Most boundaries are set in fear, not love. And that’s a relational problem.
There is a lot of hand-wringing among religious types about boundaries. There seems to be a common human compulsion to go tribal—defining some as “in” and others as “out.” C.S. Lewis wrote an entire essay about the danger of wanting to be in the inner circle.
Some have tried to address this problem by using mathematical set theory. If this doesn’t feel weird, I don’t know what is. The assumption that mathematical formulas can get at the essence of relationships and what really matters in life seems absurd.
Seminaries teach about “bounded set” and “centered set” models of church membership. Bounded set is the effort to define boxes of orthodox belief and behavior. It is the ultimate tribal move. Huge amount of energy is spent on clarifying boundaries, boundary maintenance, and labeling people as insiders and outsiders. Today almost every issue in the public square is based on this kind of framing: LGBTQ rights, transgender bathrooms, immigrant walls, sanctuary cities, and religious employment. The choice seems to be between walls and bridges.
But it is not quite so simple.
The centered set viewpoint tends to deemphasize static beliefs in favor of dynamic directional movement. Here it’s not so important what kind of car you drive, but where you are going. So within religious circles, centered set thinking says it is less important what one believes about Jesus and more important whether one is moving toward him and seeking to become like him.
How one frames the issue of boundaries matter. Millennials are beginning to think about these matters in very different terms all together. This is why they can be communal and anti-institutional at the same time: pro-relationships, anti-boundaries.
"Why do we need boundaries at all?," young people are asking. What service to society do boundaries provide? How do they promote community, authentic relationships? Is it possible to think about boundaries in strictly mathematical terms without loosing something that is essential to humanness?
Many spiritually oriented millennials, those I refer to as New Copernicans, are reframing this entire conversation. They are embracing instead spherical thinking, moving from boxes to clouds. Their way of thinking makes boundaries both impossible to define and meaningless in experience. For them the question is not what kind of car you are driving, but who is in the car with you and where are you going together... for now. Spherical thinking is based on transactional pragmatism—a relationality that is committed to doing things together.
These spherical-thinking New Copernicans are not making ultimate truth claims or even long-term commitments, but are evidencing an experiential priority to relationships and collective action. This is a completely different way of looking at the world. It is certainly more Heisenberg than Newton, more postmodern than modern, and more verb than noun. Our understanding of institutions is finally catching up to our understanding of physics.
I have no idea how this could work out within a religious institution, but I find this kind of thinking very intriguing. How could a church or synagogue or temple be based on spherical thinking? “Spiritual but not religious” is perhaps one expression of this new frame as is “belonging before believing.” Spherical thinking is but one example of how New Copernicans—millennial or otherwise—are completely reframing our world for the better.
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