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?
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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.

Thanks Adam.

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  • 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.
    Sounds like a book I will want to read – our group is still going through the Blue Parakeet.

  • Your Name

    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.
    Sounds like a book I will want to read – our group is still going through the Blue Parakeet.

  • Do you think the middle is expanding? I hope so.
    Do you see a trend for those on the right to move to the middle? Yes. Exhibit A is myself.
    Is a radical center attractive to you? Absolutely.
    Both politically and theologically? And more than that. I’m starting to think the answer to every either/or question is yes.
    Overall, what do you think of this book? It’s on my to-read list. Which is far too long already, of course.

  • Diane

    The radical center is here … things that were incredibly “daring” 10-15 years ago — a staff member with a pierced nose and green hair!, supporting the environment! are commonplace. Proponents of stale left and rigid right are … mostly … old.

  • Dan

    The word “center” implies that there is an edge. To be at the center means to be equally distant from two outer points. If there is no edge, there can be no center – the word center denotes only a point in space if there is no distinct outer boundary.
    The diagram above with its amoeba-like form suggests a fluid edge, which in turn implies that the center is moving and variable. Are we to assume from this that what is the “edge” in one generation is not the “edge” in another? Is this not just a more sophisticated way of saying there are no fixed boundaries?
    That would fulfill Francis Schaeffer’s prediction that we would increasingly fall victim to the use of words that have no definition, “connotation” words that only give the illusion of communication. “Center” has no fixed meaning because the boundaries that serve to define it do not remain fixed. So we use words as if they actually mean something and believe we are communicating, but the definitions are fluid, often intentionally obscured, leaving many unsuspecting listeners in the false security that they have understood something of substance.
    The “center” seems to move in the political realm, but it does so only because the outer boundaries have moved. The same seems to be holding true in theology. What was once unthinkable is now thinkable and soon what was once “center” is defined as reactionary and diablolical. Sadly, most don’t see how this is occurring.
    The main point, from my perspective, is that it is futile to talk about the center unless one first defines the boundaries. And it appears more and more to me that the current generation of evangelical movers and shakers is all about obscuring the boundaries more than defining them. Hence talk of the “center” is mostly meaningless and, I would suggest, even deceptive.

  • Paul

    What a radical idea. But, uh, didn’t Gandhi teach this recently? Wait, no, that was eighty years ago.
    For Gandhi, all people have ‘truth.’ Your truth and my truth might be different in some ways and, in other ways, overlap. By seeing how we share in the truth, he said, we can see that we have no ‘enemies’ but only people with whom we can’t currently agree. Let’s sit down, talk, listen and find our mutualities. Name-calling and labeling (“enemy”) NEVER works.
    And yes, name-calling is precisely where we have been for the past thirty years or so.

  • I appreciate Adam’s book. It is a helpful reflection.
    I do, however, like Dan #4, have some problem with terminology. “Center,” “moderate,” or “third way” are all problematic for me. I don’t have a better term to offer.
    Conservatives and liberals are so because they see a number of realities as the perceive them hanging together in a particular interrelated way. I don’t know what center means between these two. Furthermore, I’m deeply suspicious that many who identify of themselves as centrist are tired of conservatives of liberals but have an alternative view of how things hang together that they don’t articulate and may not be able to articulate to themselves.
    If center is merely some compromise position between to extremes on what basis do we conclude that this is better than the liberal or conservative positions, other than our own proclivities. Adam may be right that we are moving to some new position but by what measure do we conclude this is positive thing or not?

  • mick

    I hope this does not come across cynical and I do believe that Adamson has provided a good critique of both sides, and of a “a third way”. I would have to say I generally agree him more than the right or left agendas. But as Spirit people who are followers of Jesus, I’m concerned this can still lead us toward defining, categorizing and controlling, whose in and whose out, and our interpretation of the gospel (still a first order change). Even tho it is more thoughtful and balanced (and we need language and ideas to communicate and understand the gospel), I believe it can still lead us away from the living Jesus, personally speaking and revealing himself in our midst. The church as an expression of God’s kingdom is primarily a spiritual force grounded in being the bride of Christ rather than a socio-political one. This happens but more as a fruit of this devotion born of the Holy Spirit (who empowers us to “will and do”), rather than being a construct or agenda of our own. Obviously, God can certainly be in both but I wonder if our church culture as a corrective needs to re-learn to practice weakness and ignorance and being biological “creators” (things being birthed in us like babies and fruit from trees), rather than creators in the system, machine and Babel sense – even if it is a more balanced one.

  • Paul #5
    “And yes, name-calling is precisely where we have been for the past thirty years or so.”
    What I don’t understand here is why this is third way. This simply sounds like a plea for civility. I know civil liberals, conservatives, and centrists. Is third way simply being civil about our perspectives?

  • “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”
    Having not read the book, I don’t know if he goes into this, but many will say they’d rather decline than compromise. The changes in society are largely of two kinds. One is the flavor of the week issues that those who want to be “relevant” chase — e.g., global warming, music, fitness. Two is the places where societal mores shift and we have the option of being holy or timely — e.g., homosexual sex which will always be sinful no matter how many 20-somethings approve of them.
    Yes, there are real improvements on occasion, e.g., racial equality, but most of the changes we see in society are of the first two varieties.
    Finally, the “third way” is simply trying to avoid extremes. There have always been extremes, and we will always be moving back and forth, trying to do right but over-correcting until we produce fundametalists of one flavor or another. If the Third Way survives very long, it will produce it’s own fundies.

  • Scot McKnight

    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.
    Evangelicals like Hybels and Warren who are fighting hard against AIDS an racism — that’s Third Way. Not that it hasn’t been done before — Sider, Wallis, etc — but that too is a shift in the last 30 years. No?
    And shifts away from folks like Dobson. Third Way stuff there too.

  • Bob

    “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.

  • Eric

    Dan — I’d like to understand your concern a little better. I personally don’t think Hamilton, in describing his Third Way has a problem of using “words that have no definition,” or “words that only give the illusion of communication.” He seems fairly specific to me. Do you think there is some ambiguity of meaning on what he says about abortion, spiritual formation, determinism, the meaning of the gospel, or Scott’s other posts?
    I find Hamilton’s book to be very helpful. Unfortunately, I think we are a little too optimistic that things are inevitably headed toward the Third Way he describes, either politically or theoligically. Young evangelicals, for example, didn’t change their voting considerations as much as expected in the last election. And, after a recent search for a church home, I am convinced that most churches (at least in my community) are firmly entrenched in the old liberal vs. conservative mindset. ChrisB — respectfully, I would like to suggest that your post is an example of this. You are interpreting the massive cultural shifts that are going on based on the conservative/liberal divide of 50 years ago. And do you really see Hamilton’s specific positions as a choice between being “holy or timely”? Which ones and how?
    Maybe the evangelical churches will start to change when they are farther along the decline the mainliners have already experienced, but it is going to take decades. Or maybe they will “decline rather than compromise” as ChrisB suggests.

  • Scot #9
    I didn’t in compromise as a pejorative but I see your point. I’m traveling and in a meeting today. I hope to get back latter and elaborate more. Basically, I understand the core positions of liberalism and conservatism. Beyond being civil, I get my mind around core principles of “centrism” or “third way.”

  • Your Name

    This is radical stuff…to attempt to look at faith, our whole way of being, in a way that makes an attempt to be divorced from ideological thought systems of reference. Shouldn’t we be in a constant encounter with God (and our brothers and sisters) in evaluating the way in which we see the world? Simply buying in to the left or right seems an excellent way to cement our blindness to reality and avoid the tension of ambiguity that keeps our poor “Christian” selves from having “peace.”

  • Dan

    Eric #11. My concern is illustrated in Scot’s comment in #9.
    “Evangelicals like Hybels and Warren who are fighting hard against AIDS an racism — that’s Third Way. Not that it hasn’t been done before — Sider, Wallis, etc — but that too is a shift in the last 30 years. No?
    And shifts away from folks like Dobson. Third Way stuff there too.”
    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.

  • T

    Too many important thoughts to respond to! In response to Michael and others, I do think there is a distinct third way being sought that is not compromise, nor just civility, just improved thinking and acting.
    One example or aspect of this is the theology of the gospel of the kingdom as articulated by George Ladd and others. This theological framework, which everyone agrees concerns the heart of Jesus’ own message, seems to keep pulling many on the right and left together somewhat. I have seen the ‘already/not yet’ understanding of God’s reign be articulated and embraced by those on the left and the right, by cessationists and charismatics. It has become a theological framework that many have come to acknowledge as more accurate than prior (more divisive) theologies on this central subject, with the effect of putting many who were previously on different theological planets on the same theological grid. Instead of ‘social gospel’ being sharply contrasted with ‘forgiveness of sins’ gospel, the gospel of the kingdom (the gospel of Jesus) is being more highly valued and being found to contain some from the left, from the right, and more to boot. Some from each camp still resist anything that would change prior conclusions and priorities, but it’s harder to do so thanks to all the quality scholarship that has embraced this theological framework and the centrality of the kingdom message to the Christian faith. This is a relatively recent (or at least ongoing) development that I would say is an example of Third Way that is not compromise, rather theological progress that has had the effect of greater unity and civility, among other things. Does that make sense? Other examples?

  • Eric

    Thanks for the explanation of your concern, which is helpful.
    From where I sit, I don’t see a problem with losing the labels and boundaries of conservative and liberal, whether it relates to politics or theology. Probably because I don’t fit into either camp very well (and I think there are a lot of people like me, including Hamilton).
    Take, for example, my views on Obama. I disagree with him regarding whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. I agree with him that abortions should be reduced, and that there are steps we can take to do that. I agree with him that health care — particularly for kids, who don’t have a choice in the matter — is a moral priority for me, although the issues are very complex. So is third world poverty and the millions that die every year from it, which is also a complex issue, but I still think we need to take it seriously. Its hard for me to weigh all of these issues — labels like liberal and conservative don’t help me.
    I’m not trying to draw you into a debate about the specific political issues — just trying to describe why the labels aren’t so significant to me, and people like me. I care more about specific issues.
    Much the same can be said about theology, and what is orthodox. I read conservative, liberal, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, evangelical, mainliners, etc. on theological issues, and I think that, while I disagree with parts of what they each say, they each have important things to add. Sometimes they don’t even listen to each other because of the labels they each have, which troubles me. The labels just don’t help as much, from my perspective.
    So my question for you is — does any of this resonate at all? What is the specific danger from the loss of labels? I honestly want to understand, because you and I come from this issue from very different perspectives. I have heard a lot of people say what you say, so it is a very real issue, but I just don’t understand it very well.

  • Alan K

    I find the nomenclature ever so confusing. Third Way? Why not the way of Jesus Christ? Is he not the one fixed point that we gather around and then follow?

  • paul

    Alan K,
    I imagine that all people are trying to live the way of Jesus. However, to be the person who says that “I live the way of Jesus” is to come across a little presumptious. also, what happens when two people who are following Jesus disagree on which way is really the way of Jesus? Who is more right? How do you decide?
    I hope it is a level of humility to label it as a third way that is trying to faithfully follow Jesus…

  • Cam R

    It seems like we are doing away with the either/or view and adopting a both/and approach. Many are seeing that the gospel is robust and includes both a social and personal redemption—the Kingdom coming is more than just saving souls or social justice but it includes both.
    I don’t think that the people in the “third way” or whatever are compromising but are adapting what they see as parts of God’s mission in both the conservative and liberal versions into something that is a hybrid.
    I don’t totally understand the bounded set/center set reference/diagram. These ideas for me have always been about the definition of community or groups. Is the “Third Way” a bounded or center set? Is there a difference between the two, or is a center set a very specifically defined bounded set?
    I would hope the third way is a center set focused on the fullness of God, Jesus, the gospel and the Kingdom coming. Oh know, this is looking more and more like a bounded set already. 🙂

  • Bob @ 11,
    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 (you may have noticed a similar divide in your own church anyhow).
    I’m glad people enjoy their denominations, but I’m a little tired of being told, “Just become [Catholic/Anglican/Lutheran/whatever]!”

  • Bob,
    I 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.

  • Rebeccat

    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.

  • Eric

    Rebeccat — 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.

  • MattR

    The big issue for me is Scot’s diagram…
    whether we see Christian community as a bounded set or centered set.
    I hear both in the comments…
    Some who say we should define ourselves by the hard boundaries (usually articulated as specific hot-button issues, ie: abortion, same sex-marriage, etc.). This happens on both the so-called liberal and conservative sides.
    I prefer bounded set thinking… which sounds like where Hamilton is leaning in the book.
    A centered set says… we have a strong core, not built necessarily around specific issues, but around core convictions/directions: Christ, Kingdom, a missional view of church, etc.
    This core can progress and move forward, we can even move away from the ‘liberal/conservative’ divide on some issues, because what drives us is the bigger picture… not the boundaries, and who’s in and who’s out.
    I watched mainline Protestants struggle because they had often defined themselves by the edges instead of nurturing their core identity… conservative evangelicals might soon experience the same (and in some ways already are).
    And yes Scot, some mainline people are rediscovering practices maybe considered more ‘conservative evangelical’ in flavor; evangelism, church planting, taking personal transformation seriously, etc.
    I think for many, especially younger believers, the edges no longer make sense. There has been little emphasis on the radical center, on articulation of core convictions, just the hot button issues of the culture war mentality… and some are just done with that!

  • Dan

    Eric. It’s not so much the labels that concern me. It’s the loss of meaning attached to words in general that seems to be celebrated so much these days. I’m not so much concerned that there is “gray”, in fact I would go further and say there can be blues and reds and greens. But it is the moving of boundaries, the loss of the few and necessary black and white truths that I find troubling.
    Returning to Dobson, for example, do you think that Dobson doesn’t care about poverty? About affordable health care? About reducing abortion through education and outreach to women with unplanned pregnancies? Yet today Dobson is “labeled” as a “religious-right” figure who has “politicized the faith” and substituted political power for the gospel. What does it mean to “politicize the faith”? It is a phrase that sounds ominous and power-mad. But what does it mean? How is what Dobson is doing any different than what Wallis is doing at Sojourners? How is “moral majority” offensive and arrogant to so many yet “God’s Politics” is not?
    Obama talks of the “center” as another example. But once again, his actual record on abortion is as far to the extreme as any senator ever to serve. So can those who chose to support Obama really claim they have moved to the center? I guess the question would be “center of what?”
    The question is not what labels we use. The question is how the meaning of words has shifted in a way that confuses ordinary folks, usually favors the left (theologically and politically), and ends up eroding what were once sacred boundaries. My concern is that those few boundaries remain fixed and well defined, because once again, without those boundaries on each side, there can be no center. Without clear definitions of words, there is no real communication, just an illusion of it. So we can toss out words like “right” or “left” if we want, but what words would we replace them with that would accurately describe what we actually believe and how we should actually live? Where is the center if the edges constantly change?

  • Rebeccat

    Eric, I totally agree that we should not read scriptures in total ignorance (at least not for long). In particular matters of culture and language seem rather important. However, I’m not convinced how helpful it for people to start with what has come before and then try to look at scriptures with fresh eyes. Perhaps concurrently would work. Then again, coming off yesterday’s conversation about systemic theology which I think is a real hinderence to being able to look at scripture with fresh eyes, we may be talking about two different things. Perhaps you are thinking more about being familiar with information that others have found (say someone like Kenneth Bailey on Middle Eastern culture and scriptures). The problem I think we have is that so many people have been taught what scripture says that it is difficult for us to allow scripture to speak for itself. Sometimes scripture says what we’ve been taught. Something it says something different. Often it says a whole lot more than what we’ve been taught. But so long as we are convinced that we already know what it says, we are really limiting ourselves and the power of scripture in our faith walk, IMO. Anyhow, we probably basically agree but are just coming from slightly different perspectives.

  • Eric

    I think I may be beginning to understand the source of our differences. You pose the question “So we can toss out words like ‘right’ or ‘left’ if we want, but what words would we replace them with that would accurately describe what we actually believe and how we should actually live?”
    So the terms “left” and “right” have meaning to you, and you don’t want there to be confusion if the meaning starts to shift.
    My problem is that the terms “right” and “left” have never described how I believe we should live (however you use those terms — i.e., before or after the shift in meaning you describe, which I agree has happened to some extent). If you describe someone as “conservative” (whether in politics or theology) that doesn’t give me much information about whether I would agree with them or not. It doesn’t bother me if people try to change the meaning of those terms (and I certainly agree there are efforts on both sides to do so!), because they have never been useful terms to me.
    I agree with Dobson on some issues, and Wallis on others. Where one goes off the tracks (at least from my perspective), I will be the first to call them out. Were our mission is shared, I will support them as brothers in Christ.
    I will say this about Dobson — he seems to focus on abortion, almost to the exclusion of other topics I view as vitaly and morally important. I don’t hear him talking about the environment and health care for kids, or third world poverty (on the other hand, Pat Robertson appeared with Al Shaprtion in a commercial — how great was that?) Maybe those issues are important to Dobson, but I don’t hear him talking about them.
    I also don’t think it was fair for him to say Obama has a “fruitcake” interpretation of the Constitution, or that he is distorting the Bible, and other similar comments he made. Even if you agree with him, it wasn’t helpful, because a lot of us see good and bad on both sides of the political divide, and distortion on both sides. I would have needed to hold my nose no matter who I voted for. I think we need to push both parties for changes, speaking with a strong prophetic voice to both.
    I also have some concerns with Wallis. On the one hand, he interviews not just liberals, but also folks like Huckabee in his magazine (would Dobson do the equivalent?) That is great. On the other hand, there was some excessive celebration at Soujourners when Obama won (sometimes I wonder if they only pay lip service to the abortion issue, for example). Again, I would prefer him to speak more forcefully against Obama on some issues, like the Catholic bishops did a month or two ago.
    Same is true for me on theology — I don’t see liberal and conservative as useful terms. I agree with evangelicals on some things, mainliners on some things, but both drive me absolutely crazy on some issues too. And then you get totally different views from still other Chrisitian groups, and I have agreements and disagreements with them too.
    Bottom line for me: If you believe Christ is Lord, and want to join me in the mission of making disciples, worshipping God and loving my neighbor, that’s what matters most.

  • Eric

    Rebeccat — agreed that we basically agree. Its hard to step out of our own biases. It doesn’t matter to me whether we start with the humble fresh look, and then look at what others have said, or vice versa, as long as we do both.

  • Eric

    I just realized that a couple of my comments may have suggested that I voted against Obama. It was hard to weigh the moral issues on both sides, but I did vote for Obama. (Didn’t want to leave the wrong impression by implying otherwise).

  • Just got back to my hotel room ten hours later but wanted follow up as I said I would in #15.
    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.
    These are the kinds of issues I’m wrestling with in the terminology.

  • RJS

    Michael (#32),
    Great comment. Thinking about what you write, it seems to me that one can come to liberal or conservative conclusions on any number of issues and be “third way” at least as I see it — as long as most conclusions are tentative with some humility and willingness to converse with those who disagree. This is simply a summary of your three points.
    I don’t think the issue is simply incivility though. I can be civil to someone who is dead wrong, and this civility is important. The strident and defensive or offensive posture taken by so many is simply counter productive and counter what I see as the NT guide for how we are to relate.
    But there also should be a willingness to enter into genuine dialog. Your views have changed over the years – as have mine. Much of the growth and evolution comes from a willingness to look at many points of view honestly.
    So I think third way is more than a set of accepted positions, more than civility with those who have different positions, it is a way of dealing with the faith that allows dialog and growth. In this sense I think that it is “centered” rather than bounded – as we can wander and spiral as we follow the center, the center being Jesus and the Gospel.

  • Les Petersen

    Amen #33, and since He is the center, all of our views should be subject to change as the Head (Jesus) suggests adjustments.

  • Ben

    To All, with Specific regards to Dan and Eric’s conversation…
    I may take things off of the tracks a little bit, but I hope this is where Adam is taking his entire book. I don’t know because i haven’t had time or money to get the book and sit down to read it yet. However, I did spend 4 hours in a coffee shop with an old friend talking about this kind of stuff the other day, and I’m beginning to see things in somewhat a “new” light should I call it?
    Not that it is all that new to any of us, but maybe a new way of expressing what we see going on. Dan, you talk about words losing meaning, or that we’ll only bring in new meanings, and won’t it be the same? Eric, you talk of moving to the center, but precisely that labels such as left and right don’t help much. I have learned that while I agree with both sentiments, and you are actually both right, we struggle to converse about these things bc we are stuck in a paradigm we are trying to get out of (this is what I hope Adam means by “third way” and not “moderate”).
    So often society and people give you two lenses. You tend to sit there and go either “This lens is better,” or, “can i see both lenses? They both kinda help a little bit.” When after all, our job is to say, “take those lenses back, i’ve got a lens over here which actually helps MUCH better than either you’ve given me, even with both together.”
    Doesn’t the Bible beckon that we give up “left,” “right,” or even “center?” I have found that I struggle to communicate in political conversations because their entire framing story is wrong. However, once people get where I’m coming from they tend to go “WOW.” I even have an extremely liberal friend who tends to enjoy my comments because they are “fair and even-handed” and “new.” If we are serious about being a Kingdom community which is subversive to the culture at large, and marches to a different drum, why do we try to tune our drum to somewhere along the lines of pitches offered us? Be they left, right, or center?
    I think center is a waste of time, because it still affords “either or” categories that we must work in and we say “hey maybe they are right here, but the other side is right there, and we have to work through that.” That is fine, but maybe we say, I’ve got a totally different framing story, and even though the left or right is “right” on this or that… their framing story is still off.
    We shouldn’t be moving to the center, or even discussing changing “boundaries” or fluid or rigid “edges.” Shouldn’t we be a people who are moving outside of the paradigm and box offered us, and LIVING within a different framing story?
    I probably didn’t articulate myself well at all. I find that a lot lately when I talk about this. It helps a lot to talk about it in person.

  • Scot McKnight

    Ben, I like it. The Third Way often is a different framing story. Let me offer an analogy (and not an advertisement). Anabaptists say they are neither Catholic nor Protestant — but Anabaptist. The Third Way is to contemporary evangelicalism what anabaptism, in the best sense of the word, was to the Reformation era.

  • RJS

    I don’t think that we give up “center” because I think center is an important concept. That is we are centered not bounded.
    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. We want to be focused on God in a world that defines things in terms of black and white (or gray). Among other things – centered means allowing the possibility (probability) that “black” “white” or “gray” have some things right and some things wrong.
    So I suppose that you could say that following the center is the new way of framing the story – the Third Way?

  • RJS

    To continue… basically I think you are saying the same thing I am trying to say. The radical center isn’t defined by the boundaries, the radical center is defined by the identity of the center.

  • Eric

    You say — “Eric, you talk of moving to the center . . . .” Actually, I don’t think I’m moving to the center, or talking about it in those terms. I find find “center” to be an entirely unhelpful term (not descriptive or meaningful), for the same reasons I identify above with respect to “left” and “right,” and for the reasons you identify. Its hard for me to understand the desire for any of those terms, which is why I wanted to understand Dan’s point of view better.
    After Dan’s explanation, I appreciate and respect the fact that the terms left, right and center are meaningful to Dan and others who share that lense. Its not helpful for me, but if it is meaningful to others I need to recognize that in my conversations.

  • Eric

    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.

  • #37
    “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.
    I know I’ve irked some with my clarifying question as to whether or not we are talking about compromise. “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.” Isn’t gray a watered down synthesis of black and white? It works well as a metaphor of compromise for compromise to me but I don’t think this is what Hamilton and others here have in mind. Maybe it should be “Seeing Color in a World of Black and White.”
    As I think about Anabaptists, they are clearly other than the poles of Protestant and Catholic. Yet I have been around enough Anabaptists to know that there are Anabaptists who are closed to change, closed to dialog, and are judgmental toward outsiders (just as other camps do.) These Anabaptists may hold a third set of positions but are they “Third Way?”
    Again, it becomes a question of proscriptive framing (i.e, oppostion to poles on a dichotomy) versus prescriptive framing (i.e., affirmation of what we embrace.) What I’m struggling with is to grasp the essence of the thing we say we embrace. The language keeps getting in the way.

  • Doug Allen

    Part of the difficulty with discussing the liberals, conservatives, and the center or radical center is language itself. It’s not so much a lack of meaning that Dan describes, but instead one of the many problems related to our use of language itself. Let’s oversimplify and discuss 1) historical meanings and 2) personal meanings. Note the plural. Few words have a single meaning. Just one example of the historical- the classical liberal of 100- 200 years ago is a laissez faire conservative in today’s parlance. An example of the personal (which relates to connotation) and therefore our own personal experience: conservative is a pejorative term for some liberals and liberal is a a pejorative term for some conservatives. You can often see strong body language when one or the other term is used. Dan, the logical positivists said something a bit similar, I think, to what you’re saying, but from what you might consider a liberal perspective. They said language is often used clumsily without empirical referents. They criticize many types of language including most theological language including the term god. The emotivists made an observation about language that I think is valuable. Much of our “descriptive language” really does not describe the object that we ourselves and most of our hearers believe it to be describing. Rather, it describes the subject-me- that is, my feeling about the object. Examine the descriptions of liberals and conservatives you see even here on this very civil blog, and you will see that most of the descriptions describe the subject’s feeling and not the object. The Pew polls, just one example, about religion and politics are an attempt to describe the object, that is to be objective. It’s not easy. I myself would be called a religious liberal and political liberal here, compared to most of you, but at the Unitarian Universalist Church which is my spiritual home, many think of me as a conservative! Like Eric, I feel uncomfortable with labels, and would say mainly that I am a follower of Jesus and a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. As a student of science and scientific method, I am cautious in making absolute statements because scientific language is always tentative. I carry the proper skepticism of a scientist over to areas such as religion (where there is much less unambiguous data than in science) and therefore do not have many religious beliefs. From my perspective, “thy kingdom come”, requires transformation and action, not beliefs which, from my reading of history, so often divide us and, maybe worse, delude us into thinking we are holy or the elect or have the right and ability to judge others or to some other type of hubris. I think the radical center is a phrase that may have value, and I would feel more comfortable calling myself that instead of liberal or conservative. I think the radical center may bevwhere we try to go beyond labels, go beyond knee jerk reactions based on our always limited experience, and help ourselves and other to find common ground as God’s children sharing the pain and joy of our physical journey and the hope of our spiritual journey.

  • Very good discussion here. I wish I could be on the computer more, and particularly on this website. I agree with the thoughts and exchanges here, particularly toward the end. It does seem we need “a different framing story” and to “see color in a world of black and white.” Where there’s apparent agreement with what’s out there on either side would then be incidental and relevant or fitting, in this different paradigm and reality in Jesus.

  • Adam Hamilton

    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.

  • John

    In the book it claims conservative believe global warming is a hoax. Most conservatives say that global warming is not primary caused by mankind. Now that we know global warming is hoax, maye he will applogize to those of us who said it was a hoax. He was never in the middle, he has always been on the left. This is a joke of a book.