Borrowing from Soren Kierkegaard titled book, Either/Or, I feel like I want to do a follow-up post on the review of The Church of Us Vs. Them by David Fitch. It has been on my heart to recognize that perhaps bridges need to be built between the Christian story all across the world. We’ve become sectarians within the Christian story. It is either you are A (theologically, practically, insert your descriptor) or you are B (insert you another descriptor). We have found ourselves part of a culture that easily embraces division and difference and has lost sight of the beautiful meta-narrative. Perhaps this is the result of a postmodern ideological practice; the loss of a meta-narrative that gives us some semblance of guidance, which is incredibly sad because the church is in fact rooted in a beautiful meta-narrative of the gospel (and I don’t mean just the personal salvific gospel). The gospel, that intends to engage with the beautiful creation, its fallenness through sin and the restorative and redemptive narrative through Jesus and the fulfillment of the Kingdom.
As I ponder about how our church has become either/or, I also ponder on the kind of culture that we are comfortable with. Perhaps this is the by-product of our modernist, rationalist or perhaps even pragmatic thinking. The way that we approach how we place ourselves is always through the image of a scale. There is a center and we place ourselves on either side; the more progressive/liberal shifts to the left and the more conservative lean right. But I wonder if we ever thought about what this paradigm means? Or how this thought begins to divide us without even understanding the deeper narrative and practice of each side? What does the center mean? And is there any purpose for the center? Can anything be truly centred?
I want to bring us back to the idea that Dr. Paul G. Hiebert introduced in his article “Conversion, Culture, and Cognitive Categories,”1 the bounded and centred set. The bounded set is largely describing what something is and what something isn’t. While the center set focuses on the commonality. With these thoughts, I wonder if what is being described of our divisive church today is because we have rooted ourselves in a bounded set paradigm in the way that we understood church. Perhaps through the lens of systematic theology, we can delineate whether or not something is inside the structure or outside the structure? Is our core understanding of substitutionary atonement the same as someone else? How do we practice the eucharist (or do we even call it the eucharist)? Baptism, for babies or only for believers? These are some of the framing guidelines that we have set to envelope us in our theological and practical frameworks.
I wonder if Christians have shared how we see the world in the lenses of politics? There is a hard line that separates the two sides of theological frameworks. As the following diagram depicts, we see the left as progressive/liberals and the right as conservatives. The question that I pose is what is the orientating force that helps people understand if there is any movement along the line? Or are these the camps that we have to instill upon people?
Yet, I wonder if what breaks us out of this strict ideological (because I don’t think that it is purely theological) bounded set is to shift to a centred set paradigm. Borrowing from our American friends, The Gravity Leadership, Jesus is the orienting center that is drawing us closer towards the center that is Him. Perhaps instead of a linear perspective that has boundaries, we need to adjust to a more centred set where we are orbiting and orienting towards the center in Christ? I think that it is quite humbling to see ourselves not on a perfect linear line or even place ourselves as the center in Christ but that as we are orbiting, the gravitational pull of Jesus draws us closer to Him and in some ways draws us closer to one another.
If I may propose this second figure. In this picture, it depicts Jesus as the center, the focal point for everything that surrounds it. But what this picture paints, is that each of the different “groups” is not divided within a linear line but they are oriented towards Jesus. This perspective also reminds us that the orienting center is Jesus and we are being pulled closer towards Him. And as we draw closer to Jesus, I think we begin to see others we may have fear or have not known also becomes closer. This breaks down the diametrical separation on a chart but reminds us that we all are in need of Christ and we striving to constantly be on a path towards Him.
I truly believe that this orienting centred set in Jesus would help us shift in the ways that we practice church. It will break us out of the mentality of the church as Us Vs Them. But instead, with humility, approach and engage our neighbouring churches and our neighbours with a different orientation and sensitivity. This requires a different posture; an orienting centre in Jesus requires the outer orbits to actually crash into one another. There is something about the idea of presence (which you can also read more about in David Fitches’ other book Faithful Presence) that is the practice of a centred set in Jesus. This moves us into relationship instead of holding others with a measuring stick. Presence and relationship move us beyond ideology and frameworks. Dan White Jr’s book Love Over Fear contends that love, as in the actual relational entering into one another’s lives is the only way to dispel fear. And this is the kind of presence I believe can be found and practiced in the centred set way of looking at the Church.
Our neighbouring churches: when the orienting center is Jesus we can actually give up what banners we hold in our churches. Instead of seeing churches with specific lenses and markers of theology, practices, liturgies, passions, etc. we begin to journey together to see one another as people; especially people of God. To nurture and curate spaces where we can dialogue about differences and perhaps even to the point where our relationships give way to mutual submission, mutual accountability, mutual correction and mutual Kingdom practices. It is easy to label someone as different but it is hard to sit and enter into one another stories. But this risk was modelled in the way Jesus broke down those early barriers. For in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slaves nor free, male and female but all are in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28) But does that mean there are no longer any differences? I believe that the centred set in Jesus equips us with a new way to see one another; not with the lens of difference but with the lens of ones who are in Christ.
Our neighbourhoods: As church communities begin to come together and begin to nurture this orienting center in Jesus, I believe that we are actually beginning to witness to the gospel. When John the disciple, writes about Jesus telling the disciple that the world will know that we are His disciples by our love for one another. This is a testament to how we witness (borrowing from Stanley Hauerwas) the Kingdom politics of our days. We learn to form a new way of life that offers a counter-story in our culture and in our world. But that begins by realizing and practicing the orienting center of Jesus. What if the Christian communities in one entire neighbourhood begin to come together to practice ways that nurture and tend to the needs of the community? What if the Churches gather regularly to learn from and speak into one another? What if the Churches celebrated together the things happening in the community and are present together in pivotal realities and situations in its community together? What kinds of witness do you think that will offer to the culture around us? Would this be the kind of church that offers the way of the Kingdom? Would people question the authenticity and heart of the churches?
I close with a quote attributed to the 16th-century mystic, Teresa of Avila. She wrote of the Christian community as the hands and feet of Christ. The bounded set will separate the limbs from its whole but I contend that the centred set (rooted in Jesus) reveals the true body of Christ; the bride to the bridegroom. For what hope does the world have with a fragmented church? For how can we serve the masses in the midst of a crisis, such as the one we are experiencing if we fixate on infighting? For how can the whole body of Christ be the whole body if do not recognize our roles and our parts and heed the guidance and leadership from Jesus?
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.