The Myth of the Soft Middle
By Brandon Brown
The concept of the via media, or middle way within Christian doctrine, practice, and tradition has been getting buffeted by critics lately. Those critics attempt to claim that the via media is simply a balancing of two extremes, a refusal to take a stand, or even a mushy and soft middle taking aspects of two opposing ideas or "sides" and creating a balanced tension. It is understandable that this has become the idea of the middle way simply because our discourse in the United States has become a shouting match between two extremes; this has filtered from politics to religion and many other topics. We have been inundated with language and tactics which paint our fellow human beings with labels and that separate and place us either "in" or "out" of whatever topic and group is loudly ranting this week. While it is understandable, it is unconscionable for Christians, especially those in Wesleyan traditions, to fall into this pattern; so deeply that they reject the via media.
Drop into any discussion online, or even in person, these days and you may eventually hear words and phrases like liberal, conservative, progressive, heretic, social justice warrior, weakling, woke, dumb, idiot, over educated, not educated, loser, mic drop, destroyed, and other more derogative labels. The person who holds to the via media will probably see these and more aimed at them at some point simply because they do not quite fit within the molds of the extremists, reactionaries, and nostalgists. In fact, a fellow pastor who often gets criticized from those on different sides of an issue was once called a Woke Nazarene Zealot. The biggest false claim is that the via media is some squishy and soft compromise, taking parts from "both sides." One example within the context of the Church of the Nazarene is an article from January 2022 in which Rev. Jared Henry, president of the Holiness Partnership, states that he is "leaving 'the middle way'." Rev. Henry defines the middle way with its most basic and literal definition. In taking this road, the theological and historical understanding of the middle way is being ignored. This is a straw man argument Rev. Henry erects so that he can make claims that many are simply taking "two opinions and 'averaging' them together to reveal an option acceptable to both sides. Often the middle way will resolve issues by simply claiming both are correct, or at least that they both have credibility." This is one way to understand the via media but most Wesleyan theologians use the term via media to mean a third way distinct from the two sides. Lest we think that only those toward the more moralistic side are the only culprits. This same criticism of the via media comes from the opposites of organizations and groups such as the Holiness Partnership. Those groups also will claim the middle way is compromising and soft; that if you do not take their views, then you are in the wrong.
In reality, the extremes are often two sides of the same coin, while the middle way is a totally different coin; one which rejects the extremes and follows a unique path. Those who prefer extremes typically also like the power that the extremes provide them. Claiming that you have all the right answers and those other people have all the right answers feeds the need for belonging and the need we have to label those who are different as enemy. This approach completely misses the boat on the teachings of Jesus around loving our neighbor and loving and praying for our enemy. The extremes and the middle way are more like a chocolate-covered almond than a Tootsie Roll Pop. The extremes are softer and more easily penetrated than the firm middle way, which resists control and the reactionary nature of extremes.
I wish I had hopeful solutions to our current mess. But alas, the only actual solution is for all of us to hold to the sturdy via media which resists the pulls and tension of the extremes. In that middle way, we can faithfully follow Jesus into discipleship, which is far more expansive than the ideology found on the extremes. If we reject the middle way as Wesleyan-Holiness people, we do so at our peril and risk losing our theological identity. That rejection may even miss the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst if it looks too much like the "other side."