Mon 28 Jun 2010
It seems to me there is an obvious deficiency in the logic that says one demonstrates the superiority of a position by stereotyping his or her opponents through name-calling. Such “labeling” typically demonstrates the speaker’s simplicity of argument at best; at worst, it speaks to the general irritability of the name-caller. Yet, the fact remains such behaviour is a feature quite common in all sorts of debate. “So-and-so has defended proposition X. She must undoubtedly be a [insert negative term here].” But while there are many who are disposed to label other thinkers, there are regrettably few who seem to have an adequate grasp of either the label or the individual they are labeling. In such cases, the end result is inevitably an increase in hostility rather than an increase in dialogue.
An example might be helpful here. Take my stand on healthcare. As a Canadian, I tend to support government funded healthcare. In fact, I am unaware of any serious Christian thinkers in Canada who are fundamentally opposed to the institution (though they and I might criticise specific issues which have arisen within the institution). As a Christian, I find government healthcare an admirable method of ensuring the poor receive the same level of medical care as do the rich. I myself benefited from the program particularly as a child, receiving necessary surgery which would otherwise have been a significant financial hardship for my family.
Now imagine my surprise upon being called a communist by a certain American fellow I was once speaking with. Communism, as anyone who has actually bothered to read any of Marx’ writings will tell you, has a number of positions beyond socialized healthcare. Heck, even someone who bothered to spend a minute reading the Wikipedia article on communism could tell you as much. Perhaps the most prominent feature of the ideology is the idea that all property should be commonly controlled; communist states have accomplished this through the state ownership of all property. I, however, am not in the least in favour of government ownership of all property. So I clearly cannot be a communist.
My American acquaintance was certainly welcome to criticise my opinions on healthcare; but I am less inclined to think he was right to abuse words and their meaning in the process. More frustratingly, by labeling me a communist he was not only wrong, he was also deliberately attempting to put an end to our discussion. “You are one of them,” he seemed to sneer, “and I need not argue with your kind.”
This type of name-calling is a problem which has been exceedingly prevalent in Christian discourse for centuries. In the Book of Homilies (1547), the final sermon warns Christians against labeling each other so haphazardly. Satirizing the language of the day, the author writes: “He is a pharisee; he is a gospeler; he is of the new sort; he is of the old faith; he is a new-broached brother; he is a good Catholic father; he is a papist; he is a heretic.” In resorting to language like this, speakers were more interested in casting derision on others than thoughtfully reading and considering their ideas.
Today all sorts of labels are thrown about within and between denominations. Perhaps the insults most universal across the Christian spectrum are those of “fundamentalist” and “liberal”. The first is used to imply that a thinker is incredibly simplistic – an uneducated yokel or some similarly negative stereotype. The latter suggests that the thinker is more enamored of his own thoughts over and above scripture and the history of Christian thought over the centuries.
Yet if all sides in a disagreement automatically respond by using such labels – without hearing each other out – then whoever is in the wrong will never be persuaded of their mistake. In labeling others as heretics, we not only stop up their ears, we also insulate ourselves from considering the possibility that we may have erred.
Now, I am not suggesting that using labels is either unnecessary or inherently wrong. Quite the opposite in fact – I am arguing that labels are of the utmost important. But it is precisely because they are important that it is also important that they be used properly. The practice of naming is necessary to understand and distinguish one idea from another. It may well be, for example, that some writers might be accurately identified as “heretics” if they deny the resurrection or some other fundamental Christian doctrine. In rejecting the testimony of the ancient ecumenical creeds, they would by definition move themselves out of the accepted understanding of Christianity and into the category of heresy. Bishop Spong’s book Why Christianity Must Change or Die is an excellent case-in-point: in attempting to redefine Christianity on the creedal level, he admits that he and his beliefs cannot be included in the existing definition of the word. And if his thoughts on Christianity cannot themselves be called “Christian”, they must, by definition, be “heresy”.
But note the difference here. In order to label a thought or person, one must first a) understand what the label actually means, and b) have a thorough knowledge of the person/position to be labeled. We can only call something “heretical” if we first understand what heresy actually is and secondly have a thorough understand of the person/position being labelled such. Few things so impede the fruitful discussion of theology as does the assumption that any position contrary to one’s own must inevitably be “heresy”. If we would instead obey the words of St. Paul to “test everything” and “hold on to what is good” (1 Th 5:21), we would no doubt be pleasantly surprised to discover how much we have to learn from those we first dismissed. After all, the scriptures are clear that we are supposed to teach and admonish one another (Col 3:16); calling each other names succeeds in doing neither.