Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Balance

In his book, The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck has a word that he weaves like a thread through all he has to say about how we can become emotionally healthy human beings. That word is ‘balance'.

Extremists (left and right) make a common error: like a child who holds a marble so close to his eye that it blocks the world from his view, they fail to see their single most treasured idea in the light of the whole. Some events of the past few years make us wonder at what point intense sincerity crosses the invisible line that separates committed advocacy from destructive fanaticism. How far can you press one idea or concept, to the exclusion of others, and still maintain the sensitive balance of sanity and a modicum of civility?

Every great idea has two sides. It is like picking up a stick. No matter which end of a stick you pick up, the other end is still there. If you pick it up in the middle you are more likely to retain the truth of both extremes without losing your balance. Clarence Darrow once said: "When anyone believes a thing too strongly, the means are too easily forgotten in reaching the end." Even a good idea can attract supporters who do terrible things under the guise of that good idea.

In the novel, In the Moon of Red Ponies by James Lee Burke, the protagonist, a lawyer named Billy Bob Holland, encounters a tangled web of evil surrounding one of his clients. The story involves a preacher of questionable moral rectitude. Holland makes an interesting observation about that preacher's congregation. He said: "I wanted to be kind in my attitude toward the members of Wyatt Dixon's church. But as a person raised in the rural South, I'd known many like them. And as a child they had filled me with fear. The severity of their views, the ferocity of their passion, the absolutism that characterized their thinking were such that I always felt they had one foot in the next world and were heedless of this one. I also believed that, given the opportunity, they would destroy the earth rather than let it be governed by a creed other than their own."

You do not have to look very far to find contemporary examples of people who do real crazy things in the name of God. They take a single idea and push it to such extreme that if it ever had meaning it is lost in the maelstrom of evil practices it produces.

I do not wish to portray the United Methodist Denomination as a paragon of ideological virtue. Having been a ‘hired hand' for the United Methodist Church for 48 years, I know more about the ways in which we have fallen below our original standards than I care to recite. But United Methodists have a philosophical guide which, if followed, will save its adherents from error and grief. It says that any theological idea should be evaluated in the light of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. This philosophical quadrilateral will save any who use it from destructive extremism.

More often than we would like to think, religions have been perverted by some of its fanatical leaders and followers. But this does not mean religion is bad. Tomás de Torquemada's inquisition in Spain, John Calvin's killing of Servetus in Geneva and James Jones' ill-fated cult in Guyana are historical examples of what ‘segregated sincerity' can do when pressed too far.

We have all seen, or heard, of intensely religious Christians who have taken a single verse from the Bible and made it central to their understanding of religious reality without considering it in the light of the rest of the Bible. Strange and extreme example of this are the religious groups that make snake handling and/or drinking poison potions a test of faith. (Mark 16:17-18; Luke 10:19) There are other such groups less strange and dangerous, but with their own narrow and intense focus.

Beliefs and ideas need to be graced by balance, lest they end up denigrating their original meaning and purpose. Blowing up buildings, hijacking planes, shooting doctors, using false and inflammatory statements to encourage prejucice, and kidnapping people are wrong whether they are done in the name of Jesus, Allah or anyone else.

Seeing each idea in its proper setting, and understanding how it is related to other ideas far less intensely held is an essential ingredient of balance. To what extent is your understanding of reality graced with balance?