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Protect territory, or shepherd direction?

Around 2003, when the split in the Episcopal Church was heating up over the election of an openly gay priest as Bishop of New Hampshire, I ran across an odd but fascinating essay about mathematical "open and closed set theory" by the blogger Steve Collins. His essay -- all that is in quotes below, as well as the illustrations, are from it -- offered a helpful explanation not only of what was going in the Episcopal Church at the time, but also in the wider culture now.

I plan to say more during Sunday's sermon, but here's a peek:

"Closed set believers have a 'territorial' concept of God's kingdom," Collins writes. To them, God's kingdom, or favor, is enclosed within a boundary, and "Once you are inside the territory, care must be taken not to cross the boundary again."

Open set believers, on the other hand, define membership by movement toward or away from Jesus Christ as the center. "There are still those who belong and those that don't, but you can't separate them easily, let alone state who is in and who is out once and for all. Those who appear to be close to Christ may be moving away from him, and those that seem far away may be heading toward him."

For closed set believers, where one draws the line determines, for them, the nature of the territory within: "A boundary-defining issue need not be central to the faith, but as 'the border-crossing,' it is taken as the litmus test of whether one accepts the central matters of the faith or not."

Here's what I find fascinating: 

"Which set theory one adheres to has nothing to do with whether one's positions on specific doctrines are liberal or conservative. Liberals can defend single-issue boundaries with militant certainty, expelling those who disagree. Conservatives can have strong opinions on direction without making rigid judgments or picking battles. What is problematic is that each of these mindsets offends the other:

"Closed set people think open set people are unprincipled or weak because they will not stand and fight. Open-set people think closed-set people are intolerant and controlling."

So, what's the good news, the way out of this dilemma?

It's found in Sunday's lessons from Numbers and the Gospel -- both of which, I hope to show in my sermon -- can give us good guidance.


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