The Problem with Labels
I despise labels. Why? One simple reason: It is impossible to reduce any one person down to a simple label. People are too complex for this.
Labels allow us to become lazy in our thinking. There is no need to take the time to understand others if we can simply attach a label to them. Just consider how many discussions are cut short by the quick application of the labels, “liberal,” “conservative,” “left-wing,” “right-wing,” “emergent,” “neo-evangelical,” “traditionalist,” “feminist,” “sexist,” “bum,” “pervert,” etc. The list could go on forever.
Ultimately, all labels are misleading. Their utter simplicity makes it impossible to communicate the full spectrum of a person’s thoughts and feelings. Yet, in spite of their inadequacy, people continue to rely on labels to give them a general sense of others.
Cognizant of the limitations of labels, it is with great reluctance that I expound upon my own self-imposed label. For the last few years, I have lived with the tri-fold self-description of “amateur pastor, hack theologian, and wannabe mystic.” This slogan at the top of my personal website is purposefully provocative. It is not intended to be instantly understood. I want people to reflect upon its nuances, its ambiguities, its shortcomings. Paradoxically, I want the labels themselves to demonstrate how inadequate labels actually are in describing people.
One of the concerns I often hear from others is this, “Aren’t you worried about being misunderstood?” Of course, I want to be understood. I would not take great pains to write out my thoughts and present them in a public forum if I had no interest in clearly communicating my ideas to others. However, I realize that effective communication is always a two-way street. If I refrain from saying anything that is potentially open to misunderstanding I will, ultimately, say nothing at all. Everything worth saying is potentially misleading.
Yes, I want people to understand me. But I don’t pretend that this is an easy task. If you wish to understand me, you will have to take the time to put aside your preconceptions, listen carefully to what I say, seek to understand my perspective, and then engage in dialogue with me to hammer out differences and sort out nuances. This kind of give-and-take is necessary for any true understanding between people. I would have to do the same to completely understand you. No label can possibly provide the same degree of clarity. Thus, every label is open to misunderstanding.
That said, I now attempt to provide a little nuance for the sake of greater clarity.
I am an amateur pastor in contrast to a “professional” pastor. An amateur does what he or she does for the love of it. An amateur is not concerned about coming across as a slick, well-packaged, nicely-groomed professional. Indeed, an amateur is not concerned about maintaining an image at all.
Professionals usually have to wrestle with perceived omni-competence. People expect a lot – often too much – from professionals. They are expected to master a wide spectrum of abilities. They are supposed to be the “expert.” An amateur does not have to worry about such extreme expectations.
Like every label, this one breaks down. I have been paid for my ministerial endeavors for the last twelve years. This qualifies me as a professional. However, my goal is to always approach my work with the passion and love of an amateur. I do not want to work simply for financial remuneration or for the benefit of reputation or image.
As a pastor, I am called to be a “steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). A faithful steward manages the property and affairs of another. I have been given a trust from God to preserve, protect, and propagate God’s mysteries. I must celebrate them rather than explain them away. I must steward them rather than scrap them as impractical, confusing, or unnecessary. My divine job description is not to be a “Bible answer man” but to be a “sacred mystery man.” By faithfully discharging this duty, I hope to keep from the accusation made by a Japanese businessman to Os Guinness, “Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager.” There is a reason that the world values the insights of the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra more than it does the insight of most Christian leaders. The Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra seem much more spiritual, mystical, in touch with the transcendent – in a word, holy – than most Christian ministers.
As a hack theologian, I piece together the best aspects of the entire spectrum of Christian tradition – Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. I do not believe that any one tradition is completely wrong, or completely right. Generally speaking, I have found that Catholics tend to have the best spirituality, Orthodox have the best sense of salvation as participation in the divine life of the Trinity, and Protestants tend to have the best tools for effective Bible study.
Though I value all traditions, I remain firmly rooted in the Protestant camp because I believe that it holds the most potential to incorporate the best of all theological traditions and carry them forward into the new millennium. In other words, Protestantism does not have the cumbersomeness of the papacy or the traditionalism of the Orthodox to weigh it down. It is free to take advantage of the best insights from all traditions and repackage them in fresh, creative ways.
My hacking is held in check by the touchstone of the ancient creeds. I believe wholeheartedly in the core of historic Christianity common to the universal church. Long before the church experienced numerous divisions (Catholic, Orthodox, and all the varieties of Protestant churches) the church summarized the historic core of the Christian faith in the ancient creeds – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These beliefs, shared in common by all three traditions, demand the greatest respect and adherence.
Some are uncomfortable with the ease with which I plunder Catholic and Orthodox theology and integrate it within my own theology. There is no reason for this. I am merely taking advantage of the rich inheritance of the Christian faith that is the property of every believer. The Christian tradition did not start with Billy Graham, the Puritans, or the Reformers. It began with Pentecost, and if God is to be trusted, has continued in and through the church for almost 2000 years. To fail to take advantage of this rich stream of Spirit-given wisdom would be to abandon the treasures of God’s Spirit.
My hacking penetrates even to the level of particular systems of theology. I do not believe that any system of theology is complete. The Bible is not written in a “systematic” form, but in a narrative shape. Every attempt to create a systematic theology from its pages fundamentally distorts the very shape of biblical revelation.
No system is able to fully embrace the totality of biblical revelation. Every system has its share of troublesome biblical passages that must be muted, distorted, or rejected in order to maintain the system. Do not get me wrong: systematic theology is a fruitful and helpful discipline. It is good to attempt to bring a coherent understanding to the totality of biblical revelation. But systematic theology must remain in its place. When any system claims to be “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” it has transgressed its boundaries. God did not give us a system; God gave us a story. Even more precisely, God gave us Godself in Christ! And Christ can never be reduced to a system!
The word, hack, is almost always viewed in a negative light. To many people, the way I hack at traditions and systems appears negative and compromising. In reality, it is my way to integrate the best of all traditions and thus, in the process, have a well-rounded, full-orbed, generous orthodoxy. Ultimately, it is my attempt to embody the gracious wisdom contained in the ancient saying, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
I am constantly amazed at how many people strongly react to my use of the word, mystic. As one who is called to be a “servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” that I might be “filled up to all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), I would expect that mystery and paradox would be par for the course. Sadly, this is not the case. Direct experience of God is not expected by most Christians.
One’s greatest strength is usually also the source of one’s greatest weakness. This is particularly true for evangelicalism. Evangelicals are known for their intense study of the Bible and their passionate, whole-hearted commitment to social activism. These are good things. But our effectiveness in these areas often blinds us to our shortcomings. Though we excel in information about the Bible, we struggle to experience transformation through the Bible. We excel at organizing social movements, but often fall short in nurturing an interior life. We see God at work in big events, but have a hard time knowing God in the ordinary.
A mystic is someone who believes God can be directly known in the ordinary routines of daily living. A mystic believes that there is more to life than meets the eye – that God is at work in ways that go beyond normal human perception. Ways that can only be apprehended in the Spirit and by faith. The mystic’s task is not to make God present, but to become aware of the God who is already and always present. In The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God, Ronald Rolheiser sheds light on popular misconceptions concerning mysticism:
As it appears in contemporary language, the word mysticism is almost universally misunderstood. For most people it connotes an experience which is esoteric, miraculous in some way, and beyond and against normal experience. Thus we play off mystical experience against ordinary experience. At its best, it is understood as the extraordinary experience of the religious elite, a high road not traveled by normal folk. At its worst, it is placed somewhere on those outer fringes where parapsychology, telepathy, and the occult meet. Rarely is it understood as connoting something to do with the ordinary life.
However… mysticism is in fact a very ordinary experience, an experience open to all and had by all. Simply defined, mysticism is being touched by God (or anything else) in a way that is inchoate, namely, in a way that goes beyond what we can think, express, pictorially imagine, and even clearly feel. Mystical knowledge is real knowledge, but it is “dark knowledge.” We know it, but we cannot think it, express it, or even feel it clearly. In that sense, mystical experience is, by definition, always partly ineffable, dark, inchoate, too huge to properly conceptualize and speak about. (79-80)
Because a mystic believes that God is known in the ordinary, a mystic is generally suspicious of those who emphasize extraordinary experiences or draw attention to their great deeds. A mystic recognizes that emotionalism and legalism are dangerous extremes that draw people away from true knowledge of God in the normal routines of daily living.
Both Jesus and Paul were Semitic thinkers. To them, knowledge was not just a cognitive engagement with facts and principles, but a personal, relational, experiential participation in the reality of the object or person known. Jesus, who was ever aware of God’s presence, prayed that his followers would experience the same. For Jesus, “eternal life” was nothing less than participation in the life of God (John 17:3). Ultimately, this involves being caught up in the divine embrace of Father, Son, and Spirit, sharing the eternal love and life of God (John 17:20-26). Paul’s main theme was that of union with Christ. At the heart of every spiritual blessing was the union between God and humanity in Christ and by the Spirit. Paul expressed this with the phrases, “in Christ,” and “Christ in you.” For Paul, union with Christ was not simply a legal or positional reality. It was a mystical, experiential, participatory reality.
This divine life is experienced mostly in the ordinary and only occasionally in the ecstatic. The desire to know God in all aspects of one’s life is at the heart of the mystic. This “practice of the presence of God” (as Brother Lawrence called it) is at the heart of the Christian life. It is to “walk with God,” to have “fellowship with God,” and “to pray continually” as all one’s life is transformed into prayer through a constant awareness of God’s gracious power and favorable presence. This kind of life sounds gloriously wonderful!
But, alas, I am not a mystic. I am a wannabe mystic.
I call myself a wannebe mystic to draw attention to the fact that I don’t believe I have fully apprehended this stance. It is my constant goal to live all of life in God’s presence, but I often forget this simple truth.
I value the intellect. I can easily reduce my spirituality to cognitive development. And yet, I want to be impacted at the core of my being and in the whole of my life. I want to remain aware of the deep mystery that surrounds and pervades me: God is always with me! Even more, the triune God is for me, with me, and in me: As Father, God is for me; as Son, God is with me; as Spirit, God is in me. God, through his Spirit, is closer to me than I am to myself. Life is thus full of mystery and paradox. It is ablaze with glory – a glory that can only be seen by faith. When my soul’s gaze is single-mindedly focused upon God in faith, then I will know the purity of heart necessary to see him at work in all things. On that day, I can drop the wannabe.
The three labels – amateur pastor, hack theologian, and wannabe mystic – describe my stance toward others, self, and God. Toward others, I present myself as an amateur pastor. In the spirit of an amateur, I perform my work with passion and love. In my own personal pursuit of God, I am a hack theologian who seeks to plunder and collect the treasures of all Christian traditions. In my relationship to God, I seek God’s peace and presence in all areas of my life in order that my knowledge of God will transcend the cognitive and deeply impact my whole being.
All the labels imply my own sense of imperfection. I am not an omni-competent professional. I need others in the body to complement my gifts. I have not closed my theology book. I need other Christians – both in the past and present, dead and alive, from all cultures and all traditions – to help my “faith seeking understanding.” I need to remember that Christianity is more than cognitive development. I want to remain continually open to greater experiences of God in every area of life.
Certainly, all the labels are potentially misleading. But labels themselves are misleading. Jesus fit none of the labels of his time. The same was true for Paul. To write me off simply because of a label would be premature. Read my materials, listen to my sermons, and judge me on their merits. I want to be understood, but not reduced to a label – even labels of my own devising.
We must never forget that every label, by virtue of its simplicity, is open to misunderstanding. If we refrain from saying anything that is open to misunderstanding, we will ultimately say nothing.
In the end, the only label I am truly comfortable with is “follower of Jesus” or “apprentice of Jesus.” And there are as many ways to do this as there are people, rendering all labels misleading.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2005