In my last post I discussed the problem of trying to walk between theological extremes--between "evangelicalism" and "liberalism." It seems that we've got clear representative on either side (at risk of revealing my rookie unfamiliarity with liberalism, I'll list some...), there's John MacArthur, Pat Robertson, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and even Rick Warren on one side and then there's John Dominic Crossan (along, perhaps, with most of the Jesus Seminar), John Dear, Matthew Fox, Gene Robinson, and Marcus Borg on the other side (although I'm not sure yet about Borg). But there are plenty of names to whom it would not be fair for us to place on either side of the spectrum and, perhaps, with whom we just don't know what to do. Think of such names as Brian McLaren, Stanley Grenz, Tony Jones, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo... and what do you even do with Shane Claiborne? These are not "liberals." Their commitment to the authority of scripture and a Christocentric soteriology make them seem like you could call them evangelicals and yet their commitment to contextual hermeneutics, historical soteriology, and social justice make them almost look like liberals. But, you don't have to look hard to find someone calling McLaren a liberal (or, as they might put it, "a wolf in sheep's clothing"). And it wouldn't take long to find someone from the liberal pole who thinks Campolo is a fundamentalist evangelical. (Did I ever mention that our Young Adult Bible Study group kicked off it's exsitence by going through a book which was co-written by both McLaren and Campolo? I guess we were doomed from the start).
What happens due to vacancy of clear definitions in the middle is that people tend to drift further to one extreme or the other as they mature. In reaction to their background, if it's one extreme or the other, they might find themselves eventually if not quickly of the other side. It's difficult to stay in the middle.
Now, it's not that I'm saying that the middle is really where we should all aim (although it is my tendency to think so). Indeed, if the conservative evangelicals are right about their strict biblical literalism, for example, then maybe we should be aiming there. But I'm afraid that people may, in some cases, be finding themselves drawn to one distinction or the other simply out of lack of options, lack of clear definitions in between the extremes. There's no clear perspective into which the folks in the middle might invite others... meanwhile, the representatives on the extremes their voices heard and are proselytizing everyone in between. To me, this is a problem to which a possible solution might be those in the middle finding and claiming representatives and clarity (not to be set in stone) so that there is something into which they might invite others.
So, is there a perfect litmus test? Is there a way we can clearly identify those in the fuzzy middle? Is there some monolithic label with which we can describe the true moderate perspective? Perhaps not, but perhaps it's still early. At this point in the conversation, anyone who is not on one extreme or the other is seen as a "traitor to the cause" (in Steve's words) and is therefore written off and they are not taken seriously by either extreme. As the conversation continues and we observe folks like Campolo and Claiborne taking flack from both sides, we may begin to build clarity around the criticism coming from both sides.
As the conversation goes on, the "emerging church" movement could find itself playing a large role in representing the middle. They are currently, from my observation, the best representation of a middle that we have. Now, having said that, I should clarify that though they are a good representative of the middle, they do not represent everyone therein. Wallis, for example, would not fit into the "emerging" camp, if only because he's never really worried too much about the cultural/philosophical shifts with which the emerging church has been concerned thus far. And I read, just the other day, an article on Wallis' website (sojourners) by none other than Shane Claiborne which critiqued, somewhat strikingly, the emerging church. But even though it does not represent everyone, the emerging church has the opportunity to be a big umbrella. Though the emerging church started out (and this point is arguable) in direct reaction to the evangelical extreme, it seems that they have shifted their focus away from reaction and deconstruction and toward reconstruction and building their clarity around the criticisms coming from both extremes.
If, somehow, the term "emerging" or "emergent" could be used to describe all those who seem to defy all labels and who do not quite fit into the "evangelical" or "liberal" boxes, then perhaps we'd be on our way to clarity and on our way to more helpful dialogue and less mud slinging and mislabeling.
But, as of now, I'm content with the idea that some people just don't fit the labels. I'm fine with moving slowly as necessary toward clarity. In all of this, we must always remember that labels are just training wheels and they should never weigh us down. In order to truly take every person's perspective seriously, we need to be able to trash the labels when we need to.