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The Christian Middle Way, by Robert M. Ellis

19 October 2018

Jonathan Draper reads a proposal for a less credal Christianity

CHARLES DARWIN held that the species “most adaptable to change” survives. Being adaptable to change, or “provisionality”, is characteristic of the Middle Way philosophy that Robert M. Ellis uses to distinguish his case against the delusions and absolutes of Christian belief, and for the positive possibilities of Christian faith.

The book begins with a discussion of “faith without belief”, and continues by looking at what we mean by “God”, humans, and creation; this is followed by two long and significant sections on Jesus as an “integrated teacher” and on “Christ the Middle Way” and examines the main points of Christian dogma. Ellis then moves into discussions of Christian agnosticism, practice, and ethics and politics. Ellis uses the philosophy of the Middle Way (which he has principally developed) as the critical tool for understanding the dangers of “absolutising” anything, including revelation and our ideas about God. Becoming an “integrated” person, a person of faith, is, instead, the goal.

Ellis draws heavily on Jung, and on broad-brush distinctions made between the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Left-brain functions tend towards absolutisation and belief; right-brain functions allow freedom, creativity, and, crucially, avoiding absolutising beliefs, move us towards faith, openness, and creating a new synthesis.

This is a challenging, dense, and, occasionally, insightful book: it tries to embrace the riches of the Christian faith and strands within it (such as mysticism) while scattering blunt challenges to traditional ways of being Christian (we should stop saying the Creed). If you think that the propositions of the Christian faith (whichever propositions you hold) are important, then you will find the book difficult and, perhaps, irritating. If you struggle with the conflict between the things that you believe and your experience, but find great riches in the Christian tradition, and are open to the insights of other religions, human endeavour, and the sciences, then you may find elements of the book helpful.

Ellis assumes, perhaps too much, familiarity with his Middle Way philosophy; some of his characterisations of strands of the Christian faith (and Christian history and science) are a little facile; and the book would have benefited from sharper editing. That said, the argument of the book should make the reader think.

The Very Revd Dr Jonathan Draper is General Secretary of Modern Church.

The Christian Middle Way: The case against Christian belief but for Christian faith
Robert M. Ellis
Christian Alternative £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

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