Saturday, May 27, 2006

Isms, Ologies & Tertium Quid

Until this afternoon, I had no idea what tertium quid means. A friend of mine who is a philosophy student at the local seminary used the term in a blog post the other day, and it's been knocking around in my brain ever since. (I have two friends in seminary, and a lot of words get thrown around these days that sail right over my head. I spend a lot of time saying, "Huh?")

So I looked it up. According to my beat-up copy of Webster's from my college days (oh, so long ago), it's a late Latin phrase that translates literally as "third something." It has two definitions: (1) something that escapes a division into two groups supposed to be exhaustive; (2) a third party of ambiguous status.

Definition #2 is a pretty good description of me these days. In most of the discussions going on in the little corner of the blogosphere I frequent, I'm a third party of ambiguous status. Definition #1 decribes my view of the sometimes not-so-cordial conversation between Christian egalitarians and complimentarians.

Hardcore complimentarians like to portray egalitarianism as a radical stance that blurs or worse, denies, the distinctions based on gender, under the influence of "radical feminists." On the other side, I've heard hardcore Egalitarians portray complimentarianism as a mask for patriarchy, a pose of those who wish to preserve their hierarchical hegemony and flat-out misogyny. While I'm certain that there is, in some extreme cases, some truth to both of these extreme portrayals, neither is particularly fair or insightful about the majority of people who subscribe to either position. When it comes to these and other opposed sets of "isms," much of the public dialogue tends to be dominated by the loudest and most radical adherents, while more thoughtful voices (they're out there) tend to get out-shouted or ignored.

Tangent: (Sorry, this is the way I think. Stuff just bubbles up. It takes me hours to sort out all the weird stuff that pops up in my mind and arrange it into nice, neat essays — one reason I haven't been blogging much lately. I'm not a linear thinker. So you'll just have to wade through it. Sorry.) In the blogging economy, the number of posts one attracts — and therefore, the level of potential influence one has — is often proportional to the author's willingness to make a statement that will elicit an emotional response. This is the systemic downside of blogging: the medium can, just like other forms of media, be ill-used and manipulated. Unlike some, however, I don't propose that we abandon the medium because some give in, unconsciously or consciously, to the temptation to become blog celebrities and/or indulge in insulting, demeaning or outright picking fights with those with whom they disagree.

Tangent II: Such has been suggested about the medium of television. Some insist that Christians should avoid watching it altogether. But I wonder if the fact that Christians by and large have avoided involvement in television production is at least partly to blame for why it's gotten so far out of hand?

Back to E vs. C: Both sides claim their positions on theological grounds, with some appeals to philosophy, sociology, psychology. That brings me to -ologies. People involved in these disciplines, people far more well-read and more intellectually disciplined in their thinking than I am, disagree. That's all I have to say about that.

Tangent III: For some, that will label me as an anti-intellectual. For the record, I'm not (not that my denial will make any difference). But I also don't believe that being an intellectual (whatever that really means) has any intrinsic value. Intellectualism all-too-easily can become (has become?) just another banner over another stall in the already overcrowded religious marketplace.

Back to E vs. C: What all this has to do with egalitarianism vs. complimentarianism is this: I think the issue is tertium quid. It's become an either/or, the opposite sides of which both subscribe to the notion that they, together, constitute the only possible options, yet the issue really cannot be contained by these positions. I've pored over the biblical record (and literature writen about it) myself and I don't see where that record clearly and unequivocally defines the roles of men and women in the home, church or society. If it did, we wouldn't be arguing about what it said (though I dare say there would still be conflict). But what that says to me, anyway, is that a position that adequately addresses the issue must address the ambiguity of the record. For some time now I've thought that I'd like there to be a third option. I'm not sure what it would be. The truly Christian stance must acknowledge the ambiguity, give up its right to define and know (which is motivated as much by our desire for control and the comfort and security that would give us) and live with the paradox, the irritatingly irresolvable tension.

I think its important to do so on this issue not only because it has assumed great importance in the church and in our society as a whole, but also because doing so might shed light on so many other issues which similarly distract us from our mission. The Bible does not clearly define where we ought to stand on a number of either/or questions. Big church vs. small church, seeker-sensitive vs. well, everybody else, liturgical vs. extempore worship. Hymnody vs. worship to popular music (and all its permutations: loud vs. soft, contemplative vs. dancing in the aisles, organs vs. guitars & drums) ... oh and let's not forget creationism vs. evolutionism ... and on and on.

Lest you think I've fallen into tertium quid-ism let me assure you there are many things I think are unequivocally clear in scripture. That Jesus is fully God and fully human. That he came to rescue us from our sorry sin-sick history, which — as the Eden story illustrates, began with our attempts to trust in our own understanding. That Jesus died to set us from from the effects of sin and death. That we are to deliver the message of this great salvation to the ends of the earth. That we are to forgive and not judge.

I suspect that our pre-occupation with either/or issues tends to distract us from that mission. While we're arguing among ourselves, the world watches us bicker and wonders why it should listen to us. Who can blame them?

The world really is watching. When do we show them that love Jesus talked about in John 14? "The world will know that you are my disciples, because you love one another."

I don't know what the third option is, the one that can contain all the E vs. C ambiguity. But that option must be shot full of agape love. Love that seeks the other's best must be its foundation, its motivation and its outcome. On that I think we can — no, if we're Christians, we must — agree. Inserting a bit of love — and the respect, consideration and humility that accompany that kind of love — into the either/or debates might be a good start toward finding third options.

But where to from there? Why not prayer? Personally, I wish I had prayed about this subject for as many hours as I've studied and thought about it over the last 30 years. I'd also suggest a mantra (horrors!). How about "I could be wrong." Repeat thrice daily, and after every strong statement.

If I was one of those well-read bloggers, I'd suggest we all take a month to pray, suspending talk, study and writing. What might happen? I'd like to think that we'd reconvene, in tears and anguish of soul, to begin a real conversation. My guess is we'd end up with a third option full of ambiguity. But if we could do so and love each other, would that not be ... better?

And then we might be able to take that love that spills over for each other and give it away to the world — which I think was the whole idea in the first place.

But I could be wrong.