Illustration by Dan Williams
Shortly after I started at the In Trust Center, one longtime leader in theological education politely asked me a very pointed question: Do you identify as Evangelical?
What a great and difficult question. In short: It depends on the definition of Evangelical, which is currently in a state of flux, and regardless of the definition, I’m not sure I would tie my identity to it.
I’m sure that wasn’t an expected answer, but it was honest, and so was the question. It was a sincere – and appreciated – attempt to try to understand me.
I spent a lifetime in journalism asking people similar questions often in an attempt to define them, their work, or events to help an audience understand. Sometimes, that’s easy. A quarter of a century ago as a sports journalist, the labels were simple: a left-handed pitcher, a heavyweight boxer, an all-star wide receiver. Later, particularly covering politics, the labels became a more difficult, as there’s plenty of punch but little nuance in terms like a high-priced lobbyist, a progressive lawmaker, or a longtime politician.
As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully...”
The act of labeling can betray biases, but the labels’ meanings lie in the eye of the beholder, for better or worse. And, on their own, labels don’t tell the whole tale. For example, as a college student, I worked for the city of Berkeley, California, the noted liberal enclave that elected an avowed Communist to the city council, and the progressive city government – which was often at odds with state and federal political leaders and mandates – required that employees sign an oath to uphold the state and federal constitutions.
We inhabit a complicated world that often defies simple labels, as theology and theological education often prove. Theology is practiced with words and definitions that, no matter how good cannot fully describe the God of the Bible who is both knowable and yet, at least in this lifetime, fully unknowable.
As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
I have come to believe there is a sacred obligation to try to understand both God and His creation, which requires description, and yet I also see that when we unceremoniously label, without nuance or respect, the effort quickly becomes profane.
Getting it right is humbling and difficult work. In the end, a label is like seeing in the mirror dimly – a reflection but not the fullness of what it labels.