Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Where's the Middle?
The cover story of the November 5 issue of The Economist is about “America’s missing middle.” The cover picture shows Uncle Sam looking at a large hamburger bun with nothing in the middle between the top and bottom of the bun.
Currently, in the country as a whole, and particularly in the U.S. Congress, it seems as though the political position of the population is far more like a “well-shaped curve” than the traditional bell-shaped curve. In the latter, the peak includes far more people than those on the far right or the far left. But in the former, those in middle are far fewer than the number on the far right and the far left.
Unfortunately, that seems to be what is developing in the Christian/theological world as well. Even though in the last chapter of my book The Limits of Liberalism I call for support of and identification with the “radiant center,” I sense that that is not descriptive of where most Christians are now.
Back in 1923, J. Gresham Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism was published. Machen (1881-1937) was a New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary between 1915 and 1929, but then led a conservative revolt against the modernist theology at Princeton and founded Westminster Theological Seminary as a more orthodox alternative.
In his book, Machen refers to liberalism as a religion “entirely different” (p. 6) or “totally different” (p. 79) from Christianity. He makes that assertion by comparing liberalism’s views of God, human beings (sin), the Bible, Christ, salvation, etc. with that of traditional Christianity (as he understood it).
From the time I first read Machen’s book years ago (although I didn’t read it when it first came out!), I thought he was overstating the case. Now I am not so sure.
Recently I have been reading Marcus Borg’s new book Speaking Christian (2011). In the Introduction, Borg (b. 1942) says that “Christians in this country (and elsewhere) are deeply divided by different understandings of a shared language” (p. 1). In fact, he goes on to assert, “The differences are so sharp that they virtually produce two different religions, both using the same Bible and the same language: (p. 2).
I am beginning to think that Machen and Borg may be right and that the hope for a strong “radiant center” may be just a pipe dream.
Earlier this month June and I went with our daughter Kathy and her family to their strongly evangelical church. Even though the sermon was based on 2 Chronicles, it stressed the atoning death of Jesus on the cross, consistent with their statement of faith confessing that Jesus “died for the redemption of man’s sin.”
It dawned on me that it had been a long time since I had heard that kind of emphasis in a sermon. Moreover, that emphasis is completely different from Borg’s ideas set forth in “The Death of Jesus,” his eighth chapter. Borg clearly rejects the idea of Jesus’ death being “substitutionary atonement” for sinful human beings.
It seems that most Christians now tend to agree either with the evangelical viewpoint (similar to that of Machen’s in 1923) or with the viewpoint of Borg and expressed by many contemporary liberal theologians/churches. Still, I would like to find, to enlarge, and to enjoy being a part of the radiant center, maybe wide enough to include the middle third, emphasizing both/and rather than either/or.