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Book Review: The Christian Middle Way, by R. M. Ellis

The book, The Christian Middle Way (see  http://www.middlewaysociety.org) provides a thorough discussion of how to engage fruitfully with Christianity, while avoiding its apparent absolutes. The author, R. M. Ellis believes that Christianity has a lot to offer, if understood in a certain way.

In this book, Ellis presents “the case against Christian belief but for Christian faith.” The difference between the two is crucial, although arguably not so clear in life as we live it. But, as with Spiritual Naturalism, the crucial task is to clarify our concepts so that they inform wholesome (positive) growth. It’s not an easy assignment, but a fruitful one. Ellis begins his argument with a quote by Carl Jung: “…We must make our experiment. We must make mistakes. We must live out our own vision of life. And there will be error. If you avoid error, you do not live.” With this, the author invites us to some very intense, and very rewarding, thinking.

Belief, as he sees it, is a representation of the world or ourselves held firmly enough that we affirm or enact it. Belief implies embodied meaning – it reflects felt meaning. And it need not involve the affirmation of “facts”; stories and other artistic expressions may be deeply meaningful, though never understood to be factual. Ellis is not against all belief. In fact, he describes faith as “simply a term for the more embodied and emotive aspect of belief” (p.19). What he opposes is absolute belief, which is inflexible and therefore fragile. Central to his Middle Way philosophy is that affirmed absolutes keep us from adapting to our complex and ambiguous context. The rigidity of absolute belief in anything will mislead us. But a sensitivity to deeply felt and experientially helpful, meaningful affirmations – with a willingness to hold them tentatively (always subject to correction) – can be a crucial and reliable compass for our spiritual journey.

Throughout the book Ellis is asserting the possibility of affirming Christian themes in a faith-full way, while identifying and avoiding any unhelpful absolutising. The demand to affirm absolutes (“fundamentalism”) is a well established option, with a great appeal to some, whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Marxist or Libertarian. History tells many tales of how damaging it can be. Yet a lighter touch, a more tentative holding of any received understanding, can allow a depth and breadth which is so much more rewarding.

This is a challenging read, partly due to the depth of its subject matter and partly due to the density of the author’s style.  But it rewards the reader who is willing to work through it. I see two ways to take the book: one for those who suspect that Christian themes have a positive, nurturing gift for them.  For Robert M. Ellis (and perhaps for some Spiritual Naturalists) it outlines a path back into meaningful Christianity – washed clean, as it were, from its absolutist tendencies. As well, those of us who can identify with other “faiths” -in my case, humanism- reading The Christian Middle Way is more of a prompt to clarify one’s own belief/faith, determining what is healthy and helpful and what one should avoid or abandon.

Ellis dedicates his book to his father, now deceased, who was a “liberal” Baptist minister and missionary.  After rejecting Christianity, the author associated with what I consider a rather fixed brand of Buddhism, leaving it to develop his broader Middle Way philosophy. Now he’s widening his path again, to include a healthy Christian journey – or at least benefit more explicitly from its themes.  One key to his understanding is Jung’s theory of archetypes, patterns of thought deeply embedded in our “collective unconscious”.  For instance, the author finds the God-archetype deeply and reliably meaningful.  As a symbol of an available and unconditionally positive reality, we can summon great strength from it.  As well, we can apply the the so-called main archetypes (Hero, Attractive Other, Shadow) to a meaningful, embodied and emotionally helpful relationship with Christ, Mary and Satan.  In so doing we need not absolutise a particular set of traditional or imposed beliefs about them. But we can find refreshment in them.

Similarly, the author exposes a Middle Way appreciation of Jesus (as an “integrated teacher”), the Fall and Expulsion from the Garden (marking our responsibility for our actions), The Annunciation and Incarnation (the God-archetype in human experience), The Crucifixion (Suffering), Resurrection and Hope (“when out of every intransigent problem springs hope”, p. 151)… and lots more.  We can read these vibrant themes (if we wish) not as literal and undeniable history, but as meaningful stories, understood provisionally, through the lens of Christian agnosticism (which is explored in Chapter Seven). Ellis has filled his study with insights on how to find a meaningful and credible way from Christian traditions. There’s much more in it than I have exposed here.

Such thoughts are not shockingly new, but in some ways similar to other liberal and non-sectarian, non-absolutist interpretations of Church teaching, which has a well-established pedigree.  Don Cupitt, whose Sea of Faith book began a movement in the 1980s, republished as an SCM Christian classic, does not echo Ellis’ framework and terminology, but travels is similar territory.  To judge by his bibliography, Ellis is not acquainted with the long-standing tradition of liberal (non-absolutist) Christianity, which is itself a rainbow of various expressions and understandings.  Two “classics” in my current reading (prompted by this review) are Rudolf Otto’s Naturalism and Religion (1907) and Leslie Weatherhead’s The Christian Agnostic (1965).  Their insights could have informed and enriched Ellis’ study, without necessarily altering his conclusions.  Also missing is an knowledge of the dynamic, multi-faceted evangelical movement (now representing a large number of professing Christians).  Many of their authors are more subtle and more open-minded than the “fundamentalist” options.

The conditions of our time have left many influenced by the Christian religion, who cannot accept it’s many absolutes, but don’t want to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’.  Perhaps Middle Way Christianity would provide them with a credible way into an adult, non-authoritarian experience! By exposing his own connection to his father’s faith, Ellis may well be an example of the (attributed) Jesuit injunction, ‘Give me a child till he’s seven and we’ll have him through his lifetime.’  However, I seriously doubt that many people without Christian roots (Christian conditioning!) will use this book as a roadmap to a vital faith.

In our time the majority of children (and perhaps their parents) were not brought up in Church (at least in Britain).  The Hero archetype, for example, may speak to them, but not as Christ (sad to say, it’s”celebrity” for many).  

The author’s gift to me has been to realise more clearly and more deeply that my roots are in humanism.  Despite the fact that I was converted to Christianity (age 20) and served in a variety of ordained Church roles, I have remained at heart (in my integrated being) a secular humanist.  Though a Buddhist now, part of a very liberal & pragmatic movement, my Middle Way faith is grounded in my earlier roots. This, of course, shaped my interpretation of that tradition (with embodied, emotional experience) and of all the traditions I identified with.  I’m thankful to Robert M. Ellis for this perspective on faith and belief.

I do wonder, however, what kind of sangha (community) the author will be able to find.  Most people of faith seem to like (even demand) some pretty firm (close to absolute) beliefs to validate their deeply felt sense of things.  I often reflect that I irrationally cling at some level to foundational certainties within this ambiguous life and universe. As a man of faith, I cannot abandon belief, even when I can rationally critique it.  

How many existing Christians, or even Christian want-to-bes, will find Middle Way Christianity attractive and credible? It will be interesting to see to whom and how many this book appeals.

If, like the author, you were raised in a reasonably positive Christian context, a Middle Way Christianity might appeal.  If it’s not deeply planted in your psychic soil, you still might discover a vitality in Ellis’ description of non-absolutist, provisional and agnostic faith – triggered by the traditional sacred stories.  You might use the book as an example of how to explore and express your non-Christian faith (what you find most meaningful) in a more skilful and helpful way. In either case, we can welcome this book enthusiastically.  Those who do can explore the other authors who have been published by Christian Alternative books (http://www.christian-alternative.com/), as well as more established “liberal” and “radical” Christian authors.

A personal postscript: in my Christian days, I wrote a song, which I sung in various churches around Durham.  It connected with feelings that were embedded deeply within me, and which I related to well-known biblical themes.  The chorus consisted in phrases from the hymn, “Nearer My God To Thee”. Later, I found this song still expressive of my story, but within the context of Buddhist faith, as expressed in the suttas.  I only had to change the chorus, ‘borrowed’ from the Beatles: “Let it be, let it be. Let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom: Let it be”. Such, perhaps, is the way of a flexible yet deeply meaningful, non-absolutist, Middle Way faith.

 

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One Comment

  1. Greetings Dennis and thank you for this book review. The opposition to dogma is one of the reasons that I am attracted to the Middle Way Society and the teachings of Robert Ellis. The absence of dogma is also one of the things that attracts me to the Spiritual Naturalist Society.

    I think that this book will appeal to only a very few Christians. And I do not think it will appeal to many who are interested in spiritual naturalism. Until midlife I was a Christian but after losing that faith I found more than enough guidance from other approaches to life.

    Perhaps of greater interest to those interested in spiritual naturalism would be Migglism: A Beginner’s Guide to Middle Way Philosophy also by Robert Ellis.

    Dennis, I have read your profile on the SNS website and also on LinkedIn. Like you, I have learned much from secular humanism and Buddhism and now more recently from spiritual naturalism. And like you, I wonder what kind of community, if any, the Middle Way Society will become.

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