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.


  1. The first (e-mail) response received to this morning's posting was from a Thinking Friend in Virginia. He writes (in part),

    "That one was a little confusing, but I agree that there seems to be very little 'middle ground' in 'Christian' preaching of the Gospel(?) today. How exactly would you present the 'radiant center' of the Christian Gospel?"

  2. I am sorry if today's posting seemed confusing. I had written more, things that would perhaps have made what I was trying to say clearer, but I try to keep my postings to around 500 words. Today's topic probably needed more than that.

    Of course, I can't present the contours of the "radiant center" here. But here is just a bit of what I have in mind.

    Borg says that God is not One “who sends Jesus to die for our sins, but a God who is passionate about the transformation of the world” ("Speaking Christian," p. 102). But why does it have to be either/or rather than both/and? Can't Jesus be understood as the who who came both to atone for human sin and to transform the world?

    As I often say about liberals (and others), they are right in what they affirm but wrong in what they deny.

  3. Hi Leroy!

    There are a couple reasons I don't necessarily believe in a radiant center:

    1) On a pendulum, the radiant center is a place of no movement, and while I am neither a "full-steam-ahead" liberal nor a theological conservative, it is my understanding that no movement is worse than either option.

    2) In terms of social action, Dr. King loathed moderacy. In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," he described the white moderate as one who stands at the sidelines, trying to find any way to escape direct action against racial oppressors. According to King, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

    I think I am with you in sentiment—it would be wonderful for us all to be able to find that common ground, the "both/and" center. But it's been my limited experience that there is no such thing as "both/and" in the course of everyday living. And I'm not sure that it is something Jesus would have advocated; rather than left, right, or even center, Jesus's focus tends to be more "up" in nature.

    Great post, and great thoughts!

  4. I appreciate Joshua's candid comments. And it is comments like his that makes good dialogue possible.

    Here is my initial response to the metaphor of the pendulum: There isn't any forward movement made by a pendulum--just back and forth, no forward motion at all.

    In contrast to the pendulum, think about an arrow: it is the tip in the center than is out in front making the most "progress." I see the radiant center as being more like an arrow than the mid-swing of a pendulum.

    In my book I deal some with the criticism of the middle that Joshua writes about in his second point. Being in the middle doesn't necessarily mean being lukewarm and uncommitted. That is why in my book I wrote some about the "radical center" as well as the radiant center.

    And think about this: radiance itself is not a passive concept. Nor is it dull. A radiant diamond is not generally thought of as uninteresting or dull. And that same should be true for radiant center theology.

  5. Your posting is an interesting comparison of the shrinking middle ground found in the political and economic world with the lack of a middle ground in the spectrum of theologies found within Christian churches. I hadn't thought of it that way before.

    I suggest that learning to live with diversity within the church is probably a more fruitful goal than wishing for a large middle ground. I envision the ideal faith community to be one where all members are accepting and tolerant of each other even if they are at different places on the theological spectrum. This sort of group may lack unanimity in theological matters, but it could still provide mutual support and friendship. And there can still be cooperation in social outreach projects. This doesn't necessarily describe a large middle theologically speaking, but it's a very pleasant place to share thoughts and feelings without fear of ostracism.

  6. What I find interesting about this post is just how we can discuss this and see different points of view, while out in our communities, even our churches and our own families we are so divisive at times. I have been estranged from my sister for many years, although I tried my best to keep in contact and be nice, she would make comments that were jaw dropping to me. I always let it slide, but she still later stopped communicating with me as I was a democrat and thus must not be a Christian. This came from the same sister who berated years before for not being a democrat. I liked hearing Joshua's point of view especially comparing it to Dr. Martin Luther Kings comments. My wish is that we could have a more radiant center and not have such extremist views. Many in this country don't see the parallels of extremist here and of those whom we now wage war with.

  7. Friends, I am sorry to say that my original posting this morning was unclear, and included a misleading word ("quintiles"). Rather than explain what I meant by that, let me just say that I have now re-written the second paragraph, so it should be much clearer now.

    I am sorry for the confusion, and I appreciate my son Keith for helping me realize that I needed to make my point clearer.

  8. Clif, thanks for posting your thought comments. I certainly agree that learning to live with diversity in the church (or in society) is a most worthy goal and that there can, and should, be mutual support, friendship, and cooperation in spite of differences.

    Still, it seems to me that working for common beliefs, and not just tolerance of differences, is a worthy goal. In the end, beliefs have consequences.

  9. I'm reading your book on liberalism and enjoying it immensely. I especially appreciate your thorough presentation of the history of liberal Christianity. I haven't finished, so I don't know what surprises lie ahead nor how you articulate your idea of a radiant center.

    Nevertheless, I've read several pieces of yours now, and we've had a few conversations. And I think I want to say, first, that the fundamentalist/evangelical-radiant-center-liberal trichotomy (is that a word?) is too simple. There are at least three major paradigms in conservative Protestantism. (Note I limit myself to Protestantism because I think that's what you're talking about as well.) There are fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and something recently developed in mainline Christianity that may or may not have a label that wants to affirm traditional doctrines and liturgy but without biblical inerrancy. Then in liberalism, too, there are various perspectives, including what came to be called neo-reformed or neo--orthodoxy, traditional liberalism with its demythologization and remythologization, and process theology which seeks to develop a natural theology. There are various other perspectives, more narrow in scope, such as liberation theology, feminist theology, and so on. Liberalism, by its very nature, will tend to diversify in a world of diversity because it remains sensitive to historical and cultural experience.

    I agree with Cliff that the best path into the future for the Christian community is one of diversity. As a pastor, I discovered long ago that even individual parishioners' theological views are complicated and divergent from the main paradigms of Christianity, influenced by all kinds of things. I pastored mainline churches in which people were free to have different views, so it was easy to discover what people think. My experience one-on-one with individuals of conservative churches (including Catholic in this instance) has been that they, too, once they feel free to express themselves are all over the map. In their churches, of course, they're not free to express heterodox views.

    I would agree with your concern for common beliefs only in the sense that I think it's important to keep searching for the most adequate understanding of ultimate reality. In that, I'm at one with traditional liberals and process theologians who stress the importance of truth. However, I'm also sympathetic to the neo-reformed folks who maintain an investment in the traditional doctrinal and biblical narratives, but clearly are using them in a more existential manner while holding loosely their ontological implications.

  10. P.S.: I need to say that I much appreciate your efforts to keep making sense of our complicated world and your challenges to our ways of thinking. The dialogue is so very essential.

  11. Truett Baker, a thinking friend who lives in Arizona, wrote in an e-mail,

    "I too liked Clif's comments. I am not optimistic about about reaching the 'radiant center.' Christian history is laden with opinions of those who prefer their familiar theological paradigms rather than being open to other points of view. The search for truth is hard work and takes courage. I appreciate your efforts and courage in exploring the religious 'road less traveled.'"

  12. Leroy worked through his book with our Sunday School class, and at the end of it my notes turned into a theological map that I unleashed on the class. I'll spare you the details, but the basic idea I found was that the radiant center would be something we all sort of orbited, without any of us quite being there. In that sense, I very much agree with the discussion above of the differences around and within us. As St. Paul reminds us, "For now we see through a glass darkly. . ." For those who see theology as a series of clear propositions, that is a hard concept. I believe there is a good reason the Bible is as famous for its questions as for its answers. Jesus still asks us, "Whom do you say that I am?"

  13. Craig: Is there any way I could get a copy of your map?

  14. I appreciate these comments from a Thinking Friend in Wisconsin. (We became friends years ago in Japan where we lived in the same city.)

    "My first response, Leroy, was, 'listen to the Buddha' the middle path is not a place, or an end, but a path. Maybe the middle for all spiritual communities including the 'big' ones, or they think they are big, is that we are all searching for and without knowing it are on the middle way. Not a compromise, or an agreement, but a path that never ends. Christians kind of expect something for their decision, when really they should not, but just keep moving, serving, witnessing and living with all beings. The old Zen saying humbles me almost every day, 'Before Enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water, after Enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.' In the midst of that realization, all is transformed . . . keep walking, brother."

  15. I was watching the Gospel of John again this week. Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth, was really a quite charismatic reactionary revolutionary, and attracted a following, including from Roman officers and fundamentalist religious leaders. In general, I don't think rich or poor, liberals or conservatives (or even the "radiant center") would have liked him. Except for focused kindness and miracles, his teaching was very hard to swallow. Even devoted followers walked away.

    One needs to occasionally take a fresh look at him and his outrageous statements. His kingdom just wasn't of this world... but it was open to sinner and saint, liberal and conservative (and radiant), warriors (on both sides) and pacifists, Jews and gentiles, radical and reactionary, outsiders and insiders. He didn't fit the mold of anyone's agenda - and still doesn't if you really take a look.

    There is no reason his diverse followers (Church) should still hold together, except the we are still personally affected by him - even the heretics.

  16. Dr. Will Adams is a Thinking Friend who taught political science at William Jewell College for many years. He asked me to post the following comments for him.

    My father, Dr. William W. Adams, Sr., was at your "radiant center" all his life. He taught Greek New Testament in 4 Baptist Seminaries 1924 to 1969. I recall an occasion when he had been lecturing on Jesus' instructions: Love your enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. A member of the congregation asked, "But if we focus on the social gospel, may we not lose sight of basic teachings about salvation?" My dad smiled and said, "I keep hoping I can find a group of Christians somewhere who can hold two ideas in their heads at the same time." --Will Adams