The Middle often gets caricatured as mild, mushy, muddled, and milquetoast. Of course, such denunciations often come from where one might expect: the extremes. To the far left, I will often look too rigid. To the far right, too flexible. I suspect this is precisely where I want to be. Like one of my theological heroes, Karl Barth, I don’t neatly fit in with the fundamentalists or the modernists. And I like it that way.
Besides which, it may be that extremism is one of our greatest spiritual temptations. According to C.S. Lewis’ imaginative masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, the Devil wants us to run towards the extremes. What extreme, you ask? Any extreme. So says the senior tempter Screwtape to his protege Wormwood:
“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true. We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique. The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and of Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties in the Church of England.”
Written in the vortex of World War II, the immediate context of this quotation is the question of pacifism and patriotism. Make your victim an extreme peace-monger or an extreme nationalist, suggests Screwtape, and the spiritual ramifications will be the same.
Can anyone argue the contention that ours is also an age “unbalanced and prone to faction”? Are not we in danger of losing the potency of our witness beyond recovery, in the UMC and the wider church, due to a focus not on discipleship, not on the way of the cross, but on the whims of “subordinate factions” and lesser causes and parties?
As in Lewis’ day, the extremes of left and right are both dead ends. They are temptations more than legitimate alternatives. This need not mean that what remains – whether it is the ‘mere’ Christianity of a C.S. Lewis or a classically Anglican via media – is all soggy bread. Bishop Scott Jones has helpfully claimed that the true Methodist way – in life, doctrine, worship, and piety – is best understood as the Extreme Center.
Centuries ago, it was Aristotle who said that virtue lies at the mean between two excesses. What if the virtue in our current debates is to be found not at the extremes, but in the via media?