Saturday, March 10, 2007

When labels fail us

Originally posted March 6

The other day I was talking to a coworker about plans for the weekend. I mentioned that I might be asking my atheist husband to take Daughter in Ohio to church (where she sings with the choir) so that I could attend my own church. She asked, "You have an atheist husband? So do I!"

I then decided that I should clarify a bit. After all, I had just used the word atheist as a sort of shorthand, to indicate that I was asking a Rather Big Favor of him, since he normally doesn't go to church. I don't think he calls himself an atheist, or even an agnostic. Come to think of it, I don't really know what he would put on a form that asked for religion as part of the demographic information.

But the fact that I am not sure what he would call himself, if asked, does not mean we don't have conversations about matters of faith and belief. We actually have such discussions on a fairly regular basis. It's just that labels don't tend to come up much when we do. Labels often have the effect of magnifying differences rather than helping us find our common ground.

In our almost 20 years of marriage, I have come to learn that Demetrius is someone who thinks pretty seriously about the big questions, even though he doesn't identify with any "name brand" religion. Here's something he wrote earlier today, in a discussion on another blog.

Well... An Infinite Being (I can't believe in a finite God) would perceive cause and effect, action and reaction simultaneously. So, for God to create all there is (exactly as it is) by setting up a few simple rule before the Big Bang isn't such a crap shoot. Why build the Universe atom by atom when I can just tell the atoms how to behave and send the Universe out to build itself? Wouldn't every part of that construction have some key into the whole? Our pursuit of knowledge of the Infinite is only natural.

"...we are the Universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out." - Ambassador Delenn, Babylon 5

That's not religious thinking in the traditional sense, but it certainly is a thoughtful approach to examining life's mysteries. Over the years I've seen the way Demetrius thinks through these things, and have also seen how his understanding of the Big Picture guides his understanding of moral behavior. If you understand yourself as interconnected with All That Is, hopefully your behavior toward others will reflect that. And in his case, I believe it does. And that impresses me more than someone who identifies as Christian but whose behavior is the opposite of what Jesus taught. Yet, I know there are people who explictly state that they prefer to do business with a Christian-owned company, thinking that will assure them a certain ethical standard.

But on the other hand, I have seen plenty of evidence in my years of blogging that some people make automatic negative assumptions about people who identify as Christian, or Evangelical Christian, or Roman Catholic. That's not fair either. Nor is it reasonable to demand that, if one is the member of a particular religious group, one must spend all sorts of time "denouncing" every wrong that has ever been perpetrated by a member of that religion.

My conclusion? One that I think should be self-evident: any one piece of information about an individual, whether it be religious affiliation, race, where they went to school, etc., tells us very little about who they are. You can fill in a bubble on a form, or answer a question on a survey and say that you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist, or what have you. But I really don't know what that means to you unless I ask you, with a genuine curiosity, and with the willingness to check my assumptions at the door.