A few years ago, my wife, Diane, crafted a homemade cookbook to give to a young couple preparing to soon marry. Members of our church family each contributed one or two favorite family recipes for the soon-to-be newlyweds and these were placed in various sections of the cookbook.
To help them to be able to navigate to whatever recipes they might want to use on specific occasions, Diane placed within it little tabs: one for “Appetizers”, one for “Breakfast Foods”, for “Main Dishes”, “Desserts” and so on. These little tabs, or “labels”, are, of course, intended to save time and make things more convenient for the user of the cookbook.
This is naturally the whole point of labeling: assisting one in properly identifying something so that he or she may properly handle that thing. Labels are obviously important in that they help us to know what pills might be the medicines we need, what books we may want to read (yes, book covers are, after all, labels, too), and what streets will lead us to our desired destinations.
Imagine the frustration of traveling through an unfamiliar city with no “labels” (street signs) or the danger of trying to find life-saving medication from a row of unmarked bottles in a medicine cabinet! Having no labels would be a very difficult ordeal to overcome: both inconvenient and potentially lethal!
By the same token, consider how problematic it would be to have labels that were misleading or outright wrong! A road side sign that says there is a rest area ahead might give one false hope for a potty break if it turns out that, when the desperate traveler arrives, the rest area is closed due to renovation! Far, far worse is a candy bar label that does not mention the fact that it may contain trace amounts of peanuts: mislabeling in this instance may tragically turn out to be fatal to someone with a food allergy to peanuts!
We label people, too, you know. We do it in part because the human brain needs to be able to organize information readily and finds it efficient to group together what it perceives as “like kinds”. Consequently, it “labels” people, categorizing them into perceived groups that share either real or imagined similarities. In our tendency to lapse into what I like to call “cognitive laziness”, the problem arises that we quickly label others in order to not have to actually understand them. Our inclination to do this is called “prejudice” (prejudging others without objectively and logically considering real facts).
As a case-in-point, my family watched a live debate one evening between two men representing vastly different worldviews. On the one hand there was Bill Nye, iconic scientist for kids across America, representing a naturalistic, non-theistic interpretation of the world and its origins. On the other was Ken Ham, founder of Answers-In-Genesis, who defended the perspective that the world was literally created in six days.
While I don’t mind at all sharing my own perspective in my own feeble way on this particular discussion (a literal six day creation), this particular column is not so much about that as it is about a strategy Mr. Nye employed at the outset of his remarks. Right off the bat, Mr. Nye referred to anyone who holds to an evolutionary belief system as a “reasonable man” and, as his remarks progressed, anyone who does not as someone who is “unreasonable”. With one sweeping “label” (probably a reference to Adolphe Quetelet’s l’homme moyen in 1835), Mr. Nye sought to end the debate with what he hoped would be a shared and uncontested assumption about his worldview and those who do not agree with it. The inference is obvious: those who do not agree with him are simply “unreasonable” because they do not “reason” (think logically and critically). Furthermore, if you want to be considered “reasonable”, you’ll simply accept evolutionary thought as fact and dismiss out-of-hand anything contradictory.
The clear problem with his approach in the debate was that those who disagreed with him in the debate were clearly “reasonable” men and women. Ken Ham was one, of course. Others included were scientists and inventors who in video snippets indicated that they’ve “reasonably” arrived at the conviction that the world was created in six days and that the Bible can be trusted as a historical source. They have rationally considered what evidence was available to them and have arrived at a reasonable (or viable) conclusion.
Another label tossed out by Mr. Nye was that of “followers of Ken Ham” in reference to those who hold to a Creationist point-of-view. Yet again, this is poor labeling on Mr. Nye’s part. Right or wrong, that perspective preexisted Mr. Ham and has been espoused by many other “reasonable” men and women. But that is what labeling does when it is not held accountable. It dismisses, it slanders, and it disempowers (or seeks to do so) those with whom we disagree.
Labeling is necessary to some extent and can be a good thing. I do not mind the label at all of “Christian” and am undeserving of the honor of being called a “Child of God”; but since God in His Word is the One doing the labeling, I readily embrace it as truth.
It is to be hoped that we will have learned from Mr. Nye’s mistakes and will strive to be careful in our use of labels. If one is a true scientist, then he or she wants to know things as they truly are and look beyond what things are merely rumored to be. I truly believe that if one honestly and objectively considers the claims of Christ and the validity of His Word, he or she will find it “reasonable” to arrive at the conclusion that His Word is true (whether we’re talking about Creation or His plan for salvation). But to objectively arrive at such a conclusion, one just might have to let go the assumptions that cloud his or her ability to truly reason.
“I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad…. Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!” (Psalm 34:1-2, 8 ESV).
(Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 24 ½ years, is the author of Led by Grace, The Fairy Tale Parables, Crimson Harvest, and A Heart at Home with God. He blogs at “unfurledsails.wordpress.com.” Pastor Thom leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)