Can the Center Hold?

by Don Meeks

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming – W.B Yeats)

These immortal lines, penned nearly a century ago in the tragic aftermath of the first world war, seem eerily prescient of our current moment in American culture. Things are falling apart in front of our very eyes. Or so it seems.

Racial injustice. Income inequality. Theological division. Political acrimony. The list could go on.

Can the center hold? Can we bend just a little further without breaking? Can we find our way through this wilderness? Can we bridge what divides us?

Or even more modestly, can we even talk about all this?

ncp-open-spaceA few of us in National Capital Presbytery have begun a project that is far easier said than done. Aware of the many divides that impact our churches, we have asked ourselves one simple question: Can we talk? That is to say, can we reach across one of the aisles that divides us – the theological aisle – and actually have a meaningful conversation as evangelicals and progressives?

Can we honor each other, in the name of Jesus Christ, as sisters and brothers? Can we listen deeply and attentively to one another? Can we affirm the best in each other’s theological tradition while honestly confessing the weaknesses of our own?

The catalyst for this conversation came from an event hosted by one of our sister churches in the presbytery during the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. The event featured a panel discussion on Christian civility between Richard Mouw, then president of Fuller Seminary, and Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times.

Mouw noted in passing the common practice in political conversation for one camp to put their very best up against the worst of their opponent. Naturally. This is how the game works. In short, demonize your opponent and you never need engage in substantive debate on the issues.

Driving away from that event, I wondered aloud to myself, “What would happen if we turned this thing on its head? What if I chose to openly acknowledge the worst of the evangelical tradition and practice, and chose to affirm the best of what I see in the progressive tradition? And…can I find a progressive to join me and do the same?”

I call this a “thought exercise,” for it requires a fair amount of thinking. Some hard thinking. Some counter-intuitive and counter-cultural thinking. (Trust me – it gets easier).

In time, I posed the thought exercise to one of my presbytery colleagues, Jeff Krehbiel, and thus began what we now call a modest attempt at an uncommonly gracious conversation among colleagues who differ on matters of conscience.

Jeff and I have co-moderated an on-going Open Space dialogue prior to presbytery meetings for the past two years. We modeled this conversation at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta last February. And most recently, we led a panel-discussion and officiated communion in presbytery plenary meeting.

Can the center hold? Can we find others to join us in this modest and gracious conversation?

Jeff and I have been asked to curate this month’s NEXT Church blog in hopes that we might widen the conversation and bend it toward reconciliation and bridge-building across the theological and other divides. We invite you to join us as conversation partners and ambassadors of reconciliation in Jesus’ name.

don-meeks-headshot-2Don Meeks is the senior pastor of Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia. He is active in the Fellowship Community within National Capital Presbytery.  His vision for ministry is to invite people to experience and express Christ-likeness in all of life. He is an avid golfer, psalmic intercessor and songwriter.

4 replies
  1. Robert Barr
    Robert Barr says:

    This approach appeals to me. I am a universalist/Christian. I was raised a Presbyterian. During and after my 4 years in the Army I was exposed to many ideas and religious beliefs. I found the truth of God’s love in all of them. This of course lead to a crisis of faith which vacillated between giving up on the church and adopting other theologies as my own and coming back and immersing myself in the Bible for 2 years learning and teaching Bethel Bible classes.

    The most influential literature outside the scriptures and commentary on the scripture that I read during that time was Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogananda touches my heart like no one else outside of the Christian community. In his book he said that there was no reason to leave the religion of ones upbringing, only to look at it with new eyes. He interprets scripture from the Bible throughout his work as he was taught by his Guru.

    Once I finally internalized what he was saying, I discovered that in almost all cases I can now reconcile the Christian message with my universalist beliefs. When I hear a sermon from a preacher whose words would have deeply offended me in the past, I now hear the pearl of truth that is at the core of most preaching and can ignore the denominational biases that are built in to all of us.

    Learning to use this to affirm the best of what I see in another’s tradition would be a great exercise for me. Conversations with people who hold very strong theological positions have always been difficult because they often use theologically developed language as almost a weapon of exclusion against those who are of a different persuasion. I believe your approach would disarm both parties to the conversation and lead to stronger bonds among all believers in the divine.

    • Don Meeks
      Don Meeks says:

      Robert – thanks for your great comment. You mention how this approach would be ‘disarming.” This is the very word folks have used! And an interesting word it is – disarming. The dictionary definition says “having the effect of allaying suspicion or hostility.” I believe it also calls up the notion of laying down one’s weapons (disarmament) – which is an essential precondition for finding peace and reconciliation.

      As I mentioned in the post, this exercise is much easier said than done – but it gets easier the more you do it. What I can say from experience is that when two persons genuinely engage in the exercise it truly does ‘disarm’ the room. Folks don’t know what to do. Expecting the usual parry and thrust and a predictable barrage of accusation and defense, both parties choose, rather, to say, “here’s where I struggle with my camp, and here’s what I admire about your camp.” Wow.

    • Don Meeks
      Don Meeks says:

      Grant – this is a fantastic question.

      My initial response is that an incentive strong enough to motivate such a self-initiated disarming move would have to be some kind of faith-based, vision-based incentive. My own faith tradition / experience places a high value on obedience to the teachings and pattern of Jesus Christ. In particular, his call to be a peacemaker, to take the log out of one’s own eye first, to bless those who curse, to travel the narrow path, to pick up one’s cross and die to self, to love one’s enemy – and in the Pauline language, to find out what pleases the Lord – these are a few of the particular incentives that have motivated me toward this effort at gracious and disarming conversation.

      I wonder if it is even possible to engage in disarming efforts apart from some larger vision of community beyond political / tribal victory?

      What are your thoughts?


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