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The Tragedy of Labels

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One of the best ways to dismiss the ideas of others, without ever having to think about them, is to label them as quickly as they are uttered.
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C. S. Lewis, in his classic satire of demonic possession, "The Screwtape Letters," has the experienced older devil, Screwtape, advise the junior tempter, Wormwood, to convince his human victim to "value an opinion for some quality other than truth." Conversely he can teach the tempted to disregard ideas on similar grounds.

Thus, a potentially life-nourishing bit of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas can be ignored because it is "old fashioned." Or a person can be persuaded that a serious study of philosophy or history is an "elitist" preoccupation. Or the habit of drawing on the insights of the best thinkers of all time can be passed off as "pretentious."

Some roads to hell may be paved with good intentions, but others are made smooth by a flippant bigotry that avoids truth by stereotyping.

I was reminded of the effectiveness of this ploy last weekend while watching on television one of the innumerable staged media smack-downs that pass for serious political commentary. One hired partisan hack stepped on the lines of another paid political consultant eliciting more heat than light for 15 minutes. The two contestants spent the bulk of their time trying to stick labels on each other like two clowns in a "post-it note" circus, convinced that if they could make a label stick, their job was done.

I wish I could say that we deal with ideas better in the church or in the academy or in life in general, but too much of the time we don't. Post-modernists dis modernists, evangelicals spurn liberals, and everyone pours contempt on fundamentalists. And vice versa, of course.

This is why I was so encouraged recently when one of the recipients of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary's 2012 Distinguished Alum Award, Dr. David Kaylor, said what he did in his acceptance address. Dr. Kaylor, the James Sprunt Professor of Religion, emeritus and former chair of the Religion Department at Davidson College in North Carolina, expressed his gratitude for the three qualities he received as a student at Louisville Seminary (class of 1958).

Dr. Kaylor, remembering his professors, said:

They challenged me to be a true conservative -- to honor the tradition in which we stand, to use that tradition to minister to our time, to engage in dialogue with that tradition, to examine it in light of Scripture under the guidance of God's Spirit, to conserve what is good so that the tradition provides a foundation for our ministry and not a weight holding us back.

My professors also taught me to be a true liberal -- to be liberated myself and to be a liberating force for others; to live the words of the Apostle Paul: "For liberation you have been liberated," working to remove those things in ourselves and in our culture that enslave and hold captive any of God's children.

Most of all, they challenged me to be a true radical -- to get to the root of things, to get to the heart of the Gospel, to understand root causes of things in our world that lead to injustice, disharmony and war; to know the essence of peace and the things that make for peace and not be so distracted by peripheral things that we miss what is essential for the coming of God's reign.

Perhaps we ought to take a page from Dr. Kaylor's book. While resisting the urge to dismiss the views of others by slapping a label on them, we might also re-invest with greater significance the labels with which we describe ourselves. The qualities that make for a rich, faithful and nourishing life are, after all, far too complex to be reduced to a single label -- or, so say the conservative, liberal, radicals.