We join groups for various reasons: to achieve a common purpose; for social outlets; nothing better to do. Once a part of a group, we define a part of ourselves in relation to that group. We may think about the ways the group is similar to our own beliefs and hopes or we may think about the ways the group differs from our own understanding of self. So in one way or another we may project identity into that group.
I have sometimes been reluctant to reveal my political affiliations or group affiliations because I preferred the person present to speak to me and not to their perceptions of any particular group. As soon as I say I’m a Democrat or I’m a Republican, the person present may attach certain filters to their perception of me. The only problem is that their understanding of the value and/or issues related to that particular group may differ vastly from the values/issues I attach to the group.
I find this also in religious circles. By indicating that I am a Christian, someone else may immediately attribute certain ideas to me that may not having anything to do with my identification as a Christian.
labels by provide some very limited indicators to other peopple about our interests or self-understanding, but they also almost always tend to distort.
As I watched the DNC convention last night, I thought about another way in which labels can potentially distort our personhood. When I accept a label, such as a political designation. Then I may make decisions based on the decisions of that group rather than my own true convictions. By joining the group, I may surround my decision-making capacity and choose instead to focus on arguments that make it easier for me to accept the ideas of the group at large. Whether it is the DNC, the GOP or some other group, I always risk exhanging my personal identification with an affiliation of affinity. In one sense, it easier. Most people are uncomfortable with ambiguity and would prefer to take a stand somewhere, anywhere: “You just tell me where.”
As we are learning to become persons, that is fully relational beings, we must find ways to hold the tension of particularity (a particular personal identity) and commonality or generality (the ability to be in relation with other particular persons). This is not so easy and our ever increasing stridency in the public arena highlights it.
Yet there is always hope. This is where a label with explanation might help. When I say I am a Christian, I am affirming the classic creeds (The Apostles Creed and The Nicene Creed). While these creeds are filled with ideas, one primary idea that is upheld by classic creedal Christianity is that ultimate reality is relational. Or that God is Triune. And yet there is one essence. There is one God or one essence and yet there are three persons. Thus particularity and unity are held in perfect harmony. So if I accept the label of Christianity, I am affirming a belief that the heart of this world is personal and relational: thus I do see hope for the possibility of relationship between persons.