Jesus Collective is having a hard time keeping their “third way” idea from sinking into the polarization that dominates North American thinking these days. Here’s a podcast that reveals the struggle.
I think some Christians, likely more “progressive” types, might bristle when they brush up against Jesus Collective and hear “third way.” They might think we refer to more third way politics, which is an idea common enough to have its own Wikipedia page.
A third way approach to politics is probably why “the squad” is usually frustrated with Joe Biden who practices a kind of centrism which tries to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics by synthesizing elements of center-right economics with some center-left social policies — a third way between the binaries. Some elements of the church have been meandering through the minefields of post-modern discourse for some time with this third way political approach. It feels tepid to much of the new generation. The newest regimes are busy deconstructing entrenched compromises that perpetuate evils like white supremacy and heteronormativity.
At its best, the “third way” Jesus Collective is talking about is older and newer than finally taking a side within the politics of the present era. The best way of Jesus is not one side or another in the endless arguments of the world and not a tepid way of conflict avoidance down the middle. It is a transcendent way of love following Jesus in his death and resurrection.
A new flowering of the third way
There is a new generation of leaders in the church, worldwide, who have taken the Third Way baton from thinkers in the 1970’s, who were experiencing what some people name the “fourth great awakening” in the United States. In his famous book, The Dust of Death (1973), Os Guinness said,
How often in the contemporary discussion a sensitive modern man knows that he cannot accept either of the polarised alternatives offered to him. In Christianity, however, there can be a Third Way, a true middle ground which has a basis, is never compromise and is far from silent.
Jesus Collective is fond of referring to Paul Hiebert and his 1978 application of “bounded” and “fuzzy” sets to human groups and proposing the church as a different, or third, kind of set: a “centered” set. Heibert, the great missionary and practical theologian, suggested that rather than staying stuck in a Western, left-brain-dominated prison, Christianity needed to be released to regain its natural dynamism and allow everyone, as it traditionally had, to be a part of the movement toward Jesus as their definition of belonging rather than a set of superficial and static identity markers.
The new leaders carrying this old baton are running into a difficult world. It is hard to say where the politics of the world is moving right now. It seems hopelessly polarized. No one knows what to do. In some sense, the politics all seem very new, since the world has never been so united by common media, by huge technologies, by a pandemic and by climate change. But something very old is at work, too. An authoritarian spirit has often accompanied social disruption throughout history. It is here again. Leaders are promising troubled people a return to what was, or a reform to what should be — promises of safety sure to disappoint.
I think Gerald L. Sittser in his book, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (2019) helps people who only know third way politics to understand third way Christianity — a way that transcends whatever are the most common ways the godless world relies on and presents an alternative way.
Sittser says the Christian alternative, the new or “third” way, was first identified in a second-century letter written to a Roman official named Diognetus. You can read it, here. In this letter, an anonymous apologist is trying to explain the essence Diognetus has noticed in this new people group expanding across the Roman Empire. Other people were writing similar things at the time but this letter is the first, extant piece that alludes to a “third way:”
You want to know, for instance, what God they believe in and how they worship him, while at the same time they disregard the world and look down on death, and how it is that they do not treat the divinities of the Greeks as gods at all, although on the other hand they do not follow the superstition of the Jews. You would also like to know the source of the loving affection that they have for each other. You wonder, too, why this new race or way of life has appeared on earth now and not earlier.
When the author uses the word “genos” to describe the “new race or way of life” of the Jesus followers, it is a bit hard to translate since the word has some dynamism to it, much like the movement Hiebert sees in his centered sets. Jesus followers are a people defined by how they were born and where they are going. They don’t match the definitions of the present age. They are born and live just as the Apostle John said:
[Jesus] was in the world (a fuzzy set), and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own (a bounded set), and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name (a centered set), he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:10-13)
The way of Jesus in the second century was noticeably in contrast to the Roman way (the first way) and the Jewish way (the second way) which Romans respected. Neither of these distinctive features of the church lasted, unfortunately, and the “third way” became a persistent minority in the church at large. At least in Europe, the church became Rome and reinstated the imagery of the sacrificial system of the Jews along with its legalism. But at the time Diognetus received the letter, these things were not true. He was a Roman searching out the way of Jesus which is presented as a new or third way.
What makes the third way an ongoing new way?
Many people are talking about the third way these days, which is why Jesus Collective is being found by people all over the world. In every denomination and nation people are seeing beyond what polarizes them, moving toward Jesus, and travelling with others on the way. Many people are teaching what the third way means. Here are three of its distinctives I can name for you.
- The Third Way is about a transcendent destination
Christians believed in the reality of another and greater kingdom over which God ruled. It was a spiritual kingdom—not of this world, but certainly over this world as superior and supreme, for this world’s redemption, and in this world as a force for ultimate and eternal good.
To move with Charles Taylor, Jesus followers have an appreciation for what lies outside the immanent frame of modernity. In the words of Iain McGilchrist they are not in bondage to the left-brain philosophies and practices associated with scientism and capitalism. Like James (4:4) says, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God.” Having a relationship with Jesus conditioned by the ways of the world is unsustainable.
- The Third Way is a movement
Like the sun overwhelms the lesser light of the moon and stars, God’s kingdom transcends lesser authorities. This revelation can only be known if one is moving toward the center. One day mercy and justice will be revealed to all. Now is the time to move with the light we have toward that glorious day.
Heibert struggled for a way to help people out of their static orientation when it came to knowing God:
Centered sets are dynamic sets. Two types of movements are essential parts of their structure. First, it is possible to change direction—to turn from moving away to moving towards the center, from being outside to being inside the set. Second, because all objects are seen in constant motion, they are moving, fast or slowly, towards or away from the center. Something is always happening to an object. It is never static.
Illustrations of centered sets are harder to come by in English, for English sees the world largely in terms of bounded sets. One example is a magnetic field in which particles are in motion. Electrons are those particles which are drawn towards the positive magnetic pole, and protons are those attracted by the negative pole.
Much of Christianity and most of postmodernism is bound by definitions and power struggles about purity. Heibert was struggling to present a deeper picture. I think he is moving with the Apostle Paul, who writes to the Corinthian church:
Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God [here are those three ways again], just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 10:32-3)
He is not trying to find a secure place in a well-defined and protected territory, he is moving with the mission of Jesus.
- The Third Way is fueled by a passionate motivation
Love is deeper than righteousness. The Apostle Paul struggles to get this across in his letters. To the first way Romans he writes:
“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-9).
That is the subversive conviction that undermined the authoritarian Roman Empire.
To the second way Judaizers in Galatia he writes,
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”
We always need to keep ourselves reminded that law condemns but love forgives. Law makes for fuzzy or bounded sets, but love is the centering impulse of the Lord.
If love for Jesus and others, love from Jesus and others, does not hold the church together, there is no center, nothing to keep it together and moving together. It is only a fuzzy or bounded set and has rejoined the way of the world at the cost of the Word. The growing, new understanding of the Third Way which was so humbly powerful in the Early Church is still the best way to move with Jesus through this troubled time.