Via Media Voices

The More We Polarize, the More Anglican I Become

Center Aisle’s goal is to build up the foundational center of our Church. We love sharing voices and perspectives that speak to a radical centrism that binds different viewpoints and voices together in our shared faith. When we came across the following reflection by the Rev. Timothy Cole, rector of Christ Church, Georgetown, our immediate thought was, ‘We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.’ So, here it is.

-Center Aisle’s Editorial Staff

Timothy ColeI was fortunate enough to have dinner with the former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, the other week. She was speaking about her new book Fascism, A Warning. It is, of course, a political book written by a politician. Everyone who reads it will agree or disagree with her analysis of our current situation according to his or her own views and perspectives. What did interest me about it, though was her sorrow for what she believes to be the depopulation of the center ground in our common life.

As someone whose family fled the Nazis to Britain during the war and, after returning home, then fled the Communists to America, she has experienced the excesses of both left and right in the narrative of her own life. She is an Episcopalian, and we had an interesting discussion, not about politics directly actually, but about a theological parallel I have touched on a fair bit recently, the via media, the middle way.

In Anglican Theology, this middle way represents a key element in how we define ourselves as a Church and a theological tradition. Richard Hooker sought to use it to express the Elizabethan Settlement as a center and balance between the extremes of Puritanism on the one hand and Papal Authority and Roman Catholicism on the other. The phrase has a deeper origin, though, and one that as an Army chaplain I and my colleagues sought to communicate in our work with soldiers on Values and Standards and Character Training.

Aristotle first used the term to describe all true virtues as the Golden Mean, the via media, the middle road between opposite but linked vices. He saw the key virtue of courage, for instance, as the middle way between foolhardiness on the one hand and cowardice on the other. Thus loyalty becomes the middle way between favoritism and betrayal, discipline as the middle way between laxity and rigidity, and so on. The great power in this approach for me is that it defines all virtue and goodness as a balance, a center, that steers a path between the excesses of vice. It also shows vice to be what it is, the twisting or taking to extremes of a virtue. Cowardice is thus a dearth of courage while foolhardiness is an excess of it.

If we are looking for a way to re-center and re-balance our lives this summer, then this Anglican adaption of an Aristotelian theme is a good starting point. In it we see the center ground, not as a weak or dishonest compromise between stronger or bolder positions, but rather as the Golden Mean, the true way that rejects the excess and passionate intensity of dogmatic and extreme positions that seem simpler and more solid, but which in fact can be deeply flawed and dangerous.

It also means that we can be more forgiving of ourselves. If you view your failures in virtue to be failures to achieve an absolute standard, like a high jumper being able to clear the bar at a certain height, then when you fail the bar falls and you see yourself lying in a useless heap on the ground. If, however, you view your failures as a veering off to one side or the other, then no failure is absolute because your life is defined, not by an absolute bar, but by a center way to which a correction can always bring you back. Christ is the way, not a pass mark.

The more I reflect on the polarizations within Church and society, the more convinced an Anglican I become. The Episcopal Church is not perfect, of course. We aspire to the via media, but we never completely achieve it.  We can be guilty of veering off towards extreme or dogmatic positions as much as the next Christian group. The temptation to nail Jesus’ colors to a particular theological or political ideology is one that all Christians are tempted by, and the Episcopal Church is tempted along with the rest.  Madeleine Albright reminded us of a quote from Frederick Nietzsche that speaks of how hard it is to react to dogmatic extremes without being infected by them ourselves.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.  And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you,” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).

Yet if we remember who we are and seek in our prayers to discern the true Golden Mean that Christ sets before us in his life and teaching, then sooner or later we realize that we have drifted off to one side or the other.  In more recent generations we lack the experience of the extremes that Madeleine Albright and my own parents’ generation experienced, first in Hitler and then in Stalin. There, perhaps, lies the greatest danger. But at least we have the opportunity to continue to raise affection, faith, and reason above disagreement, bad faith, and passionate hostility.

Excerpted from a reflection in Courier, the parish newsletter of Christ Church, Georgetown, by the Rev. Timothy A.R. Cole, Rector.

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