Monday, January 7, 2013

Moderation? No.

This is really long. I'm sorry.

I guess it displays a certain arrogance, a certain indecorous gutsyness and impertinence, to call into question the ancient philosophers on a point on which almost everyone agrees with them. I don't mean to be indecorous and arrogant. I just think they're wrong. The odds are against me here. I admit that. And maybe I am wrong, but please, hear me out, and then tell me how absurd I am.

We in Western Civilization have this idea of moderation. We've had it for a long, long time. We all know it, and it's deeply embedded in us, deeply accepted. There's a ditch on both sides, we say. Take the middle road. Don't be extreme. Not too much, not too little.

(Photo credit.)
Please understand, I'm not saying this is entirely wrong. I'm not saying we should all go jump in the ditches and do too much or too little. I just think the paradigm we use gives the wrong idea. It gives the idea that we should not be extreme about anything, that we should live moderate lives. I honestly think that's a terrible way to see it. It is, in any case, for anyone who thinks like me. (If you don't think even a little bit like me, then you probably have no clue what any of my posts are talking about, so you've probably already left, and my only remaining audience is somewhat sympathetic to my bizarre brain. Thus, I will continue boldly.)

We were made in God's image, right? As believers we are being conformed to the image of His Son. Well, people, God is not moderate. God is the most extreme thing I can think of. He is more good than Hitler was evil, more bright than the darkest pit. He created a world, a magnificent but earthy world, and He weaved a story for it. All the most extreme things in that tale, all the things that shock us, are far less extreme than their Maker. Whenever we try to describe Him, we end up with a long list of words that all start with "omni" - "all." All-knowing, all-powerful, all-present. Etc, etc, etc. But this is not a problem, because all of His extremeness, so to speak, is directed at His goodness. And then, like I said, we are made in His image, and we are to try and emulate His character, so we should be extreme too. Extremely good.

And now you say, "Well, of course, but you've changed tracks, haven't you?" I know. I have indeed, and that's sort of my point. The moderation paradigm doesn't work with those things which are greatest, those things which we are told to "think on" in Philippians 4:8. ("Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Not exactly a moderate-sounding list, by the way.)

We were talking about avoiding being extreme in vices at first. Now, when we switch to God and goodness, we are talking about being extreme in virtues. These are obviously not contradictory ideas. Avoiding the bad, embracing the good. But guys, by the moderation paradigm, goodness is defined as moderation. As walking the narrow road between the vices. How is it possible, therefore, to be extremely good within this paradigm? Extremely moderate? What does that even mean? This is where I think our philosophy is messed up.

(Photo credit.) Completely irrelevant. BUT ISN'T IT GREAT?
I'm all for avoiding vices. But I would suggest that the way to do so is not to be moderate, but to be as extreme as one possibly can in the right direction.

Maybe I'm the only one who has this problem, but whenever I try to think about life through the moderation paradigm, I end up with this image of myself simply bouncing back and forth from one side of the road to the other, never really getting anywhere because I'm so focused on the ditches. Maybe, too, I'm making a mountain out of a mole-hill, but at least for me it's a big deal. I mean, granted, it's just a matter of syntax, a matter of preferred expression. But I think it's important, because as our words go, so often go our minds and hearts.

You see, I know that moderate doesn't mean mediocre, but does your brain know that after you've drilled into it that one should always avoid the extremes? If we talk like the only thing to be concerned with is avoiding the ditches, and if goodness is only ever expressed in the negative (being good is not being bad), then I think we will begin to believe that all there is and all that is required is the not-bad. In other words, the mediocre. The staying out of trouble. And even that will be hard to accomplish, because when you look at the ditches, you have a tendency to fall into them.

Likewise, you never can shoot straight if you're afraid of shooting the wrong thing. You must simply be single-mindedly aiming at the target. Really, why should we even refer to ditches at all? It's all the same problem: not focusing on what we ought to be focused on.

Tullian Tchividjian's book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (I recommend it; as in, go get it right now, or if you know me, borrow it from me asap, because I intentionally got an extra copy for lending since it is so awesome) gives a good example of this. He's talking about legalism and license in the Christian life, and explaining that people typically think that you get legalism from focusing too much on the law and license from focusing too much on grace. No, you don't. You get them both from focusing too much on your own performance and too little on grace. Grace is what saves you from both. Your performance, whether breaking or keeping the law, simply isn't the point.

Life's not a balance. It's a high-dive into God's grace. You can't focus too much on that. You can't focus too much on Christ. You can't focus too much on goodness. That's the funny thing about truly, deeply good things: you can't get too much of them, and when you throw yourself into them without holding back, the moderation that you're looking for falls into place. Of course you don't eat too much chocolate. You don't need more chocolate. Chocolate is not what you're looking for. But you don't shun chocolate. You enjoy it like never before, because it's a lovely part of the world your Father has given you.

Moderation is a by-product, people. There are a lot of those, a lot of by-products of pursuing God with everything you've got and more. A pet-peeve of mine is when people see the by-products and think that this is the goal. Aristotle does this with happiness. It drives me nuts. Happiness and moderation are just things you happen to get when you're lost in God. They're symptoms, to put it another way. But if you try for happiness, and if you try for moderation, without first trying for godliness... you get nothing.

So friends, if you still like the moderation paradigm, fine. If it doesn't confuse your brain or impede you, and if you can still keep in your mind that when it comes to goodness, extremism is an admirable thing, then go for it. But I'm ditching the paradigm. (Pun totally intended. You're welcome.) It ties me up into thinking that mediocrity is somehow the safe option, and therefore the best. I don't want to be mediocre. I want to be radically good and extremely godly. I want to fix my eyes, to fix my whole being on the unspeakable awesomeness of God. I want to be emptied of myself, and to be nothing but a vessel for His glory. I want to forget myself and run the race before me for Him. I have no greater ambition.


  1. And yet another example of how Aristotle didn't go far enough in his definition of goodness.

    Isn't it fun that you can write blog posts about ancient philosophy now? Thank you, Hillsdale!

    P.S. You wouldn't mind lending me that book, would you? Since I'll obviously have so much time on my hands next week.... ;)

    1. It is rather fun to actually have a cursory knowledge of such things. And I always end up coming back to Aristotle's idea of goodness and how I disagree with him. (Ask Jackie. Poor thing has suffered through an amazing number of discussions on the topic.)
      Interestingly, I think his definition is another example of terminology being deceptive/misleading. Even if Aristotle didn't exactly mean "happiness" by "happiness," but rather the whole fulfillment of purpose thing, he still called it happiness. And for a reason, presumably. And when you keep on talking about happiness, it's hard not to think that he really just means "being happy" and that the fulfilling your purpose part is just the way he thinks you're to get there. Hmm...
      P.S. Of course! You have dibs on the lending copy. :)