In Search of… the “Radical Middle”


Creative Tension

Creative Tension (Photo credit: shane o mac)

When I worked at a Summer Camp, oh… 30 + years ago, our camp director liked to give this illustration.

“Suppose you are walking along a a trail the winds along half way up a very steep mountain. On one side of the trail is the mountain face and the other the sheer cliffs that would spell doom for anyone whose footstep was careless enough to slip over the edge. Now what side of the trail would you choose to walk on?”

He was hoping people would say that they would walk on the side of the trail that was as far away from the cliff as possible. The illustration was meant to correspond to our moral lives where we must choose to, not merely avoid slipping off the edge, stand well away from danger.

And that makes sense except that in most real-world situations dangers are on both sides. While one may be at risk of moral lawlessness on one side, one may also fail on the side of legalism.

So, including the one above, here are a few of many of the extremes.

Liscense — Legalism

Transcendant God — Immanent God

Deontological (rule-based) Ethics — Teleological (result-based) Ethics

Sovereignty of God — Freewill of Man

Unity of God — Threeness of God

Individuality of Faith — Community of Faith

God as Merciful — God as Just

Individual Freedom — Societal Responsibility

Faith, not Works — Faith, evidenced by Works

There are many many many more. A professor of mine liked the term “the Radical Middle” to describe seeking a balance between two extremes. Generally, the extremes are incorrect so the truth exists somewhere in the middle. Often, we think of the middle position as “wishy-washy.” But does it have to be? Can a balanced view be a strong position? I don’t know, but chasing after an extreme position may not be useful. I am not an expert on this, but here are a few middle positions, I suppose. Perhaps others could add more.

  1. Synthesis. One can take the two positions as a dialectic thesis and antithesis. From that one can develop a synthesis. For example, the Nicene version of the Trinity is an attempt to synthesize the Biblical statements that express the Unity of God, as well as the Multiplicity of God.
  2. Contradiction. Some people seem to make little real attempt to integrate or even deal with bringing together extremes. I used to have a friend who was Bahai. He would like to say that all religions teach the same thing (one extreme) while rejecting beliefs of certain religions that were exclusivistic (another extreme). There seemed to be no desire or effort to address the contradiction. It seemed to me to be like the Queen of Hearts who believes 7 impossible things before Breakfast.
  3. Instrumentalism. I may be using this term inaccurately. But for me, this means that the extremes may be useful models that one can use when it is appropriate, but one may use the other extreme when that is useful. A physicist may use the particle theory of light when that is useful and the wave theory when that is useful. President Ronald Reagan appeared to use a wartime mentality of dealing with “the evil empire” when that was useful, and switched to a peaceful diplomacy mentality in dealing with another soverign nation when that seemed to work.
  4. Creative Tension. Instead of any of the above, one acknowledges the paradox (or even contradiction) of the extremes and allows the extremes to coexist in dialogue. One learns and grows acknowledging the tension. God is transcendant and God is immanent. One doesn’t have to fully reconcile these nor pick a side. One can grow in dealing with the paradox.
  5. Triangulation. Okay, I know I am using the term wrong. But it fits in the imagery, I believe. Sometimes the truth may not exist between two extremes, but in a third position. If Liscense (antinomianism) is wrong and so is Legalism, one does not necessarily have to pick a position between these two points. One might take a third position “Liberty.” Liberty may not be a synthesis of the Christian’s freedom from Law and the Christian’s responsibility before the Law. Perhaps, dealing with the Law is not the point. Perhaps, our responsibilty before God is built more off of relationship than on law. In other words, the truth may not be a point in between two other points. The truth may be a third point not on the line… but a third point on a triangle.
  6. Disbelief or Toxic Doubt. One can simply give up and say that one cannot come up with the answer so one can simply disbelieve or reject caring to deal with the problem (“ignosticism”)

Today, there is an emphasis on Extreme Christianity. Youth ministries often focus on this term. If extreme means not being lackadaisical, I am fine with this. But even here there is value in stability, not just dynamism. I don’t know which of the above strategies is best for finding the radical middle. I could never recommend disbelief or toxic doubt. Of the rest, I suppose Contradiction is the least useful, except as a transtional position. I find Creative Tension a good strategy since it focuses on dialoguing and wrestling with concerns. In some cases this may lead to integration or triangulation. Sometimes one is left with instrumentalism or maintaining the creative tension. But it is worth doing it.

The extremes are often a weak position. The extremes are often a “bed of Procrustes” that stifles facts and rejects thoughtful consideration. Often the truly radical position is indeed finding the middle.

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2 thoughts on “In Search of… the “Radical Middle”

  1. I really enjoy your writing so far. I guess that it’s because I grew up in a Christian home, so I understand the subject matter. But yes, I believe in the radical middle. I’ve often been told that I am a fence straddler, but I’ve never thought to quip that INDEED I’m the best fence straddler you’ll ever meet!!!! Someone once told me that I would never be successful, because I couldn’t pick a side.

    • I had a visitor from the States come over here to the Philippines. He told me that “a moderate is a cowardly liberal” or something like that. Anyway, the idea was that there are two types of people in the world… conservatives and liberals. If someone said that they were moderate they simply didn’t have the guts to admit what they really were. I would hate to live in such a dualistic world.

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