It has been a great privilege to write this column for more than a decade.1 Including other periodicals, such chances to offer reflections go back over three decades. And through those years, I have always stayed away from one topic. Politics.
I calculated that if I were going to spend so much time on one divisive topic, religion, I had better stay far away from the other. But there was another reason. I had thought that my political views were boringly moderate. This was because very few political candidates have ever lit me up with excitement. But the idea that I was a moderate was misguided.
I recently took a comprehensive test of political views that was supposed to identify your political party. And it did. In fact, the test identified six different parties for me. And, as it turns out, I have very strong political views—in each party. It’s just that neither of the two major parties holds more than a minority of them. According to the test, I’m about 25% democrat, 25% republican, 25% libertarian, and 25% a mishmash that could be labeled “Green-Constitutional-Christian Democrat.”
I guess I like my politics like I like my religion. When it comes to religion I enjoy swimming in each of the six “Streams of Living Water,” the great traditions of Christian faith. And I would feel that a part of my soul was being malnourished if I were forced to pick just one. To continue the mixed-metaphor, for me to be confined to one tradition of the Christian faith or to be identified with only one political party would be like deciding to eat from only one food group. Why would I do that?
So, given a track record of avoiding political discussion, and at the risk of drawing fire from both sides and a few more, the present and polemical political climate has brought me to the place of saying, enough is enough. It is time for Christ-followers to move away from the angry, fundamentalist fringes and migrate to the messy, mystical middle.
Help from Psychometric Theory
I was very fortunate during my six years in Fuller’s Schools of Psychology and Theology to have Richard Gorsuch as my major professor and dissertation chair. Richard was a no-nonsense-function-over-form-pens-in-the-front-pocket research psychologist. His credentialswere very impressive. Raymond Cattell had been his major professor and he liked to refer to his advisees as Ray’s academic grandchildren. I liked that, even if I bore very little resemblance to my grandpa.
Richard had edited the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion for 10 years, had written a book on factor analysis, and had developed his own statistical softwarepackage, UniMult. His speech was precise and footnotes were available. His heart was pure gold.
One day during class Richard challenged his psychometric theory students. He stated that when it comes to large groups or populations, there is always more variance within a group than between two groups. “Pick any two groups: male, female; veggie lovers, meat lovers; Baptist, Methodist; black, white. Then pick any variables: height, weight, religious beliefs, introversion, generosity, etc. You will always find that there is more variance within any one group than between the two comparison groups.”2
It was a challenge he left us with for a while. And when we discovered that no one could bring evidence to invalidate Richard’s claim, something very healing happened. Very subtly he had created a profound argument against divisive ideas that so often fester into horrible realities like racism and identity politics.
The Things We Don’t Know
Imagine the following situation. You are enjoying a cup of coffee and breakfast at your favorite restaurant. A person at a nearby table engages you in a casual conversation. After a few interchanges, you hear that person tell you, either: “I saw a black person this morning;” or “I saw a white person this morning.”
Other than the obvious questions: “I wonder why this person used race as a description?” and “I wonder what this person just disclosed about his or herself?”; what information has been communicated about the person your conversation partner described?
Do you know if the person being referenced by race is an introvert or extrovert? No. Do you know if they are more prone to make decisions with their head or heart? No. If they are more intuitive or scientific in terms of taking in new information? No. If they view deadlines as firm and non-negotiable, or a good time to get started? No. That’s right, you don’t know anything about the person’s Myers-Briggs profile, and we are just warming up.
You don’t know the person’s Enneagram number, you know nothing about the contours of their MMPI profile, and you are clueless concerning height, weight, age, family dynamics, or car preference. Nothing has been communicated about all important character variables—the orientation of one’s heart and will. You also do not know the person’s vocation, level of education, religious orientation or whether the person is rich or poor. You don’t even know the person’s political party nor do you know who they voted for in the most recent presidential election.
The bottom line is, Richard Gorsuch is correct. There is always more variance within a group than between two groups. On average, we will always have more in common with those at the center of the group we are not in, than we will have with those at the opposite ends of the group we are in.
I miss you, Richard, and your no-nonsense approach to finding truth; especially when I turn on the nightly news.
Help from Dr. Jesus
Speaking of no-political-nonsense approaches to truth, I do not think there has ever been a better time to look to another very smart social psychologist, Dr. Jesus.
As we have discussed in this space, Jesus had a number one teaching point. It was the present availability of a whole and Holy way to live, eternal living, life in the kingdom of the Heavens, right here, right now. It was the only solution for anger and contempt that was washing over the culture wars of his day. And it still is. He presented a vision for placing our kingdom (our effective will) back inside God’s kingdom (the realm of God’s effective will) which is nothing but pure love. Progressive union with God is learning to live in Love.
But that sounds impossible. It is. And that brings us to Paul’s number one teaching point. It is the methodology for how to make Jesus’ only theme a reality. Being in Christ and Christ being in us is the Way. It is a pathway of humility, forgiveness, and other-centered love. It is a pathway of healing. Sozo, of course, means salvation, but it carries an even deeper connotation. Healing. It is a hospital term more than a courtroom term.
Dallas Willard thought that one of the best spiritual formation passages in all of Scripture is Colossians 3:1-17. Imagine these words of Paul being applied today. Imagine those at the edges, both edges, the angry, fundamentalist fringes, “taking off” greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, contempt and lying. Imagine the same ones “putting on” compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and becoming willing to listen to and bear the burdens of others, while pursuing forgiveness, as God forgave, and putting on love which promotes true and lasting unity.3
It is at the angry, egocentric fringes, the place where individuals try to impose their wills on others, where we find spiritual insanity. These are the self-centered, compassionless, places that have festered into slavery, human trafficking, economic greed, and all manner of social disparity. And it is also the angry, egocentric fringes that offer only false solutions of “an eye for an eye” (even when the one you wish to blind has not harmed you).
And these fringes are the places that give us shallow-thinking, identity politics, and the desire to overthrow one flawed form of government and replace it with another flawed form—even if the “new” form has, at its extreme edges, the potential to become an old form which has resulted in the death of over 20 million people in Russia and is presently imprisoning and torturing people for their religious convictions in China. God deliver us from the self-centered, angry, ego-driven, know-it-all, fundamentalist fringes.
There is another way. It is a path that will involve becoming brave enough and humble enough to journey away from the fortified hinterlands to the mystical middle.
It is in the center of God’s heart and our own that we can find this common ground, a place of becoming renewed in the knowledge and the image of our loving and uniting creator. It is in this marvelous, mystical, middle where we find the place, a Holy of Holies deep within the soul, where, as Paul declares, there is no Gentile nor Jew, slave nor free, white nor black.
It is in the chamber of our truest self, our Imago Dei self, where we find a love so pure that it longs to listen from the heart to the pains of others—whose stories and pain we can only begin to glimpse though compassionate listening; A place where the will to win melts into a desire to help and serve; A place where we realize that we all have far more in common with each other than we have differences that divide. It is the place where, as Martin Luther King dreamed, we are identified by our character instead of the color of our skin. It is the place where when we look into the eyes of our neighbor, we truly see the face of Christ. It is the place I long to live for more and more moments each day.
Reflection: Beneath our conscious, everyday self, the self we tend to identify with, there is a much deeper, more mysterious ground that fills out the reality of who we really are… In our depths resides the Christ self that is progressively drawing us into a living communion in which all that is false, all that is inauthentic in us gets stripped away. We have only to consent to the discipline of this process and trust in God’s mercy and love.4
A Few Suggestions for Moving to the Messy, Mystical Middle
To avoid the easy temptation to let insight be a substitute for action, This week I will:
- Choose to explore the “deeper, more mysterious ground that is the reality of who we all are” through the practice of contemplative prayer.
- Think more often of the love of God that flows through the entire universe and into our own hearts.
- Ask God for the grace to feel the pain of those who have been hurt by the greed, insensitivity, and oppression of others.
- Allow my thoughts and feelings to flow into some way of acting on what is good for another.
- Take the time to sit with another who is not of my race or gender and listen to the pain that person has experienced in relationship to others who look more like me.
A Few Reflections on What is Meant by the “Messy”, “Mystical”, and “Middle”
Concerning the alliteration in the title, let me provide a bit of clarification concerning what is meant by some key words.5
By using the word “middle” I don’t mean that Christians should be in lock step agreement on legislative issues. Questions will forever endure around what political/economic/legislative policies will serve a country best. Brilliant and devoted Christian economists have varied widely amongst themselves over policies involving minimum wage, health care policy, social security, environmental regulations and a host of others. Such a clash of ideas is a good thing and it is a good thing to have these ideas vigorously contested. The “middle” that I’m advocating is not simply assessing two extremes on any issue and then splitting the difference.
By “middle” I don’t mean to imply something that is lukewarm, nor disengaged, nor lacking passion. We badly need voices of passionate intensity that are not voices of arrogant extremism.
But, by “middle” I do mean what W. B. Yeats called the “’centre’ that must hold”; a thoughtful, informed, poised social orientation that seeks the common good of all concerned; a “centre” that is prepared to listen to and learn from all voices; that does not attribute ill-motives to people on the basis of political or economic disagreement; but instead, seeks to bring the primary subject of Corinthians 13 to the public square.
This middle is “messy” because it rejects the black-and-white thinking of totalitarian zealots, on all sides of the political aisle; while acknowledging the complexities of political science and economics as spheres which involve their own expertise–where even the wisest practitioners cannot always forecast unintended consequences. It recognizes that the line separating good and evil runs through every human heart rather than between blue/red/, Fox/CNN.
This “middle” is “mystical” because it recognizes that every human being—including my “political opponent”—carries dignity and worth; a truth that the “Enlightenment” could not be established but is, instead, carried somehow in the Imago Dei. And this middle is also mystical because it recognizes that—as important as politics and economics are—there is a Force infinitely more powerful: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
The “Middle” that we need turns out to be what Jesus called the “narrow way”: not narrow-minded, nor the anxiously dogmatic insistence that my side is right. It is the center from which we can hold all people in our heart. It is the center that must hold. It is the narrow way of obedience to Jesus. The narrow way of “slow to speak, slow to anger, quick to listen.” The narrow way of other-centered love.