Idealism and realism are often set in tension. One can cling to ideals, living by a set of principles that others admire outwardly even as they reject them as naïve, simplistic, unrealistic; or one can embrace the harsh reality of the “way the world works” and compromise on those ostensibly noble principles in order to effect real change. But, conventional wisdom has it, you cannot do both.
By the grace of God, we as Christians can gleefully reject conventional wisdom. I would suggest that, as Christians, we are called precisely to the via media, the delicate balance between two opposing ideas. We are called to an idealistic realism.
As Christians, we cannot spurn our ideals. We are called to live counter-culturally, and to be uncompromising in our commitment to the principles upheld in God’s Word. If that proves challenging—especially when compromise could provide an easy solution—well, we embrace the challenge as a trial sent by God to perfect our character (James 1:2-4). Of course, those who ridicule the idealists—young ones especially—for naïve optimism frequently have a point. The world is harsh, and people who cling to ideals often get trampled over. However, our mistake lies in thinking that this is the ultimate reality. The “real world” is poorly named, for this world is passing away. The ultimate cannot be found in the world. Reality is, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, found only in God: “The wise man is aware of the limited receptiveness of reality for principles; for he knows that reality is not built upon principles but that it rests upon the living and creating God.” If our ideals (not principles, but the revelation of God) and reality rest upon the living God, they should remain indissolubly linked.
So what, then, is the true via media? Not a choice between idealism and realism; rather, the true via media is avoiding the extremes of naïve optimism and cynical pragmatism. These are unbiblical extremes.
Naïve optimism blinds itself to the reality that rests on God, settling for a clichéd version of robust biblical truth. This hollow approach to Christianity produces greeting-card theology, and simply cannot engage meaningfully with the brutal reality of this world. Jesus did not seek to shelter his followers from the bleakest possible appraisal of the coming times (cf. John 16:33), and the apostles and prophets harped on it unceasingly. We should be no different. Not everything will come up roses—and even when it does, we may find our brows thorn-pricked still. We follow a crucified Savior, and we who have been called to a life of discipleship have been called to die. That is the brutal reality we face.
At the same time, we are not called to cynical pragmatism. Cynical pragmatists sneer condescendingly at the optimists and idealists because they think they have a better grasp of reality. Life is hard, compromise is inevitable, and so pragmatists counsel doing what works, pursuing the utilitarian at the occasional expense of the ideal. Churches capitulate to this most American philosophy when they cast aside the ideals of Scripture in pursuit of superficial ministry goals. The excesses of the church-growth movement are undeniably founded on this sandy premise. But this sort of compromise refuses to trust in the revelation of God (one thinks of issues like prayer, sacrificial giving, and the long obedience of discipleship), and instead relies sinfully on human ingenuity to accomplish a lesser vision.
Take money as an example of how each alternative knocks us off course. The naïve optimist imagines that certain contextualized promises in Scripture guarantee financial provision, neglecting those passages that speak of trial, famine, hardship. (The faithful suffer along with the sinful when God brings judgment on the land, after all.) The cynical pragmatist, however, adopts the world’s wisdom on the subject, the same approach to retirement, savings, even giving (giving levels among Christians are scarcely higher than the nation at large). They neglect Scripture’s teaching on daily bread, the idolatrous dangers of saving, sacrificial giving. (The woman Jesus commended gave away her money for food, after all.)
Idealistic realists, however, can tread the fine line between these two unbiblical extremes. They recognize the harsh reality of the world, while at the same time clinging unshakably to the ideals revealed in Scripture.
Speaking of ethics—the way we should live our lives in the light of the brutality of this world and the promises of God—Bonhoeffer writes, “Formalism and casuistry set out from the conflict between the good [the ideal] and the real, but the Christian ethic can take for its point of departure the reconciliation, already accomplished, of the world with God and the man Jesus Christ and the acceptance of the real man by God.” As Christians, we joyfully acknowledge the reconciliation of the real and the ideal in Christ, and live like it is true.