Believe it or not, there are people in our United Methodist tradition who self-identify as “centrist” or “moderate.” Often, this is taken to mean that they are wishy-washy, have few if any strong convictions, and are rather lukewarm about matters of the faith. In many cases, though, nothing could be further from the truth.
The notion of the Via Media has it roots in an Anglican Church that had to figure out how to maintain its doctrinal identity in the face of a politically motivated separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Remember, unlike other forms of Protestantism, the Anglican Church did not separate itself from the Roman Catholic Church over theological matters, but over matters of authority within the Church. Richard Hooker, an Anglican “divine” (theologian) of the sixteenth century, was instrumental in marking out the specifically Anglican way of theological reflection. Hooker was dissatisfied with the Protestant notion of sola scriptura, according to which Scripture alone was the source and norm of theological reflection. He claimed that there were two ways in which the Holy Spirit led human beings into truth: (1) through divine revelation, which comprised Scripture and tradition, and (2) through reason. This Anglican approach to theology—which has been called the Anglican Trilateral— represented a “middle way” between Roman Catholicism and Continental Protestantism (see William M. Greathouse, “What are the Wesleyan Distinctives that Shape Higher Education Today?”, 1998).
Note that Hooker didn’t simply say something like, “Aren’t all beliefs basically the same? Can’t we all just get along? I’m ok, you’re ok. Think and let think, etc.” Belief mattered to Hooker and his fellow Anglican theologians, and they developed a highly nuanced way of preserving and reflecting upon doctrine in the face of an ecclesial amputation. By the same token, neither did these Anglican theologians attempt simply to recreate Catholicism or jump on board entirely with the Continental Protestants. Rather, they drew on elements of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, utilizing valuable insights of each, while remaining beholden to neither. This is the “middle way” that they charted, and there is much that we can learn from them today.
Like the Anglicans of the sixteenth century, we live in a highly polarized religious environment. We are polarized for different reasons and in different ways, but polarized nonetheless. Faced with this problem, what are our options? We can check out of the church entirely, an option that sixteenth-century Brits did not have, but which many people today are choosing. We can join in one of the polar extremes, choosing to slug it out in the trenches until the bitter end, which will surely be exceedingly bitter. We can attend church but largely “check out” of the more important denominational conversations. Or, we can follow Hooker and company and choose a middle way, drawing upon insights from the right, the left, and all of the points along the way between them.
Now, we might end up looking much more like a “conservative” or “evangelical” than a “liberal” or “progressive,” or vice versa. The point, however, is to give honest, rigorous, meaningful consideration to the variety of viewpoints that we encounter. We give ourselves the freedom to consider ideas that may even seem repugnant to us. When we do this, we will be changed. Learning is the unavoidable consequence of intellectual virtue. And after we’re changed, we’ll likely be changed again.
To anticipate an obvious objection, I am not advocating for a “do-it-yourself” religion. I believe there is a doctrinal core to our Wesleyan tradition, a set of essential beliefs that is crucial for the life of faith. I believe in this so strongly that I wrote a Wesleyan catechesis with my friend Billy Abraham (Key United Methodist Beliefs, Abingdon, 2013). The idea that Methodism should be defined primarily by free inquiry and a “think and let think” mentality is a pernicious myth. It is my opinion that our failure to identify and teach our core doctrinal beliefs is the single greatest cause of our decline over the last 45 years.
Yet within the parameters of our doctrinal core, there is room for a great deal of discussion. Doctrines are not like statues etched out of stone, completed works that allow no further expression. Rather, doctrines are like rooms filled with magnificent art from across the centuries, and within these rooms we can have conversations, explore the theological artwork of others, take a deep breath, and breathe in what God may have to teach us. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, leaves an amazing amount of space for theological reflection upon its meaning and implications.
The “Middle Way” is not the “Milquetoast Way.” Christ calls us to be people of strong conviction. The command to “take up the cross” is not for the faint of heart. Yet Christ’s command to love our enemies may also mean that we learn from our enemies, and when this happens, they may no longer be enemies at all.
David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, co-author of Key United Methodist Beliefs (with William J. Abraham), and co-editor of Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture (with Joel B. Green). You can find his blog at http://www.churchcoffee.blogspot.com and can find him on Twitter @utsdoc.