Labels and Sanghas

Originally published in April 2012

Sangha is a word I like.  It refers to a faith community in which people of roughly similar faiths can practice together.  I like it better than church because the associations are different.

My Sangha has reached the point in their growth where they find it necessary to say, “Our name is ___________.  We are__________.  We believe _________, __________, and not_____________.  Our people look like _____________.”

IMG13This has produced many thoughts in me.

Over the weekend, I attended a worldview presentation by World Seen.  I used to be part of this group and have many fond memories from it.  The group endeavors to educate a predominantly Christian teenage audience about what the major worldviews of today are, their basic tenets, how they play out and how they affect art and culture.  It’s really a brilliant concept, and perhaps the first exposure some Christian kids may get to people who are different.

This has also produced many thoughts in me.

Between these two experiences, I’ve been prompted to consider the benefits and hazards of labels applied to people.

Going with my theme, I cannot in good conscience label labels as all bad.  There are some benefits that must be noted.  Labels provide structure.  Labels can be centering.  Labels let the label-makers better care for their labeled.  Defining a structure or system(like a faith community or worldview) can allow for greater efficiency in function.  Or greater productivity.  Or uniformity, consistency and reliability.  Like Starbucks.  And sometimes you want these things.

I must also say that, when I talk about labels, I’m talking about something different than sangha membership.  I think I’m talking about a general attitude more than a process specific to one group.

Also, whatever misgivings I have about membership and the labeling process and whatever gripes I raise about my people in particular, I will still submit myself to the same membering process, take on the name and label and work within their definition of community.  Why?  Because I like them!  Because they’re good people!  Because they put up with copious amounts of my S%$#.  Because I just feel better about life when I’m with them.  Because they really do want to do right and care for their people.

As a general practice though, I’m still going to regard labels with wary eyes, particularly when applied to people.  Why?  Because people are complex creatures!  People have many sides!  When you get many people together, you have many many more sides and complexities!  A single label will never work for more than one person.  Neither can any label can fully encompass a single person.

Labels separate people.  Labels divide us and keep us apart.  People go to war and kill for their labels.

The predominate function of a label, that I see, is to identify that which is and that which is not like something.  Labels look at similarities, differences, compatibilities and contradictions.  Labels organize items into groups and keeps them separate.

This was my experience at the worldview presentation.  It was in no way a fault of the team.  It was in fact the result of my own worldview growth.  The team operates from a decidedly Christian Theist perspective.  I have come to operate from a decidedly post-modern and spiritualist perspective.  If we’re being strict about our labels and what they mean, then that means I am no longer part of the Christian Theist group.  And what does this mean for me?  Do I still get to come to the potlucks?  Do I still get to be friends with them?  Can I be part of a Christian men’s group though I’m more of a Spiritualist?  Can I voice my thoughts and questions and ideas and be taken seriously?  Are they going to try to convert me?

Are they going to look down on me?  Revoke my membership?  Take back my Bible college degree?  Ban my children from their summer camps?

None of this has happened yet.  I’m just speculating and perhaps over indulging in irrational paranoias.

Are they irrational?IMG_2520

We love to talk about unity, especially in the church.  But we also love our labels.  When we create our labels, do we create our own divisions?  When we create an “in” crowd, do we automatically create an “out” crowd?

Yes, we can take measures to bring the outsiders in.  But they’ll always be the outsiders on the inside.  And I don’t know if that’s actually unity or inclusion.

One of my favorite teachers was fond of saying, “We are more similar than we are different.”

One of my favorite writers, Thich Naht Hanh gets excited about the metaphorical “Fruit Salad,” of religious traditions in which all types of people can learn from each other and fill in each other’s blind spots.

I like this idea.  I want the fruit salad.  I want this richness for my friends and family and other people with similar labels.

I don’t have an answer yet.  May God grant me wisdom and compassion in the mean time.  May God grant you peace and rich relationships…


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