By Corey Fields
I have a childhood memory of driving with my family across state lines and, in bewilderment, asking my mother where the line was.
That may have been my first introduction to the arbitrary and human-made nature of many of life’s boundaries, some of which are defended in violent and tragic ways.
I can’t help but see irony (and theology?) in the fact that most of the straight boundaries on a map are human-drawn, while the ones that are jagged and irregular are God-drawn (e.g., rivers).
In one sense, boundaries are necessary. We humans can’t function without them, neither in the physical nor conceptual world.
When it comes to how we perceive things, Teller the Magician explains it well: “Our brains don’t see everything — the world is too big, too full of stimuli. So the brain takes shortcuts, constructing a picture of reality with relatively simple algorithms for what things are supposed to look like.”
These “simple algorithms” that we use to understand and categorize the world can quickly become what Chimamanda Adichie called “the single story.” The problem is that these algorithms and boundaries can quickly trip us up. Life is complicated, and these boundaries often don’t behave. As Adichie put it, “Stereotypes are not necessarily untrue, but they are largely incomplete.” Herself from Nigeria, she tells of the confusion some experience upon learning that not all Africans are poor.
We struggle to understand our world and see complexity. CNN anchors didn’t seem to grasp it when Reza Aslan told them that there are some “Muslim countries” that honor civil rights, while some “Christian countries” oppress women. Last week, some U.S. lawmakers were clearly confused upon learning that the Iranian government has joined the fight against ISIS.
The namesake of St. Patrick’s Day was a fifth-century missionary and bishop in Ireland who didn’t keep his boundaries straight. Not himself Irish, he transgressed the boundaries of privilege and culture to bring the message of Christ to a country in which he had earlier been enslaved for six years. According to his letter Confessio, his Christian peers in Roman Britain would ask, “Why does this man want to work among these barbarians who don’t know God?”
Boundary keeping is a staple in religion. People have been marginalized, jailed and killed for falling outside determined limits — limits which are usually set by those in power. Boundaries play a role in aiding our understanding but all too often serve to shield us from having to engage with changing circumstances.
Theology must always have a context. The context for theology is always a human context, and the human context is fluid. Reality does not operate by “the single story” or simple algorithms.
This is why some contemporary Christian authors have latched onto Paul Hiebert’s distinction of bounded sets vs. centered sets. Hiebert was a missionary to India in the early 1960s. In his work, he encountered a lot of boundaries that didn’t behave, and he drew on this distinction from set theory and applied it to the question, “Who is a Christian?”
Bounded-set thinking sees things in clear categories. Criteria determine who is in and who is out. You are in if you meet the criteria, possess certain characteristics or believe certain things. In centered-set thinking, the question is not whether one is in or out but rather what one’s orientation is in relation to a central focal point.
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch explain the difference with an analogy from ranching. They noticed that in the United States, fences are erected to keep livestock within boundaries (bounded set). In Australia, however, ranches tend to be too big for a fence to be practical, and they instead have a well that is central to the property. Though there is little to restrict animals’ movement, they eventually return to the water source and their grazing habits begin to revolve around it (centered set).
In short, bounded sets are about criteria. Centered sets are about values and orientation.
Contemporary missional church authors have picked up on this shift and see something much more true and helpful in centered-set thinking. In fact, it’s how Jesus himself seemed to operate (making it hard for him to get along with the bounded-set religious authorities).
He said that the law could be summarized by the commands to love God and love neighbor (Matthew 22:40). In the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3ff), Jesus held up the values and orientations of the kingdom of God: peacemaking, mercy, thirsting for righteousness. Jesus looked at people who thought they were well within the boundaries and said, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).
Christians must learn to see Jesus as the well in the center more than belief as the fence around the pasture, because immediately the question becomes, “Who gets to put up the fence?” Roger Olson of Truett Seminary, though he has previously signaled a preference for centered-set thinking in his work, recently tried to fence off moderates and liberals in the CBF pasture.
I suppose any of us can succumb to the temptation. As Hiebert has written, bounded sets are “fundamental to American understanding of order.”
What might it look like for the United States to explore a more centered approach to foreign policy? Much of how we relate to the world seems to involve criteria and boundaries instead of values and orientation. Our loyalties remain static even as circumstances and leaders change. What would it look like to center ourselves around the peacemakers and the merciful, wherever they may be? What if we shifted our gaze to those who mourn or are persecuted for righteousness?
Perhaps that’s naive. But I know that, as a Christian, I have been called to follow Jesus into this world that doesn’t behave according to my boundaries and singular stories. Neither does God.