A Response to Kevin Watson’s Struggle with Centrism

I’m grateful for Kevin Watson’s recent blog post, My Struggle with Centrism #UMCKevin is the Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology.  He’s a thoughtful scholar whose ministry I truly appreciate.  But in this recent post, Watson creates what I believe is a straw man he identifies as Methodist Centrism, a straw man easily critiqued.  Since his post identifies me as one of the leading advocates of this view, I’d like to offer a few responses. I offer this post in the same spirit I believe Kevin offered his post – with respect for him and with the aim of fostering deeper understanding and greater faithfulness. 

Watson starts by discussing my 2008 book, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.  As he noted in his 2008 review of the book, Seeing Gray was a response to the increasing polarization in our country – the “ideological silos” that Americans found themselves in at the time – political, sociological, and theological. The culture wars behind the polarization were fueled in large part by Christians who tended to oversimplify complex issues while suggesting that God was on their “side.” In the decade since my book came out, the problem has only gotten worse.

Watson notes that he was “increasingly troubled” by what he termed the “virtue of gray.” I think he misunderstood the proposition for which I was advocating. The book was written to call people to listen to, and to understand, the perspectives of those on both sides of the issues dividing our nation and our churches, leading to a recognition that there is usually some truth on both sides of the divide.  Seeing gray meant that Republicans would appreciate that Democrats might have something valid to offer in solving serious problems, and vice versa.  It meant that liberals would listen to conservatives and conservatives to liberals and recognize that often they each brought important pieces of the truth to the conversation.

Kevin noted that, “Trying to see gray may sometimes work at an abstract 50,000 foot level. But it does not work very well when you are talking to a human being created in the image of God who is trying to discern whether they can do something with God’s blessing. The reality is it is often, though not always, an either-or.”  I see just the opposite.  As a pastor of a local church for the last 29 years, I regularly sit with parishioners facing complex moral dilemmas, and it is precisely in these conversations, that it becomes clear that the world is seldom as black and white as we would like.  

Watson says, “The deeper problem I have with Hamilton’s approach … is that there are many ethical issues that logically cannot have a middle ground.”  I don’t know any centrist who would disagree.  I note in the book that there are many issues that are black and white, where there is no gray.  Child abuse is always wrong.  Genocide is always wrong.  Treating others with cruelty is always wrong.  Murder is always wrong.  No one that Kevin might label a centrist believes that there is a middle ground on every ethical issue.

But we don’t have to get very far down the list of ethical issues before we discover that on many issues there is some gray.  Take the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  That seems pretty black and white.  Yet the Law of Moses allows for killing in self-defense and war, and even in meting out punishment.  Likewise, honesty is a virtue, and we should always speak the truth, except when the truth might result in serious harm to another (the classic examples include those hiding Tutsi in their homes in Rwanda during the genocide, or those hiding Jews during the Holocaust).

On many of the political, ethical, and theological issues that divide us today, United Methodists generally agree that it is possible for thoughtful, deeply committed, orthodox, Wesleyan Christians to disagree.  Wesley himself advocated for a generosity of spirit when it came to certain “opinions.”  But increasingly there are some on the left and the right who say that, on our most divisive issue, the issue of same-sex marriage, there is only one legitimate Christian position. 

Over lunch today I heard this from a friend on the left.  In a recent conversation, I heard this from a friend on the right.  These two friends are both deeply devoted Christians, orthodox in their theology and evangelical in their desire to invite people to follow Christ. Both are Wesleyan to the core.  They each attended United Methodist seminaries.  Both are lifelong, passionate United Methodists who’ve given themselves to Christ and the church.  They are effective preachers, leaders and teachers.  Both are compassionate, justice-loving Christians.  And yet they disagree on how to interpret the Scriptures cited as relevant to the question of same-sex marriage. Which friend should no longer be counted a United Methodist?

Centrists are increasingly speaking up to say that it is possible to disagree on this issue and be one church. Many of the laity in our churches have figured out how to do this with each other.  People in the same Sunday school classes, Bible studies, and small groups hold different positions on God’s views of human sexuality and yet continue to call one another “brother” and “sister.” 

My final chapter in Seeing Gray advocates for the “radical center.” Bishop Scott Jones has been speaking up for the “extreme center” for years.  Others have even formed a Methodist Centrists Movement. A significant number of the leading voices in our denomination, including many evangelicals, were drawn to the UMC because of our capacity to hold together views and practices that take into account the truth found on both sides of the theological divide.

Centrism, for its advocates, is not some kind of milquetoast, middle-of-the-road, mediocre faith.  Nor is it, as Bishop Jones has noted, the “dead center.”  It is not a faith of moderation.  Instead those who speak up for Methodist centrism believe it is simply a part of our character as Methodists.  They advocate for a passionate Methodist faith that holds together both grace and holiness, both evangelism and social justice, both a love of Scripture and a gratitude for the insights of critical scholarship.  They hold together both salvation by grace through faith and the importance of good works. They pursue a spirituality that engages both the intellect and the heart. In addition, this center involves the capacity to listen to and learn from people with whom we disagree.  It was captured in Wesley’s catholic spirit and his own capacity to draw water from various streams of Christianity, Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed while navigating a middle way between them.

Those who lean towards the center seek to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ.  Their aim is not to create some kind of vacuous and inoffensive middle, but to find the truth of Christ and to do his will, wherever he leads.  Kevin Watson’s implication that centrists’ “beliefs and values are not first informed by Scripture and the deep riches of the Christian tradition” is a serious misrepresentation of every Christian I know who identifies with the center. 

Watson concludes, “I cannot imagine a reading of the Gospels that could convincingly argue that Jesus was a centrist. Centrists, after all, are rarely crucified.”  I suppose that depends upon what one means by centrist, and who’s doing the crucifying.  In so many ways Jesus preached a gospel that stood between the various impulses of his time, holding them in tension. Was Jesus liberal or conservative?  Was he a legalist or a libertine? Did he preach ethics or evangelism?  In Jesus’ day, two of the major opposing factions were the Sadducees and the Pharisees, in some ways representing the left and the right in first century Judaism.  In the end, Jesus didn’t fit neatly into either of these groups, yet he drew elements from both.  And, not surprisingly, both the Sadducees and the Pharisees called for his crucifixion.  

Anyone who has ever stood in the center knows it is hardly safe.  You’re likely to be criticized by both “conservatives” and “liberals.”  But in an increasingly polarized world, the center may just be the most radical, extreme, and faithful place to stand if you are seeking to follow Jesus Christ. 

If you identify with the center, I’d like to invite you to check out the new Uniting Methodists website (http://unitingmethodists.com) and if it captures your perspective, join me in signing the statement.