Conversations On Labels

Lot’s of interesting, interrelated conversations to talk about, so let’s begin.

In a conversation with Ian of Aberro Specus the other night, we were talking a little bit about labeling yourself or others, especially when it comes to a belief system or philosophy. For example, deciding to call yourself a Christian, Buddhist, or Atheist. For many, labeling their beliefs works quite well. If you, for example, believe that “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV), then calling yourself a Christian is a pretty good fit. Yet, when you sit back and think about Christians, many different types of people come to mind. On one end of the spectrum, I think of my own parents, including my father who is a Pastor, and how their belief in God and Christ is very liberal and open, and based love and compassion for their fellow man. On the end, you have Fred Phelps and the fucks over at the Westboro Baptist Church (for those of you who aren’t familiar, those are the people who go to the funerals of gay soldiers and wave around “God Hates Fags” signs).

Both call themselves Christians, though the only similarity I can find seems to be their interest in the bible. Even there, if we look at the passages of the bible which seem important to each of these groups, I think you’ll notice something important here. For my parents, the hope and joy and love that defines their faith is found almost entirely in the New Testament of the bible, from the gospels on through the writings of Paul as he worked to set up the early church. It is true the foundation of their faith is written in the Old Testament by the prophet Jeremiah (perhaps the most interesting of the prophets given the tone of his writing). It is where he talks about a promise God makes to the people of Israel. “‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declared the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.'” (Jeremiah 31:33, NIV)

It is the fulfillment of this prophecy by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the descending of the Holy Spirit among man that defines the core of their faith. An interesting, and relevant, side note is the implications this covenant has later. For instance, after this covenant has been established, we see its effect on Paul as he is sending a reminder to the Church in Thessallonica of what it means to live a model life according to to the teachings of Christ. This results in one of my favorite verses, “Test all things, hold on to what is good. Stay away form every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, Holman CSB with Scofield Study System).

However, if you look at the faith and things that are held in import to the Westboro Baptist Church, you see them give but a passing glance at Jesus and his teachings, and the new covenant between God and man. Sure, they acknowledge in passing that they’re there, but otherwise they choose to remain in the safe, if outdated, rules of the earlier covenants. They seem particularly fond of latching on to the laws laid down in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. All of their protests, for example, are centered around one verse, which I’m sure many of you are now familiar with from the news reports concerning them, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22, NRSV)

As John Scalzi pointed out in a blog post on The Whatever back in 2004, and which I read just recently in a collection of posts from the same, perhaps it would be better to call Christians such as these Westboro people “Leviticans”, since that’s where they place their import. After all, if the term Christian applied, you would hope they spent a little bit of time thinking about the teachings of Christ himself.

This all brings me back to my point of origin, in what it really means to apply a label to something. At the basic level, a label is something we use to categorize a similar set of experiences. If those experiences happen to be sensations of physical objects, we group those sensations together as being of an object. The feel of a table, or the smell of garlic. We can abstract these in to groupings like touch and smell. As we begin to intellectualize this process, we begin grouping things according to other criteria. For instance, calling something “aesthetically pleasing” is labeling it. From here grouping get more and more complex until were faced with trying to label other peoples beliefs, which is the most complex system of all. This labeling process happens as we being to listen to how other people describe their beliefs to us, and we begin to map similarities and differences.

We have thousands of years of people attributing their belief structure to the major religions, so those are as much defined by written history as active conversation. In the case of a new belief system, it can all be born out of one person trying to label themselves as something by creating a clever name for it, and then telling someone else about it. If someone else finds themselves having similar beliefs, they may adopt that name, and a new, common label for that particular belief set is born.

Labels are a concise summations of past experience. If you choose to label yourself, you should be aware of what connotation that label holds for you. You need to sit back and think of what the label truly means, and where that meaning comes from. Is the label entirely your own construction out of past experience, or was it created long before you were even born? Is your own use of that label attaching additional meanings to your beliefs that you don’t actually hold? Does that label hold a value in terms of general communication that you don’t wish to attach to yourself?

For instance, if I were to say to someone I was a Taoist, you would be able to draw on thousands of years of history about that belief structure to try and understand what I believe. But, what if I said this only because I like to go on meditative walks? I would be misrepresenting myself in some way, intentionally or unintentionally, which could cause problems in communication or trust down the line. More importantly though, I may end up misrepresenting my beliefs to myself. There is an old saying by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” When we choose to label ourselves as belonging to a specific religious or philosophical group, over time we may abandon our own principles and reason and truly begin to believe what the rest of the living group, or recorded history of those who held the same beliefs, espouses as truth. It is a danger to be always aware of.

Going hand in hand with this is that if you choose to label others, you should take care to make sure the label you’re attaching to them is fitting. Labeling the people of the Westboro Baptist Church “Christians” besmirches the name of Christ and the loving fellowship he taught. It also lumps many wonderful and good people who live their lives devoted to their god and in loving fellowship with the world around them, with a group that thrives on hatred, fear, and bigotry.

More than this, it can prevent us from seeing the world as it truly is. As we label people we automatically tie experiential baggage to our interactions with them. Though it is important, form a survival standpoint, for us to label things as potentially dangerous, we must never forget that these are assumptions we are making, and work in our own way to ensure they are not exerting undue control over us. Even though labeling someone running at us with a loaded gun as “dangerous” is a good thing, looking down the subway car at the young man with the blue mohwawk, large gauge tunnel ear piercings, and full sleeve tattoos and thinking he might shiv us as we walk by so he can make off with our wallet is probably unnecessary. It could be the pleasant looking 80 year old grandmother sitting with her purse in her lap next to him that pulls out a Glock and demands our wallet or our lives.

It’s a funny image, but it serves a point. What positive experiences might we be missing simply because we have a need to label things? Maybe that man with the blue mohawk has just had a philosophical break through that will redefine the way we think about the fundamental nature of the universe, and we’ll never know because we were too quick to judge him as a potential threat. An overly dramatic example, true, but let’s consider a more intellectual example.

In his most recent Hardcore Zen column post over at Suicide Girls, Brad Warner talks about a common misconception about Buddhism held among most westerners. This misconception is that Buddhism is a religion or form of spirituality. Indeed, talk to most people in Western society, and even a good number of so-called buddhists who grew up in a western society, and they’ll tell you that Buddhism is a religion or a form of spirituality. Even I am guilty of this most of the time.

In western society we are biased towards a particular world view, in which the internal, mental, spiritual world is offset against and external, physical, material world. Dualists believe that there is a little of column A, and a little of column B, and they interact somehow. Christians believe there is a lot to the spiritual side of things in the form of souls, and that the material side of things, though it exists, is but of fleeting importance. It is the world they live in now, and enjoy, but the realize it is but a blink of an eye in the eternal life they have waiting for them after death. There are solipsists out there who think that everything is a construction of the mind, and that the physical world is an illusion. There are materialists out there who think that we are just complex, biological machines in a complex universe, and that what we call the mind is just an emergent phenomena from the way our bodies work.

Despite how different all of these viewpoints are, they still rely in a way on the concept of a dichotomy. That there is a differentiation between our mental world and physical reality. Buddhism takes a step back and tears down that dichotomy. As Warner says, “Buddhism starts from the basic premise that neither materialism nor idealism is correct. The Heart Sutra says, ‘Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form.’ In other words, matter is the immaterial, the immaterial is matter.” Buddhism says, basically, that all is one and the same, and that we never separate our mental experiences from our experiences of the real world. By attaching the labels of “spiritual” and “material” to certain things, we are distracting ourselves from the true nature of things.

Buddhism is not a form of spiritualism, because it rejects the notion of spiritualism. Buddhism is a form of realism, in that it tries to take a realistic view of everything. This is, of course, another label, but perhaps a more fitting one.

I am not a buddhist. That is not a label I feel comfortable attaching to myself. I am certainly influenced by buddhism though, and I can tell you why. The thing that buddhism teaches that is the reason I draw from it so much is that we have trapped ourselves in a way at looking at the world, without considering the consequences of that world view. Buddhism tells us to sit back and really look at things. To try to see in to the true nature of things and to tear down false dichotomies and other mental concepts that might be in our way or leading us astray. To poke and prod and question everything that we think we know, until we get to the meat and bones of it all.

Buddhism isn’t trying to change the world. It isn’t saying to us “if you think the way we do, we will make all your dreams come true”. It does not pedal in reward or punishment systems that we have no way of perceiving. It does not require belief in deities or things beyond our comprehension. All it says is, “if something is bothering you, sit down, take a good long look at it, question everything about it and tear down any preconceived notions you have about it. Then sit back and try to see it in a new light and with new understanding. If you do this, I am confident you’ll be pleased with what you find.”

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