Jacob’s Ladder as imagined by William Blake: a symbol of the Christian Middle Way

There’s a Middle Way for Christians too

Like Gautama the Buddha, Jesus also left home to go out into the wilderness. Just as the Buddha is depicted as being tempted by Mara (the narrow and obsessive voice of ego within him) on the verge of a breakthrough, so is Jesus depicted as tempted by Satan to egoistically prioritise a pursuit of status. Just as Jesus maintains a wider awareness to resist these narrow, obsessive voices through his connection with his experience of God, Gautama the Buddha is said to have touched the earth to maintain his connection with a wider source of awareness and confidence against Mara’s seduction.

The parallels between these two stories require us to put away concerns about how their very different traditions have used them to support absolute beliefs, and instead focus on the common human experience that both evoke. A modern parallel to withdrawal into the desert or the forest might be a solitary retreat, or perhaps even the enforced isolation that some have endured during the Covid pandemic. Such withdrawal has the advantage of removing us from group pressure, which often means the absolutizing ways of thinking that psychologists have recognized as group biases: groupthink, social proof, ingroup bias and false consensus. To break away from this we may need to spend temporary periods away from the social pressures that are controlling us and forcing us to think in rigid ways. Particularly if we combine this with meditation or reflection, we might begin to find a source of embodied confidence (‘faith’ in a non-dogmatic sense) in our wider experience, and thus begin to make more adequate judgements.

At the end of his period in the forest, after trying and moving on from two different teachers and a group of ascetics, the Buddha is said to have found the Middle Way. The crucial moment when he recognized this was connected to a childhood memory of a spontaneous absorbed, contented state — when he was connected to his body and the context it gave to his beliefs. From that point he had a point of connection with experience that could help him to remain solid in the face of the opposing polarised beliefs and conflicting groups of his time.

Jesus, on the other hand, does not offer such an explicit account of the Middle Way in his teachings. However, there are plenty of hints of approaches that are compatible with the Middle Way, but have often been obscured by the absolutizations of orthodox Christian interpretation. Jesus constantly questions and challenges people’s entrenched assumptions, particularly about the absolute rules attributed to the Pharisees, about people’s views of their social status and about their polarised responses to conflict. His teachings about love require us to think differently about what others mean to us.

Rather than preaching the Middle Way in any explicit form, though, Jesus, as he emerged in early Christian symbolism, is the Middle Way. That is, the form that he can helpfully take for us is one that requires us to recollect and accept the ambiguities between divine absolutes and human inadequacies. In the form that the Nicene Creed tried to petrify as ‘belief’, Christ is both wholly human and wholly divine — an idea that, as a ‘belief’, is merely a contradictory lunge for instant magical solutions to human weakness. As an archetypal symbol, though, it functions as a constant associative reminder of the experience of stretching our limitations in response to a meaningful ideal. We may start off tormented by what Christians call our ‘sinfulness’ — the conflict between what we feel is possible and what we manage in practice, but are reminded of the possibility of the Middle Way. In the Middle Way, or in Christ as the symbolic divine/human interface, these two apparently irreconcilable viewpoints are brought into contact with each other, and made compatible by the process of reframing their assumptions in the wider context of experience.

One place in the gospels that Jesus evokes this interaction of human and divine is in the mention of Jacob’s Ladder (or stairway) in John 1:51: “You will see heaven wide open and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This is memorably depicted by Blake, and interpreted by Stephen Verney in his lovely symbolic exploration of John’s Gospel, Water into Wine: “The angels will be going up from earth…, lifting up to God the needs and egocentricity of mankind, and they will be coming down…, bringing to the world the mercy and truth of God”. Our narrow ego-identifications are given a wider context and meaning by being lifted up, whereas the apparent absolutes of God are make meaningful in human experience by being brought down. Thus is ever the dialectical process we go through with the symbols and concepts we use to encapsulate our inspiration.

The assumption in Christian tradition that stands starkly opposed to the Middle Way is the idea that absolute ‘belief’ can be substituted for the process of working with the ambiguities of our ideals brought into contact with our experience. This typically takes the form of insistence that Christianity is about the ‘belief’ that God ‘exists’, that Jesus Christ also had a divine status, and that God’s will is absolutely communicated through the Bible and/or the Church. These absolutised beliefs have a co-dependent relationship with an equally absolutised reaction from those that claim that God ‘does not exist’, and thus dismiss the symbolic power of religious tradition for human experience under the mistaken impression that this symbolic value depends on absolute belief.

If anyone attempts to challenge these assumptions, they will usually be told that this is what Christianity ‘essentially’ is, take it or leave it. But Christianity is a rich and complex tradition that has taken many forms. The value of such traditions is that they can provide continuing symbolic inspiration, instruct in helpful practice, offer solidarity rather than group pressure, and thus continue to offer the world a much needed spiritual and moral challenge.

Christian orthodoxy throughout history has constantly selected sources and re-presented Jesus for the purposes of power, with scholarship usually offering only rationalisations for one or another interpretation of unavoidably ambiguous material. It is time for Christians to shake off the assumptions, firstly that Christianity is defined by absolute belief, and secondly that any alternatives have to be justified by scholarly appeals to the ‘true’ or historical interpretation of texts. Scriptures and other aspects of tradition are a rich and inspiring resource, but our interpretation of it needs to start with a recognition of what human beings most need in their experiential situation. Our definition of ‘Christianity’, our view of Jesus, and so on, are a practical matter, on a wide and integrative understanding of what humans practically need to make the best judgements through their lives. Recognizing this, however, is not in the least reductive, and does not in the least detract from our recognition of the power and value of religious experience and Christian inspiration, particularly as found in the mystical tradition.

Beginning with human beings in their embodied uncertainty, the Middle Way is a principle that can be applied in the context of any tradition, Christianity included. A Middle Way interpretation of Christianity has the potential to dissolve the conflicts between Christians and other religions, between Christians and atheists, and within individual Christian experience about the fragile maintenance of their own fragile ‘faith’ (in the sense of commitment to absolute belief). But this can only happen if Christians are willing to make their own journey to the wilderness where they let go of the power of absolutising group beliefs.

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For more detailed argument and referencing of the ideas in this article, please see my book The Christian Middle Way (Christian Alternative, 2018). The chart below also gives more information about it in diagram form.

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Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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Robert M. Ellis

Robert M. Ellis

Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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