Embrace the courage of moderates

APTOPIX Vatican Pope
Pope Francis — shown during an audience for middle schoolers belonging to the “Cavalieri” group, which promotes Christian life, in the Paul VI Hall, at the Vatican on June 2 — is a radical moderate trying to create a climate for dialogue.

When did being a moderate become a radical position?

Extreme wings set the agenda for faiths and political parties. Why are both sides always yelling — and why are there only two sides of stark black and white? Why does someone have to win and another lose? Doesn’t “me first” equal “you second” — and what does that say about the common good central to democratic societies and religious traditions?

We’re extreming ourselves to death.

How about a word in praise of moderation? Yes, some will criticize moderates with the easy bite that they’re just walking a cowardly yellow line down the middle of the road. “Take a stand, dammit!” they will say. “This is no time for half-measures. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Can’t we have adult conversations with the shades of gray that mark many of our life decisions?

Most of us have experienced coworkers or relatives who go from one extreme to the other: The left-wing hippie becomes the buttoned-down conservative. The atheist becomes a believer and promptly tells longtime members of their new faith tradition what they’re doing wrong. Being an extremist or acting with the convert’s fire may make you a zealot or a sieve, but maintaining balance is much harder.

Let’s revisit the middle ground, where we won’t find weakness but strength to face the criticisms of both wings of your favorite cause. If you’re being hit by both sides, many wise people have noted, you’re doing something right. It’s where historians worth their footnotes stand: teaching history in its fullness and not just the pieces that support your banner. (That’s why historians can be very annoying.)

Speaking moderately doesn’t mean being without conviction. The moderate must speak firmly to both sides. The challenge is to confront a policy or person without being confrontational. Moderates of many faiths fight extremists within their own tradition — insiders who fear their faith is being hijacked by fanatics and radicals, violent in their words or deeds, who don’t speak the truth of their religious principles but get the most attention.

Extremists wash out subtlety and boil their traditions down to silly slogans. Moderates embrace the flaws and depths of theirs to find a better way.

Aristotle, writing in the fourth-century B.C.E. in Greece, didn’t believe that virtue was the opposite of vice but that virtue occupied the central ground between the two extremes of too much and too little. Healthy pride, for instance, walks a careful line to avoid vain arrogance or hubris (thinking too highly of yourself) and a belittling feeling of being unworthy (selling yourself short).

A century before and half a planet away, Confucius offered his stabilizing doctrine of the mean so right order might reign: balance and equilibrium that lead to fairness and justice where all do their proper duty. Ancient Latin gives us the idea of mediocritas — not a bland mediocrity but a steadying solid middle ground. The word connotes a sense of restraint or discipline to tame our cruder instincts and to make good rational choices. Moderation practiced in this way also brings with it a personal and historical sense of proportion and perspective deeply lacking in the wave of nonsense statements like, “Never before in history” or, “If we don’t do this, here’s comes Armageddon.”

The three monotheistic faiths agree. We hear the medieval Jewish sage Maimonides, who teaches: “The correct path lies equidistant between the two extremes. This is true for every characteristic possessed by man. Hence the sages instruct us to moderate our behavior and aim for the middle path. The object is to achieve proportion.” Lest some see Islam only through the lens of Islamists — who are opposed by mainstream Muslims even if the TV cameras and headlines don’t say so — we note moderation in the Quran and the hadith tradition of Muhammad’s sayings. “Do good deeds properly, sincerely, and moderately,” the Prophet says in one. Within Christianity, Pope Francis is a radical moderate trying to create a climate for dialogue instead of diatribe and polite conversation in place of polemics.

Moderation is still a virtue — if only we have the courage to practice it.

Christopher M. Bellitto is professor of history at Kean University in Union, N.J., and author of Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible (Paulist Press). @DrCBellitto