Whatever Happened to the Middle?: A Conversation
Whatever Happened to the Middle?
Duane: You know Michael, as Anglicans we have always prided ourselves on being a via media. Originally, this was between Lutheranism and the Reformed on the continent. By the 19th century it had morphed to being a via media between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. While both of these constructs were flawed, they did indicate the desire of some for a middle ground, that is a practice of faith that did not cater to the extremes. On a less denominational or doctrinal level, I think the same could be said about mainline evangelicalism during the 20th century. Recently, it has occurred to me that in both the sectarian/denominational world as well as within the nondenominational/evangelical world, the middle ground has simply disappeared. Increasingly, fealty is required to marginal or extreme views. I don’t believe that it was politics alone that stole the middle ground from us. It seems to me that there are other forces at work. Have you noticed this as well? What is your explanation for the phenomena?
Michael: This is probably well above my pay grade, but it is something that I am trying to understand as it troubles me deeply. These are difficult and confusing times where almost every cultural and moral understanding is being challenged or changed. Much of the world doesn’t act or think the way it did even ten years ago. Lots of boundary stones have been moved and many foundations shaken. What we see happening today is people who lived by those older boundaries trying to make sense out of it all…because it all seems senseless. The depth of those feelings combined with the division lead us to form tribes where we can feel secure again. The beauty of the via media to me wasn’t that it was an attempt to keep peace and fellowship between theological opponents…it was that it declared that there were truths inside both camps that were worth preserving and affirming while still disagreeing with some tenets. Today, we are led to believe by the loudest voices that the stakes are too high for any compromise and those who differ are enemies…tribal affiliation demands that one be all in…or be considered completely out and thus, an enemy.
Duane: Yes, it has become an inverted bell curve. In a normal bell curve, the middle is wide and deep. When you reverse a bell curve the middle becomes insignificant as the extreme edges of the curve rise with a deepening gap between them. I think that is the situation that we find ourselves in today, both in civil society and, most regrettably, in the church. Being “all in” with either of the extremes means being evaluated not merely for what you write or say, but who might’ve influenced you as well. I have to say, that I find this preposterous. I could not even name the vast range of influences upon my life and theology in almost 50 years of active ministry and teaching. I have benefited from voices across the Christian world that have encompassed a wide range of theological views. I have found value in liberation theologians, as well as among almost alarmingly conservative writers. I have found great value in reading works by Quakers, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and yes, Evangelicals as well. As in all things, you look for the truth that is being expressed, not a lockstep agreement with what is being presented. It is finding value in other voices, something which in my mind, is being lost. We are left, however, with the same nagging question, “What is the antidote? “.
Michael: Culturally, there is no antidote because few see the need for one The tribes are under the delusion that they will defeat the other and the world will be set right as it should be. There was a time when I believed that some major disaster would bring us together in a spirit of compromise for the greater good, but Covid proved me foolish. The church could return to being the church, but it has sold itself to the culture wars for fun and profit. I have no hope that we will see any change for the duration of my lifespan. The challenge for me is to resist despair and cynicism and live as I believe that we should as Christians…which means always being ready to respond to all sides with grace and truth to the best of my understanding.
Duane: I think the “greater good” has now been redefined as the permanent removal of those who oppose “us”… whoever “us” may be. Our politics is supposedly based upon the idea of compromise. That idea seems to be gone. Theology was once considered a field in which a wide variety of disciplines were involved, everything from philosophy to archaeology. I’m just going to say it, what passes for theology today as expressed in pulpits and on stages across the United States is, by and large, an embarrassment. Theology in the public square has increasingly become a mouthpiece for the politics of the right and the left. This has led to the dismissal of nuance in theological discourse. It is no longer permitted to say, “I’m uncertain” or “I don’t know”. As you say, we are captive to the loudest voices on the extremes and they claim to be certain about everything. One of the things I enjoyed about scholarly research is that it kept you humble. That is, the more you went along the path of research the more you realized how much you did not know. That sort of humility is completely lacking in current discourse. It has been replaced by bombast and intimations of violence.
Michael: It is a sad season…. and more and more lately, I think the proper response is grief. We can’t change what’s happening in the culture at large, but it is incumbent upon us to preserve the true mission and purpose of the church. For me, that means truly embracing the role of an exile, and praying that God gives me love for all who belong to tribes that won’t love me back. It also means being clear about what the mission and purpose of the church is…and isn’t.
Duane: There may still be a place for a middle way, but I think that it will be a path marked with sorrow. As the extremes grow ever more strident, our path may more and more resemble the way of the cross as we wait and hope for resurrection.