Monday, October 17, 2011

The Myth of the Middle Way

Fork in the road - - 1355424"The Truth Lies Somewhere in the Middle." I've been trained to believe this mantra for most of my life. "Everything in Moderation." "Don't go to Extremes." It's certainly easy to understand the appeal of such a teaching, especially in a world where extremism seems to be the cause of so many of the world's ills. But as I've gotten older, I've come to realize that there are certain areas where "the middle" is not only not always the best solution, but it may actively be worse than either of the poles it seeks to bridge.

For a rather whimsical example, consider this Transformer, which has been more or less transformed from truck mode to robot mode, but only on one side of the figure's body. Truly, this character wouldn't be able to get much of anywhere if he stayed in this form! He would need to be either in truck mode, or in robot mode, but this attempt to stay between the two doesn't do any good at all (to see what this toy is supposed to look like, click here). Or, for something more people are likely to encounter in their daily lives, consider the fork in the road in the picture above. You can go to the left, or you can go to the right, but if you try to drive down the middle, you're going to crash into those trees!

One scripture passage that comes to mind is Revelation 3:14-22, when John of Patmos writes to the church of Laodicea. Verses 15 and 16 famously say "I know your works. You are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I’m about to spit you out of my mouth." Many Christians have argued that this means that God would rather people be actively hostile rather than merely lukewarm (if indeed they're not fully devoted to God, which is obviously the best choice!), but although this is certainly one way to interpret the text as it stands, I have been convinced that it is not the best interpretation. It is well-understood that John is using a metaphor of the Laodicean springs, which were something of a tourist attraction of the time. But what is missed in the previous interpretation is that both hot and cold springs have their own benefits! As anyone who has relaxed in a sauna knows, hot water can be very therapeutic for soothing sore muscles, but you certainly wouldn't want a drink of hot water after working in the hot summer sun. For that, you want refreshing cold water. But lukewarm water is neither therapeutic nor refreshing. It's just yucky, and indeed the image of being spit out of the mouth is an evocative one. Thus, people should seek to be of benefit to others in some way, rather than just muddling along.

It's long been understood that there is a lot of fighting and division between people who hold political opinions that can be characterized as "right" or "left," and those debates will continue for some time to come. But for some issues, the "right" (i.e., conservative) side may well have the best solution, while the "left" (liberal) side may well have the best way of handling others. That's not to say that the "middle," or "moderate" view is always wrong, either. I still retain much of my upbringing in this regard, and the desire for moderation is a strong one. But sometimes, "moderation" means either not choosing a solution at all, even when either the right or left solution would at least generate some benefit, or it may lead to a solution that is actively more harmful than either the right or the left would have done (I'm reminded of Solomon's solution to cut a baby in half, although that was obviously not Solomon's actual intended solution, but merely a ploy to get the real mother to reveal herself. Still, one can hardly argue that the "middle" way would have been the best in that case!).

Clearly, this means we must exercise wisdom, and that hardly comes easy. But sometimes the act of choosing one side or the other keeps us from crashing into that bunch of trees just ahead.

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