Hayden Weaver, native of Irvine, CA, is a law student at BYU. When he has a spare minute, he likes to trail run, read, and spend time with his wife.
I recently read a book called Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark. The book outlines the value of thinking of religion—as the Latin root regilare, or “to fasten or bind,” suggests—as “simply a tying together, a question of how we see fit to organize ourselves and our resources.” With this definition, Dark explains, “a person’s religiosity is never not in play. It names the patterns, shifting or consistent, avowed or not, of all our interactions.”
Dark believes everything from our gas mileage to our Internet search history is religious, or a manifestation of our loyalty to some controlling story we’ve accepted for our lives. Thinking of religion in this broad sense, rather than as simply one category or aspect of life, has helped me rethink my daily actions and whether or not they reflect the teachings of Christ I claim to believe. This in turn has helped me rethink how I can be a better steward of God’s creations.
The Problem with Labels
I remember a brief conversation I had with someone just prior to starting law school. After explaining my plans for the next few years, the person asked, “What kind of law do you want to practice?” I explained that I wasn’t quite sure but followed up with, “I’m kind of interested in environmental law, though.” After a slight pause the response came. “Environmental law? So are you of one of those hippy liberal environmentalists?”
The question bothered me. Do I have to be a hippy or a liberal or even an environmentalist to care about the earth? I wasn’t sure I wanted to be attached to everything those labels carry. After all, I care deeply about the environment, but I probably wouldn’t blow up a dam. If I said yes, would this person envision me tying myself to a tree? Despite my annoyance, I also realized that I label people all the time. When I find out someone is a member certain political party, from a certain place, or worst of all a Boston sports fan, I tend to stop paying attention to the nuances of their character and paint them with broad brushstrokes. Dark points out what why this is so harmful. He says,
This is the way it goes with our words. When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. I no longer have to feel overwhelmed by their complexity, the lives they live, the dreams they have. I know exactly where they are inside—or forever outside—my field of care, because they’ve been taken care of. The mystery of their existence has been solved and filed away before I’ve had a chance to be moved by them or even begun to catch a glimpse of who they might be. They’ve been neutralized. There’s hardly any action quite so undemanding, so utterly unimaginative, as the affixing of a label. It’s the costliest of mental shortcuts.
Christ of course never allowed labels to cut short his assessment of people. One of my favorite stories in the New Testament is the story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a wealthy tax collector, and as a result people despised him. As Jesus was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus wanted to get a glimpse of the man, but he was too short to see above the crowd. So he climbed a tree to get a better view. “And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house” (Luke 19:5). Zacchaeus then promised to give half of what he had to the poor, and to pay back people he had cheated. The people saw Zacchaues as a tax collector, and for some the assessment stopped there. Christ saw past the label and made a personal connection with the man. We don’t know exactly what Christ’s conversation with Zacchaeus entailed, but I imagine Christ spent time getting to know the nuances of Zacchaeus’s dreams, aspirations, and fears.
I believe the more we understand each other, the more capable we will be of taking care of God’s creations. Taking care of the earth requires both individual and community effort. I, for example, have been encouraged as I have gotten to know others on a personal level and observed what they do. I am inspired to be better through my relationships. While labels can sometimes be useful, they can also cause divisions and inhibit meaningful interactions.
Labels as a Public Verdict
Dark also makes the point that labels, when used, should be a public verdict, rather than a self-description. He emphasizes this in context of the word “Christian,” but I think it applies to terms like “environmentalist” as well. Dark’s point is that the way we live is a better indicator of who we are than the labels we assign ourselves. He explains, “Show me a transcript of the words you’ve spoken, typed, or texted, in the course of a day, an account of your doings, and a record of your transactions, and I’ll show you your religion.” To me this is another way of saying, “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16).
For me, this is a humbling and scary thought. Do the labels I assign myself hold up in the minds of those who know me? Do they hold up in God’s mind? What would the public’s verdict be of my actions? This thought has helped me realize that I need to do more. I need to understand how my actions impact the earth God has given us, and change those actions. Answering yes to the question, “Are you an environmentalist?” is less important than the world I leave for people who come after.