Seeking “Non-Extreme” and “Unradical” Faith, Part 2

Moving from the 1800s into the 1970s we see a return of disatisfaction with the Christian Faith as it was practiced. Some of that was understandable. Some problems include:

  • A faith that reflected societal values (such as consumerism, violence, racism, and such).
  • A faith that guided people’s practice one morning a week, but little beyond.
  • A faith that seemed to promote justice when there should be mercy, and mercy when there should be justice.

That led to many groups forming that sought extreme or radical answers. Radical answers for some involved finding new answers in old alternative groups. Some syncretized Christianity with Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist  beliefs. Some African-Americans became interested in Islam (or the version of it in the “Nation of Islam” as it was marketed). For them, the hypocrisy of slavery and bigotry of White Christians was irreconcilable with truth. (Sadly, these new converts were fooled by religious exoticism– aware neither of the depth of involvement of Muslims in the history of the slave trade, nor the racial bigotry that continues to this day.)

But others did not seek to make a radical change of faith, but sought to be more extreme in certain aspects of it. This led to various Christian communes, authoritarian groups, the Discipleship movement, prophetic Christian cults, and so forth. A good example of one such group was Maranatha Christian Ministries. Ronald Enroth in his bookChurches that Abuse (click on the title to see a PDF version of this book) quotes at length one former member of MCM. I will rewrite the quote here. The bold portions were done by me, not the interviewee.

The most significant problems with Maranatha stem directly from its interwoven concepts of discipleship and submission to authority, which, I feel, have resulted in serious, destructive abuse.

In Maranatha the centrality of authority is a natural consequence of a military sef-perception. Greater emphasis is placed upon building the “Army of God” than nurturing and developing the “Family of God.” The leadership sees itself as setting up a new order on earth in the prospect of bringing in the kingdom of God, thereby establishing an external purified order in this age.

Preparation of leaders is obtained as quickly as is physically possible under the guise of ministry or spiritual expertise culminating in a sink-or-swim survival of the fittest environment. The often painful results in Maranatha include a lack of leaders with a mature understanding of the Bible. Because of this, unwarranted authority is attached to the contemporary spoken word, the rhema, going so far as to hold that it is equal to the written Word, the logos.

All too often the public revelation in the Bible is subordinated by the private revelations of the leadership of Maranatha, pointing not beyond themselves to Christ crucified and risen, but to the leadership’s own experience. Unfortunately, this can lead to setting goals to possess the life of God in exclusively ecstatic experience.

On the emotional or mental level, the Maranatha environment encourages spirituality and experientially oriented persons to allow phenomena to determine their faith instead of interpreting experience with reason in light of Scripture. The “swallow-follow” concept, the “mind idolatry” teaching and the overall dictatorial exercise of authority all combine to form a totalitarian attitude that behavior is determined solely by unfettered or thoughtless obedience and submission to authority.  … Motivation becomes fear-oriented, not love-oriented.

Faith is transformed from an adventure into a duty as concern for righteousness through holiness and blind adherence to proscribed behavioral codes begin to envelop the individual’s identity. Holy living becomes a pretext for a new legalism; keeping “the law” tends to become an end in itself rather than a means of service to God.

While different groups are different, we see in Maranatha a common extreme change… a change toward a minimization of self, and promotion of a new form of legalism. Consider the following:

  1.  The Wrong Metaphor. The guiding metaphor was “Army” rather than “Family.” While military terms do get used in the Bible for Christians, the dominant ones are warm and relational. The Army metaphor has problems because it encourages an “US” versus “THEM” mentality… that is repulsed by those who are not “US.” Additionally, it often promotes a certain blind obedience to authority. (Of course, this is based on a mistaken understanding of the military. Obedience is never blind but based on lawful orders. Lawful orders are ones that are consistent with highest authority. Thus, one’s superior officer is not to be obeyed if he gives an order that violates higher authority… and a church member should NEVER obey a religious leader who defies the will and revelation of God.)
  2. The Wrong Authority. Authority is given to the spoken word or “revelation” over the word of God. The Bible is described as “canon,” as a measure for which other word must be measured against. As such, the Bible is seen as the standard, but its interpretation is a human construct, a work of human reason. But when a present-day “prophet” gives a revelation, he also gives its interpretation, normally. So if the spoken word is seen as equal to the written word, the result is that the spoken word is given greater practical weight than the written word, since the interpretation is deemed higher than the interpretation of Scripture. Because of this, I recommend that when a person claims to have a direct revelation from God… it is HIGHLY WISE to be openly doubtful. Luke in Acts admired the Bereans for being openly doubtful of the words of Paul. I would like to think that Paul was likewise appreciative. A true man (or woman) of God seeks those who “come now and reason together” rather than “swallow and follow.”
  3. The Wrong Interpreter. We experience things, but then reason, and God’s word, help us to connect these experiences to truth. God has given each of us minds and reason… they are (general) revelations of God, to gain insight from the Word of God, special revelation.. But if these experiences are NOT supposed to be interpreted by reason, but by the interpretation of leaders… one has removed two important God-given sources of protection. God has given us His word to give us a central guide. God has also given us a mind that is in a better position to perceive and interpret our own experiences than any outside person.
  4. The Wrong Motivator. Fear replaces Love, and seeking Holiness is placed above Worship. The great commandment is built around love, not fear… and the concept of Grace is to remove fear, rather than to create new fears. Likewise, striving for holiness, making oneself “worthy” of God’s approval, is a trap, drawing us away from worshiping the holy one who accepts us although we are unholy.

Do we need to change? Yes, I suppose we do. Do we need to be radical? If radical means to challenge cultural norms by living out a life based on God’s love and unity through his Son, then YES we need radical change. But radical change is not good of itself, and is usually bad. Frankly, radical change is usually pretty bad because it is often too willing to throw out unpolished jewels of truth, for new shiny bits of plastic and glass.

Do we need extreme change? If extreme change means finding balance between love and justice, between loving God, loving man, and loving self…. if it means finding balance between being an agent of change and an agent of preservation, and balancing being embedded in culture and challenging culture… then YES we need extreme change. But balance does not sound very extreme, does it?

In the end, I believe we need a distinctly non-extreme, unradical faith. What does that look like? I would suggest reading my post on the Epistle to Diognetus. Click HERE. I believe that is exactly the type of non-extreme, unradical faith we need.

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.

Searching for “Radical” Christians and Dynamic Equilibrium

I have seen a lot of articles FB posts, podcasts, and such talking about how people (particularly youth) are supposed to be “radical Christians.” I was originally going to write a cautionary note on this. To me the term “radical” suggests rebellious and reactionary (and noisy and odd). And while there is some truth in this, there is a fair bit of falsehood in this as well. A Christian (radical or otherwise) is supposed to have Jesus Christ as his or her model. Jesus, in many ways, wasn’t all that radical (as “radical” is commonly pictured). He fit into His culture quite well. He looked and dressed the role well (Judas had to identify Him to the authorities… presumably because His appearance was pretty ordinary according to 1st century Judean standards). Additionally, while some of Jesus’ behavior was considered radical to a subset of the people, it was quite ordinary to others (dining with common “sinners” would be seem “radical” to religious leaders but pretty normal for common people).

But then I looked up the word “radical” in the dictionary and realized that, while there are several meanings for the term, two different meanings stand out.

According to The World Book Dictionary (using an older version, 1970), radical means:

  1. Going to the root; fundamental; basic.
  2. Favoring extreme social changes or reforms; extreme.

I believe that when we talk about being a “radical Christian” the first meaning is preeminent. After all, the goal is not to be different or extreme for its own sake. Rather, a Christian should have had a radical change in his or her life… radical here meaning a fundamental, basic, change to their root or core. Being extreme, weird, separatistic, highly pietistic or having any other quality that puts one on the outskirts of one’s cultural setting is not really the point.

To me, the image of this is a ball on a string. If a ball on a string is tethered by that string to a solid point. Consider that point to be the foundation, or tether point. When there is kinetic energy (motion) related to the ball, it will rotate on that tether. There are two equal and opposite forces (ignoring gravity, wind resistance, and such). These are:

  • Centripetal force. This is the force that seeks to constrain the ball and pull it back towards the tether point.
  • Centrifugal force. This is a virtual force (a force derived from the inertial response to the centripetal force). It is resisting the centripetal force and pulling it away from the tether point.

The end result is that ball will move dynamically in a circle around the tether point.

Okay, enough on Physics 101. What does this have to do with being a “radical Christian”?

I believe the REAL Force of being a radical Christian is the centripetal force of Christ. Being radical is about being foundational… and that foundation is Christ. A radical Christian is centered on, empowered, and constrained by Christ.

I believe the VIRTUAL Force of being a radical Christian is the centrifugal force of cultural dissonance. Being Christlike will result in fitting into one’s culture quite nicely in some ways, and being heavily counter-cultural in others. It is a virtual force because we are not told to be odd or different (as a goal unto itself). Rather, we are called upon to be Christlike (the REAL Force). However, being conformed to Christ will typically result in being in conflict with (or being seen as being extreme to) the broader culture in various ways.

In other words (and redundantly reiterating myself again), radical Christianity is empowered by (and has as its goal) Christlikeness. Radical Christianity is not empowered by being “extreme.” Extremeness is simply the result sometimes of seeking Christlikeness over cultural conformity.

What is the result of the balance of these two (real and virtual) forces? Dynamic Equilibrium. A ball on a string that is spinning around has dynamic equilibrium, it is energized by under control. A radical Christian is also energized, but under control (God’s control).

Being radical is not about being noisy, out-of-control, or culturally weird. It is energized faithfulness to Christ impacting the surrounding culture (subversively but with targeted purpose, not reactionary or random).