Note: This post uses religious symbolism for secular purposes. It is not a tool of proselytization.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matthew 7:13-14 New International Version (NIV)
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to the difference between the ways of the world and the ways of God. The pathway to life, to wholeness and to flourishment requires a precise balance of internal spiritual devotion and outward service to one’s fellow man. This mandates a disciplined will, one that resists the allure of panaceas and tribal camaraderie. Excesses and extremes of all types push traveling pilgrims off the narrow path of eternal life and onto the vast highway of perdition. Without any aim besides hedonistic pleasure, a life without moral consideration will lead to destruction. On the other hand, an isolated life obsessively focused on the cultivation of righteous virtue, without any interpersonal relationships or care for the ‘least of these,’ will also lead to death and misery. The way to salvation, to wholeness, is only accessible through the narrow and ambiguous path, between the clearly defined broad roads of excess that promise instant gratification, clarity and ease. It’s a treacherous road that requires patience, sacrifice and the ability to function without the illusion of omniscience.
While Christ’s words leave a somewhat ambiguous mental image of the broad and narrow gates, I interpret the narrow gate to be in the center of the broad road; it’s surrounded on both sides by the broad’s decadence and extremism. Lust and greed can pull a weak mind off the narrow path, but so can selfish love and codependency that masquerades as compassion. The righteous traveler is precise and principled. She recognizes that every virtue can be turned into a vice if travelers lose sight of the prize (the narrow gate to the Kingdom) and fall victim to the expediency and easy-to-grasp, common sense appeal of earthly pleasures. She is able to grasp the counter-intuitiveness of the narrow road, largely through her thoughtfulness and immunity to absolutist ideologies, which characterize the world in convenient binary terms. While her ‘broad’ counterparts, who revel in self-righteousness and perceived moral superiority, relish the opportunity to play the role of moral oracle, she avoids the innate human urge to characterize those that disagree with her as deplorable, despicable or unqualified to comment on the state of the world. She is able to benefit from the truths of opposing extremes, but is also able to recognize and avoid the falsehoods that dwell amongst the truths (every human’s understanding of the world IS based on truth to a degree, hence why everyone should have a voice and be heard and respected). She obeys Christ’s command:
It’s important to note that the primacy and utility of the principle illustrated by Christ’s the ‘broad’ and the ‘narrow’ metaphor is completely independent of religious affiliation or theistic inclination. Non-believers adhere to the same basic principles of prosperity as their faithful counterparts. Adherence to these timeless tenets provides joy and health in the present life; eternal consequences don’t even need to enter the conversation (heaven has never been a noble motivator for virtue). Concepts like balance, well-roundedness and equilibrium are seldomly viewed pejoratively and they’re embedded in the world’s oldest philosophies and worldviews (bias, prejudice and extremism ARE viewed negatively). We see these principles illustrated in countless avenues, ranging from meteorology (a raging tornado is nothing more than nature’s attempt to regulate extreme variances in air temperature) to child-rearing. Psychologists and medical experts universally agree that both authoritarian parenting (emphasis on discipline) and permissive parenting (emphasis on love and bonding) lead to harmful consequences for children later in life. The middle option, called authoritative parenting, implements clearly defined boundaries and rules without ignoring a child’s emotional needs. Clinical researchers agree that authoritative child-rearing is the most effective style of parenting.
Judeo-Christian philosophies aren’t the only schools of thought that recognize the ‘broad’ and the ‘narrow.’ The dualist concept, Yin & Yang, of Taoism and Confucianism, illustrate the productive interplay and chaotic tension that exists between two fundamentally opposing forces, each of which are integral to the success and continuity of the cosmology; the perpetuation of existence is rendered impossible by the removal of one of the system’s two forces.
The absence of one force can serve as the definition for the other. In Genesis 1, the Hebrew God creates the world by splitting the infinitely dense darkness into opposite elements of reality, all of which give rise to one another and rely on one another. Land gives way to water, which then gives way to land. Night follows day, but precedes the next day. His final work, the creation of man and woman, marks the seminal dichotomy of masculinity and femininity (for devout practitioners of political correctness, this metaphor has nothing to do with LGBTQ+ politics; you need not be triggered). The ancient Hebrew uses the actual words for the qualities of masculinity and femininity and not for the modern concept of biological sexes. The two forces were joined together in union; each one complimented the other, each one was a function of the other. We’ve all seen what happens when the balance is disturbed. Hypermasculine excesses cause war, destruction and tyranny, but an overreliance on feminine values and judgments can lead to codependency, oversensitivity and inaction. A healthy equilibrium conjures order from the extremes’ mayhem. God created humanity in his image, which means that masculinity and femininity are both equal components of God’s infinity.
The non-religious typically dislike the extraction of universal truths from religious tradition. Non-believers have blessed the world with a healthy dose of skepticism, which is an apt remedy for the ‘broad’ path of religious fundamentalism. Atheists and secularists have provided indispensable checks on the arrogant dogmatism and intolerance of authoritarian religiosity, an abominable ideological extreme. There are few things more terrifying than a theocracy. Nevertheless, in addition to curtailing the excesses of religion, the atheists want religious tradition eradicated completely.
The pendulum never seems to only partially swing; it goes from one side all the way to the other. Arguments made by Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet and others about this point go something like: all wars were started by religion or religious texts were from the bronze age and therefore nothing useful can be gleaned from them or religion is intrinsically evil. While the sentiments that underlie those statements are, at the very least, partially justified, the arguments themselves are historically specious and they betray a fundamental ignorance of the purpose of religion, which provide answers of existential meaning, not of material origins. No one can fault the atheists for their frustration with the failures of religious institutions. That beings said, atheists simply prefer secular fundamentalism to religious fundamentalism. Both options are not ideal for the individual or for civilization. While religious fundamentalism is intrinsically destructive and divisive, enlightened religious expression is not. It takes a titanic amount of hubris to think that our ancestors’ beliefs and ancient wisdom, accumulated across millenia, have nothing to teach us.
The narrow gate is not attainable through arrogant fundamentalism, which promises all answers and demands ideological conformity. It requires humility, healthy skepticism, balance and the hallmark of righteousness: an immunity to the anxieties typically triggered by vagueness. Expediency and convenience are not concepts that can be availed on the path rarely taken. Truth cannot be spoon fed. Truth is procured through struggle. Wisdom is not a gem that’s ready to be sold. It requires refinement. One must go through an epistemic struggle before the beauty of truth is revealed.
- Saad, Lydia. (2017). “ U.S. Conservatives Outnumber Liberals by Narrowing Margin.” Gallup, Inc.
- Hardie-Williams, Kathy. (2014). “Authoritarian and Authoritative Parenting Styles: Which Is Best?.” GoodTherapy.org.
- Cartwright, Mark. (2018). “Yin and Yang.” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
- Savage, Deborah. (2015). “The Nature of Woman in Relation to Man: Genesis 1 and 2 through the Lens of the Metaphysical Anthropology of Aquinas.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture.
- Benner, Jeff. (1999). “The Nature of God (Elohim).” Ancient Hebrew Research Center.