Keep Your Eyes on the Good: How to Avoid Being Reactionary

Theology, as well as many other disciplines, is inherently reactionary. Almost anything anyone ever says or does is at least in part a reaction against something else, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly.

On the one hand, this is necessary and important. It’s important to pay attention to serious errors when they rise up and respond to them. It’s important to be aware of what is popular so that one can respond to ideas that are current and are likely to cause problems. For example, Adoptionism, the heresy that teaches that Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism or at some other point in his ministry, is not a very popular heresy today. While it’s good to be aware of this as a bad way of talking about Jesus, it’s not something that most people today think or are liable to think. So then, we’re probably not going to spend a whole lot of time teaching against Adoptionism, and it would be foolish to do so. However, it is a very common view that the ultimate Christian hope is to “go to heaven when you die” with no view of the resurrection or the new heavens and the new earth in mind (something I discuss more here). Thus, it make sense to talk about this issue far more.

At its best, being reactionary is being sensitive to one’s context and responding accordingly. However, often being reactionary is a dangerous posture that doesn’t do much to really solve problems, but actually creates new or different ones.

Being Reactionary Leads to Being Over-Reactionary

While it’s important to be aware of common problems within a given context, this often turns into people having their own anti-hobby horses or perennial scapegoats and whipping boys. I see this often in conversations among people who are either rather theologically conservative or those who are more theologically liberal.

For many theological conservatives, anything that goes against what the “liberals” think or want is categorically a good thing. Moreover, anything that smacks of “liberalism” must be bad. This can show up in people rejecting social ministry or advocacy for the poor as mere social gospel (never mind the fact that there are many theologically conservative advocates of this sort of thing that reject the problems of the social gospel, such as When Helping Hurts). Or for a more specific example, there were many who seemed to uncritically support the Nashville Statement from last year, despite the statement having several problems that many theologically conservative people objected to.

Likewise, in my experience many progressive Christians seem to fixate on what the “evangelicals” do/think/believe. Granted many of these people have come out of evangelicalism (often of a more fundamentalist variety) and this ends up driving a lot of what they think and do. The goal is often to be nothing like what they grew up in. This is an understandable response, especially when one’s experience was negative or even abusive. But it becomes unhelpful and unproductive when one’s entire self-narrative or group narrative becomes defined negatively, that is, “we are not those other guys.”

Now, this isn’t just a problem for conservatives and progressives; this kind of dynamic can be seen in a multitude of ways, high-church/low-church, confessional/missional, Calvinist/Arminian, Lutheran/Everybody Else, but the conservative/liberal dynamic is one of the more prominent and one that most people are fairly familiar with.

Most obviously, this kind of over-reactionary attitude can lead to problems in dialoging with or about people from the other side of things, people from the other side of whatever you’re reacting to. But it also becomes a problem when everything you say or do becomes an example of why the people who disagree with you are wrong. Take a stock of the things that you write/say. How often are you saying what you’re saying “against” someone or something else specific? Imagine reading a church or denominational “what we believe” page and it merely being a list of things that they deny or condemn, never actually getting around to something constructive or affirmative. This would be ridiculous. But so often our own conversations do this same thing.[1]

This gets us into real problems when we end up overreacting ourselves into new and different errors. It’s like someone backing away from a bear without looking where they’re going and they walk backwards over a cliff. Or it’s like a drunken man on a horse, leaning over too far to the right, overcorrecting, then leaning too far to the left and back and forth.

Most heresies in the church’s history are actually a result of this kind of overreacting. For example, a common Trinitarian heresy in the early church was known as Modalism or Sabellianism. This taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not actually separate and distinct “persons” but merely different modes of the same one God. It’s like God wears different masks and appears in different forms, but really there’s not a real difference between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Arius in his own day overreacted against this sort of thing and taught that not only are the three persons of the Trinity distinct, but that only the Father is true God. For Arius, the Son is a being far above humans, but still a creation of the Father and in no way, true God. Arius was so horrified by Modalism that he over-reacted and made a new heresy.

Another way of saying this is that the opposite of an error is often still an error.

Bowling Bumpers and Aristotle’s Golden Mean

While we can’t stop ourselves from reacting against things we disagree with, there are a few things we can do to help prevent some of the negative overreacting I’ve been talking about here. First of all, it’s important to set up mental bumpers from multiple angles. What happens when we overreact to something is that we set up a mental barrier to that perspective or idea, but if we don’t have another barrier on the opposite side, we’ll end up reacting ourselves into another error. It’s kind of like bowling with the bumpers up. The bowling ball may go back and forth across the lane, but with the bumpers up, it doesn’t go into the gutter. If you only had one bumper up, the ball is liable to hit the one bumper and then bounce straight into the opposite gutter.

For example, with the Trinitarian heresies I discussed above, we want to keep one bumper up against Modalism. We don’t want to talk about the Trinity in such a way that we talk as if there is no distinction between the members of the Trinity. Likewise, we don’t want to talk about the Trinity as if there were three gods rather than only one God, nor do we want to talk about the Trinity as if each member of the Trinity were not fully God, like Arius.

If we do this sort of thing well, we have numerous sets of boundaries, not unlike the boundary lines on the edge of a football field. We’re not merely trying to avoid hitting one line (which is what happens when we’re reactionary), but we’re trying to keep the ball in play by staying within all of the boundary lines.

This is similar to what Aristotle identified as the Golden Mean. For Aristotle, virtue is found in the balance between two extremes. This means we must identify both extremes (or more depending on the issue), and try to find the balance between the two. This balance, this sweet spot, is where we want to try to live. It’s hard to stay there, but that’s the goal. It’s where we are able to listen charitably to those we disagree with and critically to those we tend to agree with. It’s the best place for avoiding unintentional errors and the kinds of either/or, black-and-white thinking that so often causes us trouble.

Look Where You Want to Go: Articulating the Ideal 

To go back to the bowling analogy, you want to stay between the lines, so you look straight down where you want the ball to go. You don’t focus on one gutter or the other, instead you focus on hitting where you want to hit. If you’re afraid of ending up in the gutter and then stare at it, you’ll probably end up getting in that bumper or even the other one. Looking straight down the middle is the best way to keep the ball in play and away from unwanted and unnecessary extremes.

This is how we can start to get out of the quagmire of being exclusively reactionary. Part of the problem with a reactionary posture is that it only speaks and acts negatively, that is, it speaks to reject what it sees as bad and it acts in such a way so as to not be what it sees as bad.

For example, there’s a subtle yet profound difference between these two things: 1) showing affection to someone you love because you want to avoid them getting mad at you for not showing them affection and 2) showing affection to someone you love because you love them. The second is not trying to avoid something bad, but it is actively and naturally pursuing the good.

This is what we want to do in theology and in our life in the church. If everything we do or say is in reaction to the other side, whatever that is, then we will never be pursuing what is true, good, and right, for its own sake. We will always be acting out of fear or anger instead of a love of the goodness and truth of God.

Granted, this is easier said than done. I recognize that. But part of what I’m saying is that it’s helpful to articulate the ideal, even if that ideal is not achievable. The ideal gives us a focus and a direction. So much of what we do can always be done better. Always. And if you’re a perfectionist, like myself, that can be deeply frustrating. But this also means that it’s okay if what we do or say isn’t perfect, because it can never be perfect. It will always at some level be imperfect. Now, not all imperfections are created equal. Some imperfections are tolerable and others are not. But it means that we don’t content ourselves with merely avoiding the intolerable imperfections. We don’t settle for a bare minimum of orthodoxy or a bare minimum of love. We want to pursue all of God’s truth and all of God’s love. At least as much as we can this side of the resurrection.


See also:

How Not to be a Heretic (Book Review)

The Difficulty of Faithfulness: Beyond Tribalism


[1] The irony that I am writing a piece reacting against people being reactionary is not lost on me, but y’know, whatever.


Image: From Free-Photos CC 0

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