Moderate religion is good, right? It’s the alternative to fundamentalism and fanaticism and extremism and all those other nasty things that we reasonable, sophisticated modern (or post-modern) people wouldn’t be seen dead supporting.
That’s certainly what I’ve thought for a long time, but it occurs to me that there may be a better alternative to fanaticism that I’d overlooked; that moderation is not always the only or the best answer to extremism.
The downside of being moderate
‘Moderation in all things’ is doubtless a very sensible and reasonable maxim, but it’s hardly one to stir the senses, get the blood racing or to change the world. The very idea of ‘moderate’ seems to me pale, drab, insipid, uninspiring; unappealing as tepid tea or watered-down wine. The word itself apparently derives from a Latin stem relating to restraint, limit, measuredness, modesty: all useful in their place but hardly aspirational. Think of moderately good, or moderately bad, or moderately happy. ‘Moderate’ sits naturally with middle-of-the-road, mild, mediocre; with harmless and inoffensive.
Moderation is neither really one thing nor the other; it smacks of compromise, lukewarmness, greyness, dilution; it’s a watered-down, safe version of the real thing. Who wants diluted wine when you can have it full-strength; who wants background muzak when you can have full-blooded rock or an electrifying symphony? Why settle for moderation when you can have fullness and excitement – even excess?
So when people apply the term ‘moderate’ to religion to distinguish it from extremism and fanaticism, I’m not sure they’re really doing it any favours. Of course it’s better to be moderate and restrained than to be a dangerous loony, just as weak poison is preferable to strong, or a mild cold is preferable to influenza. Yes, on the plus side moderate religion isn’t going to kill anyone – but it isn’t really going to bring life to anyone either; it lacks the power to inspire or enthuse. If most people see the only religious alternatives as either extreme or moderate, it’s hardly surprising they give the whole enterprise a wide berth. I’d be inclined to do the same.
Furthermore, the whole idea of moderate religion actually plays into the hands of those who think that religion is fundamentally delusional and evil, a psychological disease to be cured or a social disease to be eradicated. The term ‘moderate’ religion suggests that it’s not actually the real thing; that it’s merely a weak, watered-down or emasculated version of the true religious reality which is fundamentalism and fanaticism. (Hence some of the bizarre arguments of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that religious moderates actually prop up or enable extremist religion.)
But fanatical fundamentalism is not the essence of true religion – it is merely the distortion. Extremism is unhealthy religion; religion gone bad.
The healthy alternative
It’s been said many times that ‘the proper response to misuse is not disuse but right use’. I’d also add that the proper response – at least with religion – is also not half-use, or cautious use, or ‘moderate’ use. It’s full, right, good use.
So I’d like to suggest that the true alternative to extremism – to unhealthy religion – is not moderate religion but healthy religion. The alternative to fire-and-brimstone is not milk-and-water but the strong wine of the gospel. The alternative to black-and-white thinking is not a drab mix of greys but the full spectrum of living colour (hence the strapline of this blog: ‘moving from black and white to colour’). It is the full, vivid range of diversity and difference celebrated in a vibrant and dynamic community. Instead of either moderate or extreme, it is passionate, joyful, adventurous, visionary, full of life and sound and colour.
To me at least, this offers a far more attractive vision of what the church and the Christian life can look like than the idea of moderate religion can. It’s what Jesus looks like – a towering figure who people either want to follow or else want to kill; not a respectable, meek-and-mild plaster saint who no-one would even want to sit next to at dinner. Jesus in the gospels is someone you can love and follow and fight with; someone you can trust your deepest self to and find your best self with. He’s someone free and unpredictable, even at times wild and dangerous, like a lion or a thunderstorm; but at the same time wholly, totally, fascinatingly good and true and genuine.
Water and wine are both good things, but they’re best kept separate. Here too, Jesus took a novel, unexpected approach: he didn’t mix them, he took water and turned it into wine. Perhaps we need him to do the same to our religion; to turn the water or our mild, moderate beliefs into the rich new wine of his great and life-changing Way.
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