The Radical Middle

The Radical Middle October 23, 2007

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, whose book Dangerous Words I mentioned recently. Given the emphasis on the meaning of words in that book, I do wish to clarify that I did not understand Eberla to be applying the phrase to anything other than the religious/theological middle. Any criticism of its application to a wider range of subjects should thus be directed at me!]

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  • Count me in!! I can lead the movement in China … Frankly, I’m sick and tired of the Far Right (the late Falwell and his merry minions, like Dobson) and the Far Left (Dawkins & Co.).The Sojourners and The Christian Century crowd needs an eloquent (and louder) voice in the public debate.

  • George

    Is Dawkins really that far left? Perhaps on the subject of religion he is, but his political views seem to be fairly moderate liberalism. Sam Harris, another prominent voice in that crowd, comes across as conservative on a number of issues.

  • Great point, George. I stand corrected.What I should have said is that atheism = Fundamentalism, i.e., they’re both extremist viewpoints.

  • I think this is why I was drawn to your blog – I forget how I even found it. I am most definitely a middle grounder in this way and intentionally so. I find that I confound atheists and frustrate Christians because my approach is often unexpected in a lot of debates. They want me to answer as expected and pidgeonhole my views somewhere neat and tidy. But I think the essence of theology is “dirt”. By this I mean doing theology is in practice an exercise of dealing with matter out of place (Mary Douglas’ concept of dirt) and there is a sense that it should not be as tidy as we desire. The art is finding a way to be OK with that!I think it validates something that someone told me during my first month at Princeton which I remember word for word, “If you come here as a fundamentalist or as a universalist, you will leave as a moderate”. So kudos to my education!But I have found that it is definitely a minority and something somewhat marginal in a lot of Christian theological circles. But I think it is indicative of my other viewpoint in theological thinking that the truth is somewhere on the margins of comfort and discomfort, secular and sectarian, convergence and antinomy.Besides you like Rush which is also a rare find (I am a drummer as well so that’s a necessary band to go through it seems 😉

  • James,I’m now left of center, but it’s that center that keeps my attention. It does seem that our two parties have begun to cater to the extreme ends, which is unfortunate. On the New Atheists — I don’t think they are all liberal, many are quite conservative. Christopher Hitchens in some ways has made near fascist statements. But then as they say, the continuum often bends around. So the extremes are one and the same.