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Labels: The Nature and Meaning of Religious Identity

Having conducted over forty-five lengthy interviews for my ‘Talking with God’ project, I will highlight some points that have emerged, regarding religious identity and its meaning. Denominational labels are practical necessities – they define the group, its theology and practice. I was surprised by the range of answers about how important the label was and how people felt about their chosen denomination. Responses fell roughly into three groups. Participants were: 1. questioning or struggling, 2. embracing, and 3. comfortable. I will take these in turn.

Several participants found identifying their denomination challenging. None were accurate or classifications were disliked generally. Harold, when asked whether he identifies with Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, responded: “I just hate those titles. I would put myself between Orthodox and Post-denominational. My practice is Halachic, but because of the organizations and the term, and some of the directions that Orthodoxy has taken, I’d rather be thought of as a ‘traditionalist’ than as an Orthodox Jew, because ‘correct belief’ – the meaning of Orthodox – just seems like the wrong idea.” Similarly, Benjamin is between Modern Orthodox and neo-Chasidic. Mitzvot are more important “than theology and ideology and Modern Orthodoxy has embraced the rationalism of modernity. Mystical and ecstatic experience is lived in Chasidic communities, but Chasidic communities are politically conservative, so that’s where the neo-Chasidic comes in. If it was possible, I would be in a fully observant, egalitarian, politically progressive shul with a bent into Chasidut.”

Settled in liberal Judaism, Julie had a more general complaint: “I don’t know why we have these labels, and I wish we didn’t. I feel like there’s a hierarchy, where Orthodoxy is the most Jewish, Conservative is next most and if you’re kind of Jewish, then you go to the Reform synagogue. That’s what I think the labels mean and I don’t even think it’s necessarily true. Lots of people in Reform synagogues have a strong Jewish identity. I don’t why they’re low man on the totem pole.”

As a Christian, labels missed the mark of Christ’s teachings for Elisabeth. “What’s important is loving one another and being responsive to the needs around us.” Though her sense of God is different from the Jews previously mentioned, prioritizing connection and spiritual experience is identical. Regardless of religion or denomination, all those who are questioning and struggling with the boxes, share disagreement with the official stance and policies of their congregations, uniformly finding the hierarchy more rigid, exclusionary and missing the spiritual element.

Three Muslim women spoke with pride about their Muslim identity, yet with distaste for the Sunni/Shia conflict. None of them understood why, despite the Koran stating ‘do not divide yourselves into sects’, and generations of sects living peaceably together, the Sunni/Shia divide has been taken up by the media. My assessment is that political leaders have used it to sow divisions and win power. It is a cynical but not unfounded view. That said, I was still surprised by the lack of awareness. A 20-year-old student from Somaliland admitted learning of these sects in the US. A British convert from Christianity even misspoke, saying: “It’s Shia, sorry Sunni. Yeah, Sunni. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m a regular Muslim, if there is such a thing anymore. I don’t see the difference. We’re Muslim and we’re praying to Allah. We read the same book.”

Those who embrace their religion strongly include Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and converts, having chosen their religion willingly in adulthood. One participant explained the meaning of being a Born Again Christian. Though raised Baptist, Peggy and her husband joined several denominations before finding the right home. Born Again is “a term people use, taken from John 3, that you must be born again. We’re born once naturally, in the flesh, and now we are born again in the spirit. Now the spirit comes in and inhabits us with the Holy Spirit and He actually creates something new in us. So, we still have our old nature, which is sinful. We also have a new nature, so that’s where the term ‘Born Again’ comes in. Most people who believe in the inerrancy of the Scripture and who claim to be Christians, would be considered Born Again Christians.”

A more surprising description came from a German woman, Ilsa, who said: “I’m a Member in the Body of Christ. I’m on a path, which is my life, but I’m a member in the Body of Christ. Christian denominations come together in the Body of Christ. We’re all individual members. Jesus is the head, and we are the ears, the eyes, the voice, the hands, the feet, the arms, the legs, the body. So we accept the fact that He is our Lord and Savior, and that because He saved us and paid the price for us on the cross we lovingly accept what He tells us to do.” While several people had extoled the value of community and all of the conservative Christians stressed the importance of proselytizing, none had so closely connected their identity with a religion, denomination, or congregation.

Aside from those struggling and those actively embracing their path, the third group simply felt comfortable about their identity, citing style and connection as deciding factors. Most of the participants were raised within a denomination and many spoke of leaving, then returning when a gap was felt or they had a crisis. The particular identity labels a place and community where they feel at home, where their needs are mostly met.

A British Anglican talked about his conversion experience. Having observed his Christian housemates, he saw that their church attendance and volunteering weren’t hurting anyone and seemed appreciated. Despite his skepticism, he attended some events then said the prayer of surrender to God. “I became somebody that wanted to walk in the same way they were: reading the Bible, having regular prayer times, doing what I could to be talking about God and helping people.” Brian’s commitment to the community and finding a home found common ground with others as well. An American artist in Boston spoke warmly about the family feel of her adopted River of Life missionary church. “It’s a good place. I’ve been there for about 20 years. It’s my family. I’ve found a good home.”

In closing, my view of religious identity shifted from seeing it biographical date to appreciating the depth many feel about their label. Though all participants identified with some denomination, some struggle, others actively embrace it and yet others are comfortable. Perhaps denominations are not just labels after all.

This post was originally posted on the State of Formation website on 15 April 2018. It remains visible on that platform. It was written as part of their Blogging Fellowship program. Names have been changed to protect their privacy, but all quotes are given with permission.

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