Set Thinking image

Set Thinking

Recently I was in a gathering of church leaders in which we were challenged to move from ‘bounded set’ to ‘centred set’ thinking. A bounded set is one in which there is clear demarcation between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. By contrast, in a centred set everyone is on a ‘journey’ (dread word!), which means there isn’t so much an in/out as different points towards the same destination.

I buy this, up to a point. That point is that churches should be welcoming places that strive to remove as many obstacles as possible to people coming in. I think I prefer the illustration of churches functioning either like coconuts (hard to get into, mushy inside) or peaches (soft on the outside, with a hard centre) though. Another point about centred versus bounded sets is that it ought to be possible to have robust and honest dialogue over issues, rather than a tight group-think that prevents discussion. I buy these points, though not all the way, as I think partly it is an issue of perspective: zoom in close enough and a centred set looks a lot like a bounded set, precisely because every set has a centre - and whether one feels ‘in’ or ‘out’ or even (spare us) ‘journeying’ will largely depend on how close one is to the centre.

My hesitation about fully embracing this model is also shaped by its lack of cultural critique. Centred set thinking is very po-mo: it reflects the zeitgeist of individuality and diversity, but can be blind to how what presents as individuality and diversity can actually mask a terrible conformity.

By coincidence, the same day I heard the talk on bounded and centred sets I was contacted by a friend asking about something I’d posted on shame. I’d forgotten about that post, but in it I had quoted Jon Ronson:

We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.
‘Look!’ we’re saying. ‘WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!’
We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.

That’s what post-modernism does: it likes to believe it is a centred set, when in fact it is very bounded. As an example, think of the furore that erupted when gay fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana suggested that gay couples should not adopt or have children by IVF. Up to that point they looked as po-mo and centred set as anyone, but Elton John et al very quickly pointed out they had strayed well beyond the acceptable bounds of the po-mo bounded reality.

The reality is, everyone operates within bounded sets: we just need to be astute to spot where the boundaries lie, and whether they are the correct ones.

For Christians, Jesus is the centre of our set. Actually, he is for everyone, it’s just that Christians are the ones who recognise the fact. In terms of how I do life, do church, I think this should mean being more peach- than coconut-like. That means any kind of person is welcome in the wider ‘community’ of the church, and no questions are off limits. But it also means that when we submit to Christ limits are placed upon our beliefs and actions. Practically, this means (for example) that while I am happy to discuss human sexuality till the cows come home with someone exploring Christianity, I have no more room to budge on the conviction that marriage is one man, one woman, than I do on the hypostatic union.

On some issues my thinking is simply set.

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