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Spiritual Reflections

Innies and Outies

by Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

You can write to Joyce at

All human beings have a belly button. There is no other external body part that is so universally human. Most people have noses, but there are exceptions. Same thing for ears, and eyes, and arms, and even brains. People are born with various birth defects, or lose these parts due to disease or injury. Not so with the belly button. If you were born, you have one. Every four- year old knows THAT!

Our belly button reminds us of our initial human state - connection. For the first and most formative period of life, while you were in the womb, you were physically attached to your mother by the umbilical cord. After your birth the physical cord was cut, and when the site healed it became your belly button. But even though the literal physical attachment was cut, you did not cease to need your mother. Every four-year old knows THAT!

But belly buttons also show us something else that seems to be universal among humans. From a very early age, we like to separate ourselves into categories. You can find four-year olds in their play groups lifting up their shirts and comparing their belly buttons. Are you an innie or an outie? When you're four years old, it seems like a fun game. When it's four-year-olds saying it, it can seem pretty cute.

The problem is, the "innies and outies" game doesn't end with four-year-olds or belly buttons. As we grow older, it goes on to other categories of division. Us and them. Black and white. Haves and have-nots. Gay and straight. Liberal and conservative. Good guys and bad guys. And as grown-ups continue to play these other versions of the belly button game, the phrase "innies and outies" takes on a much more sinister meaning.

Religion, unfortunately, has been a major player in this ongoing and very serious human game. Interfaith dialogue runs into stumbling blocks rather quickly when it involves anyone with an exclusivist outlook. Today, within Christianity, with its gospel of love, there often seems to be more judgment and exclusion than welcome and reconciliation. We argue about who is a "real" Christian, who is "doctrinally correct." In the meantime the hungry go unfed, the poor unserved, the children unloved.

Like belly buttons, this desire to separate and exclude is a universal human trait. It is born of fear. Fear of scarcity. There may not be enough pie to go around - food pie, money pie, land pie, love pie, God pie. And there is plenty of this fear reflected in the Bible. Fear can be a powerful motivator of human behavior. But in the Bible there is also something else reflected. There is also plenty of love and abundance.

I do not claim to know the mind of God, and I am suspicious of any human persons with the arrogance to claim they do. But as I grow older, I am increasingly convinced that we have a choice. It is a choice that is becoming more and more urgent. We can look to what unites us to others, or what separates us. We can err on the side of love, or of fear. We can wear ourselves out arguing about who's in and who's out, poking around under one another's shirts, metaphorically speaking, to find out. Or, we can marvel at the mark we all bear - the mark of our universal connection - the sign that every one of us was created and nurtured and birthed in love. We are more alike than we are different. We are all the beloved children of one God. And every four year old knows THAT.