I woke up this morning, the day after the 2020 US election. I’m slightly despondent because it’s close to being the worst possible result. I can say that without showing political bias because there’s no winner yet! It looks set to be a close, contestable outcome, and I can only see further division emerging.
I’ve been thinking about it: America, and the Western World, has the speed wobbles. Do you know what I mean by that? Speed wobbles happen when you’re on a bike, or perhaps a scooter, or some other form of vehicle. At a certain critical moment there can be resonance with the bike’s built-in instabilities; the bike lurches from left to right and left to right, again and again. It falls afoul of it’s own feedback loop of movement until it crashes and causes injury. It doesn’t crash into anything. Nothing happens to it. It crashes into itself.
The physics is graspable. A system is in some sort of equilibrium, running along smoothly until something shifts; the bike-rider adjusts for a change in the road. At this point there is always a form of over-correction. We start heading too much in one direction, we pull back to the other, go too far, and return back towards the centre. In a stable system these over-corrections slowly diminish until the equilibrium returns. In an unstable system each over-correction amplifies the next and it goes back and forth with increasing crescendo until it all falls apart.
We’ve got the speed wobbles in the West. There are two over-amplified directions. We have Trumpism on the “right”, pulling back from government over-reach but also towards the gutter of blatant mercantilism and nationalist oligarchy; and the Wokeism of the “left” pulling us away from deep-seated social injustice but also towards the gutter of blatant progressive moralism and enforced globalist conformity. In the end, both extremes are terrible options; all gutters connect to the same sewer. So we lurch back and forth trying to avoid both.
The Western church is another example. We’ve come to look like the world, and so we reflect these two extremes. The gutter at one end is caricature of “evangelicalism” and “traditionalism”. The former looks like a consumer-class hypocritical industry; by way of example, take a look at the portrayal of Christian marketing in Amazon’s The Boys and you’ll wince at how it hits close to home. The latter can look like a non-benign fanaticism, complete with the funny clothes. The gutter at the other opposite end is a similar Christian veneer over the worldly spirit. It is a caricature of social activism that becomes a militant more-equal-than-others paganism, preaching a message of autolatry (“You do you, you’re perfect as you are”) and burning nonconformists at a de-platformed stake. Again, both extremes are unpleasant reflections of each other.
We’re not fully in those extremes of course. But we are wary of them, and usually seek to avoid them. The world is full of good people trying to put a tick in the box next to the candidate who is the least bad. The church is also full of faithful people seeking to avoid the divisive extremes, looking for a common ground somewhere amidst the encroaching shibboleths. As we search we move from left to right, and right to left. At a certain point of instability, the speed wobbles appear.
There are many factors to this instability. Social media is certainly one of them. It forces nuanced adjustments to pick a side: “Are you for us or against us? What’s it going to be? If you’re not us then you must be them. All lives matter. Silence is violence. Wear a mask. Don’t be a sheep!” etc. etc.
So here’s the thing. What stops it? Once the speed wobbles start, how do you stop them? Doing nothing is not an option. The instability of the system itself drives the over-reaction. Without intervention a rending apart is inevitable. So what to do?
Many of us have become adept at hauling back in the opposite direction to the currently favoured force. It doesn’t work in the end. Usually it just adds to the instability. Many of us have tried the art of the compromise, to do our best to speak of the common centre ground which will “dampen down” the volatility and bring stability. But that won’t work if that shock absorption is no longer part of the system. No bike rider can maintain a constant series of equal-but-opposite reactions when it all goes wobbly.
What is needed is a force, a movement, a direction that cuts across the oscillation. On a bike you get rid of the speed wobbles sometimes by slowing down, but also by speeding up, in the forward direction.
This is how it used to be in the political sphere. I heard a commentator the other day who had studied political manifestos from the 1950’s. Political rivalries were just as empassioned then, but this was the observation: It used to be that the political differences were about different ways of applying the same idea but now they are about two competing ideas that are different altogether. That common idea was the stabilising forward force.
Finding that common idea is hard. It’s not enough to long for it in the abstract, to speak of wanting unity, or peace for instance. Unity around what? Peace in what sense? These things only really exist as an appeal to something deeper, a sense of identity. In the UK, for instance, there was once a sense of what it meant to be “British.” For better or for worse, the notion of “For King and Country” was a unifying stabilising common ground. The Americans have had the “Free World” as their identity marker. They may not be great identities, but they are stabilising ones.
In the church we have a similar difficulty. Our common ground has become abstract. We reaffirm that we are the “body of Christ” and that we “see Jesus in each other, no matter our differences.” Such articulations have an admirable intent, but they only work when there’s substance underneath the form. Who actually is this Jesus that we can conceive of and see in each other? If we can’t agree on that big idea the instability only increases.
It’s not enough, you see, to maintain the status quo. You can’t re-centre an unstable system simply by reflecting the lowest common denominator in the middle. Look at what the church does talk about, either collectively or through its public persons, and you’ll see what our lowest common denominator is: climate change, feeding the poor, and generally being good citizens. We agree on such things. But what aren’t we saying? That’s what is missing in the middle.
A broad church, well centred, is a thing of beauty, but that’s not the same as a church with two centres and an overlap in the middle. We can do our best to maintain that overlap, but it is in an inherently unstable system. The speed wobbles will start, and appeals to unity in the abstract are not enough to provide the centring, stabilising force.
I’m not sure what a positively centrist message looks like in the political world. I’m actually entirely open to the possibility that we’ve gone past our Commodus moment. It may be that the demise, decline, and fall of the Western world is as inevitable for us as it was for Rome, once it lost its way and didn’t know who it was anymore. When I pray for our leaders in the political sphere, and other places of influence, this is the heart of my prayer: Oh Lord, give us the grace of a leader with a positive vision of how we can come to a substantial centre.
I pray something similar for the church world. But, of course, here there is a clearer kerygma. The centre has always been about Jesus. It’s always been about worshipping him, learning from him, following him, as we gaze upon him through the revelation of God’s word. There is no other Christian identity other than Jesus. When we are defined by him, in the ancient posture of sanctification rather than the presumption of our self-made existence, we are more and more his.
It is therefore, of course, why as Christians we are now looking to Jesus who is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, able to still the nations (Psalm 46:10). As the political world around us wobbles into a collision with itself, we, once again, entrust ourselves to one who is a rock on which to stand.