I start this blog at the place I finished part one, ‘The Failings of Tribes’:
Here’s where I’m at…
I am done with tribal boundaries and the exclusion they foster.
I am done with tribal boundaries and the small god they defend.
I worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God. A God of love, inclusion and God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.
In this blog I hope to build on this conclusion. I hope to offer a practical way forward based on my own reflection and experience. This practical way forward is not new and many of you may already be doing it without even realising it. I am simply trying to articulate where my theological meandering has led me.
What I’ve been calling tribal boundaries, Paul Hiebert, a Missiologist and Anthropologist, would call a ‘bounded-set’. In his article ‘Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories,’ he speaks particularly about what makes a Christian, a Christian and argues that for many this category is defined by a boundary in which you’re in or out. Hiebert says:
‘For example, some define a Christian as a person who believes (gives verbal acknowledgement to) a specific set of doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and so on. Some make such lists quite long and add on specific doctrines of eschatology or soteriology. Others, convinced that true “belief” is more than a mental argument with a set of statements, look for the evidence of belief in changed lives and behaviour. A Christian, then, is one who does not smoke or drink alcohol, and so on. We would make a clear distinction between a “Christian” and a “non-Christian.” There is no place in between. Moreover, maintaining this boundary is critical to the maintenance of the category.’
I find Hiebert’s description of a ‘bounded-set’ helpful in explaining how we traditionally categorise who is a Christian and who isn’t. His categorisation is painting with broad brush strokes and was written long enough ago that many may take a more nuanced approach today. However, I still think there is a lot of truth in what he says.
For those, like myself who are more visual learners, this image may help. The ‘bounded-set’ says that a Christian is one who fits within the circle. You are a Christian if you believe the right things and behave in the right way.
Hiebert’s refection is borne out of his mission work in India and his encountering of a worldview that is completely different to his own as a white, American man. His exploration leads him to be very critical of the ‘bounded-set’ type of categorising. Namely, because his Indian friend’s worldview is so different, they would never fit within these neat demarcations
Hiebert would argue that we need to look beyond the ‘bounded – set’ and move towards a ‘centred–set’, in which the focus is not being ‘in or out’, but on the direction of travel. A ‘centred set’ is dynamic and diverse. There is no uniform way to think or behave. The focus is upon whether you’re heading to the centre or not. We are drawn together in purpose and focus. For example, we are all heading towards Jesus. He is our centre. He is the purpose we journey towards, despite theological differences and differences in the way we behave.
Let me earth what I’m saying with a practical example. My friend, Steve Jones and I, started a community called OPEN last year during the pandemic. I only realised recently that we are organised in a way that would be similar to the language of a ‘Centred Set’, something to which I am very grateful to Steve for pointing out. We are travelling together in the same direction. We have the same purpose and focus.
Our direction of travel is defined by our values. Those values are:
- Open minds – We wish to create a space where people can think and ask questions of all things pertaining to faith in God, without being given prescribed answers.
- Open hearts – We wish to create a space where people can experience the indescribable love of Jesus.
- Open to all – We wish to create a space that is truly inclusive and open to all. We have a particular heart for those from the LGBT community who have often not found many places in which this is the case.
- Open to change – We wish to create a space that is dynamic and one we can explore together whether online or with one another in the flesh. It’s also important that OPEN can end if the time comes. We may just be gathering for a season and that’s OK.
What I have discovered as we’ve journeyed together is that we are not only held together by our direction of travel, our willingness to hold to the four values, but by our relationships also. We trust one another and put these relationships first. Too often have I seen ‘doctrine’ and a desire for some false integrity held over and above genuine relationships.
There are two very clear advantages to this way of gathering and being. 1) Firstly, difference of opinion isn’t feared and discouraged but welcomed and encouraged. We love questions and believe God is made bigger as we learn from one another, being challenged to think beyond our own presuppositions. 2) Secondly, people aren’t excluded for thinking differently. Many of us that gather are, but by no means exclusively, more ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ (both terms that are hugely inadequate, but will have to do for now) in our thinking, but this doesn’t mean you can’t journey with us if you’re not these things. Like I said before, the focus is relationship and direction of travel. If you’re willing to go on an adventure with us, respecting and treating equally the people you disagree with and the beliefs they hold, then we’d love you to come along for the ride.
Our OPEN community has changed me, as I now have a space to think, question and disagree, without fear of exclusion. I have found friends, companions to journey with, towards the centre, towards Jesus.
Let me summarise what I’ve tried to articulate over the two parts of this blog:
I’m done with tribal boundaries.
I’m done with the exclusion they create.
I’m done with a small god owned by particular tribes.
I want to journey to the centre, to Jesus, with others.
I want to journey with a diverse bunch of people who will challenge me with their questions and beliefs.
I want to worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.
 See Paul Hiebert’s article: Hiebert, Paul G. 1978. ‘Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories’. Gospel in Context 1 (4):24-29.