Christian discussion of Radical Centrism –2009

A very intelligent take, or at least one that mirrors my own. 🙂
from the site : Jesus Creed

January 9, 2009

Third Way as the Radical Center

Adam Hamilton’s Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics is a perfect blog book. I would love to see a host of evangelical churches using this book for group studies and discussions. It will surely bring out how it is that many think about various topics; it will also reveal what folks think.

What Hamilton makes clear to me is that the Third Way is not the way of compromise; instead, it is the way working out a Christian view of things regardless of which “party” prefers that option. It is a refusal to be an ideologue, a refusal to say “liberal is always right” or “conservative is always right.”

Do you think the middle is expanding? Do you see a trend for those on the right to move to the middle? Is a radical center attractive to you? Both politically and theologically? Overall, what do you think of this book?
It is common to hear that one has to be clear and consistent and courageous and choose-one-side-or-the-other and stay there to have popular appeal. In other words, either be Left or Right. That claim also says the middle is the way of compromise and few find that way. The last election and the rising tide of Christians who are tired of the either-or approach bodes well for the rise of a Third Way approach. Hamilton calls this the “radical center.” He doesn’t think the word “moderate” is good enough (and I confess to having used this term for myself in numerous settings but I’ll be hesitant after his suggestion that “moderate” means tepid too often). So what does he suggest?
First, he suggests that there is, in his view, an irreversible shift from the conservative to the center and from the left to the center. He’s seeing it in both conservatives shifting to the middle (politics, emerging church, and an assortment of anecdotal experiences with shifting) and in liberals shifting toward the middle (rise of church planting, evangelism, etc).

Second, he thinks conservative Christians now are right where the mainlines were in the 1960s. “But I believe these churches are likely to see their growth stalled, and then to watch a period of decline, unless they recognize the changes happening in society that will leave them increasingly disconnected from emerging generations” (228).

Third, he does not seem to see the future in the mainline or liberal tradition; it is in a Third Way — in the gray — in seeking and living out the best of both traditions. He sees Third Way in Zondervan’s TNIV (inclusive version), in the increase in women in leadership among conservative churches, of speaking against global warming, of Christianity Today’s articles on AIDS and war and poverty, in Bill Hybels and Rick Warren … there is a shift toward the middle.

Fourth, he sees the heart of Third Way in a gospel that is both personal and social, that grace and love need holiness, that progress requires fidelity to historic truths, that Scripture is both God’s Word and man’s words … and Third Way folks will avoid demonizing either side and will exercise charity toward both the left and right…


Comments :

In a word, yes, I think it does take some courage to move to the radical center. I was converted from the radical left student movement in the 1970s into the born-again evangelicalism and eventually became a religious conservative (although I was never very black and white). After starting into graduate studies a few years ago in a secular university, I have developed a large circle of left-leaning friends (some very left and others moderately left) while working hard to retain my conservative right friends. I find that it has taken a degree of courage to engage in dialogue with both groups and to occasionally challenge some of the unexamined ideological assumptions of each without losing the relational bridge. I think the argument could be made that Jesus was of the radical center: neither zealot revolutionary nor fundamentalist Pharisee, nor secular Saduccee. He even got along with the mafia tax collaborators.

I think it unfair to come back to the word “compromise” because the word in and of itself is pejorative. What is undeniable is the number of evangelicals who shifted in the last election toward a Democrat without giving up (many anyway) their evangelicalism. That’s a Third Way kind of move. I wish I could say the same in theology for mainline Christians, but Adam says he’s seeing it. That, too, is Third Way. It’s not compromise or even “moderation.” It can be white-hot commitment outside typical partisanship lines.
Civility, yes, but hardly reducible to civility…

“the heart of Third Way in a gospel that is both personal and social, that grace and love need holiness, that progress requires fidelity to historic truths, that Scripture is both God’s Word and man’s words
Where have I heard a point of view like that expressed before? Oh yeah… the Catholic Church. The RCC also meets the requirement of liberal on some issues, conservative on others, e.g. it’s anti-war, anti-death penalty, but also anti-abortion and anti-same sex marriage.
It’s always funny for me to see nondenominational Protestants groping for a “Third Way”, when that way has existed for 2000 years.

There’s no need to be snide. I appreciate a lot about Catholic teaching, but that doesn’t mean the only way to break out of the conservative/liberal dichotomy that plagues Protestant churches is to sign up with Rome…

…What has happened is a reclassification of the “edges”. For the past 5-10 years, Dobson has been increasingly characterized as “religious-right” and as one who has “politicized the faith”. Almost nobody will characterize Sider and Wallis as “religious left” or complain that there fawning support of Barack Obama is “politicizing the faith”. Where then is the center? Once the right has been redefined as “extreme right” and the left has been excused as merely in favor of “social justice”, the “center” becomes center-left.
Theologically as Tony Jones and Brian McLaren and the Episcopal church continue to redefine “orthodoxy”, what was once the center will be seen as more and more “outdated”. The term will still be used, but will be filled with a whole new meaning. It is, I think further illustrated in the swing toward Obama among evangelicals who were able to completely ignore his 100% militant support for partial-birth and live-birth abortions by rationalizing that his “social-justice” policies will “reduce” abortions. Is ending an innocent life without just cause a boundary? Where is the center if such a boundary can be so easily crossed?
My point is that unless we can define boundaries that are not fluid, the terms left, right, conservative, liberal, center are all meaningless.

think the significance of this book and the new third way or whatever people are trying to call it is that people who are caught up in the conservative protestant side of things want a way out of the mindless support for everything right wing, because people begin to see that it may not align with the bible. So to think it’s funny to see “Protestants groping for a “Third Way”, when that way has existed for 2000 years” seems to be conceited for the RCC, especially when it’s “Third Way” views on politics today has not been around for 2000 years. The evangelical right wing has had a strangle hold of the relationship between politics and religion, while the RCC in America isn’t nearly as outspoken or heard.
A lot of people who seem to be aligning with this new center of things have been apart of the conservative side where people are nearly brainwashed to think a certain way of things (republicans rule, protestants/their particular denomination is right, all cat’licks are going to Hell! (bit of a dramatization), guns, war, ‘Merica! (patriotism), trucks, etc.) A ton of people are getting sick of that because when they finally come to a time in there life to take following Christ seriously and they try to do so, they realize that they haven’t been thinking for themselves and that they disagree with a lot of the conservative right.
But something that I have seen quite a bit of as well is younger people (college age typically) switching to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I think I’ve heard Scot talk about this before, but it seems that along with the shift to the center some people seem to give up some tradition or history of the church and there’s a bit of a backlash against that as well and that’s where I see those people converting from protestantism.
Hopefully people understand that, it just seems to be a large movement of people questioning politics and there beliefs and seeing that the American view on things doesn’t align with them.

What I think is needed, and what I think the Third Way may be about is looking at the faith and scriptures with fresh eyes, if you will. The problem is that it is exceedingly difficult to do so when one is enmeshed in all of the systems, divides and what-not which have been seen as central to the faith for quite some time now. It seems to me that the Third Way may require us to ask and answer honestly, “if I had no prior knowledge, assumptions or expectations about this issue, what conclusion would the evidence lead me to?” IOW, if someone with no knowledge of religion, much less Christianity or our politics of the day were to pick up the bible and just read it, what would the Word say to them? It seems to me that many of us start with what we think or have been taught and work backwards from there. This doesn’t require abandoning or compromising on anything. It just requires us to be open and curious and humble enough to allow for our own fallibility and allow God to show us His way rather than assuming we already know that way well enough.
I also think it means being willing to let go of the idea that having all the right answers is essential to the Christian faith. There are certainly right answers and we need to align ourselves with them as well as we are able. But right answers are not the main thing; after all the devil knows all the right answers. The pharisees knew all the right answers. Paul knew all the right answers back when he was Saul. The focus on the right answers and making sure we know where the boundaries are misses the point, IMO. It reminds me of advice a friend gave me when I first got married: “would you rather be right? Or would you rather be married? Because you can be right all the way to divorce court.” I can be right in every last argument in my marriage, but being right won’t make my marriage work. Likewise, I can magically be right in every last boundary drawn and tenant of faith and interpretation of scripture and not be successful in the Christian faith walk. (which isn’t to say that there isn’t a core we protect, just that the core needs to reflect what we are actually capable of knowing with certainty – as opposed to having strong opinions on – in this shadowy existence – which is to say relatively little.)
Anyhow, I guess my point is that I think this talk of compromise and civility and center really misses the point in my view. What I think Scot is talking about is being humble and creative enough to read scriptures with fresh eyes, even when doing so threatens our pre-existing assumptions, alignments and beliefs. Further, I think it means understanding that there are bigger issues at play here than getting all the answers neatly tied up with a bow and that demanding that your nice, neat little package be swallowed whole in order to play the faith game is destructive hubris on our part.

…agreed that fresh eyes and humility are key. But I think it can be dangerous to extend that to say we should look at it as “someone with no knowledge of religion, much less Christianity” who “picks up the bible and just reads it.” That sounds like the approach that got evangelicals in trouble in the first place — see Mark Noll’s book Scandal of The Evangelical Mind, and discussion of the influence of the Scotish Enlightenment. Sometimes we need help to understand the cultural and historical context, and getting assistance from other Christians throughout the ages can keep us from going too far off track.
I would prefer that, after we read and understand competing traditions throughout history, we then use the humble/fresh eyes approach you suggest.

…Personal testimony: I’m right of center politically; conservative (not libertarian) on most aspects of economics; deeply committed to addressing issues of poverty; an old-earth theistic evolutionist; convicted that God gifts both men and women for every type of service within the church; opposed to same-sex marriage; persuaded that Paul did not writer every book traditionally attributed to him; persuaded that scripture is the highest authority in matters faith and living; and of the understanding that in the end we will be resurrected into a transformed material existence, not spirit beings in an ethereal heaven. I don’t think this describes a liberal or a conservative.
Is it centrist? If so, then in the center of what? I don’t think of myself as centrist.
My views would not match up well with a checklist of liberal or conservative traits, but I find very few people who would line up with me all these issues. Others here could present their own lists that are different from mine but also don’t align with conservative or liberal. Therefore, if we are talking about constellations of specific positions then surely there is not only a third way, but a fourth, fifth and 500th way.
What I think I’m hearing is that “Third Way” is not about a constellation of positions we arrive at but about being unified in a relationship that shapes the posture we will take as wrestle with differences and uncertainty. I embrace that we are irrevocably one in Christ but I think it is possible to be one in Christ and profoundly differ with other believers. I have no expectation that I will be in a community where most everyone, or even anyone, is going to be with me on the range of positions I’ve listed above.
Third way seems to me to have at least three traits:
1. A commitment to being in relationship with those with whom we differ on issues based on Jesus Christ as our center.
2. We hold our positions with a tentative finality. We can’t wait until we have perfect clarity before we act. We must act as best we can on the knowledge we have received. While we must act boldly we will also act with humility and with openness to future learning, possibly from those with whom we differ.
3. We recognize that a great many issues we face are polarities to be managed not problems to be solved. Many things in life are about living in the tension between competing realities. There is no resolution.
Is this third way? If so, then the particular constellation of positions one arrives at are not the point. So long as I approximate these standards, someone like me who does not match the criteria of liberal or conservative is being third way. But here is my kicker. This also means that someone who does line up with liberal or conservative is third way if they correspond to these standards.
What I think I’m hearing is that third way excludes, or at least marginalizes, liberals and conservatives (people with a particular constellation of positions) in favor of a third way that is not position specific. The position constellation just can’t be liberal or conservative.
Furthermore, ala Paul in #5, it seems to some that to hold a conservative or liberal constellation of ideas is equivalent to being strident and mean. Thus, the issue may not be positions but incivility.

Diana Butler Bass has an interesting take on these issues. She describes the Cartesion “grid” people used to use (and many people still use) as having two dimensions — (1) conservative vs. liberal, and (2) formal vs. informal. Evangelicals were conservative (theologically and politically) and informal, and mainliners were liberal (theologically and politically) and formal. That is obvously oversimplifying, but that is the sort of lense people used (and some still use).
She says that the world is now three dimensional for many people, but that people who used the old lense still see the world in two dimensions — they still see the primary issue as liberal vs. conservative (or formal and informal — i.e., worship styles, liturgy, etc.) I think that this two dimensional view is reflected in some of the posts above, as I’ve tried to suggest above.
She identifies the third dimension as postmodernism vs. modernism, although I think that is in some respects oversimplified. Michael’s way of putting it, to me, is in some ways more descriptive than Bass’s — i.e., that there are dozens/hundreds of dimensions, but the key is humility in dealing with others, and being open to listening/changing.
But, nevertheless, Bass’s insight that various groups are perceiving various debates along different dimensions is helpful

But centered isn’t between left and right, conservative and liberal, protestant and catholic or any other pair of terms. And this makes the title of the book problematic – I don’t like it at all. We don’t want to see gray in a world of black and white.”
Bingo! That is key to what I’m trying to emphasize. “Third Way” feels very Protestant to me in the sense of being a “protest” of something; being contra first and second way. We become define ourselves in oppositional. It is not an affirmation of what we are for. Centrist has a similar weakness….

Just a brief response to a few of the comments above: I began to title the book, Seeing Color in a Black and White World. It didn’t roll off the tongue quite as well nor was it as instantly clear where I was going. But in the book I make mention of this. The book is really about seeing complexity and recognizing its beauty and the fact that truth is seldom found entirely on the left or the right. When I speak on the book in various places I show a photograph that has been touched up in photoshop so it is only solidly black images and completely white images. It is unrecognizable. I then show the same image with grayscale and it is clearly seen to be a field of sunflowers. Finally I show it in color and say, “This is how life really looks.” Life is in color. Don’t let the terms get you hung up – seeing gray (as well as “radical center”) is a metaphor and all metaphors break down, just as all terms do. The point is to recognize life’s complexity and to move away from the either/or binary kind of thinking that does not serve the church or Christians well. Scott, thanks for using my book as a source of conversation – I’m grateful and honored that you did. I’ll mention that a lot of Sunday School classes and small groups are also using the 6-part video series that goes with the book – folks can preview the videos at Cokesbury’s web site. Peace.


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