beyond moderate

Several times recently I've had discussion or reflection on the term "moderate." I'll admit, I struggle to define what it means. A moderate person is someone who avoids extremes, adopting a more reasonable approach as opposed to radical opinions. Part of my struggle comes from being someone who often finds myself caught somewhere in the middle of two extremes on a variety issues. Yet I’m uncomfortable as a moderate. Such a place can  be difficult to remain.

Our culture is FULL of polarizations, and Christians are no exception in this trend to distinguish extremes, with the Conservative-Liberal spectrum being the prime example. Polarizing labels - Conservative or LIberal - groups people into like-minded enclaves. You are either for us or against us. Never both. Moderate, it feels, isn’t even a viable option.

Often lost in the discussion is how to apply the New Testament teaching of unity in diversity (cf. 1 Cor. 12, 1 John 4, Gal 5:22). We polarize in the name of Truth (i.e. Jesus) neglecting the reality of said Truth (i.e. Jesus). Does this not suggest an inherent tension that resists clear polarizations? But again, such a place can be difficult to remain.

With my dislike of polarizations, I do try to choose an alternative that wrestles through the unity in diversity biblical teaching, while at the same time not just glossing over glaring differences that can and should be addressed (e.g. defining leadership). More often than not, I find myself ending up somewhere in the middle of the polarizations. Maybe I should just accept that I’m moderate.

Or maybe not. Here’s why:

First, a moderate position accepts the polarizing framework as normative. If I accept my place in the middle of whatever spectrum I’m still adopting the premise that the labels are helpful to begin with. What if our labels are the problem!?!

Also, my attempts to articulate the important both/and aspects of Christianity don’t always work. For example, I think it’s great Christians are recognizing the need for evangelism and social justice, as these are often polarized aspects of faith and practice. Yet such a view can oversimplify, as if somehow you just sprinkle a little evangelism with a dash of social concern and you end up with the recipe for holistic mission. The two extremes are brought together, yes, but they remain two different activities. Unity exists, but only within the categories of the polarization (i.e. evangelical and social justice). As many have experienced, these lingering polarizations don’t take long to reappear. The framework remains.

Finally, my moderate (or to quote a popular phrase, my "Third Way") can end up trying so hard for solidarity I end up saying nothing all. The middle ends up being nowhere. This is fence sitting at it’s worst.

All this to say, I’m not convinced my moderate tendencies are all that helpful. I feel stuck. As I said, to be a moderate is to accept the system of divisive polarizations. I’m looking for more. I need more. Our world needs more.

But we don’t need more moderates. Or a Third Way. Or a middle way. Or a balanced way.

We need a different way. An alternative way. Perhaps even a subversive way.

To this I ask: Is such a way even possible? A way that doesn’t accept the polarizing labels promoted by those in positions of power and influence? A way that doesn’t settle for easy answers for the sake of unity, but also doesn’t require complex answers to maintain unity? A way that prophetically challenges extremes while leading beyond the moderate middle?

If so, such a way would be good news for our world. Our world could use some good news. 


Tim Tom said...

Great post Dave. It would seem that often what drives people to a path of "moderation" is the desire not to be like or associated with the extremists on either side of an issue. Put another way, they're looking to be defined by what they are not. There's a lot of Canadian identity and culture issues tied to this. For example, a large part of Canadian identity is that we are not American.
I think Jesus would have been called an an extremist today, but only because as humans we instinctively seek to categorize what we don't understand. His example of extreme love is definitely it's own category, and rather than striking the perfect balance in the middle somewhere, it blasts apart my feeble attempts to come up with the perfect mix of theology that would give me the moral high ground and a sense of superiority over the people around me...

David Warkentin said...

Hey Tim, thanks!

Good insights - definite danger to define ourselves by what we're not. And yes, Jesus' example is what I had in mind - and "extreme love" is a exactly the type of alternative we need. But as you say, such an extreme can be hard for us to digest when it blows apart our categories.

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