On Being “Centrist”

On and off for some years now I’ve been pondering what it means to be “centrist,” particularly in the world of evangelical Christianity, though not limited to the faith arena. The institution where I teach would be more conventionally described as “nondenominational,” but “centrist” also fits in numerous ways. Increasingly, congregations take on that posture as well. Positioning ourselves that way—individually or institutionally—often creates the reputation, and sometimes the effect, of being theologically minimalist in an attempt to relate to and serve the broadest possible spectrum of people who can commit to the “basics”.

This trend toward centrism is far from new and is quite understandable as a reaction to legacies of quibbling and divisiveness over issues that don’t seem worth the relational loss that occurs. It can also be a reaction to doctrinal insularity—a type of theological culture (narcissism?) marked by an intramural, defensive, protectionist ethos. Sadly, the law of unintended consequences shows up here just as it does in economics and other fields. Those consequences include a trend toward doctrinal passivity and apathy; sometimes even embarrassment about being too “confessional” or “dogmatic” in one’s faith. At the root of that hesitation lay distorted and overdone versions of doctrinal commitment that have made dogma into dogmatism and wreaked all kinds of personal and ecclesiastical havoc. We must own this if dogma and centrism are to be redeemed.

In short, centrism is often taken to imply a doctrinal version of Aristotle’s golden mean, i.e., theological balance and equilibrium. Put more bluntly, it can incapacitate commitment except in a broad manner, resulting from a binary assumption that unless a commitment is worth everything, it’s worth almost nothing. This leaves no space for commitments and distinctives that have immense value even if they are not worth dying for (or making someone die for!). That sort of balance is bland, tasteless, devoid of character and identity, and utterly uninviting—like eating dry toast!

What’s the solution? Roll the clock back to the days of “fighting fundamentalism”? Expand doctrinal statements and make them once again more detailed and specific? Opt for commitment for commitment’s sake? No. Actually, my recent musings on this have led me to believe that centrism contains the solution after all. It’s a really good thing, but in a different way than we so often see practiced. Centrism is problematic when understood as balance (equal portions of many factors, without too much of any one—another example of how quantitative thinking almost always gets us in trouble theologically), when driven by political and social fears of offending, or when it expresses binary minimalism. Yet, it can be great when it highlights the Center that anchors and animates everything else.

Currently, I’m reading Fleming Rutledge’s remarkable work, The Crucifixion. I wanted and needed to read it anyway, but moved it up on the list as preparation for my upcoming Good Friday sermon. She is taking me (shamelessly and aggressively) back to the center, not in any simplistic way but in a defining way, positing “the cross as the center of Christian understanding” (p. 43). In an “ah ha” moment this morning it occurred to me that this is how we can rethink what it means to be centrist. The crucifixion, in all its radical nuance and scandal and shame, ended up for the Apostles—shockingly—as the defining and anchoring and illuminating and empowering factor for everything else. It did not trivialize the doctrinal reflection that would occur over time. It gave character and perspective to those reflections. It did not defuse the theological passion of the Church. It showed how doctrines were ways of working out the lifegiving implications of what happened in Christ’s crucifixion.

We need a specific example so that this does not turn into merely one more safe, preachy, academic generalization. For starters, are we having serious, leadership level conversation in our congregations and faculties about how the Center of our faith shapes, defines, anchors, and animates everything else? Or do we assume that we already have all that “down” and can move on to other, more contemporary challenges? Are we reflecting as much on what we DO hold and confess as we reflect (even tacitly) on where we don’t want to be too dogmatic and need to provide latitude?

I need to stop for now. Far more must be said on this matter, particularly in light of our upcoming Passion Week and Resurrection celebrations AND as so many of us try to steward faithfully what it means to be properly centrist in our respective ecclesiastical and academic environments.

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