The church of the excluded middle

If there’s one thing we learned in the recent Australian election, just one ‘take home’ message, it’s that there aren’t just deep fault lines between religious and non-religious Australians, but, increasingly, there are fault lines running through the Christian community. I’m not sure ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Australian politics — or within the Australian church — have ever been more polarised. But then, I am still reasonably young…

The stakes seemed pretty high for religious Aussies, what with lobby groups like the ACL doubling down on ‘religious freedom’ and ‘keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament’ as two of their top five areas of policy concern for Christians’ (which led them to hand out how to vote cards that supported One Nation in certain ‘battleground’ seats (for what it’s worth, Tony Abbott’s pugilistic campaign page ‘battlelines.com.au’ seems to have been a misfire)). The Labor Party’s policy on abortion was also an issue of widespread concern amongst Christian voters — but that tends to be one that crosses the right/left divide amongst Christians in lots of cases. Meanwhile, my friends on the left seemed keen to play down religious freedom as an issue (especially as it connects to the ongoing imbroglio surrounding ex-Wallaby Israel Folau), even as Labor Party insider after insider comes out flagellating the party for ‘disconnecting’ itself from the average religious punter (and, for what it’s worth, in my little bit of political punditry in my previously linked piece on abortion, I suggested Labor’s platform revealed they believed the Christian constituency to be so insignificant a force that they could not just ignore it, but trash it and ‘wedge’ Christian conservatives as the ‘bad guys’, turns out if that’s the strategy, they were wrong, and I remain curious about the impact Israel Folau had on this misread)… That said, my friends on the left are dismayed by the failure for, in Abbott’s words, the issue of climate change to be treated as a moral issue not an economic one, for a lack of movement in Australia’s generosity via foreign aid, and for many of us with friends who sought asylum in Australia there’s a particular grief about more years of limbo and dispassionate dehumanisation of these vulnerable members of our community (calculated dispassion at this point seems morally worse to me than passionate objection to the issue — plus, if boat turnbacks have “stopped the boats,” the whole rationale for keeping people from settling in Australia permanently is gone; either that policy is working or it isn’t). 

The stakes seem high for fellowship amongst Christians who are ideologically convicted or partisan, or even just ‘centrist’ (and not in the sense of trying to find a synthesis between every policy issue, but rather, in the sense of recognising that where the right tends to focus on individual responsibility and a conservative impulse, and the left tends to focus on systemic issues and solutions, and a progressive narrative, there’s actually truth and wisdom to be found in holding those poles in tension). People on either pole seem keen to take to Twitter to disavow the political other — to pull the church in a political direction based on an ideological assumption of ‘Gospel truth’ linking up with a particular stance, and in doing so, to dismiss the good faith reasons their brothers and sisters in Christ give for holding different convictions as matters of liberty, wisdom, and an application of our limited, creaturely, ability to actually know how to tackle incredibly complex questions in an increasingly globalised world. 

At the same time as political questions get treated as though the answers must be found at the ‘poles’; theological questions are also being resolved in the same way; ‘tension’, ‘mystery’ or ‘paradox’ are increasingly terms to be viewed with suspicion. Where once unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things might was an ‘ideal’ — it has been replaced with a sort of philosophy that looks like:  ‘unity is essential, charity towards those who disagree with us is unnecessary and perhaps unfaithful’. This seems to come from a growing fear that our churches are like the lifeboats dropping off the sinking Titanic of Christendom which has just crashed into the iceberg of secularism — means everybody is clamouring to clearly mark out their space. The way this plays out is in a phenomenon observed by James Davison Hunter in his To Change The World; he was writing about the polarising nature of public life once everything in public life is ‘politicised’ — where we outsource all major decisions and recognition of what matters to law makers — but this observation is also true of the institutional church as it adopts the ‘politics’ of the world around it. Hunter says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicisation is the turn toward law and politics—the instrumentality of the state—to find solutions to public problems. The biggest problem is how to create or reinforce social consensus where little exists or none could be generated organically. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases.” — James Davison Hunter

In a time where we feel a need for certainty within our church structures — the sort you want when you jump in a lifeboat hoping it will hold up your weight — our churches seem to be turning to writing ‘policies’ or ‘statements’ (or feeling the pressure to sign up to competing statements like the Nashville Statement or the Revoice Statement on sexual ethics) where once there was liberty. We’re running to the poles and creating ‘laws’ or ‘lines’ or ‘boundaries’ on questions where uncertainty might not have been such a bad thing; partly this is a pressure placed on the church by external political forces — the more our civic life is subject to legislation around what behaviour and expression is welcome in public, the more clearly we will be compelled to outline our ‘doctrinal positions’ in the face of legal action, like, for example, whether or not a Christian school’s treatment of a same sex attracted staff member or transgender student is an expression of its doctrine; that these questions are now viewed through a political or legal lens rather than a pastoral one is one of the great failings of the church as we’ve been co-opted into this new reality. 

Hunter sees this ‘politicisation’ emerging as a result of an increasing trend for people to process truth through the shortcut of their ideological framework. We no longer have shared beliefs about much of what was once held in ‘common’ which means everything is contested; and if truth is contested, especially in the public, and especially where the ‘public’ is the same as ‘the political’ — you’re better off being a ‘winner’ than a ‘loser’; and ultimately we lose (as we seek to find) our ‘self’ as it becomes subsumed into an ‘ideology’ and then an ‘identity,’ he says:

“Politicisation is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments. How does this come about? My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicisation provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological polarisation is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content.

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics.” — James Davison Hunter

In his book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says there’s a ‘religious’ fervour at the heart of polarisation in the west; he sees it as a product of a political Manichaeism — where ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are polar opposites at war with one another and the ‘good life’ or ‘good society’ is about victory over evil, not compromise. His model of human behaviour — where ‘the rider’ (our reason), tries to control but is ultimately pulled about by ‘the elephant’ (our emotions and desires), suggests attempts to negate polarisation without tackling this ‘religious’ elephanty disposition towards combat will be pointless. He also says that in this climate using reason alone in political (or theological) disagreements won’t persuade the other, because discussions in this context will feel, and often be, combative. 

“If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”

He, like Hunter, sees polarisation coming as a result of ideology — and his book makes interesting observations about the different moral foundations brought to bear by the left and the right on each issue (and Christians can readily affirm each category). The catch is, those different foundations gear us to respond differently to the same facts — and our view of what is ‘true’ in areas of dispute will be affected by these foundations not just our theological system. Haidt says:

Several studies have documented the “attitude polarization” effect that happens when you give a single body of information to people with differing partisan leanings. Liberals and conservatives actually move further apart when they read about research on whether the death penalty deters crime, or when they rate the quality of arguments made by candidates in a presidential debate, or when they evaluate arguments about affirmative action or gun control.

As this politicisation, polarisation, and move to ‘lawmaking’ plays out at a ‘structural’ level in the institutional church, it also hits home in the local church. I can speak from personal experience that to either deliberately not adopt a position (as our church did during the plebiscite), or to adopt a ‘nuanced’ theological position (as our church does on the question of same sex attraction — where our public teaching has been more aligned with Revoice than with Nashville in that particular part of an inter-nicene ‘culture war’ (I am way prouder of that pun than I should be), comes at a cost. People leave. People want the certainty of a floating lifeboat with high rigid walls, not a rubber dinghy that might get tossed about a bit, but that might also allow a few more people to cling to the sides because it’s closer to the waterline. This too, is a failing of the modern church — a failing to understand who we are called to be; and what sort of community we are meant to be united in Christ, by his Spirit, maintaining fellowship as our chief expression of that unity when it comes to ‘disputable matters’ (note Paul’s ethical approach in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10-11). To leave a community over a political issue or an attempt to be accommodating to people with multiple views is to tear apart the body of Christ that the Spirit of God is knitting together and taking towards maturity; and this maturity is the sort that comes from bumping into one another; from disagreement with a commitment to relationship in Christ above our political concerns, or even matters of disputable doctrine in areas where our knowledge or certainty is limited, like, for example, if intersex people are intersex because their bodies have both male and female characteristics, and we are forced to accommodate such a reality in our theology, how is this definitively different not so much from the ‘psychological’ reality of a transgender person but the physical and neurological realities that we can observe with brain scans? How can we speak with dogmatic certainty on that issue, or, like the current debate around the language of ‘gay Christian’ adopted by same sex attracted people who hold to a traditional Biblical teaching on sexual ethics, but nonetheless want to make claims about their experience without making a claim about their ‘identity’ or ‘ontology’ (a group explicitly excluded by the Nashville Statement, and a position championed by Revoice (which has now been rejected by the Central Carolina Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of America whose panel again (which included the Gospel Coalition’s Kevin DeYoung), seems to have brought their conclusions to the table before listening to the people they’re engaging with on ‘their’ terms).

Why must we draw ‘lines’ on these issues? What purpose does such line drawing serve except to move more into the ‘essential’ category, bound by ‘laws’ that suddenly exclude those previously included in liberty or treated with charity?

There’s a law in logic, that when falsely applied creates a fallacy — the law of the ‘excluded middle‘. 

“In logic, the law of excluded middle (or the principle of excluded middle) states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true”

When we reduce our beliefs to propositional statements; to ‘law’; we don’t just codify a position, we negate other positions. Nashville does this with a series of ‘we affirm’… ‘we deny’ statements; but even simply by affirming a particular propositional truth and not bringing the denial to the table we necessarily exclude. 

The ‘fallacy of the excluded middle’ kicks in where a propositional statement creates a false dilemma; where we create ‘poles’ where no poles were necessary and declare the other pole ‘negated’. It’s this rush to the poles that is excluding so many Aussies in the political process, so that many of us report being disenfranchised and disillusioned; but it’s a similar rush to the poles that is destroying unity and fellowship the same way a mad rush for the lifeboats at the expense of all one’s fellow travellers ‘excludes’ those who don’t get a berth. 

So many of our present political and theological dilemmas are built on false dilemmas; on zero sum games that simply fail to imagine third options. Talk to people occupying those positions — like those in the Revoice Movement, or other ‘celibate gay Christians’ and you’ll hear they feel stuck in the middle of the full blown ‘affirming’ movement — the iceberg — when it comes to questions of sexual ethics and desire, and the ‘negative’ movement which has us running to the life boats on the HMAS Christendom. Not just ‘stuck in the middle’ — but ‘excluded in the middle’; and this seems true in my experience of so many other ‘flashpoint’ issues in our churches and especially in the church’s relationship to worldly power and politics. 

It is hard to be a ‘church of the excluded middle’ — because both poles don’t want to make space for you; nobody is sure if you’re an ally or an enemy. You catch friendly fire and unfriendly fire, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. People flee the ‘uncertainty’ of no man’s land for the trenches on either side of the culture war, when it’s actually drawing combatants from either side together in no man’s land that might create the conditions for a cease fire in the culture wars, not a ‘total defeat’ of the other, but a figuring out how to live side by side, peacefully, in disagreement. It’s precisely those who don’t have a ‘polarised’ position (and the centre probably is a pole all of its own) who might actually help persuade your ideological enemy of the benefits of your position, if they can draw you from your ideologies long enough to talk to one another.  

Here’s my hunch though; and it’s one that I’d say is a driving philosophy behind how we’re trying to approach being the post-secular-iceberg church — a ‘church of the excluded middle’, one that rejects the push to polarisation and to ‘legislating’ on issues of liberty is better placed for both discipleship and evangelism. It’ll keep more people afloat by being less brittle or rigid, and it’ll allow more people to cling to the sides before pulling themselves on board. A group of churches — or Christians — functioning this way will also be the sort of group that can accommodate people who have ideological convictions built from different moral foundations that would otherwise throw them to the poles; and this will be for the good of our shared moral vision. But more than this, a church of the ‘excluded middle’ that is clear on the essentials will cling to Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith; it will see unity in Christ and in the truth of God’s word as timeless, and so be less shaken by the winds and waves of the freezing and deadly water we now navigate. It will listen to those voices that might otherwise be swamped — like those occupying the middle ground in the sexuality debate who are clinging both to Jesus and the traditional teachings of the Church seeking to faithfully interpret the Bible. It will conserve what should be conserved as conservative voices are heard charitably, and will reform what needs to be reformed as progressive voices call for change. It’s a utopian vision, to be sure, an ideal of its own; an ideology to be pursued in ways that might ultimately also exclude ‘truth’ or certainty. But it might just be the sort of community that Paul is imagining in 1 Corinthians 12 as he’s just outlined some real issues around the disputable matter of idol food in the city of Corinth; the sort of community that is to find its unity in Christ, by the Spirit, and use that unity as a foundation, or corrective, in all their disputes (like those Paul addresses in the rest of the letter) as they grow towards maturity and the most excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 13). This necessarily requires people living together in disagreement and working out how to love one another in disagreement not just running to lifeboats where you agree with everyone else on board. 

This is also the picture Haidt paints of the sort of community that might escape the destructive ‘religious’ spirit of our age; and the sort that might be not a lifeboat escaping an iceberg, but a lighthouse pointing people from it; the sort that might model an alternative to the politicisation of everything and the reduction of each person to a combatant — enemy or ally — in some culture war. Here’s Haidt:

“Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).”

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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