Monday, July 27, 2009

Centered Set vs Bounded Set Christianity

I originally wrote this in my private journal on 11/7/2007.  I moved it here to my public blog due to several conversations I've had with people on this particular topic.  This discovery changed my thinking substantially.


I've been taking an online self-paced Theology Program and learning more than I expected. One concept in the intro course text by Roger Olsen particularly captured my attention. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity significantly impacted my views on defining orthodoxy.

Olsen describes two perspectives of defining orthodoxy. He calls them bounded set and centered set views. I've always been a bounded set guy. I didn't even realize there was another way. The bounded set view defines the essential beliefs for anyone to be properly classified as a Christian. Having an "essentials" list appeals to my analytical personality which likes to put things in categorizes. In fact, there are two categories of people in this world. Those who put things into categories and those who do not!

For analytical people like me, the bounded set view can result in an inordinate amount of time and energy spent on boundary maintenance. Trying to figure out what is "in" and what is "out" of the essentials list is difficult, and it can lead to strained relationships and excessive and unnecessary conflict that works against the desired unity that Jesus taught as a necessary part of being the church.

I've been working on my theological boundary problems for most of my adult life. This caused a lot of relational tension over the years with people whom I care about a lot. But why should I be surprised? Theologians have been working on these orthodoxy problems for nearly two thousand years. Not a few wars have been waged over these issues. The problem with the bounded set approach is the sheer diversity of views on what is "in" and what is "out" of the set of essential beliefs that define orthodoxy. The Bible is pretty clear starting in Genesis that God loves diversity, so rather than fight what appears to be the nature-of-things, I began looking at the centered set approach.

Centered set theory was a totally new perspective for me. Ironically, I told my wife about my new discovery, and she matter-of-factly said, "I've always thought about it like that." At that point, I did my best Homer Simpson impression and slapped my forehead with a big "Doh!" My own better half knew this all along?! For the last 12+ years I've been beating my head against the boundary problem while the person who climbs into bed with me every night has thought about the problem in a completely different and enlightened manner. I guess I'm a slow learner and should be taking theology lessons from my wife!

Anyway, centered set theory makes a lot of sense. It is a new way of thinking for me. Jesus is the center. I may be taking a little liberty with my interpretation of Olsen's description, but the gist of the centered set view is that orthodoxy is not defined by a set of bounded beliefs. Rather, it is an ongoing process of moving beliefs toward the center which is Jesus Christ, son of God and savior of mankind.  I could go into this much deeper, but I want to think about it for a few days before writing more. This has been a serious paradigm shift in my thinking.

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