Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ambivalence Kills

Recently I proposed the idea that the besetting vice of centrists is complacency. Annie at Ambivablog offered a thoughtful response to this idea and other "Musings on Moderation." She suggests that the vice of centrists is indecision – "seeing too much on all sides, becoming so snarled in subtlety and complexity that you can't factor all your insights quickly enough into a vector for action." I think she has a point – and Lord knows centrists have more than one vice.

The title of this blog is a phrase I live by.

Some have suggested to me that decisiveness is another word for rigidity and even simple-mindedness. The world, they say, is not black and white, but shades of gray. The more appropriate attitude is ambiguity, if not ambivalence.

I disagree. I am all for subtlety and nuance. I'm a Calvinist – I know that all people are likely to think we understand more, and more justly, than we really do. But action requires judgment, choice, decision. When we are ambivalent, we still have to act. Acting ambivalently makes us more likely to screw it up, to do conflicting things, to fail to think through the consequences of our actions. Worse, our ambivalent actions make it impossible for other people to act reasonably in response to us, since our actions are not done for a clear reason in the first place.

I was asked in church this morning why mainline churches, like ours, keep declining. I blurted out, only somewhat flippantly, that we lose our kids because we don't know what we believe. On reflection, this still holds up pretty well. Most people in mainline churches personally accept the traditional faith of the church. But they also believe that tolerance and pluralism are even higher virtues than orthodoxy. So they are ambivalent about what The Church believes, even if they are not torn about what they themselves believe. And this ambivalence makes it very difficult for a church to teach its own children what it thinks is right, nor to invite others to join the faith. That way lies death, and we have forty years of decline to show for it.

Picture a squirrel in the road, its head flickering back and forth at the two opposite curbs, uncertain which way to run, while a car is rushing toward it.

Ambivalence kills.


SecretaryHamilton said...

Amen. But aren't the ambivalent making a decision to indeed be ambivalent, and in a way making a choice, just not one of the two that they perceive as polarized?

How do we rid the ambivalent leaders in the church of holding higher the virtue of tolerance than the virtue of orthodoxy? I think it entails chaning class values, upper-middle class values for Presbyterians.

Gruntled said...

I can see how choosing tolerance as the highest virtue is a choice. I don't see how ambivalence itself would be a choice. Thing happen while you are dithering. You are responsible for them. But you did not choose them, exactly.