Greek mythology tells 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. However 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. In a sense, life is a lot like walking a tightrope. It’s a delicate balance where if you lean a little too far in either direction, the result is equally disastrous. I have come to see, 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.
To avoid the two ditches is to live in a tension between two apparent opposites. That is essentially what a dialectic is. In life each individual must navigate their own pathway. Every person walks a unique path, but like our roads, every path is paralleled on either side by a ditch. The two ditches represent polar opposites, the radical extremes on each end of a 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 on both themselves and on others.
There are many reasons we fall into these ditches. In order to illustrate let me use an example from theology. Christians confess that Jesus is somehow both fully human and yet at the same time fully divine. These apparent contradictions must be kept in tension, or we risk falling victim to either the over-emphasis of Christ’s humanity (the heresy of Arianism) or the over-emphasis of Christ’s divinity (the heresy of Docetism).
But the danger regarding the two ditches isn’t just about avoiding two 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 most prevalent in American politics. 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 antithesis of what should be done. Perhaps we need to start seeing some of the 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 often can seem like the conservative and progressive ideologies could not be further apart from each other. In some sense they are. 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 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. But 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. 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 “PC pushback” that has emerged recently. My primary contention with the analogy of the ditches is that often in our rejection of one extreme, we simply replace it with another.
But there is another way, especially for those of us who follow Christ. Some call it the third way, or perhaps the narrow road. This way is a way that should be guided by the fruits of the spirit. Somehow, Jesus called both a far-right tax collector, who upheld the status quo, and a 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 our journey on this path should always err on the side of mercy, of justice, the side of peace and self-sacrifice. Jesus called Matthew and Simon to follow a middle path of mutual acceptance and understanding in addition 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: