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The excluded middle

Like most Texans, I have learned that the acceptable range of answers when asked about one’s political affiliations do not include “Moderate Republican.” The word “moderate” has become a term of opprobrium. Moderates are scorned by people who hate “liberals” and equally scorned by people who hate “reactionaries.” “Moderation” has become a dirty word, like “compromise.” Our recent statewide elections were basically a contest to determine which candidates were the least moderate. Unlike many of my fellow Texans, I am somewhat disturbed at this. I am even more upset that the same rejection of compromise and moderation has engulfed the American churches.

There is a rule in logic called “the law of the excluded middle.” Basically, this asserts that a proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same sense. It must be either one or the other; if it is not true, then it is false. I would like to suggest that it is possible to take this entirely too far. As the formulation of the law I just gave suggests, it might be possible for a proposition to be true at one time or in one sense, but not in another. The strict application of the law at all times and in all senses might go further towards obscuring the truth than revealing it.

For example, Jesus is both God and Man. That suggests a duality. However, he is only one person, which suggests unity. The truth of the Catholic Faith requires asserting both the duality and the unity, though in different senses. Overemphasizing the unity leads to a heresy (Monophysitism), and so does overemphasizing the duality (Nestorianism). Similarly, overemphasizing the Unity of God can lead to Modalism, while overemphasizing the Trinity can tend towards Tritheism. Despite the law of the excluded middle, an orthodox believer must hold both tendencies simultaneously in a dynamic tension.

One might say the same in politics. The government exists to protect both the liberty and security of its citizens, even though those aims are not always completely consistent. Absolutism in favor of liberty can lead to anarchy, while absolutism in favor of security can lead to totalitarianism. Most of us would not want to live in either a failed state like Libya or a dictatorship like North Korea. Most of us want to have a police force adequate to protect us, but not a paramilitary organization that uses excessive force. We want adequate government services, but not excessive taxes. One would think that moderation in politics, as in theology, might provide a Golden Mean that avoids the hazards of extremism.

One might be right in this, but one would not be very popular. At least in America, politics has become a classic misapplication of the excluded middle. One must agree with a party platform in its entirety, or one is a Republican In Name Only or a Democrat In Name Only. RINOS and DINOS are not welcome at the table. Moderate Democrats are held in no less scorn than moderate Republicans. He who is not with us is against us.

There is no room for compromise. Not only is the middle ground excluded, but so are any individuals who dare to occupy it.

The same party spirit has invaded the Church. To be taken seriously, one must be either a traditionalist or a progressive. Anyone who tries to stake out a middle ground will be attacked from both sides, because one must either be a sheep or a goat. To even accept the possibility of compromise is to brand oneself as outside the pale. Despite the example of the Pope, one must either oppose abortion and support the death penalty or oppose the death penalty and support abortion. One must either believe that the national church exercises a royal supremacy, or believe that the Episcopal Church is no more than a voluntary association of dioceses. Anyone who is “wrong” on anything must be suppressed as vigorously as the Inquisition suppressed heresy and with some of the same tactics. Moderation, after all, is a dirty word. Even people with profound reservations about the received wisdom feel they must self-censor their qualms, because their party expects complete loyalty. Compromise is unthinkable.

Most of all, one must be convinced beyond any doubt that the law of the excluded middle applies to church politics. Every proposition is either true without qualification or false. Our own positions are self-evidently true, so anyone who differs from us is not just wrong, but either a fool who cannot see the truth or a scoundrel who choses to lie about it. We cannot accept the possibility that they might simply be mistaken, or (worse) that we might be wrong, or (worse yet) that the truth lies somewhere in the (excluded-by-definition) middle area between the parties.

If an African bishop disagrees with our position, he must be a dupe of American liberals or conservatives who have bought him off with chicken dinners. He certainly can’t be thinking for himself, despite his Oxford doctorate. I have heard both sides make essentially this same ridiculous argument, because they cannot accept the notion that intelligent and sincere folks might honestly differ from one another.

If someone opposes moving a denomination’s headquarters outside New York, he must be a tool of the entrenched bureaucrats. If he favors a move, he must be an uncultured hick who cannot appreciate New York as a symbol of our multicultural society. There is no room for compromise, and no room for charity.

Nobody ever accused Ignatius Loyola of being wishy-washy. This is a man who declared that he could look at an object that appeared black and call it white if that is what the church taught. Nevertheless, the rules for conducting debate in his Spiritual Exercises demand that one must make every possible effort to reach agreement with one’s opponents, starting with the presumption that the differences between you are quite likely to be the result of your own misunderstanding of what they are saying. Recent joint statements by the Chalcedonian churches and the Oriental Orthodox suggest that the differences that have divided us since AD 451 may largely be due to exactly this sort of mutual confusion.

I grew up profoundly at home in the Episcopal Church. I no longer feel so comfortable because I find myself in the excluded middle. As someone who sees temperance and moderation as virtues, I am shocked that party spirit has made compromise as dirty a word inside the Church as it is in Texas politics. I am very proud to be associated with the Covenant community, where different voices are welcome to be heard. Please enjoy the dialogue here, because it is a very rare thing in this world of ours.

The featured image is “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (2014) by Wes Dickinson. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. You know, I don’t have the slightest idea of where the middle is any longer — whether political or ecclesiastical, all lines of demarcation have become peculiarly blurred.

    Ideology is now wooden and intractable, the big stick used by the dominant ideologues of various flavors. In different styles bullying has become the order of the day, but I suspect the true believers of left/right, conservative/progressive, or whatever label you choose are an ever-decreasing minority, but that drag others along with them kicking and screaming because too many are not prepared to respond intelligently and critically to whatever the party line might be.

    All lines are drawn differently in different places, as I have discovered after 7+ years in UK (which we are leaving for the USA to come home and retire on Thursday). Comparisons of the two countries’ political landscape are almost impossible. The lines within the church are also utterly different, and things in UK are unrecognizable when compared to the Church of England in which I grew up and was ordained 46 years ago, just as the Episcopal Church is so utterly different from the one into which I was received 39 years ago.

    We are living through an era of so much intellectual and social chaos, as well as all sorts of ambiguities, so it is hardly surprising people are on an impossible quest for certainties, even if those certainties are themselves uncertain — and then just shouting louder to hide their inadequacies.

    In a way, uncomfortable as it is, I am glad we have reached this point, because it gives us the freedom to shed some of the verdigris that has attached itself to the Christian faith in its Anglican expression, thus giving us the opportunity to learn how to hear what this roiling culture is about and learn to witness Christ into it.

  2. I think you have successfully avoided the excluded middle between “true believer – no compromise” and “there is no *T*ruth – compromise is the only option.” I say that because you say

    “…the rules for conducting debate in his [Ignatius Loyola] Spiritual Exercises demand that one must make every possible effort to reach agreement with one’s opponents, starting with the presumption that the differences between you are quite likely to be the result of your own misunderstanding of what they are saying.”

    What we need is ***virtuous*** debate where virtues like temperance are in play. Fortitude is sometimes at the fore, and we must act courageously. This often will look “uncompromising.” And prudence always walks along side the virtuous, and as you point out, wisdom’s handmaiden humility must be present.

    I’m tempted to say (uncompromisingly!) that virtue lives in the middle, not on the edges.


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