October 10, 2008
Third Way Faith
Is the middle ground the way of wisdom or simply savvy marketing?
I've noticed a trend lately among Christian writers, thinkers, and leaders: they are framing their approach to faith as an alternative to left/right categories. Some stake out a via media between two poles, while others critique the very essence of the polarity altogether.
I'm not alone in noticing a growing third way sentiment. Scott McKnight's excellent Christianity Today article, "The Ironic Faith of Emergents", points to the same trend. He notes that McLaren and other emergent Christians offer him hope of a third way of faith - a faith without the strictures of neo-Fundamentalism that also avoids the loss of theological clarity.
I've also spotted third way thinking in the works of N.T. Wright (his approach to eschatology in Surprised by Hope comes to mind), Tim Keller (see his introduction to The Reason for God), and Tony Jones (The New Christians testifies that emerging types don't fit liberal or conservative molds). There's even a British magazine devoted to the Third Way.
Back to McKnight: he not only notices the trend, but his publisher claims him as part of it. The product description for his new book, The Blue Parakeet, reads:
n re-examining the Bible, McKnight provides an exciting ?Third Way' that appeals to the millions in today's church who long to be authentic Christians, but don't consider themselves theologically conservative or liberal.
So what is it with this third way thinking? Is it a good thing, or are there problems with such an approach? I think the answer is Yes. Third-way thinking offers both perils and promises.
First, some perils.
For one, third way folks risk taking fire from both the left and the right. Some of the appeal of this approach is the hope of rising above the left/right fray. But instead, such a position puts third way proponents in the cross-fire. For instance, liberals like Marcus Borg and Bert Ehrman debate a theologian like N. T. Wright from one side, while the good bishop also takes much heat from the convinced conservative crowd.
Another peril is that third way thinking can contribute to new but equally dysfunctional systems. I already sense a tension between those who don't subscribe to left/right division and those who do. And even dysfunctional trichotomies can emerge, with third way folks digging their own trenches and getting into a three-way grenade lob-fest with the left and right. As reality TV shows and geopolitics demonstrate, adding a new party to the conversation doesn't necessarily improve the conversation.
But I believe the greatest peril of the third way framework is that the trend could be (perhaps unwittingly) market driven. According to McKnight's publisher, the great thing about his third way of examining the Bible is that it appeals to millions (and it's "exciting" - a word choice I found odd).
New and improved things sell better than tired and retreaded ones. But new doesn't inherently equate with good or true or virtuous. I'm betting that there is a much in McKnight's book that is good and true and virtuous. And, for the record, some folks who've read pre-release versions tell me his book says little directly about this appealing and exciting "third way" the publishers hype on Amazon.com. All of which proves the point here: breaking loose from left/right categories could be a ruse concocted by savvy marketers who recognize left/right as dog market segments (low market share and low market growth rate). Rather than creating an alternative way to think about and practice faith, perhaps they are just creating a new market segment for which they can create products. I may be exercising an overly suspicious mind, but at some caution seems in order.
Even with the perils, I see real promises in third way thinking.
First, such a frame helps us recognize and avoid the constant opportunity for being impaled on the horns of a dilemma. I've long thought that one of the enemy's most subtle and effective tactics is to get Christians to choose between two bad options (think of Christ's temptations in the wilderness as well as the many thorny questions posed to him by the Pharisees). If third way thinking can help us refuse to settle for bad options and to strive for good solutions and positions, then that's a success in my mind.
Third way thinking also holds promise in helping us move beyond stalemates. For a few hundred years now, left and right positions have been defined, refined, and opined ad nauseam. Both sides seem entrenched and unable to move in the trench-scarred theological topography they've helped create. Some of us just want to get on with living the faith regardless of the categories. Believers who've stopped using the left/right compass are finding new directions.
A guy like Rick Warren comes to mind here. He strikes me as a leader who's ceased to be encumbered by left/right categories and is thus agile enough to join God's mission - be that in leading a mega-church, caring for the poor, or creating political conversations. Perhaps the reason he's hard to peg as a conservative or liberal is that he's just moving too fast to care or be constrained. I also sense this trait among the better of the emerging types: those who are on the missional move as opposed to those who merely think and talk fast.
It's the both/and practicality of third way thinking that has me paying attention. I think this is what McKnight meant in his CT article by "ironic faith." The third way approach holds the tension of an unchanging God (and unchanging theologies) who constantly leads us into new ventures, fresh realities, and unfolding understanding of his nature and mission. New revelations that don't contradict the known. At its best, a third way approach to faith represents the church at her best: moving with God into what God is doing. It offers a way to follow the Way, no matter where He leads.