If you’ve ever driven a car around a curve you’re familiar with the physical phenomenon of centrifugal force. It’s the tug you feel as you try to keep your car on the road while your car simultaneously expresses its desire to ignore the asphalt and continue straight along its present path.
Our English word “centrifugal” combines the Latin words for “center” and “flee.” Centrifugal force is thus that power or persuasion that pushes a body (human, mechanical, or ecclesiastical) away from a central point. Ignoring the physical reality of centrifugal force while attempting to drive around a curve at a high rate of speed will likely reacquaint you with the English word “impact” (from the Latin impactus, meaning “to have pushed against”).
Ignoring the equivalent theological and ecclesiastical realities will equally result in significant damage, as Frederick Buechner illustrates in his theological lexicon Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. Buechner begins his definition of “sin” by writing: “The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left.” A vivid image to be sure, but Buechner isn’t finished. He concludes, “Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left.”1
“The power of sin is centrifugal … in the end nothing at all is left.”
Bracketed by Buechner’s imagery of sin as a centrifugal force, this essay begins with brief excursions into the realm of etymology before making the turn to ecclesiology.
Centers and Boundaries
The first hit in a Google search (and if you see it in Google, it must be so) for the definition of the word “center” yields, “A point or place that is equally distant from the sides or outer boundaries of something.”2 For the old school among us, Webster’s offers “a point equally distant from all points on the circumference [otherwise known as the boundary] of a circle or surface of a sphere.”3
By either definition, a center cannot exist without a boundary. If there is no boundary, the very notion of “center” is vacuous. And it is here that etymology becomes instructive.
Our English word “center” comes from the Latin centrum. Centrum originally meant “that point of the compass around which the other describes [literally, “writes of”] the circle.” The Latin centrum in turn derives from the Greek noun kentron, meaning “a sharp point,” or “goad.”4 That noun comes from the verb kenteo, which means “to pierce.”
In secular Greek, kentron “comes to denote the point at which we fix one side of the compasses while making a circle with the other. κέντρον is thus the centre of a circle (Lat. centrum), then the centre of any surface or body, and even the centre of the universe.”5
The English word “boundary” also derives from a Latin term, bonnarium, which means a “piece of land within a fixed limit.”6 Again relying on Google, “boundary” is initially defined as “a line which marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.”7 Webster’s definition is similar.
The very concept of a center requires a fixed boundary. Only when the sharp point of the compass is anchored at the center can the boundary of a circle be drawn. Once inscribed, a boundary returns the favor, functioning, at least in part, to identify the center. To dismiss the viability of boundaries while insisting on the significance of “the center” is to misunderstand both ideas.
Certainly this is the case in mathematics. Circles and spheres, by definition, cannot exist without both boundaries and centers. A mathematician who denied that a circle has a boundary would not be highly regarded in his field. Any conclusions he might base on such an axiomatically mistaken premise rightly would be seen as fatally flawed.
The same is true in psychology. A person who has “boundary issues” is one who is unsure of who he is at his very core. A person who doesn’t know where he ends and another begins is in serious psychological disarray.
What is true of mathematics and psychology is also true of Christian theology. A Christian, a congregation, or a denomination that is unaware of where its boundaries lie is in danger of falling apart. If the center is uncertain, the boundary is necessarily uncertain as well.
Throughout most of Christian history, Jesus Christ has been understood to be at the center of Christian faith and life. More precisely, Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed: “It is the nature of the person of Christ to be in the center, both spatially and temporally. The one who is present in Word, Sacrament, and Church is in the center of human existence, of history and of nature. It belongs to the structure of his person to be in the center.”8
With clarity and simplicity, Bonhoeffer saw what many in our congregations today either carelessly overlook or willfully ignore: Just as it belongs to the nature of a circle to have a center, so it belongs to the nature of Jesus to be the center not only of human existence but of the entire universe.
Going back to the Greek kentron, Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, is the sharp point. His very existence pierces the pretensions of all who would enthrone themselves at the center of their own existence or, in the case of the more egomaniacal, at the center of a church, a nation, or even the entire world. For many, the incarnate Jesus is a stumbling block (the Greek is skandalon). If he is firmly anchored at the center, they cannot occupy that space.
Confronted with Jesus as “the center of human existence,” many choose flight rather than worship as their response, which brings us to the second half of the word “centrifugal.” The Latin verb fugere means “to flee.” It is the root of the word “fugue,” which, in music, is a polyphonic composition in which the main melody appears to be chasing after itself in a succession of voices.
Again turning to psychology, a psychogenic fugue involves “The unexpected travel of a person, who cannot later recall the trip.” It is a dissociative disorder in which “the affected person temporarily is unable to integrate all the elements of personality into a unified whole; the result is a fragmentation or splitting. … Often the sufferer will assume a new identity while on his or her trip and be genuinely unable to recall the former, true identity.”9
Do you hear any theological overtones in that description? In the language of orthodox theology the natural human tendency to flee from God has been labeled “sin.” And as Buechner notes, the power of sin is centrifugal; it is a force that causes people to flee the center, bits and pieces go flying off, a spiritual fugue results in fragmentation, true identity is lost.
That is the reality now facing many congregations and denominations, particularly those in the Protestant mainline. In a tacit recognition that this disintegration is not a good thing, some have called for a renewed focus on the center while simultaneously denying the validity, or even the existence, of boundaries.
The Center Under Siege
One who took such an approach was Jack Rogers, who in 1995 wrote Claiming the Center: Churches and Conflicting Worldviews. “The thesis of this book,” Rogers writes, “is that the root cause of mainline church decline is an internal conflict of worldviews. Good, intelligent, and devout people simply see reality differently” (emphasis added). Implicit in this statement, and illustrated, although never openly stated, in the book’s opening chapter, is that all worldviews are equally valid.
The belief that all worldviews are equally “true” for the ones holding them, leads Rogers to claim: “Conflict occurs when people—Christian people—make their theological elaboration or ideological applications or experiential colorings the ultimate rather than the ultimate religious worldview itself. In Christian terms, conflict occurs when we put anything in the center except our commitment to God revealed in Jesus Christ”10 (emphasis added).
Notice what Rogers puts at the center. It is not the Triune God. It is not God incarnate, Jesus Christ. It is not God’s written revelation, the Bible. Rather, for Rogers, what goes at the center of Christian faith and life is “our commitment.” Yes, he finishes the phrase “our commitment to God revealed in Jesus Christ.” But given his book’s central thesis—that good, intelligent, and devout people “see reality differently” —those with different commitments must have disjunct understandings of words like “God,” “revealed,” and “Jesus Christ.” What is important to Rogers, and those similarly captivated by his postmodern epistemology, is not the objective reality of God, but the commitment of each individual to whatever he believes to be true for him.
As a result of this kind of thinking and teaching in our seminaries, many in our congregations are now experiencing what William Butler Yeats described in his famous poem “The Second Coming,” written in 1920:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
As bad as things may have seemed when Yeats wrote, at least he could be confident that his readers shared his assurance that there was such a thing as “the center,” even if it wasn’t holding together. That assumption is no longer valid. In the postmodern worldview exemplified by Rogers and his ideological allies, there is no single sharp point at the center of human existence. Instead, there are as many centers as there are individuals with commitments.
And with an uncountable number of centers comes an uncountable number of boundaries. For if our commitment defines our center, it equally defines our boundary.
The Bible Describes the Boundaries
However, if Jesus is, as Bonhoeffer writes, “the center of human existence, of history and of nature,” that center must define boundaries. While God has revealed himself in nature and supremely in the incarnate Jesus, the sharp point at the center of our faith, he has traced the boundaries of that faith in his written revelation, the Bible.
From the Pentateuch through the prophets, from the gospels through the Revelation to Saint John, the Bible sets the boundaries for what God’s people may believe about him and for how they are to behave toward him and one another. We can never know all there is to know of God, and we must never go beyond what God has revealed about his nature and his will.
For example, if the Bible teaches that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), Christians do not have the option of declaring the Jesus is just one of many paths to the divine. Similarly, if the Bible teaches “The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4), neither atheism nor polytheism is compatible with Christianity. If Jesus is the center, the Bible describes the boundaries of Christian faith and life.
But if the center is merely our commitment at the moment, the Bible is at best series of guidelines that we may or may not choose to follow. At worst it is a collection of misleading and even dangerous statements from an ancient period of human history that we postmoderns have long since outgrown. In either case, the Bible cannot limit what we believe or how we behave.
The desire to be without boundaries is not new to the postmodern generation. It goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Buechner concludes his definition of sin with this paragraph:
‘Original Sin’ means we all originate out of a sinful world which taints us from the word go. We all tend to make ourselves the center of the universe, pushing away centrifugally from that center everything that seems to impede its freewheeling. More even than hunger, poverty, or disease, it is what Jesus said he came to save the world from. (See SALVATION) 11
Focusing on boundaries is not incompatible with celebrating the center. But as Buechner notes, the power of sin is centrifugal. If the power of sin is allowed to prevail, eventually the center is pulled apart leaving nothing at all—not a person, not a theological system, not a congregation or a denomination.
Boundaries and centers are inseparable in mathematical forms, individual psyches, and ecclesiastical institutions. Therefore, those who wish to celebrate the center of their congregation or denomination would do well to pay renewed attention to biblical boundaries.
The Reverend Robert P. Mills is author and writer of numerous books and articles. He is the Director of Music at Northminster Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Madison Heights, Virginia.
1. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 88.
2. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/center, accessed 5/19/2012.
3. “Center,” Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., (New York: Macmillan, 1999), p. 237.
4. “Center,” Webster’s, p. 237.
5. Lothar Schmid, “kentron,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (electronic ed; Vol. 3, Page 665).
6. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/boundary, accessed 5/30/2012.
7. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/boundary accessed 5/30/2012.
8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2009).
9. J.R. Beck, “Fugue, Psychogenic,” Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1985), p. 433.
10. Jack Rogers, Claiming the Center: Churches and Conflicting Worldviews (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995), pp. xv, xvii.
11. Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p. 88.