Categorically Speaking…

Categories always remind me of Kant. Which means, the Enlightenment and the shifts in how we view knowledge, the world and ourselves. While not attempting to misrepresent history, one might note that the Enlightenment brought about a serious obsession with categorizing, title-ing and qualifying things. The ancient world, though intelligent and philosophical in its own right, was a bit more satisfied with mystery if they couldn’t find a more specific answer to their various questions.

Today, it seems, we have a hangover from modernity that doesn’t like mystery. So we quantify, we label and we want to put things into boxes on shelves that are very neatly organized in alphabetical order by year of origin and expiration date, thank you very much. For this, I’m thankful that we’re moving into post-modernity (and beyond!) as it is more concerned with the holistic person, the story, the narrative, the relationships, etc.

The church, however, is always behind the changing tides of culture, usually by ten to fifteen years. So tonight, at youth group, I got to experience the labels, the titles, the categories. We did a test that was meant to examine how we best relate to God–a good process, since churches and schools often teach one mode of experience as being most common (think three point sermons or quizzes). This is problematic because sermons, especially in Protestant churches, do not cover the full range of ways in which people experience God. This is a reason I’ve come to enjoy youth ministry: we play games, hike, camp, serve neigbourhoods, sing, teach, etc. It’s easier to do a wider gamut of activities and thus impact more hearts in a wider variety of ways. Thus, the quiz/assessment could have been a great tool to help students facilitate their own spiritual growth by alerting them to how they best experience or relate to God.

The problem I have is that not only did the nine categories offered all bleed into each other (they weren’t distinct) but they tried to quantify or qualify things that didn’t need separated. For instance, one question asked if I would rather “stand in the pouring rain for an hour while waiting to confront someone” or “journal about my frustrations” instead. I’m non-confrontational. Ask my roommate. I avoid confrontation at all costs. However, I also avoid journaling like someone avoids the bubonic plague. Journal? Confront? Neither of those sound good. In fact, they both make me really anxious as I’m writing this post. So I left that question blank.

And then the next one.

And the next one…

My “score” was a bit of a mess because I had avoided several questions similar to the one I mentioned. Would you rather read a book? Or hike? Well, I don’t know, is it a good book? Who am I hiking with? Do you feel close to God in a church with liturgy and incense? Or in nature? Um, both?

The nine different options explained how we best related to God, most of my kids experience Him in nature (we do live in Colorado). But what of my students who appreciated activism? That isn’t an option in the church they attend… What about the fact that none of them felt that asceticism was how they related to God? Many of them breathed deeply with gratitude that they wouldn’t “have” to fast because “phew! that’s not how I experience God!”

I’m being very round-about in this post because I’m still processing it all. My struggle with quizzes like this are that they allow us to indulge what we already know we’re good at (hiking, reading, etc) to the detriment of learning new things (fasting, contemplation, et al). But God meets us in radical ways whenever we avail ourselves to His Spirit. When I was in high school, my dad and I drove past a Greek Orthodox church while discussing several individuals leaving our congregation over changes in the worship music. My dad, in his frustration pointed at the church and said, “if your heart is in the right place, you could walk into that church and worship God even if  you didn’t know what was going on.”

I experienced that my freshman year of college in a Russian Orthodox Church, and again in France during a Catholic mass–in Latin, by a french speaking African–and yet again during Vespers in a local Greek Orthodox church last year. I’ve experienced God on the top of 14er’s, on the shores of Costa Rica and in a tiny hotel room in Vladimir, Russia. Because He is everywhere and in His Spirit we are enabled to know Him in every way known to humanity.

I’m frustrated with our obsession to put God in a box, or to put ourselves in a box rather than choosing to know God in all situations, at all times and by all means possible. God doesn’t need categories. The systematic constructs are helpful means for us to start our journey towards Him. But at some point, we must set aside our systems and say to Him, “you are God and I am not. Speak, for your servant is listening,” and then, whether we are in a coffee shop, on a mountain or serving the homeless while fasting, we should be still, we should listen, and we would know him.

This frustration may be somewhat misplaced but…lately I’m just fed up with systems, categories and labels that don’t allow us to be holistic and don’t “allow” God freedom to act however He wishes.

Donald Miller (an author I enjoy) actually wrote about similar issues on his blog today. It is a much better articulation than what I wrote last night at midnight as my roommate arrived home and started brining a gigantic Turkey. You can enjoy his thoughts here.


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