Working and Learning in the Muddled Middle

We as Christians must recognize that there is much to learn from those who do not call themselves Christians but who have the gifting and desire to do good in the world. To dismiss their work because they are not in the ‘fold’ is to dismiss the common grace of God and God’s ability to use those outside our boundaries to accomplish God’s work in the world. [Corbitt: Taking it to the Streets p.228]

I have lived through the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st century. During this time, I have been a faculty member of a Christian university for nearly 20 years. As a global citizen who has traveled to over 50 countries and a resident in an urban community, the past decade has given me pause to reflect on the meaning of being “Christian” and the tensions of having faith while living in a diverse world. It is a place I call the Muddled Middle. What does this mean? How did I get there? How do I now live? How does it inform my teaching? This short essay will attempt to answer these questions.

NY Times Square

New York Tomes Square.  J. Nathan Corbitt (2011)

The Muddled Middle

The muddled middle is simply the civic context of life–particularly the urban context. It is the borderland of mingled cultures. It is marketplace, public town square, city center and place of business where no one person may have dominance and each person, ethnicity, class, religion, gender or preference must negotiate their difference and seek the benefit of all in order to find a common good life; where neither the sacred nor the profane dominate, but both have the opportunity to intermingle and influence. It can be a challenging, confrontational and uncomfortable place, especially for a former Southern Baptist from the mountains of North Carolina.

How I Got Here

Growing up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s son in the southern United States afforded me an overconfidence, even arrogance, in all things Christian. I remain very grateful for the Southern Baptist emphasis on education between 1950 and 1980. The funding they provided both to schools and to the students who attended them left many of us with an excellent education and no debt. I repeat that last one–NO DEBT. Thank you very much, sincerely.

Until a fundamentalist controversy split the Convention and redirected its priorities at home and abroad, I had little reason to question religion, faith or spirituality. I was a member of the largest evangelical Christian group in the world, a citizen of the most powerful country, highly educated (by western standards) and frankly I could exert that real, residual or ancillary power within the context of poverty and non-literacy without question. This insular, enclavist and ethnocentric view of the world would be challenged when I moved to Zimbabwe and for the first time became a neighbor in a religiously and culturally diverse community.

It was in 1989 that our new neighbors Rahman and Zora moved next door to our house in Zimbabwe. There was no house on their nearly vacant lot when I first saw them. Rahman was wearing a white kanzu of the Islamic faith. Zora covered her face in the fundamentalist Islamic fashion and would do little more than nod. “They don’t appear very friendly,” I commented to my wife Vickie who would just smile and continue to bombard them with friendliness. I’m not sure how friendly we appeared either, but as we greeted each other and began to warm-up to each other as neighbors, the process of knowing became a little easier. They had erected a wall around their lot and constructed a small prefabricated shed where they lived while they began to construct their house, piece by piece as they could afford it. During one of our first meetings at his gate, Rahman and I began to discuss religion. Rahman was a very smart man, a mathematician, and represented Zimbabwe on the national chess team.

At first we began an intellectual discussion. I am a Christian. He is a Muslim. I am an American. He is Pakistani. Soon our discussion about faith turned to debate over religion and then to argument about the divinity of Christ. It became quite heated–we were actually yelling at each other. I’m not sure how Rahman took it, but I could see that if we wanted to be good neighbors, arguing over our religious differences would not build any bridges–we had to live next to each other and might need each other’s help. So, for the next several years we avoided “religious” discussions and focused on our common interests in safety, security, and well-being in a country that was about to erupt and then slide into extreme poverty and violence. As we began to build trust and help each other in crises, we began to have some rather interesting and deeper discussions about spirituality, and religion. This was a revelation to me. I could practice my religion (Baptist Christian), live out my faith values as a neighbor (love, reconciliation, service), and talk with a Muslim about common spiritual matters (prayer, meditation, inner peace). All the while, seeking our common good. I was living in the muddled middle.

How Do I Now Live? Tony Campolo once highlighted on the pull of the urban environment for young people by commenting on the suburbs. “St. Davids is a very beautiful place, it just isn’t very interesting.” As an urban dweller, I would comment that faith development on the main suburban campus of Eastern is religious and spiritual in a comfortable environment; it just isn’t very challenging to one’s living faith. (I will explain my meaning below.) Not that there is anything wrong with that, temporarily. A significant role of Christian higher education is to provide a place for students to refine, explore and discover who they are as spiritual beings, the foundations of their religious beliefs, and to think about what a living faith really means. Each year I sign a doctrinal statement of Christian belief at convocation. I get that, also. Institutions and organizations must clearly define their values and beliefs in order to maintain their identity and reason for being. Also, boundaries and rituals provide structures that give comfort and develop the culture.

The challenge for faith development, like cultural competence, comes when students, and faculty alike (speaking primarily of me), leave the safety and comfort of “people like me” and step into the civic world. Sorting through language, lifestyle, religious practice, work styles, motivations, and needs requires one to navigate cultural worlds (and code switch) on a consistent daily, even momentary, basis. One is asked to explore meanings, redefine terms, and reframe ideas in order to find the common ground needed to accomplish even simple tasks.

An example: Several years ago, my non-profit was asked by the School District of Philadelphia to work with homeless children in transitional housing. One of our basic goals in working with children and youth is to develop spirituality through art-making. When they read our proposal, they directed, “You can’t use spirituality in the work we are funding. This is coming from a federal grant and religious teaching is not allowed.” The problem was that in my mind spirituality and religion are not the same, which was obviously not the case with the program director (who happened to be a Christian). We changed the word from spirituality to inner character development, and it was accepted without our having to drop the goal or change our teaching.

On a consistent basis throughout the week I am conversing and working with people–my neighbors–who happen to be Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Catholics, Agnostics, Buddhists, African-Americans, Jamaicans, Italians, Cubans, Chinese, professors, bankers, teachers, social workers, artists, carpenters, electricians and plumbers, sometimes politicians, gays, lesbians, single moms, children of single moms, and occasionally thieves and thugs. It is a cultural and religious mine field for talking about religious beliefs–but not for living out my faith. For that, it is an opportunity to demonstrate love, compassion, service to others, and reconciliation, which forms the values of my Christian faith.

How Does This Inform My Teaching, my working, my living–in the civic context?

In my experience in the classroom with students in the Christian university, undergraduate and graduate, there is the continual need for understanding and critical thinking about how to live one’s faith in the workplace of the civic environment, and the understanding of our Christian religion and its heritage. We do very well in preparing for church-related work, missions, Christian schools and organizations. These are within our comfort zone. Many young people want to work in the Christian context. Yet, increasingly, our graduates are working in government, secular and public schools, and business, by choice and by design. Helping students understand the role of a living faith and its impact in communication, decision-making and relational living is a personal goal for my teaching, regardless of the subject. In order to help my students, I have developed an interconnected mobulus model for defining and integrating religion, faith and spirituality within the civic context–the Tripartate of Faith, (see below). Definitions follow along with basic principles for living out one’s faith in the civic context.


Tripartite of Spirituality. J. Nathan Corbitt 2009

Definitions for a Faithful Life

The Corporate Sacred, or Religion is an organized expression of faith and spirituality that is based on cultural and community traditions. A religion is an organized approach to human spirituality which usually encompasses a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent quality, and that give meaning to the practitioner’s experiences of life through reference to a higher power or truth. It may be expressed through prayer, ritual, meditation, music and art, among other things. It may focus on specific supernatural, metaphysical, and moral claims about reality (the cosmos and human nature), which may yield a set of religious laws, ethics, and a particular lifestyle.

The Outward Sacred, or Faith, or the act of faithing (the term I prefer) is living out one’s moral and ethical beliefs in relationship to others. James Fowler broadly defines faith as” “…a human universal. We are endowed at birth with nascent capabilities for faith. How these capabilities are activated and grow depends to a large extent on how we are welcomed into the world and what kinds of environments we grow in. Faith is interactive and social; it requires community, language, ritual and nurture. Faith is also shaped by initiatives from beyond us and other people, initiatives of spirit or grace. How these latter initiatives are recognized and imaged, or unperceived and ignored, powerfully affects the shape of faith in our lives” (xiii).

The Inner Sacred, or Spirituality, is inner personal development. It is the awareness and growth of the non-material (sacred) world within self. It is the sacred dimension of the self–as opposed to the mundane material world. It is the development of a moral and ethical compass that is a foundation to faithing.

Principles for Living a Faithful Life

  • Practice your religion through worship, study and practice in a way that builds community and provides support to you and your community.
  • Live your faith in the world: Seek to be an agent of transformation and restoration.
  • Proactively contribute to the creative development of the city/world.
  • Live in the city/world and be a part its life–make a difference.
  • Do not act alone (partner).
  • Share your faith responsibly through action, love, and meaningful relationships. Use a language that is understandable to the civic world (navigating worlds–bilingual).

Principles of engagement in the civic context:

  • If you are using religious language and terms you can’t explain to a 5-year old, eliminate from your public use.If you can’t explain it you probably shouldn’t be using them anyway.
  • Remove religious symbols from your public communication. (You can rarely hide who you really are as soon as people get to know you.)
  • Don’t apologize for what you believe. Don’t defend what you believe. Don’t criticize others for what they believe. Live out your faith, not your religious views.
  • Show people your values—love, generosity, service, etc. Help people accomplish what they want, not your agenda (if you don’t know theirs, ask).
  • Ask yourself and others, what is the common good? Seek it–together.
  • Develop your spiritual health Reflect often. Read the Bible through like a novel at least one time in your life. You might be surprised what’s in it. Read about other religious views on spirituality. Consider Thich Nhat Hanh, Albert Noland, Harold Kushner and Rumi. Reflect often.
  • Unplug. (Stay away from technology and media for a while). Get up very early and sit in the quiet of the morning.
  • Pray for others.
  • Eliminate from your life, as much as is possible, negative and draining thoughts, people, and situations.
  • Enjoy good movies. Eat good food and enjoy fine wine with friends.
  • Tell someone you love them everyday.
  • Be honest with others and yourself.
  • Take a walk.
  • Do something nice for someone today and don’t tell anyone about it.
  • Reflect often.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s