40 Years Later – Pt 2 – Revisiting Centered and Bounded Sets

Last month, we redefined centered sets and bounded sets here.

A bounded set is a collection of all objects which possess the defining characteristics which determine the membership of the set.

A centered set is a collection of all objects which are moving towards a well-defined center.

This month we will review Hiebert’s original observations on the impact of using the two types of sets with reference to Christianity.

Hiebert’s Views

Hiebert saw 4 consequences of using the bounded set conception.

1. We would define “Christian” in terms of definitive characteristics that are perceivable (orthopraxy and orthodoxy).

2. We would make a clear distinction between “Christian” and a “non-Christian”.

3. We would view all “Christians” as essentially the same.

4. We would stress evangelism as the major task-getting people into the category.

He also saw consequences of using the centered set conception.

1. A Christian who be defined in terms of a center- of who is God.

2. There is a clear division between being a Christian and not being a Christian. The boundary is there. But there is less stress on maintaining the boundary.

3. There is recognition of variation among Christians.

A Review

Dr. Hiebert was a revolutionary thinker here, and he got so many things right. The consequences of using a bounded set paradigm are clearly correct. But, even though Dr. Hiebert championed the centered set paradigm, he was unable to fully embrace all of its implications. In this, he joins some of the greatest minds in history. It was the case with Max Planck and light quanta, and Einstein and quantum mechanics. It was the case with Calvin and his theology. Dr. Hiebert cannot let go of the idea that humans must (at some level) determine who is and is not Christian, and therefore that a centered-set conception must have a boundary. So he used the language of centered, well-formed set. It is an evolutionary step, but it does not fulfill the revolutionary promise inherent in these concepts. Dr. Hiebert attempts to have his cake, and eat it too.

If we take the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13 seriously, then we cannot and should not try to determine who is in and out of the kingdom. We are told to wait for Jesus and the final judgment. This lends itself to a centered-set approach to Christianity. This approach  is an excellent fit for integral mission because it emphasizes the similarity of all people. All people will flourish as they grow towards God, regardless of their current location.

Where the Hiebert’s original thinking needs further development is in realizing the continued usefulness of the bounded set. The centered set is not a “more Hebraic” model of thinking, nor is it better than the bounded set.  It is a different conceptual tool, with different strengths and weaknesses.

There are many bounded set experiences in Scripture. Baptism, church discipline, and Communion don’t make sense from a centered-set perspective. Baptism is a ritual in which a person symbolically dies to their old self and old allegiances, and joins a new group and a new life. This new group is part of the global churchleaving behind of the old, and a joining to a new group of people, a local church. Church discipline can only be implemented among people who share a common identity and grouping. This can be a local church, a denomination, or some other group. But church discipline only makes sense within a bounded group. Even the kingdom of God itself is a bounded set metaphor. Those who are recognized as leaders or role models within the kingdom have the ability to declare certain actions and values as non-Christian. Different people will disagree with the positions that the Pope takes on certain issues, but we should all agree that not everyone who claims to be Christian should be allowed to define our beliefs and values. While salvation may not be a bounded set, we need a bounded group of people who can represent the faith! If not, why can’t heretical sects like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists?

In fact, we are challenged by Paul in Scripture to determine whether we are “in” or “out” fo the kingdom of God. He uses the phrase “work out your own salvation”. The bounded set is an incredibly important tool that shouldn’t be cast aside. So is the centered set. Neither is better or worse than the other. They are both good at different things. An overly “centered” approach never asks people to consider whether they have or have not been rescued from the kingdom of darkness and entered the kingdom of light. It can be falsely inclusive. An overly “bounded” approach never asks if brothers and sisters are growing in Christ, nor does it acknowledge that becoming a Christian is a process. It can be overly divisive, with theologians worrying about whether Catholics or Anabaptists are “really” Christian instead of sending workers into fields that are definitely not Christian.

The church in the 21st century needs both the bounded set and the centered set to meet the challenges of the current era. If we are to remember church discipline and other “hard” practices in a world of extreme tolerance, we need to be able to define church and denominational membership in bounded terms without making statements about people’s salvation. We need to be able to talk about actions (e.g., genocide, post-apostolic inspired scriptures, etc.) that are definitely outside of the bounds of Christianity, and which are anathema. We need to be able to say that the Rwandan genocide was not Christian.

At the same time, the integral mission approach acknowledges so many aspects of our shared humanity, of our shared quest for decency and for God, of our shared capacity for evil and sin among believers and unbelievers, that it cannot be thrown away. It is too powerful a unifying tool. It brings together conversion and discipleship, and reminds us that they are inseparable. It is a dynamic tool that focuses on the change. The centered set approach doesn’t care about what fruit your life has produced in the past, it asks about your fruit today? In a world where so many fail to finish well, the centered set reminds us that the destination is important! We can all be thankful to Dr. Hiebert for bringing these two concepts to our attention. Let us continue to grow in how we apply them!

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