I have been thinking a lot about definitions. What defines a truck from an ice cream cone? Why is a rose just as sweet by any other name? What makes me human, a man, straight, Christian…what makes me Ryan?
There are countless clinical or standard definitions that are basic to my understanding of these questions. I live in a world organized by facts and opinions; even a general consensus governs the world around me.
I am a man because I have a penis and testicles. I am a human because that is the genus and species I fall under. A more elaborate response is deserved here, but I do not recall much from the early years of my college education. I am Christian because I am compelled to serve God via relationship to creation as witnessed in Jesus the Christ. I am straight because I am drawn to intimate relations to women. How sets these definitions?
I have been reading this book, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier by Alexandra Fuller. It is a beautiful book that describes the authors time with an African solider in Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. I am not to sure but I think the time frame is in the last fifteen years. She explores the dark, hurting places of this mans heart, mind, and soul. As she does she sheds light on the division between us and them.
The book is littered with names and slag that I get but am not exactly sure of. K, the solider in the book, goes on tirades and fires of a slang filled rant on Africans and perceived characteristics they portray. He is jaded by life and makes no qualms about offering them to us.
The thing is the more peppered his language gets in the book the more wisdom seeps into my thoughts. He is describing the world around him as he sees it. He is responding to a world of war, hurt, and disparity amongst people. He is reconciling the best way he knows how. He labels and defines in amazing broad strokes. He removes the filter of decency and offers an honest take on the situation. He does this not with malice or anger. He does it because that is the way he sees the world.
So I wonder, how do I define my world? Why do I do the things I do? How do I impact those around me by the things I do? Why define, label, and sort the world around me. In the book K says something like, “words are just an inadequate way to share with the world the shite you have gone through.” Levinas speaks to this. Language is part of the system to which we engage the other. All rules, regulations, and symbols are product of self in its attempt to explore the other’s territory. Language at its best gets in the way of real relationship. Communication with words is not as efficient as actions.
Defining the world around us is a way of owning, controlling, and even stifling the world around us. I put you in a box and you cannot harm me, invade me. I grow weary and uncomfortable in a world that challenges my labels, my comforts. A world absent of boxes makes for a world full of anxiety and fear.
I think that we see more definitions and labels these days due to the tremendous amount of paranoia and fear. The post 9/11 world reeks of it. We must define and order all things. This goes in line with the modern concept of civilized order. The Presbyterian denomination engages this as well in our tagline, “Decent and in order.” I ask what was decent and in order about Jesus on the cross. Where is the paranoia on the cross? Can we define what took place of the cross? Can we inhabit a place that definitions build the Kingdom of God?
I would say no to this question…Definitions box up the power of Christ. Definitions allow for us to enter into the Holy of Holies as wielders of power and not as recipients of power. I wonder now how definitions that inhabit all areas of y human decency; my human depravity can be of any good. For they lead to exclusion. Exclusion leads to oppression. Oppression leads to a power structure. Did not Jesus come to flip the shite on its head?
There is no Jew no Greek, no slave, no free, no man, no woman…no us, no them…no insider, no outsider…just one boat and one direction, with many ways.
So then…what now?