Since starting the Moderate Christian Blog Aggregator, I’ve gotten a few comments on what it means to be moderate. One very reasonable question is how I can combine the words “moderate” and “passionate,” as in “passionate moderate.” It seems like a contradiction in terms. And I do do intend the two words to convey a certain amount of tension. Nonetheless I don’t think they’re entirely contradictory.
“Moderate” isn’t an ideological or party label. It’s a general description that some people are comfortable with. So what I’m about to discuss applies only to me. It may apply to other people. Many people I have run into who self-identify as moderate would be comfortable with most of what I’m saying, at least what I’m saying about the process of thinking, though not necessarily about the specific positions I have come to. I use my own specific conclusions simply as an illustration. It’s quite possible, and indeed likely, for those who identify themselves as moderates to disagree.
There are people who espouse a form of moderation from apathy. They don’t care to make a decision so they generally find a center point, effectively a point of least conflict among those they have to live with. Another group may well find it difficult to make decisions and end up in the center through lack of concern. I’m not talking about these groups, but rather those who are active and committed and yet take a moderate approach.
Here are the keys to what I think of as moderate thinking.
1. Never improperly excluding a middle position
Improperly excluding middles is a standard practice in both politics and religion. You are either a laissez faire capitalist or you’re a communist. You’re left wing or right wing. You accept Biblical inerrancy, or you don’t believe in the Bible at all. You’re a fundamentalist or an atheist. Each of these pairs ignores many positions between, and some of them ignore additional positions that are more extreme.
2. Finding the actual extremes
Very often politicians and theologians want to place their opponents on the extremes. Moderate thinking avoids this by looking for the actual extremes and finding the range of opinions. As an example, Ned Lamont, Democratic senatorial candidate in Connecticut, is called an extremist, and his election is supposed to mean that the Democratic party is turning far to the left. But Lamont, who wants to withdraw troops from Iraq over a period of six months is hardly an extremist. His position is probably held by a majority of the voters of his state, though they may vote for another candidate for other reasons. The extreme position would be a pacifist position that stated that we should not employ force against terrorists, but should turn the other cheek (figuratively) to them.
On the other hand, Democrats try to paint Bush as an extreme right winger. But a few miles from me we have a Baptist pastor who was a Vice-Presidential candidate for a minor party in the last election and who thinks Bush is a liberal. That doesn’t make Bush right, any more than agreeing with a majority of Connecticut voters makes Lamont right, but it does mean that he’s not the extreme.
3. Setting relative values on issues and positions
This third point simply means that in general moderates are not one issue people. Many people have numerous litmus test issues. For example, they will not vote for a candidate who differs with their position on abortion, or on the war in Iraq, or on taxes, or on any of a number of other issues. I don’t do litmus test issues. There are certain positions I find very hard to stomach, but in choosing a candidate to vote for, I have to deal with a range of issues, and generally no issue is absolute.
Much of our political and religious discourse is conducted with excluded options. Let me just take a few examples.
Gun in the House
I have made a decision not to have a gun in my house. I have had all kinds of reactions to that decision. I have been congratulated on my high moral stance against gun control. I have been condemned for not believing people should be permitted to defend themselves. But gun control advocates should not take comfort from my stance, and homeowners who wish to protect their property with a weapon should not be concerned. I’ll be voting for candidates who will uphold your right to self-defense.
So then why do I not have a gun? I have simply made a calculation that my own level of alertness, my normal reaction time, and my decisiveness under the appropriate circumstances are not quite good enough to make the gun a good idea for me. I’m not bad with one on the range, or at least I wasn’t a few years ago when I last tried. I have decent aim. But I don’t believe the odds are good that I’m more likely to get the weapon from a safe place, locate a target, and use it effectively, than I am to have it stolen and used to shoot me, for just one example. And to those who have told me I should darn well get that good, I say, “You get that good. I’ll do what I think best.”
I have no moral qualms about shooting an intruder. If I can get the guy with a baseball bat, I will. But that is where I think that I am safest. The extremes here are a complete refusal to use violence on the one hand, and a “guns blazing” approach on the other. I ask what will make my family safer.
War in Iraq
I oppose the war in Iraq. Again, there are those who respond to my high moral stand against war, and there are those who think I’m a wimpy pacifist (no, I’m not calling all pacifists wimps). But neither are dealing with my own reasoning. The question is one of strategy. What is the best way to use force? Here I see the extremes as pacifism, in which we do not respond violently to terrorists, and the parking lot view, which suggests we make countries that support terrorists into parking lots. I look for the action that is going to result in a better state of affairs after it has been accomplished. I cannot see how the Iraq war can end in a better state than things were before the war, and thus I regard it (and did so before it was launched) as a bad strategy.
This is a topic on which it’s easy to get Christians confused, because most simply don’t know all the various options, and in fact, very few probably need to know all of them. To identify the extremes, however, we have on the one hand a historical Jesus who is precisely as a harmony of the gosples would make him, and on the other hand we have the belief that Jesus was made up, that he is not a historical figure, or even a historical figure around which some myths have grown, but that he never existed at all. There is quite a lot of ground between those two positions.
I would like to see us recognize the many possibilities between “every detail of the gospels are historically true without even normal eyewitness variations” and “most of the gospel record is false. For example, one can assume that certain details such as how many times the cock crowed and how many times Peter denied Jesus may have been remembered differently by different people. Even more substantively, one can wonder whether there were, in fact, multiple feedings of 5,000 people and then 4,000 people, and can do so without doubting the entire story of Jesus.
I recall an online written debate in which I undertood in a series of messages to defend Jesus as a real, historical figure. I came up with six points that I would defend and began the debate. A number of Christians observing these posts told me that I had already given up Christianity because I was not defending the virgin birth or the resurrection. But I had not denied either of those doctrines; I had merely taken on a more limited task–demonstrating that Jesus was, at least, a historical fiction, and not totally a construction of his followers.
How can one be a passionate moderate? I see no reason why one cannot be passionate about one’s beliefs just because they are not extreme. In other words, I don’t see the problem here. Let me give a quick example. On the topic of evangelism and missionary effort I get pegged both as evangelical and as liberal. Why?
First, I believe passionately that Christians are to be witnesses for Jesus. We are not to be ashamed of who we are, and we are to testify of what Jesus has done for and in us.
Second, I believe passionately that it is the Holy Spirit who convicts and converts, and that our witness is never to be forceful, intrusive, emotionally manipulative, or offensive. (Note that I did not say that the gospel itself would not offend; our witness to the gospel should not offend.)
The first of these points gets me called evangelical; the second gets me called liberal. And if you were to hear and see me carrying out those statements, independently of one another, you might agree. But together, they seem to me to be the “Jesus” way of evangelism. The combination seems moderate to many people, but I simply think it is right, and I’m passionate about it.
That, to me, is the essence of being a passionate moderate. Your mileage will probably vary–moderately, I hope!