Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Unclaiming the Center (Warning: Labels Ahead!)

A pastor friend recently used the term “The Radical Center” to describe himself. He meant that he was not extremely liberal or extremely conservative, and he was saying that he thought most Methodists (and most people, for that matter) are somewhere in the center. The solution to all of the divisiveness in the church, according to him, is to reclaim this center ground, and minimize the extremes of both ends.

Sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me; I am not in the center, I am liberal. I am an honest-to-God “progressive.” If you are going to label me, label me left wing. Likewise my friends, like Shawn, Jeremy, and Mitch (whom I know personally) and John the Methodist, Joseph, and Larry B. (whom I know virtually) are not in the center, they are conservative. They may not be right wing extremists, but they are definitely "across the aisle" from me. (Before you react: Labels work for descriptive purposes, and yes, I appreciate their inadequacies, but nonetheless I’m using them here to make my point.)

And so, for me, the solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground. That would not be authentic to who I am, nor to whom any of us are. The solution is to learn how to have conversations with people from all points on the spectrum without needing to pretend like we agree on stuff, when we really don’t. The solution is to learn how to speak openly and honestly with one another, grounded in the love of God, seeking to build one another up in love, and disagreeing about our ideas and beliefs with vigor and integrity, but without beating each other up.

I would like to elevate this idea to the level of denominational doctrine. I would like a General Conference resolution to say that United Methodists do not agree on some things, but we love each other anyway. And further, that we can be United Methodists together without needing to agree about everything. I think I read somewhere that “love does not insist on its own way.” (It may be in the Bible, but since I am a liberal, my Biblical literacy is obviously suspect ;) ) Now, my liberal ideas and beliefs are mine, and I’ll go to bat for them any day, with scripture, tradition, reason, and experience undergirding everything. And I know that Shawn, Jeremy, Mitch, and everyone else will do the same with their ideas and beliefs. And yet somehow we might just manage to love one another in the midst of it all. Imagine that!

Here’s how bad things are: United Methodists even divide ourselves up when we share meals together. The next time you go to a connectional event, pay attention to who goes to lunch with whom. 95% of the time, people with shared theological/political/social perspectives eat together. I know I have been guilty of it in the past. No more! In fact, all of us ought to be able to name at least a handful of friends with whom you disagree and with whom you’ve eaten a meal in the last year. And not for the purpose of hashing out your differences, either – just to share a meal, pure and simple. (Or maybe a cup of coffee. Or, since it’s summer, maybe an ice cream cone or a Grant’s Grasshopper Concrete from Sheridan’s Frozen Custard. Mmmm, minty.) Sorry, where was I?

I think this is partly a generational issue. I really think that younger people have an easier time getting along with each other than our elders do. And so I have hope that in the future, young Methodist clergy will not fall into the “us versus them” pattern our elders set for us. (I was stunned when a liberal clergy member approached me at Annual Conference the morning after my ordination with a list of names and informed me for whom “we” would be voting in the next rounds of General Conference elections.) It is starting NOW with twenty- and thirty-year-old clergy who will intentionally nurture relationships that will, a couple of quadrennia from now, make for a much healthier United Methodist connection than the fractured one we see today.

So I’m not going to claim the radical center, whatever that is, as common ground and pretend to be something I’m not. I’m going to be who I am, strive to become who God wants me to become, and in the meantime somehow manage to love people “in truth and action,” even as we may disagree about any number of things. I believe that we are better when we hang out with more than just like-minded people – better Christians, better Methodists, and just better people.

Who’s with me? (And of course, feel free to disagree!)


Beth Quick said...

Nice post, Andy. My ordination class was younger than they've been for a while (and younger than the next few classes coming in) and certainly theologically diverse, but, still, we've been friends with one another. I think you're right on. I don't think just pretending we should all go with some center approach is a good idea - that's not authentic for hardly any of us!

Adam said...

maybe the center is made up of liberals and conservatives who can have decent conversations?

Jeremy V. said...

Thanks Andy..good post as always. I have to agree with Adam. The Radical Center for me is a place where we can come to discuss those topics..is it radical to suggest that liberals and conservatives can find common ground, and work from there..essentially, the radical center..maybe? My hope and prayer is that over the next few generations, that WE could really focus on Holy conversations together. Yes we surely disagree, but I know we can find more that unites than divides us..yes, that is radical in my world...and for me the commonalities is a great place to start.

Unknown said...

I am part of the ordination class that Elizabeth is a part of. In that class we represented the full spectrum of theological perspectives. Yet, we are able to not only dialogue for the sake of getting along we actually care about what happens in each others life and ministry. To me the key is not what label you function with, I too think labels are helpful, the key is living the life that we are given through Jesus Christ, and doing the best we can to be Christ to a hurting, seeking world.

Art said...

Excellent thoughts, my liberal friend!

Anonymous said...


How funny it is that in a discussion about how we disagree, we agree.

I was listening to the Dennis Miller radio show recently, and I think he had a good insight into why things seemed to be much more polarized now and why someone might make the statement your Pastor friend said. What he observed (i'm summarizing here) is that people's ideas used to orginate from within themselves and they would test these ideas against the world they observed and experienced. Recently though, he thinks that people are expecting the outside world not to be a place of testing ones internal ideas, but instead a place where ideas are delivered to a person. And if that person doesn't comply with what is delivered then somehow that person is flawed.

Conversations are no longer conducted with the idea that we discuss competing ideas to test our internal thoughts and maybe learn something, but with the idea that if the other person hasn't changed that either one or both persons in the conversation has somehow failed as a person.

If you use talk radio as an example, there is a conception now that if there were just more liberal talk shows, then there would be more liberal people in the political spectrum. That's the outside in view of it. The reason someone like Rush Limbaugh (no booing from the peanut gallery) became so popular is because peoples internal ideas resonated with his ideas, not because he forced his ideas upon someone.

One last thought, since we are in an age of incredible advances in scientific knowledge, one thing brain scientists are confirming is that our brains are biologically different from person to person and those biological differences matter in how we think and interact with the world. To expect all peoples to line up on any side (or center for that matter) of thinking is at least contrary to established scientific knowledge.

So I'm glad that you choose to claim your ground and I'll claim mine. I'll still be glad to eat the Grant's Grasshopper Concrete any time.

Willie Deuel said...

I responded to this excellent post at my own blog, http://willdeuel.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

We, as a denomination, need to be more willing to lsiten to each other. We may never change each other's mind but we may learn to appreciate each other more.

I don't like labels because I feel as if they alienate us more than anything but I appreciate your use of them here.

Along the Narrow Path said...

This is an excellent post. Just like in real life, people don't have to hate each other to disagree. A pastor we recently had was a little conservative and I disagreed with him politically, we agreed on many things and I truly thought well of him. If people would just get to know each other and accept the fact that we don't always agree would make for a better place in all areas of life.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I’d never consider myself to be conservative. I sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land; friends like Andy think I’m conservative, but many in my congregation think I’m rather liberal. I’ve been scolded over promoting issues of inclusive language and equal roles for women and have been scowled at over my reluctance to support reconciling efforts. Maybe this doesn’t place me radically in the center, but it does make me something other than left or right.

The issue as I see it is that the via media does not seem acceptable when dealing with issues of justice/ inclusiveness, and other hot-button topics so we split into camps.

Despite the fact that I often view issues through a different lens than Andy does, I always look forward to what he has to say, and really enjoy his company. So I can eat frozen custard with the guy but we don’t have to have the same sprinkles in our cups (I’m a Buckaroo man…can I get a witness?!)

Maybe because I’m a student at a seminary that is known for being something other than “conservative” I’ve grown accustomed to having my buttons pushed without getting too riled. I could have left for another school (which seems to be a growing trend) but I chose to stay and wriggle in my seat…which I’ve actually come to enjoy in a masochistic sort of way. My favorite thing about my time on campus is that I’ve made friends with some way-out crazy liberals whom I seldom if ever agree with on anything…and yet I’ve discovered they are really sweet, well intentioned people who want the same thing I want from a “United” church; faithfulness.

Anonymous said...

This left/right thinking may work in some scenarios but honestly how do you ever plan to get anything done. Most of us grow up and have learned to meet in the middle and do a bit more tahn eat some custard.

kc bob said...

I like this quote:

"In essentials, unity; in differences, liberty; in all things, charity." - Philipp Melanchthon

But I do think that life is in the middle :)

Anonymous said...


Larry B. said it quite well with "how funny it is that in a discussion about how we disagree, we agree."
The essence of your post was the premise of my initial comment in your Dream for Annual Conference post in late February.

I believe that we are better when we hang out with more than just like-minded people – better Christians, better Methodists, and just better people.

Great message! For me, rational disagreements have oftentimes led to a deeper understanding than I had before confronting someone else's arguments. Where an argument starts is far less important than where it finishes because the evidence and reasoning in between is crucial.