Finding God at the Other Extreme

As I enter my final week of my second year at college and I begin to say goodbye to friends with whom I have shared my journey of training, I’m forced to reflect on the nature of our community these past two years. These reflections have been informed by the opening section of Pete Ward’s ‘Participation and Mediation’ where he describes different typological scales of theology (not worth explaining just forget that bit!). Here he describes David Tracy’s continuum stretches from ‘orthodox theology’ to ‘radical theology’

For orthodox theology, says Tracy, ‘the claims of modernity are not seen to have any inner theological relevance’. In fact a commitment to orthodox belief and expression is seen as a ‘bulwark’ against contemporary philosophy and criticism. At the opposite extreme lies radical theology. Radical theologians are aware of liberal and neo-orthodox traditions; however, they have taken the crucial step, says Tracy, of applying the dialectic of neo-orthodoxy to faith itself. The result is a re-expression of the Christian tradition, ‘which negates the central belief of that tradition in God.’

Whether you understand or agree with Ward, what struck me about this description, and his other outlines to scales of theology, is how separate the two ends of the continuum are to each other. Having said this, however, on further reflection I’m more struck how closely these two ends are. Here I hit upon my major thought of our community at Cranmer Hall for the two years Sarah and I have been here. Society seems to put things on a scale and thus separate the two extremes. This leads to two wrong assumptions; one, that the two positions are complete negations of each other (black is the complete opposite to white) and two, the ideal position is in the middle, “both/and”, “everyone’s sort of right”.

The truth is ‘extremism’ is a dirty word in a world where hate crimes, terrorism and political uprising is a regular occurrence. Extreme positions define the boundaries in any collection of people; no more so than in Cranmer Hall. My peer group for the past two years have been defining themselves, individually and collectively, on this scale. On one end is ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ the other is ‘Charismatic-Evangelical’. Already there is an issue! Is ‘Charismatic Evangelical’ the opposite? Is not ‘Liberal’ the opposite? The scale, however, seems to have been drawn and you fit somewhere on the scale.

My year, however, have experienced something new. Instead of the scale being linear we have discovered that the closer one moves to the extremes the more we move to the opposite extreme. This creates more of a circular ‘continuum’. We have discovered that the difference between the two extremes is smaller than the difference between the extremes and the ‘compromising central’. Maybe a diagram will help.

My peers and I have discovered that the more radical/orthodox we become the more we seem to find common ground. It highlights and intensifies the disagreements but the heated debates only help to shape and mould us to find the most radical/orthodox position beyond all labels.

Our democratic society asks us to find the synthesis between a thesis and antithesis but the synthesis loses all the definition of the thesis and antithesis. political parties are wanting to be in the middle and has diluted all opinions or definition. The more middle they are the more indistinct they become. How can we live side by side whilst holding onto the extremes? Not by canceling each other out but experiencing what can only be described in practice as the radical meeting of the two.

In our first year we worshipped with strong flavors from the different traditions. This enabled one extreme to experience the other and to discover God in that act. This same approach was clear in the many debates we had in our common room. The more passionately one spoke of their faith the more respect from the ‘opposite’ view grew. This is the most beautiful part of this community; that it is when we seem to travel furthest away from our ‘tradition’ that we find God and I will celebrate this discovery next week as we experience the death of the community.

Pete Rollins has spoken about the approach to conflict in this way.

When faced with such a confrontation (that society all too often attempts to protect us from) our primal response is often one of either,
Consumption – Attempting to dissolve their difference by integrating them into our social body (making them like us)
Vomiting – Rejecting them from our social body as a foreign agent that must be expelled (protecting the integrity of our body)
Of course, most educated and enlightened communities attempt to avoid these very natural tendences, opting instead for a more reflective position that gets beyond these extremes of consuming the other or vomiting them out. This more thoughtful position can be described as eating with the other. Here the community seeks to sit down with the other and seek out places of convergence.
However this third position still operates from the same underling belief as the others,
Consumption – We are right and you are wrong. We shall integrate you
Vomiting – We are right and you are wrong. We shall reject you
Eating with – We are both right in some substantial way. Let us reflect upon where we converge and move forward together
In each of these cases we seek to exorcise or downplay the monstrosity of the other (their bizarre practices and beliefs). But what if one of the truly transformative encounters with the other is not where we try to annihilate their monstrosity (by abolishing it, rejecting it or domesticating it), but by coming into contact with our own monstrosity through it? In this alternative type of encounter we glimpse how we look through their eyes and begin to ask whether our beliefs and practices are just as strange.

So let us not create a bland faith or tradition but let us embrace what my fellow ordinands and I have discovered that orthodox is radical and radical is orthodox and we encounter each other and God not in retreating to the safe middle but by delving deeper into our extremism and discovering something (w)hol(le)y other!

(Sorry for the rushed thoughts… weekend activities saying goodbye are pulling me away from writing!)