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Flaw of the Excluded Middle

Flaw of the Excluded Middle. A concept developed by missiologist Paul Hiebert in an article in Missiology 10:1 (January 1982, pp. 35-47) and later reprinted in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Hiebert observed that the Western two-tiered view of the universe typically left out an entire dimension seen quite readily by people of non-Western cultures. Hiebert built his analysis on a two-dimensional matrix. The first dimension is that of three worlds or domains: (1) a seen world (that which is of this world and seen), (2) the unseen of this world (that which is of this world but not seen), and (3) an unseen transempirical world (that which pertains to heavens, hells, and other worlds). The second dimension is that of two types of analogies people use to explain the powers around them: (1) an organic analogy (powers are personal, e.g., gods and spirits) and (2) a mechanical analogy (powers are impersonal, e.g., gravity and electricity).

Combining the seen/unseen/transempirical worlds and organic/mechanical analogies into a matrix, Hiebert’s model highlighted the difference between Westerners, who tend to see only two worlds (the seen world and the transempirical world) and many non-Westerners who recognize the middle world, comprised of unseen powers (magical forces, evil eye, mana) and spirits that are very much a part of everyday human life (e.g., a person is ill because of a curse or a spirit attack). The blind spot in the Western worldview Hiebert labeled the flaw of the excluded middle.

His model was quickly picked up by missionaries and missiologists working among nonWestern populations, especially those working in areas such as spiritual warfare. It was used to give legitimacy to demonic and spiritual explanations of phenomena that had been previously overlooked by Western theology, anthropology, and missiology, all of which tended to look for socalled natural explanations for the observed phenomena. As a tool it named an area many evangelical missionaries had missed in their training and identified the sources of their discomfort in finding ways to contextually address middle world issues in non-Western cultures.

For some, however, the pendulum has swung so far that the danger is a flaw of an expanded middle in which every strange event is thought to have a middle domain explanation; this is especially significant in the contemporary discussion of territorial spirits. Using the middle domain to explain all such events is taking Hiebert’s analytic model beyond its intention, which was to address the ways events are explained in differing cultures rather than to give an ontological picture of the explanations behind such events.



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