Naming. Defining. Relating

I’ve been working on creating an epic list of key schools to connect with in order to expand our work and bring more people into the InFaith family. It’s been pretty dull. I’ve looked through all the lists online of the “top schools.” I found this interesting list on Seminaries for Evangelicals. I take a break every now and then and make my co-worker Mesha list every school she can think of in sixty seconds. Yep, this is the kind of stuff I do everyday. Exciting, I know!


I’ve approached these lists with angst. I need to find just the right mix of schools that reflect InFaith’s general theological and practice-of-ministry ethos. I have to find the names of schools and define them in some way that makes sense so I can understand how they relate to other schools. So I’ve spent time looking at websites and perusing statements of faith. I see the same angst in the lists I found online (and especially the comments that accompany them). There is great concern on how to classify a school. Is such and such school conservative or liberal? Are they evangelical? Mainline protestant? Liberal, but hostile to conservatives? Conservative, but friendly to progressive thinkers? Has this school been co-opted by one political party or the other? Does this school even care about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?


And suddenly the record playing in my head comes to a (proverbial) screeching halt. Why have we become this way? Why am I this way? Why do I come to something as simple as a list of schools and feel the need to box people up in certain categories? I suppose at a basic level, it is just our natural human response. Since the beginning we humans have been naming things. To be named gives us identity. It gives us uniqueness, personality; it distinguishes us from that which is not us. And that’s great and important. It’s something to celebrate.


But something seems skewed with this God-given desire to name when it comes with such angst. Where does this angst come from? Why am I so concerned with where I place a school on my spectrum? Why do I take such issue with where someone else has placed a school on their spectrum?


A part of why I have such angst is because of my own experience in seminary. I left Kansas with the warning to be careful when I got to seminary; that I needed to go in there with my hands up ready to fight. I was confused because I had intended to enter seminary with my hands open, ready to engage in the wonderful back and forth of learning. My unwanted advisor was concerned that I might be led astray by some radical teaching. Once in seminary I found that some students were frustrated with the school because it was too conservative while others were frustrated because it was too liberal. Some described it as a firmly “evangelical” school, while others rejected the label and affirmed it was “mainline”.


Maybe making a list of schools and even trying to place your own school on a spectrum can be quite innocent. But what about when we do it to people? When we do it to strangers? Or when we even do it to ourselves?


I find myself doing this on a daily basis. I am constantly naming others; putting them in such-and-such a category. This naming ends up being my way of defining an “other,” which provides the basis for how I go about relating to him or her. But if I learned anything in seminary it was that there is always more to people than meets the eye. I learned that many who I sized up and categorized away were so much more than the box I put them in. I learned that the way we name and define others can be very shallow and destructive. It creates distance and breeds division. At its worst, when I name and place persons, schools, and groups on a spectrum I am actually imposing my own definition of who they are upon them. To do so is to dehumanize others.


Naming, defining, and relating are a fundamental and good part of the human experience, but they cannot be done outside the context of real relationship. It is only in such a context that naming and defining can enable us to truly understand and love others for who they are.


What would it look like if we spent less time naming and defining others and more time sincerely relating to strangers? How would we be better able to enter into to more genuine relationship with others? How would this change the way we in the church relate with each other? How would this change how we engage in mission with the rest of the world? Can you imagine a world of Christians who genuinely care about others and seek to know others without putting people into boxes? How would this change our witness to the reality of the reign of God through word and deed?