Set Theory (what it means to me)
At this point in my life I’ve grown to understand that I cannot know God fully. I cannot defend the way He responds, or doesn’t, and I believe it’s arrogant to think that I can. I am in process, as long as I am breathing, and for progress in the process I am grateful.
Sometimes good, sometimes bad, I certainly am not a perfect example or an expert. I am curious in this process and I feel that is a good place to be as we pursue a relationship with the great I Am.
Set theory is a sociological construct of how people “belong“ to a group, a place or an organization. I am not a sociologist or a theologian. I have not devoted my life to studying how people connect to each other, to values, to family and other community. I just recognize the way Jesus connected with people in his stories and this helps me understand belonging.
I have done some theological study, but no one would confuse me with Wesley, Augustine or Luther. I am just a grateful soul that has been apprehended by a deep, unconditional and incredible love. This theory helps me to see my fellow man through those eyes of love.
We are going to look at three ways values are assessed to place a adherents in or out of that set. There may be more, these are the three I am familiar with; Bounded, fuzzy and centered sets.
We will then look at a scriptural imperative from Paul regarding the context of our “set”. Next we will describe 2 evaluative factors to interpret our position in the centered set. Finally we will look at several biblical characters through the lens of centered set theory.
We have a culture that is at odds in so many places; our politics, our religion, our history, our rights and the way we define justice and mercy. Our culture is fractured. Individuals are adhering to many different narratives about who they are, where they came from and what they are for.
A Bounded Set can be visualized as a hard line that defines whether you are in or out based on your adherence to certain beliefs and behaviors. These values are fixed, defined and easily evaluated for conformance. This is very easy to see in our religious context. For example, can you cite the apostles creed and do you agree with its tenants? Check the box. Do you attend Sunday mornings celebrations? Check the box. Do you serve and use your gifts? Check the box. Do you attend a small group? Check the box. Do you give tithes and offerings? Check the box. Pray the rosary; read your Bible daily (the correct version of course); care for widows; vote Democrat (or Republican); feed the hungry? On and on it goes. These beliefs and behaviors then define if you are in or out of the specific religious set. Since the beliefs and behaviors are defined by the organization, they will reflect the leaning of the organization to the left or to the right, toward the rich or toward the poor, toward the black or the white. In bounded sets, our biases are clearly revealed.
The Fuzzy Set is different Intentionally because advocates for it felt the bounded sets were too judgemental. My understanding of a fuzzy set is that it is negotiable, not fixed, in other words there are many ways in. “Christianity”, at least as a term, has devolved in many ways to a fuzzy set because it is both self defined and self designated. Meaning that I personally decide what makes a “good person”, a Christian, and then declare myself to be one.
Jesus is not at the center of either of these first two sets. The traditions of our fathers, what Jesus called "the yeast of the Pharisees" heavily influences bounded sets, and our own best thinking is at the center of the fuzzy set.
In the Centered Set, Jesus is in the center and drawing all men into himself (Just as he said he would do). It is a gravitational pull over all of his creation. From the center he is able to draw his creation from all the places they find themselves. The left and the right, from the north and the south, from the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the healed and the broken, Greeks and Jews, men and women, slaves and free, the liberal and conservative!
In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 Paul writes “for Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again!”
Count how many times in that passage Paul uses the word “all”. I checked the Greek on that, and it means… Just kidding. You know what it means, it means all, everyone that God has created. He died for them all.
So that means the “set” we are dealing with today is nearly 8,000,000,000 people! Just for comparison, to try and wrap your brain around that number, think of this. If you had 1 million seconds it would be nearly 12 days; if you had 1 billion seconds it would be 32 years!! Let me say it again, in our context there are nearly 8 billion people on the planet right now. Jesus died for them and wants us to live for them, all of them.
Jesus sets himself in the center of his creation and draws all people to himself. “The Lord is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. That is the nearly innumerable set that Jesus places himself in the center of, because he is the creator and sustainer of everything that is. He is the gravitational pull on every heart toward the King and the Kingdom.
As we see Jesus in the center there are two factors that can be evaluated for every person in the set. The first factor is their orientation, which way are they pointing? Are they oriented towards or away from Jesus? The second factor is their proximity, how close are they to Jesus. It is a combination of both of these factors that help us get a good visual of where we, and others, are in relation to Jesus.
Let’s look at some biblical characters to try and get some skin on this concept.
On this initial sheet of paper I have drawn 8 billion white arrows. I’m going to highlight six as dark bold arrows for illustration. Jesus is the center.
Scripture shows us Jesus drawing people From the very edges of culture.
The woman at the well appears to be in the lower left corner of our set. She was separated from Jesus by class, religion, race, gender, social and financial standing. So the reality was while she was physically very close to Jesus (proximity), her orientation was not towards him but towards her religion, tainted by rejection and shame. While initially far from Jesus' purpose, His perseverance, patience and humility re-orient her toward the good news of the kingdom. It is good news not only for her, but for her whole village as Jesus stays there for two days teaching, healing and revealing the salvation of the living God.
Looking generally at the majority of Pharisees, they had incredible proximity to Jesus. They were there when he fed thousands, they were there when he raised the dead, they were there when he open blind eyes and deaf ears, they were there when he straightened feeble arms and weak legs — they had front row seats. But the orientation of their heart was not towards him, the same problem the children of Israel had when they left Egypt. They witnessed all the wonders but they didn’t have eyes to see, ears to hear or a mind to understand (Deut.29). Proximity without orientation is a much worse condition than orientation without proximity.
Nicodemus on the other hand, also had proximity, but the orientation of his heart was towards Jesus. Jesus even declared about him, “you’re not far from the kingdom of heaven”.
Peter and John are interesting studies because they both have incredible proximity and orientation towards Jesus, but they seem to come at it from different perspectives. John is known as the apostle of love and speaks profoundly and repeatedly about grace. Peter is known for holding a high opinion of himself, and his opinion. If we were to divide these two into political camps I think we would find John on the left of Jesus, still oriented towards him, still growing in proximity, but coming from a place of unity and otherness. I think Peter would be a little more on the right, also oriented towards Jesus also growing in proximity but a little more conservative and judgmental.
Saul would be at the far right of the set, incredibly conservative, the most of his generation he declared, oriented towards Jehovah, but completely oriented away from the person of Jesus Christ. A radical encounter with the living Christ changes his orientation, almost in an instant. As he goes off by himself and is taught the gospel by Holy Spirit he becomes far more left-leaning and inclusive. He carries the gospel to women, to slaves, to the Greeks, to the Romans and to the Jews who were as "righteous" as he once was.
May this inspire our faith, conversations and prayers to be directed toward the power of God to reveal His relentless love to all he has created!