Basis’ for this site. This site is not radical and does not seek to exclude.
Unfortunately I am, like everyone else, obliged to use labels and categories in my communications – in my writing and conversation – otherwise I would be forever explaining and defining my basic orientation and be unable to move on to more fruitful discussion. Unfortunately too, I have no control on how other people interpret the labels that I use. Not that I want to control how other people think – but I cannot easily prevent other people from misinterpreting what I say or write, because they have different boundaries and meanings to the shared categories and labels that we use to communicate. They have a different orientation to the people, beliefs and practices that are not included in the labels/categories that are embraced here. And of course, the bottom line is that I do have particular beliefs, I do have a specific orientation and it will emerge in the various posts that I create. But these are presented as a personal opinion for you to accept or reject as you please. The intention is that they are thought-provoking, stimulating and helpful to fellow Christians.