Tertium Quid


Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. – Martin Luther King Jr.


I work in an unusual setting – a Franciscan ecospirituality center, founded by a community of Catholic nuns who were inspired by the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. Most of my work days, like anyone’s, are filled with administrative tasks and efforts to react quickly and appropriately to the small daily crises that arise. However, parts of most days are also intellectually stimulating and/or spiritually challenging in ways that stretch me toward greater understanding or deeper self-reflection.

In particular, one of my colleagues is a scholar and theologian whose intellectual capacities and sheer volume of knowledge dwarf mine and, often, leave me speechless. She has a propensity to pepper conversations with Latin, Greek, or German phrases, which she is then required to explain to me. One such phrase is the concept of the “tertium quid“.

Tertium quid: a third thing. There is a long history of the ways this term has been used or applied in legal settings and in theology. But I have come to think of it as a way of seeking something elusive in our polarized culture: a third way. Not one extreme or it’s opposite, but a wholly different thing, connected but distinct from both. The third way.

Here’s a brief  personal example: I grew up with a tendency to see the world as somewhat hostile to me. This view came through in automatic, frustrated thoughts like “why does nothing ever work out for me?” or “seriously, the universe hates me!”. One day a friend dared me to spend the whole day believing that the universe loves me and that everything was geared toward cooperating with me. It turned out to be a pretty great day. I soon found I couldn’t sustain the belief that the world was ordered for my particular benefit. However, once I stepped outside my entrenched view that it was actively hostile toward me, I could no longer sustain that thinking either. Enter the tertium quid, the third way, of thinking about this: the universe isn’t about me. I am, instead, one small soul within it, and the degree to which I relax and cooperate with it determines, in large part, how well the day goes! Taking myself out of the center of my worldview helps me tremendously (when I remember to do it, rather than fall into old habits of thought).

At this moment in our country, in this incredibly divisive political climate which is proving toxic to our humanity, and physically dangerous as well, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tertium quid. Between the polarized ends of extreme views, there must be a third way.

I am guilty of not seeking it either as consistently or as passionately as necessary. During what, in Iowa, has been a full two years of constant political haranguing between the two parties and their almost comical (if it wasn’t so hurtful) need to force either/or thinking upon us, it has been very difficult to seek a third way. We’ve been so rabid to get our points across that we haven’t given any real time, or effort, to listening. At times, when we have tried to speak, we have given up because of the willfully deaf ears our voices spoke to. Far too often, we have had neither open hearts nor open minds.

Two days post-election, I have no panacea that can cure us – just a profound sadness, a deep fear of the chasm opening further between the “two Americas” we keep hearing about, and a heartfelt longing for us to find ways to heal. Right now, it feels like we are being presented with two roads: the Avenue of Violence and Division or the Boulevard of Dominance and Control. I prefer to seek, and pray we find, a Third Way.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still, they say. Watch and listen.

You are the result of the love of thousands.

–Linda Hogan

2 thoughts on “Tertium Quid

  1. Thank you! I love this post. I pray that both sides can come to some understanding that it’s not “My way or the highway.” It has to be our way. As we are the “United” States of America!

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