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The Disappearing Center

It isn’t that no one wants to occupy the center; it is that you cannot occupy it. Choose, or it will be chosen for you.


"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

World War I was the first “modern” war, meaning munitions of the scientific age: poison gas, motorized vehicles, airpower, deadlier explosives. It cost 16 million lives, an unimaginable casualty number at the time. In his poem “The Second Coming” Yeats saw something apocalyptic on the horizon, but to him it wasn’t Jesus in the clouds of glory. It was a new era of savagery — a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Yeats died just before World War II — at 60 million deaths the bloodiest conflict in history.

I’ve thought of one line in particular as I’ve watched events unfold in church and nation during the past several years: “the center cannot hold.”[2] In both national life and church life, we seem to have lost the center. Like straddling two drifting boats, there’s no middle place to plant one’s feet, no spot from which to scan the whole vista.

It isn’t that no one wants to occupy the center; it is that you cannot occupy it. You will be pushed out of it. You choose one, or you choose the other, or it will be chosen for you. President Obama, the most centrist president of the decade, gets described both as the most liberal president ever, and as the one who has most betrayed his base.

Phrases like “loyal opposition,” “agree to disagree,” or even “two sides of the same coin,” rarely work anymore. Instead, we fall to opposite poles. The left characterizes the other side as well-meaning but stupid and selfish. The right, more narrowly principled and even less generous, insist their opposites are willfully, intentionally perverse, having some concealed motive to destroy country or church.

This they have in common: neither listens to the other.

As I’ve listened to recent discussions about making changes to our fundamental beliefs, I wonder how we Adventists came to this point, from “no creed but the Bible” to long, detailed, sometimes acrimonious discussions of how to concretize our truths. There seems too little humility in it, too few reservations. There is a sense in the discussion that what is true depends on our writing it. We damn the Roman Catholics for claiming that they have the authority to decide truth, that what is declared on earth is accepted in heaven. But the passion spent in our truthcrafting suggests we are similarly invested. (Illustrating, perhaps, something else I’ve come to believe: that over time we begin to resemble those we regard as enemies.)

But declaring it so won’t make it so, any more than believing it will. Of course we will believe in something, and we try hard to know what is true. But whatever happened to humility? To understanding that some truths are more more important than others? To listening to the Spirit, and believing that other people are thoughtfully listening, too, even when they’ve reached different conclusions? To a faith sufficiently dynamic that even where we can’t know precisely what God is thinking, we know that He is faithful?

The falcon cannot hear the falconer. As we aren’t listening to one another, we aren’t listening to God, either.

The key may be fear: the fear that all that gives us stability is about to be taken from us, and we must throw ourselves in front of any truck we suspect of hauling it away. The easy answer to fear is certainty, that near neighbor to arrogance. We know God’s mind. We know, because the Bible tells us so. 38,000 other Christian denominations are reading the same Bible, but coming to different conclusions; they have nothing to offer us (except their hymns). 15 million Adventists are reading the same Bible, and some of us see things differently than others; if this forum is any guide, we can just tell them to leave the church—they are ruining it for the rest of us.

So things fall apart. It begins around the most fearful, whose weapon of choice is the disloyalty grenade. Meanwhile, the broader thinkers roll their eyes, then defect rather than fight.

Yeats, again: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Please understand that the center is not a place of compromise, where we grab 50% of what you believe and mix it with 50% of what I believe. Truth can’t be decided by vote without ending up with documents like the Nicene Creed, whose adherents have for the past 17 centuries had to affirm that God and Christ were homooúsion, not homoioúsion, because theologians had spent the previous century bickering about that distinction.

The authentic center is a place of listening, of humility, of refusing to ignore Divine paradox and complexity. That does not mean it is a place of weak convictions. Convictions there are strong, the central one being that God is God, and we bow to Him. We Adventists know as well as anyone that He gives us new revelations of himself through time as we are better able to understand Him. A.W. Tozer wrote, “As long as we know that our view of truth is partial we can preserve that humbleness of mind appropriate to the circumstances; but let us once get the notion that our view is total and we become intellectually intolerant. Let us become convinced that ours is that only sensible view and our ability to learn dies instantly.” [3]

In the end, our beliefs are only as good as what they make of us. Actions are the hard currency of belief. The devils believe, with no character improvement. Truth is as truth does. What does it say, then, that the more certain some become, the worse their behavior? The more they insist on preserving beliefs that make no difference to character, the less of it they exhibit?

It is here that we die, as church or nation. When we don’t explore, when we can’t question, when we spurn nuance, and refuse to listen, we become all fury, all passion, “hollow men, like horses hot at hand,” who “make gallant show and promise of their mettle; But when they should endure the bloody spur, They fall their crests, and, like deceitful jades, Sink in trial.” [4]

Eventually one side wins the tug of war and walks away, careless of the fate of those they pulled into the muck. But before long groups re-form, pick up another rope, and begin pull. The strongest survive, though not necessarily the most truthful.

1. “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats, 1919.
2. Mine isn’t precisely the application Yeats had in mind, though I’ll not have been the first to reuse his imagery.
3. “The soul of man, says Matthew Arnold, is a mirror suspended on a cord, turning in every breeze, always reflecting what is before it but never reflecting more than a small part of the whole. The size of the mirror varies from man to man, but no one is able to comprehend the vast panorama that lies before and around us. The mental giant has a large mirror, to be sure, but even the largest is pathetically small. As long as we know that our view of truth is partial we can preserve that humbleness of mind appropriate to the circumstances; but let us once get the notion that our view is total and we become intellectually intolerant. Let us become convinced that ours is the only sensible view and our ability to learn dies instantly.… Unity among Christians will not, in my opinion, be achieved short of the Second Advent. There are too many factors working against it. But a greater degree of unity might be realized if we all approached the truth with deeper humility. No one knows everything, not saint nor scholar nor theologian.” “Our Imperfect View of Truth,” by A.W. Tozer, The Alliance Witness, March 11, 1959, p.2
4. Julius Caesar VI.ii
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