Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fences or Wells? Billiard balls or sponges?

(Via Brad)

John Ortberg has found yet another way to express our ecclesiological crisis, in terms of "bounded sets" or "fences," and "centered sets" or "wells." But the metaphysics behind his metaphors and mine are the same: which best describes the world? Nominalism, or some sort of metaphysical Realism?

As I've written elsewhere ( here and here and here ) nominalists deny universals, and in so doing they cannot account for participation, relationship and "nearness or farness." Because nominalists see things as discrete individuals, persons are billiard balls on the Great Pool Table of Life. Billiard balls can only be collected by means of a rack, which "fences" them into an artificial grouping. The ball is either "in" or "out." But Platonists, Aristotelians and Thomists allow for both individuals and universals, and so are able to handle and express genuine relationships.

Ortberg's well metaphor is rich in this context, but I also like to think of persons as those little dry compressed sponges, increasingly soaking up Christ's Living Water; growing in their capacity to absorb His truth and goodness, and to blot out sin and injustice.

Category Confusion
Is the question for Christians "Out or In?" or "Farther or Closer?"
John Ortberg, in Leadership

Not long ago I was at a church in the South and a recent convert named Mike told me he had a bone to pick with the church. He was drawn to Christianity by the message of grace. "I was told that being a Christian wasn't about anything I had to do; it was about a sacrifice that had already been done on my behalf. But now that I'm on the inside, I'm told I have to do stuff all the time. I have to go to church, I have to read the Bible, I have to give money, I have to volunteer.

"I feel like the victim of a bait-and-switch."

So I had him read an article on bounded-vs.-centered sets by anthropologist Paul Hiebert titled "Sets and Structures: A Study in Church Patterns."

Not really. I'm not sure it's quite right for Mike. But it is a real article, and it sheds light on Mike's problem in a brilliant way.

Paul (Hiebert, not the apostle) said that much of how we approach church and the spiritual life depends on our deep assumptions about what it means to be Christian. He talked about two different categories, or "sets," we use to understand being a Christian.

A bounded set is one where all its members are determined by focusing on the boundary. For instance, "apples" is a bounded set. Whether or not an item fits depends on whether it meets the criteria for apples—having skin and seeds and so on. Membership in a bounded set is static. Whether you're a rotten apple or a ripe apple does not affect your appleness. The focus is not on movement but position.

A centered set, on the other hand, is determined by a focus on the center. For example, "bald-headed people" would be a centered set. The paradigmatic member would be Mr. Clean, at the center of the set.

Centered sets are dynamic, in motion. A baby might be born with no hair, but hair is coming, so that baby may start near the center but moves away and eventually is out of the category. On the other hand, a 20-year-old might have hair, but it's already starting to stay on the comb, so he's on his way into the category.

With centered sets, the key question is whether I am oriented and moving toward the center or moving away from the center. I'm defined on where I am, and where I'm moving, in relation to the center.

When I read this, it helped me understand the problem Mike (and so many churches) face.

If we treat Christianity as a bounded set, there will always be a disconnect between the gospel and discipleship. The gospel will be presented as something to get you "inside the circle." Once you're inside, we don't want to say you have to do anything to stay in (that would be salvation by works). But we don't want to say you don't have to do anything (the triumph of entropy, or, to use a biblical word, being lukewarm, or to use a theological word, antinomianism). So we don't know what to say.

However, if we treat Christianity as a centered set, the relationship between the gospel and discipleship becomes much clearer. The gospel is the proclamation that life with and through Jesus is now available to ordinary people. It is a free gift of forgiveness and grace that cannot be earned. If I want it, the way that I enter into it is by becoming a follower of Jesus and orienting our lives with him at the center.

The problem with a bounded-set approach to Christianity is not that it highlights the difference between Christians and non-Christians; it's that it highlights the wrong differences, and encourages us to exaggerate and claim differences that don't exist. For instance, Jesus had a lot to say about concern for the poor. But if we think that non-Christians are also concerned for the poor, we won't focus on it much because it doesn't highlight "how we are different."

If we focus on Jesus as the center, then the key question becomes whether someone is oriented toward him or away from him. We realize that God is in a much better position than we are to know who's in and who's out. We also realize that everyone has something to learn, that everyone has a next step to take, and we don't have to make ourselves seem more different than we really are. We embrace our common humanity.

Somebody wrote that in Australia there are two main methods for keeping cattle on the ranch. One is to build a fence around the perimeter. The other is to dig a well in the center of the property.

I think Jesus is more like a well than a fence.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park (California) Presbyterian Church and an editor at large of Leadership.

1 comment:

Ann said...

The thought of catechesis and how many months & years it would take before the early church would baptize their catechumens came to mind. Putting the membership cart before the discipling horse seems to be our contemporary pattern, doesn't it? Thanks for the thoughts, Beth!