The Uncomfortable Middle

I think of myself as a theological moderate.

Of course, most people think of themselves as centrists, but in this case I think it’s more than just me trying to claim the rational middle ground.

If we’re talking about the evangelical world (and excluding true liberalism and fundamentalism), this is how I see things…

On the progressive end, you’ve got folks like Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, Will Willimon, Tony Campolo, Stanley Hauerwas and Walter Brueggemann.

On the conservative end, people like Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, John Piper, J.I. Packer and Francis Chan.

And I don’t feel 100% confortable associating myself with either camp. I read the books (and blogs, if applicable) of both. I learn from and appreciate both. Some of my  “favourites” come from one of these two camps (Willimon is one of my favourite preachers, and Keller is one of my favourite authors). But I don’t feel like I belong to either camp.

The theological stream I swim in seems more sparsely populated, or at least the boundaries are less clear. The more I read of his biography, the more I think that Dietrich Bonhoeffer fits here. Scot McKnight and C.S. Lewis definitely belong here. Perhaps Marva Dawn and Eugene Petersen too. Presumptuous as it might be to claim him, I want to include Karl Barth here also. And, as much as he hates to be labelled, I think that N.T. Wright would swim in this stream as well.

…The reasons that I don’t feel completely at home amongst progressives or conservatives mirror one another.

I often find progressives too close-hearted. And I often find conservatives too close-minded.

Maybe I’m generalising too much. But the impression I have from books and blogs is this…

Progressives have a compelling social vision. They care about justice and transformation. They provoke me (in a good way) to consider why I think like I do.

But sometimes I find many of them to be overly harsh and cynical. Sometimes, I sense a lack of piety and passion for God. Their world is a world of ideas and deconstruction, and I very rarely come away from interacting with progressives inspired to go deeper in my own relationship with God. I can read someone like John Piper, disagreeing with much of his theology, and yet still come away feeling, “This is someone who wants to know God personally.” With progressives, the feeling is more often, “This is someone who wants to speculate about God.” There is a close-heartedness.

Conservatives have a compelling relational richness with God. They believe what they believe with all their heart. They write about and worship God with a seriousness and a sincerity.

But sometimes I find them to be overly narrow and judgemental. Sometimes, I sense a tendency to sweat the small stuff which can create barriers where there shouldn’t be barriers. I’ve seen conservatives make barriers out of issues like evolution, the place of Israel, the end times and more, and then make judgements about the authenticity of another’s faith based on their position on these issues. At their worst, conservatives can live by the mantra that, “and the greatest of these is doctrine,” instead of, “and the greatest of these is love.” There is a close-mindedness. 

Maybe it seems like what I’m saying is that the moderate tribe trumps all others. But I’m not. What I’ve found is that there isn’t really a moderate tribe in the sense that there is with the others. The “tribalism,” or at least the sense of belonging amongst both progressives and conservatives is something I am profoundly jealous of.

I’ve found the middle an uncomfortable place to be. Often, counselling people against the extremes has made me think, “They must think I’m so tame.”

There is more tension involved, and the rulebook is smaller. As a pastor, I often find myself trying to build bridges, or to build consensus, which is not quite as sexy as yelling prophetic slogans.

At the end of the day, unlike my progressive and conservative friends, I don’t get to go to conferences or camps where I can relax in the knowledge that everyone has the same view of social justice as I do, or breath a sigh of relief because everyone there is a pre-millenial, Calvinist, literal six-day creationist… none of which actually describes me, but you get the picture.

Sadly (for my own mental well-being, that is), I don’t want to be close-hearted or close-minded. And for me that means trying to live in the uncomfortable middle.

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4 thoughts on “The Uncomfortable Middle

  1. and yet, aren’t most educated and sincere people in that middle space? do we lack definition because we are the less vocal majority, unlike the shrill voices of the extremes? i remember finding a brilliant blog a while back called submergent voices, which took as its central premise that they liked both progressives and conservatives and found it all a bit confusing when told to pick sides, unfortunately it didn’t stay up long.

  2. I reckon you’re right. I certainly felt that way after writing a post on same-sex marriage; all of a sudden all these moderate voices spoke up. I think the biggest difference (and a contributing factor to our quietness) is that we aren’t tribal like progressives and conservatives. I think we see the “tent” as bigger. We want to include THEM in the tribe! 🙂

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