A term that gets discussed quite a bit in missiology is the ‘excluded middle’. This short article explains it better than me but it’s basically the idea that our western categories of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ are too binary for the reality of the world. There’s more overlap between the spirit world and the natural world than we normally believe.
Other cultures see much more of a middle ground. The classic clash of worldviews comes when considering irrational behaviour: westerners typically label this ‘mental illness’; people from other cultures might call it ‘spirit possession’.
Our ‘excluded middle’ causes several problems for us westerners. To varying degrees, we overlook spiritual explanations for what seem to us to be ‘natural’ events. We have difficulty believing that God will act in our every day lives. We don’t pray about ‘ordinary’ things and we don’t know how to communicate to others the relevance of Christianity beyond solving our existential or philosophical crises.
So what hope is there for us? How can we un-exclude the middle?
I think the best example of an ‘un-excluded middle’ that I’ve observed in the west is my grandma, Nanny. She’s a real character in general: she talks constantly; flirts with men half her age; and is just slightly racist – ‘The Chinese are taking over the neighbourhood – but I don’t mind as long as they speak English good!’
She became a Christian when she was about 50, converted by a door-to-door salesperson she now claims was an angel sent from God. She also talks to God almost constantly. She brings all her concerns confidently to him. When she doesn’t think she’ll be able to get out of bed, she prays for strength. When she can’t find ‘the damn remote’, she prays to find it. When the microwave breaks down, she asks God to fix it. At one level, this just seems incredibly self-centred; at another, it speaks of utter dependence.
Her mobility has deteriorated recently meaning she could no longer live independently in her home in Sydney where she’s been for the last 55 years. So she moved into a nursing home around the corner from my parents in Adelaide: a huge change for her. (This is a woman who panics if she has to wait more than 5 minutes for her after-dinner coffee!) There were moments when she was settling in when she was unhappy, so of course she prayed. And not just prayers for patience but prayers like asking God to send her Red Twin at a specific time because she was lonely.
As it turned out, Red Twin was writing a seminar that day but she felt like it ‘wrote itself’. She suddenly had a free hour on her hands so she thought she may as well pop in and see Nanny rather than going the next day as she had planned. Imagine Red Twin’s surprise when she turned up and Nanny said to her, “I knew you’d come. I prayed for you to come and God sent you to me to comfort me.”
If you have an excluded middle, you call that coincidence. Maybe if you’re a Christian, you call it a ‘miracle’. But for my Nanny, who doesn’t have an excluded middle, it’s not unusual in the slightest. God answers these sorts of prayers for her all the time. I think for most of us westerners it takes a lot of faith to pray prayers like that, because we’re worried that God won’t answer them. So there’s a lot to be learnt from Nanny. Her stories embolden me to pray, believing that God isn’t distant from the everyday or the ‘natural’.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.