Much ink has been spilled and much energy has been spent trying to flesh out the subject of “who’s in and who’s out” in matters of the Christian faith. Only God knows. The religion news story of the week was Pope Francis weighing in on Donald Trump’s faith and Trump’s inevitable response. The Pope asserted that Christians work to build bridges not walls, and on the basis of a statement reflecting this particular fruit of Trump’s character, implied that Trump’s Mexico/USA border wall concept is not consistent with identity as a Christian.
But on what do you base an assessment of someone? Within my own sphere of acquaintances there are people who disagree on a wide variety of subjects; some of which are part of Biblical interpretation, some of which are ethical, and others of which are reflective of the living out of their faith in everyday life. Is any one of these a significant marker of one’s spiritual sincerity or authenticity? Is there a single litmus test of orthodoxy? And is the in-versus-out question based on what I do today or tomorrow or on faith commitments I made at an earlier stage of life? Can I be in one day and out the next?
One of the best articles I’ve seen on this topic is in the book A is for Abductive by Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren and Jerry Haselmayer in which they speak of bounded sets, centered sets, and dynamic sets; along with helpful diagrams. It’s a book I keep handy, but the lateness of the hour on Friday prevents me from scanning in those pages, so you’ll have to settle for someone else’s work. On the previous page there is a circle with no center point; one is defined as either in or out. X, Y and Z below are all in, but B and C are certainly close. Then they introduce centered-set thinking:
For most of you, this either simplifies things or makes it more complicated. (There’s a logical statement.) But it illustrates the degrees to which people go to try to think through the issue of who’s in and who’s out.
In searching for the graphic I came across this quote from C.S. Lewis along with another diagram:
[The] situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand…. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together.
Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs, or even men and women, in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat. But when we are comparing Christians in general with non-Christians in general, we are usually not thinking about real people whom we know at all, but only about two vague ideas which we have got from novels and newspapers. If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time.
~ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 208-209.
So while the media has fun with the friendly banter between the Pope and the Presidential wannabe, know for sure that deciding on either the present devotion or the eternal destiny of anyone in particular is way above our pay grade. We can’t do it when speaking of individual people because we’re not God; but Lewis argues that dealing with it theoretically has no value.