Sunday at the Square: “Trifling with them both”

The term via media originated in the nineteenth century to describe the middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism, first charted centuries earlier by Queen Elizabeth I navigating her bloody family feud. It is attributed to John Henry Newman who wrote that via media is “neither the one nor the other, but with something of each, cutting between them, and trifling with them both.”

This isn’t unlike the story of America herself, as perhaps our founders most profound insight was to see our diversity as a creative force. Madison called this “factionalism” which he thought promoted deliberation and moderation. A devotion to what Alexander Hamilton referred to as “the constant clashing of opinion” is a fundamental principle of American democracy and I’d argue no small part of our having become a light in the world.

But mature and respectful struggle is hard given human nature, particularly in the age of uber-individualization of everything from I Tune playlists to news programming, and we’re increasingly avoiding the difficulties that come with disagreement. With the rise of a million choices, many of us choose to lead our lives never hearing a peep from people who don’t see it our way. As a result, the marketplace of ideas is ailing, replaced by a growing “tribal” hatred that has written far too many chapters in human history before America came along.

The psychology of like-minded groups is well documented over a hundred years of social psychology experiments: They grow more extreme in the direction of the majority opinion – to the point of actually denying facts in favor of a shared view of reality. We think that describes our current political environment, with two diametrically opposed sets of views and sets of facts.

Enter The Village Square, created by Tallahassee leaders with enduring across-the-aisle friendships and a commitment to revive the central role of jostling of ideas in solving real problems. Our nervy goal is to revive the uniquely American marketplace of ideas, where people stay connected despite their disagreements. We think that has to be done one relationship at a time – one community at a time – beginning in Tallahassee.

Our quarterly “Dinner at the Square” series takes on the most contentious issues of our day and our project “We the People” – winning a highly nationally competitive Knight Community Information Challenge grant through the Community Foundation of North Florida – will offer programming on hot local and state topics along with a groundbreaking project to civilize a tiny part of the internet.

The Village Square will complete its third dinner season this summer on June 22 with “Here I am, Stuck in the Culture Wars with You.” In the fall we will launch the Knight Foundation project, trying to involve as many community organizations and individuals as partners in the project. After building a strong foundation in Tallahassee, we hope The Village Square will grow to new communities.

The early Anglican Church ultimately agreed that – through the Book of Common Prayer – Catholics and Protestants could hit their knees in prayer together even while they disagree.

The Village Square thinks we can find common humanity at the dinner table while we “trifle with them both.”

That’s no small thing. Great countries have been built on it.

(This article was prepared for St. John’s Episcopal Church (The Village Square’s host church) newsletter called Logos.)

Sunday at the Square: The Screwtape Letters #7

Thanks to Lea for bringing my attention to this insightful discussion of extremism in The Screwtape Letters written by C.S. Lewis. Remember that this letter was written by God’s enemy, a senior demon Screwtape, so references in the letter to “The Enemy” are references to God. References to “the patient” are to a man whose soul Screwtape is seeking.

“I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true.

“We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-rightousness of a secret society or a clique. The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and of Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties in the Church of England.

“If your patient can be induced to become a conscientious objector he will
automatically find himself one of a small, vocal, organised, unpopular society, and the effects of this, on one so new to Christianity, will almost certainly be good. But only almost certainly. Has he had serious doubts about the lawfulness serving in a just war before this present war of serving began? Is he a man of great physical courage—so great that he will have no half-conscious misgivings about the real motives of his pacifism? Can he, when nearest to honesty (no human is ever very near), feel fully convinced that he actuated wholly by the desire to obey the Enemy? If he is that sort of man, his pacifism will probably not do us much good, and the Enemy will probably protect him from the usual consequences of belonging to a sect. Your best plan, in that case, would be to attempt a sudden, confused, emotional crisis from which he might emerge as an uneasy convert to patriotism. Such things can often be managed. But if he is the man I take him to be, try Pacifism.

“Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here,

Your affectionate uncle

Sunday at the Square: “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”

girl on steps

James 1:19-27:

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

(Photo credit.)