Greek mythology chronicles the tale of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who construct wings so that they may flee from their captor King Minos. As they prepare to leave, Daedalus warns his son that he must not fly too high or too low in order to protect the wax of the wings from being melted by the heat of the sun or soaked from the spray of the waters below. Unfortunately Icarus fails to follow his father’s advice, foolishly flying higher and higher until the sun melts the wax holding his wings together. Icarus falls into the sea, to his death.
It was also the ancient Greek philosophers who coined the term “golden mean,” or the notion that every virtue was a balance between two extremes, not unlike walking a tightrope. And in a sense, life is a lot like walking a tightrope. It’s a delicate balance. If you lean a little too far in either direction, the result is equally disastrous. I have become convinced, along with the ancient Greeks, that in many if not most cases in life, the true path of wisdom is a matter of avoiding the two ditches of partial or incomplete truth which lie on either side. This applies broadly to the relationships we have with others, the decisions we make in society and the convictions we hold about existence and the world.
Here it is important to clarify what I mean by the “two ditches,” since there are two senses in which I’m utilizing this dialectic. The first has to do with two extremes, placed on opposite ends of the spectrum, both of which should be rejected. I will give some examples later. The second sense is about living in the tension between two apparent opposites, both of which contain a degree of truth. And that is essentially what a dialectic is. A sort of fusion of divergent ideas. This kind of a dialectic shares some similarities with the basic formula of the Hegelian dialectic (thesis + antithesis = synthesis) but is ultimately a descendant of the Socratic method.
But the task of dialectical inquiry is not necessarily debate per se. Allow me to elaborate. In life each individual must navigate their own path. Every person walks a unique journey, but as with our roads, every path is flanked on either side by a ditch. But these ditches are more than physical, they are also symbolic. They represent polar opposites, the radical extremes on each end of a truth-spectrum. There are some who choose to walk in these ditches, entirely aware of where they are. Others unintentionally fall into one of the ditches and keep on walking as if they’d never left the path. They become oblivious to the damage they are inflicting upon both themselves and others.
There are of course a host of reasons why we fall into these ditches. In order to illustrate let me use an example from the discipline of theology. One of the core Christian confessions is that Jesus is somehow both fully human and yet at the same time fully divine. When the early church debated how to formulate the doctrine of Christology, many found it difficult to reconcile Christ’s dual natures. The inability to synthesize the apparent contradiction between Christ’s full humanity and full divinity led to two mistaken conclusions; an over-emphasis on Christ’s humanity (the heresy of Arianism) or an over-emphasis on Christ’s divinity (the heresy of Docetism). This is a perfect example of how dialectical thinking allows us to mediate the tension between two clashing ideas. A failure to maintain this balance means we are at risk of falling victim to binary thinking.
This is exactly why the danger that the two ditches pose isn’t just about avoiding a pair of conflicting extremes. It can also come in the form of setting two truths against each other. When we pit a position on one end of a truth-spectrum against a position on the other end of that spectrum, polarization occurs. This is probably most noticeable in the current American political and cultural spheres. What are sometimes meant to be truths held together in tension are instead seen as incompatible ideas that cannot be reconciled with each other. One is seen as the correct way to do things, while the other is seen as the very antithesis of what should be done or believed. Perhaps we need to start seeing some of these seemingly conflicting ideologies as complementary pieces of a more comprehensive and balanced perspective.
This polarization is most widely illustrated in the broken two-party political system here in America and particularly in the culture wars being waged around various issues. It can often seem like the conservative and progressive ideologies could not be further apart from each other. In some sense they are. And there are of course instances in which a “Third Way,” approach or middle ground may be impossible. However I would like to suggest that this is not always the case. For example, it is not uncommon to encounter a more liberal leaning person who will tend to advocate for individual choice or freedom. Conversely, many conservative leaning people, will tend to advocate for individual responsibility. Likewise, those on the left tend to support social or collective responsibility, while the right supports social or collective freedom. Both sides consistently claim that they are in the right and that the other is sorely mistaken, often caricaturing and demonizing each other. Typically, this comes as a byproduct of the failure to truly listen generously, to hear or attempt to understand the valid concerns being raised by the other. Can it really be said that either side is entirely wrong, or exclusively right? Perhaps in clinging to an either-or paradigm instead of a dialectical view, both sides end up in opposing ditches, in unnecessary conflict with each other.
Of course, it is also true that this polarization is spurred on by legitimate differences. Sometimes these differences are generational. Other times there are points of separation that are truly irreconcilable. When a previous generation has taken a particular stance on an issue, one that leaves them in one of the ditches, the pendulum is bound to swing towards the opposite direction at some point in the future. The next generation rightfully rejects the one-sided extremism of their predecessors and rushes to the other side and ultimately embraces a new extremism. Some would argue that this explains the contrast between the extremes of over the top political correctness and the corresponding rise of so called “PC push-back” that has emerged recently. To be very clear, I am not arguing that we must identify every binary disagreement as an instance of the “two ditches,” phenomena. It would be woefully naive, much less absurd for me to claim that one must find a point of contact with every extremist. Interestingly enough, some have proposed the “Horseshoe theory,” which “suggests that the political spectrum is not a straight line with ideologies moving across a line from left to right, but rather a horseshoe, with its farthest outliers bending in toward each other.” While this theory has its critics, I think it does reflect some of the patterns and parallels that we see in various forms of extremism, regardless of ideology. In any case, it seems fair to say that certain ideologies are irredeemable. But to reiterate, I have two primary convictions expressed by the analogy of the ditches. Firstly, that often in our rejection of one extreme, we simply replace it with another. And second, that in some instances we pit partial or whole truths against each other, failing to find the medium of complementarity between them both.
There is another way, especially for those of us who follow Christ. Some call it Law & Gospel, others, the Third Way, or perhaps the narrow road. This way is a way that should be guided by the fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Somehow, Jesus called both the proverbial far-right tax collector, who upheld the status quo, and the proverbial far-left zealot, who believed in overthrowing the establishment, to come together and abandon their extremist ideologies. The truly wise will try to see the validity of opposing views and to discover the understandable concerns beneath what seem to be distasteful or wrongheaded opinions. There are of course times when a line in the sand has to be drawn, but that does not mean we have to leave the middle way in favor of either one of the ditches. Most importantly, the manner in which we respond always remains the same. Our journey on this path should always err on the side of mercy and justice, and on the side of peace and self-sacrifice. Jesus called both Matthew and Simon to follow a middle path of mutual acceptance and understanding while upholding the profound call to being a prophetic voice of cultural challenge. The Gospel and the teachings of Christ compel us to follow this example. May we reject the ditches in our lives and in so doing, show the world something radically distinct.
– A shorter version of this article was published in the online Bethel University newspaper The Clarion