The Radical Middle (From The Archives)

I never thought I’d say this, but America might be better off if it had more prominent Fascist and Communist parties. In most European countries there are more than two parties that have a serious chance of having someone represented to parliament or an equivalent representative body, and the prime minister is usually the representative of the party with the most seats. In most European countries, the major “conservative” and “liberal” parties are aware not only that they are to the right or left of another major party, but also that they have other parties on their other flank as well. In other words, in the UK for instance, both Labor and the Tories know that they do not represent extreme positions on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Because in the United States we have two main parties, extremists who want to have a serious chance of election will tend to find room for themselves among either the Republicans or the Democrats. The result is that this pulls each party further along towards an extreme than it might otherwise be. If the views of more extreme positions had parties more clearly connected with their chosen identity, there would be less confusion, and less likelihood of centrist parties being connected with extremism. There would also be more recognition of the need for cross-party cooperation, as few parties in Europe have a clear majority of the votes, and so they have to form governments in alliance and collaboration with other parties.

Our justice system regularly intervenes to prevent unfair monopolies from strangling the competition that is required for a healthy market. I wonder whether they could do something similar in the political realm and break up the political parties that monopolize American politics.

I was once asked (in a job interview for a faculty position at a seminary), because I seem to like the ‘middle of the road’ position on many things, what if anything I get excited about. I thought it was a great question, and I would still answer it the same way now as I did then: I am excited about finding and maintaining the middle ground. Being an extremist is easy; keeping balance is far more challenging. My approach to theology, I realized, has a lot in common with the music I tend to like most, that of the Late Romantic era. It is music that is refusing to renounce being melodic, but is being daring with the harmonies. Finding a way to be genuinely Christian and contemporary, finding ways to do things that are good for both the poor and for the economy as a whole – those are challenges that take creative thinking and hard work. Picking one and ignoring the other is easy by comparison.

The Buddha spoke of the middle path. Jesus spoke of the narrow way. I am inclined to envisage the narrow way as one that runs right down the middle of the broader thoroughfare. We most often hear warnings about the “slippery slope” from people who are persuaded they occupy the moral high ground, who claim that once you lose it, you will be with the godless liberals and atheists at the bottom of the cliff face, wishing you could get back up, but unable to. In reality, it seems more plausible to envisage a narrow road with a slope on either side, so that the closer you get to the edges, the more likely you will slip down the sides. The image here is of a stable middle ground between extremes that represent the ‘low points’ towards which one “gravitates” unless one is determined to keep to the middle and maintain balance.

I don’t know if I’m trying to start a movement. I certainly am not the one to get an organization started (since organization, although in this instance a noun, has a related verb which does not, for the most part, characterize me). But I am hoping to start a conversation. I’m trying to occupy the “radical middle”, and I mean it seriously when I say this is radical. If you are an extremist, you have critics largely on one side, and you are probably so far away from them in your presuppositions that none of their criticisms will carry any weight – assuming any of them take you seriously enough to engage you in discussion. For those in the middle, criticisms will come from both sides, and the criticisms will often have points that we can and should learn from.

Maintaining balance takes challenge, whether you are walking a tight rope, riding a bike, governing a country or formulating ways to express your faith. If those who are passionate about the middle (whether politically or theologically) united in some public and organized fashion, and work together, what might be accomplished?

[Finally, to give credit where credit is due, the reference to the “radical middle” in the title is inspired by a phrase used by Gary Eberle in his book Dangerous Words. Given the emphasis on the meaning of words in that book, I do wish to clarify that I did not understand Eberle to be applying the phrase to anything other than thereligious/theological middle. Any criticism of its application to a wider range of subjects should thus be directed at me!]

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  • Michael Cecil

    “The Buddha spoke of the middle path. Jesus spoke of the narrow way.”


    (And there is also the path between Scylla and Charybdis.)

    But what I am most concerned with here is not the political; but, rather, the *theological* “radical middle” and “narrow way”:

    The “middle path” and the “narrow way” between the Sadducees (who denied the Doctrine of “resurrection” altogether) and the Pharisees (who taught the Doctrine of “resurrection” as the Egyptian doctrine of the physical raising of a dead body from the grave) is the Teaching of Jesus that the Doctrine of “resurrection” is a Doctrine of ‘Rebirth’.

  • Gary

    Theological? Radical middle? Narrow way? Passionate about the middle? I only have one major issue with politics any more, and it also has to do with religion. How about trying something other than war to solve problems. The 60’s-70’s had one thing going for it. The draft. When you have a huge pool of 18 to 26 year olds (now the majority of people age-wise withine US), whether in college, or just out of high school and starting a job, and they have the draft hanging over their head….and they realize a bunch of old politicians want to send them to a war that simply does not make sense, you have a whole bunch of motivated young people. At least with multiparty systems, where a government MUST be formed through a coalition of many parties, there is open discussion about the facts, and not a political football game with only two sides (the party line) presented.

  • Anonymous

    Buddihism is a philosophy (to some people) that teaches these truths…and it is ‘habit formation” under Aristotle’s tuteledge…And, Jesus parables are “wisdom” literature..but, none of these are “personal values”.

    If one wants to use their talents to “feed the poor”, more power to them, but there should never be the co-ercive tactics to “train” others to be “alutristic”. “Love, or be damned”! That sounds lovely! But, “the noble path” would teach such “discipline”.

    Wouldn’t such a mind-set be useful for furthering “other people’s” purposes/values at the costs of those “called to nobility”! It is a slave morality, as Nietzche said, because the empowered “use” those in “tactical positions” for their “goals”, or “ends”.

    For there to be any moral value, there has to be choice, and not a choice that is co-erced and/or pre-determined…How are psychologists/sociologists going to get their research “data”, if not setting up such pre-determined situations?

    Perhaps, my resistance to predetermination is a personal one. Even so, shouldn’t the possibility that some might experience such predetermination as offensive, suggest that predetermination could be understood and experienced as ‘immoral”?

    The “personal” has to do with the internalization of “messages” that certain situations produce in the person’s mind and heart. Such “messages” are the filters whereby we “interpret” things in the present and the future. Should such messages, of being “enslaved” a point of “discipline of mind”? That is Stoicism….and it limits any creative element at all…under FATE!

  • Anonymous

    “Fate” would be called “God’s Providence” in christian language!

    As far as our political discourse, I agree that we need some way to bridge the gap, so people can be heard out of the middle…the Middle ground is where solutions might be found. Otherwise, I’m afraid we might continue down a spiral toward greater cultural division!! So, here, the “Middle Path” might serve a “greater purpose”…

  • Rodney Thomas

    James, when you bring up the “Radical Middle” I was reminded of this article at AUFS:

    • Anonymous

      Pretty dour view….others see technology as the answer, because as we encourage new discoveries, it increases the number of jobs and new opportunities. This is where corporations and society via jobs are advantaged, isn’t it?

      • Anonymous

        I only have one qualitification; how much is government to be involved….when our debt is continuing to devour all our assests?

  • Michael Cecil

    “I only have one major issue with politics any more, and it also has to
    do with religion. How about trying something other than war to solve

    Let’s look at one particular conflict which has been Prophesied by Zechariah and Ezekiel as leading to war: the conflict over Jerusalem.

    There is the right wing, Sadduceean, Christian Fundamentalist perspective: to take the side of the Israel.

    And there is the left wing, Pharisee, liberal Christian perspective: to take the side of the Palestinians.

    The “radical middle” position here–which, by the way, does not have *room* for “hundreds of millions of people”–would be that, instead of politics, it is the wholesale violation of the Law, and the lies and errors of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious ‘authorities’ that are the source of the conflict.

    And, while there are tens of millions of people who have adopted either the ‘Sadduceean’ or the ‘Pharisaical’ position on the conflict over Jerusalem, there are no religious ‘authorities’ or media officials willing to adopt the “radical middle” or “narrow way” in an effort to resolve this conflict.

    Thus, the reason for the Prophecies of Zechariah and Ezekiel in the first place

  • Gary

    And what would Jesus’s position be? Peace, not war.

  • Michael Cecil

    “And what would Jesus’s position be? Peace, not war.”

    Not precisely.

    His “position” would be “There can be no Peace without Truth”; just as it was almost 2000 years ago.

    There can be no Peace at all while the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious ‘authorities’ are LYING about the Doctrine of “resurrection”; which should be understood as a Doctrine of ‘Rebirth’.

    But the religious ‘authorities’ and the manufacturers of the tools of human sacrifice would lose too many BILLIONS of dollars were this Truth to be made known and acknowledged.

    And, so, that is why we have Prophecies of the “time of trouble” in the first place…

    And why the religious ‘authorities’ are doing everything they can *possibly* do to see that those Prophecies are *fulfilled*.

  • Michael Wilson

    I’m one of the odd people that likes the U.S. political system. It is confusing to the uninformed because you have two labels that represent a lot of positions, so each of the two parties is really made up of several unofficial factions. I think it has worked to produce a a very moderate form of government. As an all or nothing system it keeps America from falling into a number of enclaves of radical thought with a couple of minor moderate parties trying to put together coalitions, and instead forces a rather wide spectrum of political forces to cooperate. Would we really be better off with a viable socialist party and KKK party? better that crap stay unseen and unheard.

  • James F. McGrath

    @twitter-105965606:disqus  I’m sorry I made you reach for your gun. :-)
    @facebook-1355591760:disqus  Leaving to one side your apparent equation of socialists and KKK as equally “crap,” I’m not persuaded that extremes are unseen and unheard as a result of our system. While some may insist on their independence, I think others with such views get involved in the two major parties and try to pull them further away from the center. And so two parties the core of whose members and supporters are not at extremes are radicalized both by the need of those further along the spectrum to join with them if they hope to get elected on the one hand, and the felt need to differentiate themselves from the only other viable party on the other.

  • Michael Wilson

    There is a need to pander to the extremes of the party in primaries, but to win the genral election one has to go to the center again, and so it pays to not go to far to the extreme in the primary. In genral voters in the parties can tell if a candidate is to extreme for the prime time. Remember how fast Pat Buchanan imploded after his surprise ,was it Main, win? The party realized he had no shot in the genral election. And once the primaries are over, all the fringe people can stay out of the rest of the election. There won’t be any need for Ron Paul to keep running if he can’t even get a majority of republicans behind him. Most of the complaints I here about the 2 party system is that the candidates aren’t extreme enough. I honestly think that things would not be significantly different if McCain had won in 08 or Gore in 00.

    • Jonathan Hendry

      “There is a need to pander to the extremes of the party in primaries, but to win the genral election one has to go to the center again”

      That’s true for the Presidential race, but House and Senate races can still be won by pretty extreme candidates, and if enough of them win seats, it can shift the whole Congress toward extremes.

  • JustSayin

    The Middle of the Road is the most dangerous place to be.

  • James F. McGrath

    @JustSaying, That’s true (although it may depend on how many lanes and so on). But as a Christian, I am convinced that a dangerous place to be is not necessarily for that reason the wrong place to be.

  • Anonymous

    The middle road understands the complexity of the issues, and the questions that arise whenever one side is absolutized….but commitment to a party line is important if one wants to engage in politics.

    Politics makes for simplistic pandering to the public, but politics is not governing. Governing is understanding that the issues are too complex to be dissolved without a struggle to understand and seek solutions. And solutions need compromise, which politics uses for partisan reasons and positioning. The media picks up on the compromises that concern their “party line” and then “take issue” manipulating the public’s opinion.

    Partisan politics is exasperated in our country because we only have a predominately two party system. The public needs information, not propaganda to be an educated electorate! And I’m afraid that the complexities are far beyond the average citizen’s interests or scope of understanding….partly due to media bias..

  • lac

    Somewhat related, but your post reminded me of some of the homeschooling groups in my area. I joined a bunch email listserves, not knowing where I fit in. On the christian group, there is bashing of evolution and comments from parents who avoid Whole Foods due to tatooed cashiers, and avoid pools due to modesty issues (all crazy IMO). On the crunchy group, there is discussion of allowing teenage promiscuity and co-ed teen sleepovers (again crazyIMO), and bashing of abstinence and vaccines. This would be rather comical if I didn’t have to worry about socialization for my child…and at times, I think if i had to choose, I almost rather fit in with the fundamentalist groups as long as i hide my doubts.