And so, friends…
Let us use labels where they are useful and respectful, and let us abandon them when they are constraining and inaccurate.
In the last post, we parsed out some of the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of applying a label to a person. This parsing was far from comprehensive, but I trust it gets us on the same wavelength.
We dealt with a label which is relatively uncontroversial, and so the application of that label (me: I am an introvert) is unaccompanied by conflict. Thus, it won’t sustain anyone’s attention for long.
How about atheists and Christians? Huh?
Rich and poor? Oh yeah…
Gay and straight? Hot damn!
That’s about all the titillation you’ll get out of me. (Ok, maybe that, too)
Notice right away, for example, that those are presented as dichotomies, but they are not necessarily comprehensive dichotomies. In other words, the rich woman and the poor man are at opposite ends of the wealth spectrum, but they may attend the same church, or buy the same apples at the same store.
Nor are they necessarily permanent dichotomies – again with rich and poor, it is seen that many who are poor at any given moment are, years later, no longer poor. They start in low-paying jobs, advance, develop their skills, and eventually obtain higher paying positions. (I don’t say this is true for all the poor, nor do I make any statement about whether this is a changing trend).
Now where does this fit into our conversation?
The same friend, whom I am conversing with via his past statements, has also said something like this: If all religious people were like you, I’d have no problem with religious people. (That, aside from its usefulness here, really means a lot to me).
I suppose it would be fair to say the same to him: If all atheists were like him, I’d have no problem with atheists.
Let’s take this from his point of view, though. I believe this exemplifies, at least to some extent, the way such conversations should be conducted.
On the one hand, there are the religious people he has met, who have been disagreeable. In some way or another, they have frustrated, disturbed, and even infuriated him. He recognizes very little common ground with such people; he takes his stance (or they take theirs, or both) at a great distance, facing them squarely. He will not give them a blind angle – there is no trust.
Then he encounters someone who is Catholic (another religion could fit here, too) and notes that the label “religious” is not comprehensive after all. Is this an anomaly, or is a new category required?
Whatever happens at the category level, I want to say that the important thing is to this friend’s credit: He released me from his idea of “religious.” He is not a bad person – rather, his category was insufficient. His idea was flawed, and he was willing to admit that, for the sake of my personhood.
Note – it is not incorrect to say that I am religious. I am. But the idea in his mind, which was a comprehensive picture of what “religious” people are – that was simply not the same thing. I am religious, but not religious. (As a sidenote, I found it a very charming tactic of Alvin Plantinga’s to introduce a word or phrase and follow with “whatever that means.” This, succinctly, says everything I am trying to say here).
To loosen the bow a bit – my friend may still carry this category of “religious people” around, and simply not apply it to me. I don’t know whether that’s true, as I’m not in his head (and he has often cautioned me against the dangers of even visiting that land). Nor do I think it is altogether better to do away with classifications, even with stereotypes. It has been widely noted, after all, that stereotypes come from somewhere…
No, the point is in actual conversation, and in thinking about persons. Perhaps some further application to follow.