There are plenty of Christians who feel theologically and spiritually displaced. They feel lost in the middle between the noisy extremes of religion and politics and long to feel at home right where they are. They sense that it is possible to ignore the oversimplifications of left and right and, instead, move deeper into their faith. But they are not quite sure how to do that. They know the path they seek has something to do with love because they understand the power of love to unite people of different kinds, to overcome alienation, and to bring about transforming forgiveness. If only they could understand their situation clearly, perhaps they could plot the path ahead.
Numerous conversations and interviews lead us to conclude that there are at least four distinct reasons why discerning moderate Christians make the decision to transcend the liberal versus evangelical conflict and commit themselves to church unity in the face of theological and political diversity. Each is a tangle of negative and positive motivations.
Frustration Meets Love
First, we have repeatedly heard people describe their frustration with political and religious polarization. These folk would not be frustrated if they could identify wholeheartedly with one of the opposing agendas, but they simply do not. Some know both sides well enough to feel drawn to both. Others know only one side but sense something is missing. Either way, discerning moderate Christians experience the frustration of not fitting in, of witnessing a fight that seems wrong-headed and self-destructive, of feeling overwhelmed by the situation and not knowing how to change it.
This frustration meets its match in a deep conviction among moderates that God’s love is more important than doctrinal or political unanimity. Moderate Christians feel intuitively certain it ought to be possible to find a home worshiping and serving alongside good-hearted political and theological opponents. They are inspired by a principled vision of Christian unity, grounded in the way Jesus united different people in his ministry, and driven by the belief that all human distinctions fall away before God. It is the vision of a longed-for home that replaces frustration with a creative challenge: to forge meaningful identity through shared worship and social action in an inclusive community.
Fear Meets Hope
Second, we often noticed fear among those we talked to–fear of cultural conflicts that constantly threaten to break into violence, fear of the global effects of a short-sighted empire mentality within the United States, fear of the death of authentic Christianity, fear of reducing Christianity to a political tool for rationalizing the social visions of left and right, and fear of fundamentalists who think nothing of neglecting this world or deliberately praying and working for the end of the world because they are so certain there is a better world to come.
These fears seem to find their answer in tireless hope–hope that tolerance and cooperation can defeat dangerous religious and political extremism, hope that a Christ-centered church which prioritizes radical inclusiveness can increase national and global compassion and understanding, hope that the church can set an example of love and forgiveness that changes lives. Hope, often enough, is a mere substitute for a real solution, an understandable escape from the harsh realities of desperate situations. But in this case hope seems realistically grounded in the long history of human civilization, in which love and goodness and wisdom repeatedly wrestle down hatred and evil and stupidity, at least for a while. Discerning moderates see these as powerful fruits of the Spirit of God fueled by communities at worship, struggling saints at prayer, and compassion that drives human beings to help one another again and again.
Dismay Meets Gratitude
Third, we believe dismay, in the double sense of discouragement and alarm, is an important reason people seek a liberal-evangelical form of moderate Christianity. We have heard many moderates express dismay about the way Jesus Christ has no real role in the worship, spirituality and teaching of their churches; it is as if people do not know what to do with Jesus, or are embarrassed by him. In other cases dismay arises because the image of Christ is distorted to fit the ideological bias of the congregation, or the personality of the preacher. We also hear dismay over the way churches approach the Bible–dismay at biblical illiteracy on the one side and the abuse of the Bible as an encyclopedia of proof-texts on the other side. We hear dismay over churches that treat discipleship either as a merely optional lifestyle preference or as a psychologically coercive mirroring of the church leadership’s beliefs and actions. People have spoken to us particularly of their dismay over the loss of Christian moral integrity, which has made Christians a cultural joke. Some Christians fight with each other to the point of rabid hatred over details that are unintelligible to those outside the church, people Christians supposedly seek to influence morally and spiritually. They see some Christians displaying a perverse form of self-righteousness and judgmental hypocrisy, while others don’t seem to take their own faith seriously enough to identify a clearly communicable stand on key moral issues. They are dismayed by the psychological innocence of Christians who pronounce convenient rationalizations for hatred and bigotry, as in “love the sinner but hate the sin” or “the Bible says it and that settles it.”
Yet spiritually lively, moderate Christians also bear a profound gratitude for life in the ambit of divine love, for a church that cares, for the opportunities to grow in faith and to learn compassion and courage in the face of life’s challenges. They are humbly grateful that they do not have to remain trapped in their sins and that they have a chance to follow Jesus Christ and devote themselves to the Christian Way. They feel it is impossible to remain bogged down in the discouragement and disappointment of dismay when they are buoyed up by gratitude. Most dismayed moderate Christians do not give up on the church but, out of profound gratitude, seem to deepen their resolve. Those who do give up on the organized church make a strong effort to build less formal communities of Christian worship and service through which to express their gratitude for divine love and grace.
Disgust Meets Wisdom
Fourth, we frequently hear reports of disgust. Disgust is a state of mind that begins with spontaneous repulsion in reaction to something we see, hear, feel, taste, or imagine. From these primal sensory roots it leads to action: we avoid what disgusts us or we attack it with a fury born of aversion. It is a potent force in forming moral convictions because we readily associate what disgusts us with moral impurity. We have heard moderate Christians express their disgust particularly in reaction to the self-righteousness of Christian in-fighting, the arrogance of doctrinal and moral absolutism, and the brutal inconsistency of judgmental exclusion by people who are themselves sinners before God and unable to love their political and religious enemies.
Moderates are disgusted by famous televangelists making judgmental pronouncements about how others should live while covertly, and in some cases, bizarrely betraying their own marriage vows. They are disgusted by ignorant left-wing attacks on conservative moral critiques of American society and by unfair public caricatures of conservatives as embarrassing anti-intellectual reactionaries, as if the moral tone of society did not need to be maintained and lifted.
Discerning moderates typically realize that it takes wisdom to make sense of our instinctively aggressive reaction to that which disgusts us. They tend to think carefully about what to do ra
ther than rushing to a knee-jerk equation of the disgusting with the evil. Though certain aspects of the Christian church cause them frustration, fear, dismay, and disgust, they refuse to give up on it. Rather, they cultivate the virtues of love, hope, gratitude, and wisdom, and allow these to prevail over their impulses to avoid or attack the object of their discomfort. They stay engaged, always looking for a way to make a positive difference.
A Moderate Conclusion
If you are a moderate Christian of the liberal-evangelical type, how might an analysis of polarized rhetoric and demographics affect your self-understanding? What can you do, practically and positively, about this new self-understanding?
We believe that moderate Christians will be encouraged to discover they have a lot of company in the messy middle. Indeed, you are part of a resurgence of moderate Christians who are resisting the misplaced enthusiasms of political and religious extremes.
There are moderate Christians of the liberal-evangelical type in every church in our country. They may not know they have company in their beliefs. They probably don’t suspect that their radically inclusive, Christ-centered faith represents a ray of hope for American Christianity in the future. But they are everywhere. Some fortunate congregations have large numbers of them, which leads to fascinating corporate experiments in radical inclusiveness.
If you are a moderate Christian with a dawning sense that a breakthrough in self-understanding might be possible for you, then the practical and positive next step is to invest time and effort in learning about the profoundly countercultural center of Christianity. The demographics show that you belong to a large and diverse group, it is true, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing in common with your fellow moderates. There are patterns among your viewpoints, good reasons for your resistance to extremes, and an identifiable history that you can learn to claim as your distinctive heritage.
Unfortunately, moderate Christians have rarely been called upon to think out who they are and to lift their voices on behalf of the Christ-centered radical inclusiveness they prize. Most moderates we have met are frustrated that the Christian movement seems to be enslaved to cultural polarization rather than setting an example of unity that reflects the radically inclusive love it proclaims. They often feel neglected, longing for guidance and inspiration suited to their moderate mind-set. They sometimes feel anxious about church unity. Feeling lost in the middle of a culturally, politically, and religiously polarized context can be profoundly disabling.
Yet these same moderates are more committed to their faith than ever, and passionate about its social and spiritual relevance. Just knowing the demographics can give moderates the boost in confidence they need to invest energy in deepening their self-understanding. A small amount of well-earned encouragement can inspire them to fight for a clear vision of a way forward as Christian disciples within churches proclaiming a message of radical inclusiveness. But, like education in every domain of life, there are no shortcuts here. The issues are complex and understanding is hard-won.
Adapted from Lost in the Middle? Claiming an Inclusive Faith for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Lost in the Middle? Claiming an Inclusive Faith for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner
There exists a deep and broad population of Christians who feel the labels of “liberal”and “evangelical” both describe their faith and limit their expression of it. By working to reclaim the traditional, historical meanings of these terms, and showing how they complement rather than oppose each other, Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner stake a claim for the moderate Christian voice in today’s polarized society.
God’s Tapestry: Understanding and Celebrating Differences by William M. Kondrath
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The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass
Historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues against the conventional wisdom regarding “mainline decline.” She sees encouraging signs that mainline Protestant churches are finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices as they lay the groundwork for a new congregation.