Friday, February 16, 2007


I constantly remind myself that categories aren't real. That is, they aren't Reality.

Categories help us label and understand our world, our universe. They can be very useful for creating equations (whether economic, social, scientific, political, spiritual, etc.), but we must remember that categories are tools to help us understand our world. They are tools.

They are not to be confused with the World or Universe. Categories do not exist in Reality. We have created them.

I often label myself and others. And sometimes we'd prefer to label and be labled. It gives us a comfort of how things are. But it's not how Things Actually Are. They're mental or social shorthand that point beyond. Categories act as symbols with hard lines so that we can understand and set up expectations.

I heard a Sufi Mystic speak about how they look for the essence of religions, not the language used to describe the essence (categories). She commented that the lines begin to blur when we loose our categories to touch the infinite. I found this very helpful.

Okay, sure this can sound all ethereal and meaningless, but we allow ourselves to be trapped into categories, not even realizing that the categories are made-up. I say I am a musician and I immediately feel like I'm not writing enough music or that my music is too pedestrian. But then I remind myself that I am also a communicator...but then I'm not speaking clearly enough with my songs. But I am also a fellow traveler and teacher and listener and prophet and friend. Which rules do I follow first?

And it gets further complicated when we use categories in groups/communities. Few people toe the party line for any one group. So what use is a category (like a "church" or "religion" or "genre") if there is huge diversity of opinion that is not represented in the culturally-accepted understanding of the category.

These categories are helpful in understanding who we are as individuals and communities, but they are not Real, you know?


nir said...


Katie said...

it was SO nice to have you three over tonight. Thank you so much for making the trip.
I really enjoyed this post. I wrote something similar for a class I am taking on "exceptional bodies" (it's about race, disability, sexuality, etc.) and talked about labels in terms of disabled people. It is KEY to remind ourselves that we have constructed these labels and that they in fact aren't real but merely a tool for understanding. Good post.
See ya soon!

Craig Bob said...

"Christian" is a category we like to harden into reality. But it's not a category for separating "us" and "them" ... it's a way of being.

JennOFarrell said...

I remind myself that categories are helpful and not helpful in the same breath - they divide more often than they unite. But what you brought up - the notion that they are not reality, is key and i dont think i have placed words on that like so. i find i hate labeling and then devour them for use of value, uniqueness -man!

Tom said...

I enjoyed your blog on categories. I've got a friend that talks about categories a lot in the sense you do so it is great to learn further perspective on the subject.

Thanks for the blog. I wondered on to it from someone else's blog.

BakerMan said...

Mostly true Ryan, but don't forget that there really are some categories. I could wax philosophic on the topic, but since you seem to mostly be referring to religion, I'd like to point out that while Christ may not care if we are Catholic, Episcopalean(sp?), Coptic or "non-denominational," there is a point at which only two categories will matter. Sheep? Or goat?

Ryan Lee Sharp said...

But you must admit that it was a parable, a way to help us understand Reality and the Kingdom of God. They were useful distinctions to make, but they were not Reality.