The Devil is an Extremist

Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Middle often gets caricatured as mild, mushy, muddled, and milquetoast.  Of course, such denunciations often come from where one might expect: the extremes.  To the far left, I will often look too rigid.  To the far right, too flexible.  I suspect this is precisely where I want to be.  Like one of my theological heroes, Karl Barth, I don’t neatly fit in with the fundamentalists or the modernists.  And I like it that way.

Besides which, it may be that extremism is one of our greatest spiritual temptations.  According to C.S. Lewis’ imaginative masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, the Devil wants us to run towards the extremes.  What extreme, you ask? Any extreme.  So says the senior tempter Screwtape to his protege Wormwood:

“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-righteousness 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.”

Written in the vortex of World War II, the immediate context of this quotation is the question of pacifism and patriotism.  Make your victim an extreme peace-monger or an extreme nationalist, suggests Screwtape, and the spiritual ramifications will be the same.

Can anyone argue the contention that ours is also an age “unbalanced and prone to faction”?  Are not we in danger of losing the potency of our witness beyond recovery, in the UMC and the wider church, due to a focus not on discipleship, not on the way of the cross, but on the whims of “subordinate factions” and lesser causes and parties?

As in Lewis’ day, the extremes of left and right are both dead ends.  They are temptations more than legitimate alternatives.   This need not mean that what remains – whether it is the ‘mere’ Christianity of a C.S. Lewis or a classically Anglican via media – is all soggy bread.  Bishop Scott Jones has helpfully claimed that the true Methodist way – in life, doctrine, worship, and piety – is best understood as the Extreme Center.

Centuries ago, it was Aristotle who said that virtue lies at the mean between two excesses.  What if the virtue in our current debates is to be found not at the extremes, but in the via media?


  1. A pre-emptive strike: before someone says, “But what about MLK?!?” I would remind you that, despite King’s comments about extremism, his own witness was itself a via media between the twin excesses of defending the status quo and violent radicalism and counter-racism.

  2. But what about “extreme devotion to the Enemy”? If one is extremely devoted to Jesus Christ, seeking to walk daily in his footsteps, would that not lead to an extreme affiliation with those at the margins, those with whom Jesus spent his time? It would also seem that his “brood of vipers” sermon on the south portico of the Temple is not a “middle of the road” teaching.

    In other words, I think there is a great deal more here to be unpacked from that one throwaway phrase, “extreme devotion to the Enemy.” I would contend that there is an alternate “via” that is extreme in the eyes of both the culture and the culture-acclimated church — that of extreme devotion to Christ through daily discipleship.

    1. I think Scott Jones would argue that the via media is the Extreme Center – in the same sense that virtue, being radically opposed to excesses on either side, is a kind of extreme itself. I agree there is more to say here, but I wanted to keep it brief. 🙂 Thanks, Cynthia!

  3. I keep coming back to the question, what is the via Media on homosexuality and biblical interpretation/authority, Drew? It’s one thing to long for a middle way, but it’s another to actually flesh one out. What is your proposal?

    1. There’s more than one, Tom. I think Bill Arnold and others are right to say that the current UM position is a kind via media, insofar as it is welcoming to all persons but not validating certain forms of sexual expression. The call to celibacy is not evil, though I think it unjust to expect that of gay and lesbians people and not heterosexual people (including clergy candidates). I think something like the work of Gene Rogers, which attempts to defend same-sex marriage for LGBT persons in the church with a rigorous (even ascetical) notion of marriage as a means of sanctification could also be a via media. It would be nice to hear those calling for a change in who can marry to affirm at least a tacit interest what marriage is about from a Christian perspective. But mostly I think, if there is a via media to be had here, it is more in our polity than in views of gay and lesbian sexuality. And there are numerous proposals out there offering something like that – I am not a signer of A Way Forward but I could be, if it was strengthened in certain ways. For more on that, though, you’ll have to listen to the WesleyCast. And thanks again for your response to Bishop Dyck. That blog was ugly, unfair, and unbecoming of a Bishop.

      1. Oh…and for Biblical authority…I’m happy with something between a fundamentalist inerrancy and liberal demythologizing. So I guess my answer, again, is something like or close to Barth and/or compatible with our doctrinal standards.

  4. Drew, thank you for your good writing and clear thinking. I don’t comment on blogs much, but I do read your posts often. You continue to bravely sally forth day after day to offer reasonable commentary on the issues that beset us at present. I find just keeping up with reading about all of it to be emotionally exhausting.

    Since you brought up Aristotle’s view of virtue as the mean between two extremes and connected that with the via media concept, I thought I’d offer one comment in that area.

    I do think it’s helpful to think about what a position of theological (and ecclesiastical) virtue would be given an Aristotelian logic. What isn’t entirely clear to me at present is that such a position would be the mean of institutional preservation that you are staking out between the extremes of (liberal) immediate-change-at-all-costs and (conservative) schism.

    Think about it using one of Aristotle’s favorite virtues: courage. The extremes he cites are cowardice on the one end and rashness or heedlessness on the other. What if the reasonable, virtuous, even ‘courageous’ middle path is actually moving to separate a denomination that cannot find fundamental agreement in major areas of moral theology (the understanding of marriage, the acceptability of certain sexual practices, etc.) and certain concomitant doctrines of biblical theology (theological anthropology, doctrine of creation, doctrine of sin, etc.)? In that scenario, the extremes would be those of attempting to force change by violating canon law on the ‘rash’ end, and insisting on institutional preservation in the face of intractable disagreement on the ‘cowardly’ other end.

    My point is this: Lauding the virtue of the golden mean is one thing while demonstrating that one’s position represents that mean is another. There is in any community a deep sense of commitment to some form of the status quo because the status quo is what is known. Change is frightening because it is unknown and perceived to be an invitation to the proverbial Pandora’s Box. Just because of this social tendency, the majority of people will almost always view significant change as radical and thus will view any proposal to keep things as close to the way they are as the sensible middle path – the ‘via media.’ Yet it does not follow that such proposals will always represent the virtuous mean in the Aristotelian sense. We would have to take into account those factors which bear on our understanding of the ‘extreme’ in a given situation, before we can reasonably determine where different positions fall on our spectrum from one pole to the other. (This is another way of saying that we need to have a sense of what the church requires in order to be the church properly so-called.)

    Let me end with two qualifications: First, the term “institutional preservation” that I use above probably has negative connotations, so please know I do not mean to use it pejoratively. Clearly, as articulated so well by you and many others, maintaining the polity of the UMC is a position with significant theological substance. (I personally maintain hope that some version of this position can win the day.) If there is a better shorthand term for the raft of different proposals that all have in common the preservation of the United Methodist Church in its present polity, please feel free to substitute it in your reading of what I’ve written.

    Second, in no way do I mean to advocate for the schismatic option in what I’ve said above, either. I rather frame the positions the way that I do because I think many of those who do advocate for schism see it as less ‘extreme’ than what they regard as maintaining a denomination’s polity for the polity’s sake. They see proposals for ‘amicable separation’ as moderate given the alternatives–as odd as that may seem.

  5. I can’t help but wonder how relevant extremism is in our current election cycle. I think it’s safe to say the polarization and divisiveness of these two put folks at opposing extremes. How would it look if we took the median of our current candidates? How would our discourse be different if we toned down our rhetoric from the opposing poles and brought it more towards the center? Answer: civilized. I concur, the center seems more appropriate and Christ-like.

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