Keeping God in a box: or, maybe paradigms aren’t the problem

In the 60s and 70s, Thomas Kuhn challenged the scientific world to make some paradigm shifts. This was simplified to phrases like “shaking things up” and “challenging the status quo.” Soon thereafter, the church grabbed the bait and decided she needed to shift some paradigms of her own – which she determined (with the help of the world’s opinion) had atrophied over time.

In the 70s and 80s, management gurus challenged the business world to think outside the box. This was simplified to soundbites like “taking a new angle” and “looking through a new lens.” Soon thereafter, the church caught the bug and decided it was time to stop putting God in a box – which she determined (with the help of media outlets) she’d been doing for a long while.

I’m not entirely convinced that the original diagnoses of stuck-in-the-mud paradigms and God-boxing were fully correct, at least not to any greater degree than normal. Stuck paradigms and God-boxing are part and parcel of living in the Kingdom while inhabiting a finite earth. They are tendencies we must continually recognize and counter.

But I wonder if – in our efforts to absorb the scientific and business models, and in our desire to prove the world and media outlets wrong – some of us have gone far past merely countering the paradigms and boxes. I wonder if – in our desire to be both edgy and smart, both sophisticated and trendy – some of us have ditched the paradigm and the box entirely, leaving the church bereft of any structure, form, and definition, not perhaps in its daily practices but in its underlying foundation. In other words, I am not primarily talking about worship style and programmatic practices. I am talking about the stuff that really  matters: dogma; doctrine; theology; catechetical truths. Stuff that at least some people hate to consider and loath discussing.

I am the last person who wants to be associated with something trite, obtuse, provincial, or stale. Certainly I do not want my church – The Church – to be any of those things.

But what if trite, obtuse, provincial and stale are merely lexical stabs at what is in fact unchanging, simple, solid, and true? What if the reaction to trite, obtuse, provincial and stale leads not to deeper discipleship but to a dismantling of the framework of our faith?

[On a side note: trite, obtuse, provincial and stale are flung just as readily by The Important Voices on contemporary non-denominational congregations as on traditionally liturgical congregations. Equal opportunity disdain is prolific.]

As foolish and backwards as it may sound, I believe that ditching the box and shifting the paradigm – which has occurred in all manner of congregations – has done serious damage to Christianity. It has opened the door for each one of us to define God, Christ, salvation, redemption, reconciliation, transformation, sacrifice, and obedience as we choose – per our own box, via our own paradigms.

It has not been a healthy experiment.

“Putting God in a box” started as a cliche in Christendom, often directed at people whose faith was too little and too small to believe that the Almighty Creator could do whatever He wanted, wherever He chose, at whatever time He determined – though I’m a bit fuzzy on how one person actually determined that another person’s faith was too little and too small.

Today, “putting God in a box” has become a straw man. It is a way of telling people that if they are not open to an ever-evolving theology, they are frigidians of the faith. It is a strategy for pronouncing people’s beliefs to be narrowly anti-intellectual. It is a tool for defining certain congregations as unwilling to embrace God in all his mysterious and adventurous majesty.

That little church on the corner that is dying a slow death because they do not understand how to attract youth? – they are putting God in a box by not embracing his love for all ages.

That megachurch down the street that livestreams its sermons and runs programs every night of the week? – they are putting God in a box by limiting his transformative work to something that can be planned and implemented.

That mid-size mainline church across town that eschews newer worship music in favor of traditional hymns? – they are putting God in a box by refusing to celebrate his full artistic expression.

That average-size evangelical church across the street that eschews hymns in favor of new worship music? – they are putting God in a box by refusing to embrace the strong traditions of history.

That’s what they – someone, somewhere – says.

Guess what? We all put God in a box. We all understand less of Him than we can because – surprise – our brains are small and our souls are even smaller. We all limit what God can do, if not in holiness then in scope: on one hand we say God is infinitely powerful, beyond all human comprehension while on the other we say He cannot possibly be working in those people over in that church. Apparently that is too much for Him.

I think God might prefer if we stop worrying so much about the proverbial boxes and paradigms and instead focus on Him.

But as we focus on Him, it is eminently important to have a paradigm of truth upon which to stand and a box of doctrine within which to practice our faith.

Doctrine does not box God in. Rather it helps us understand him clearly and rightly. Without it, we are doomed. Doctrine does not limit God. Rather it gives us a framework within which to experience and understand God’s immensity. Without it, we are unanchored. Doctrine does not reduce God. Rather it provides an elegant space of sacred intellect that allows us to stand in awe of Him. Without it we ourselves become smaller than we already are.

We desperately need a paradigm of strong theology and a box of solid doctrine. We need them to guard and expand our faith. We need them to shelter and shape our souls. We need them to protect and engage our minds.

Without them, God will shrink to little more than a man-made power whose sole purpose is to serve our whims and desires.

With them, God will become more and more known to us even as he becomes more and more mysterious; God will become more and more near to us even as he becomes more and more immense; God will become more and more holy even as he becomes more and more personal.

Only within an unshifting paradigm of strong theology and a strong box of unshifting doctrine can we hope to glimpse God as He really is rather than as we make Him. And I’m quite sure that what we will find with each passing day is that within the paradigm and the box, God will grow ever and ever larger in our understanding until finally we see that what is on the inside is in fact much, much larger than what we originally thought was on the outside.

**Dorothy Sayers – though primarily a scholar of Dante and creator of Lord Peter Wimsey – has some beautifully elegant thoughts about this. See her essays “The Dogma is the Drama,” “Strong Meat,” “Creed or Chaos,” et al.

Expect Dragons (in which I leverage the lessons of certain dead British authors)

Sketch by J.R.R. Tolkien (The Art of The Hobbit)
Sketch by J.R.R. Tolkien from The Art of The Hobbit

**In my ongoing quest to leverage my love for dead British authors (whose writings continue to be long-lasting and meaningful) in the realm of life and ministry (which on occasion runs the risk of being short-lived and shallow), I have compiled:

Seven Principles for a Lasting and Meaningful Ministry, also applicable to Life and other Meaningful Endeavors, based on the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton, authors now long-dead but whose Devout Embrace of Christ lives still in various and sundry essays, tales, poems, letters, and diaries. MMXV.


“As you like,” said Chrysophylax, licking his lips again, but pretending to close his eyes. He had a very wicked heart (as dragons all have), but not a very bold one (as is not unusual).
–from “Farmer Giles of Ham,” J.R.R. Tolkien

But perhaps if he had known something about dragons he would have been a little surprised at this dragon’s behaviour. Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.
–from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
–from “The Red Angel” in Tremendous Trifles, G.K Chesterton

Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking . . . why, how small a thing is death!
–from “Desdichado” in Catholic Tales and Christian Songs, Dorothy Sayers

So, here’s the thing about dragons: they are hands down, entirely, thoroughly, exceptionally, and superlatively bad, wicked, evil, nasty, foul, no-good little stinkers. Period.

Except here. Except now.

Our sophisticatedly nuanced world offers us dragon riders, dragon trainers, and dragon fighter-pilots. Nothing against these tales or their authors (Naomi Novick’s series about draconian aerial warfare during the Napoleonic wars is supremely delightful), but this recent domestication of dragons portends something infinitely more perilous.

On the one hand, we fail (or refuse) to recognize dragons for what they really are, convinced that if we just handle them gently enough, feed them plenty of tasty bits, and cajole them with sweet songs, they will somehow cease to be dragons — as though we have the power and the wisdom to be undragoners.

On the other hand, having lost sight of real dragons, we now see dragons everywhere, squinting our eyes crooked-like and viewing things from inverted angles until – beware! – every kitten, tree, and cloud is branded a dragon — as though we have the capacity and the discernment to be dragonlords.

We surely do hate dragons . . . especially if they are of our own imagining.

We surely do love dragons . . . even if they threaten our very soul.

And by they, I meant it.

Sin. Self-enthronement. Me-centricity. I-fullness. God-emptiness.

It is a dangerous path we tread when we forget that Christ died because of dragons and instead focus our undivided attention on kittens, trees, or clouds, as though they endanger our very existence.

It is a perilous turn we take when we neither recognize nor admit the power of dragons, and instead head off into the forest with a knapsack of jelly sandwiches and a flapping paper shield, as though life were naught but a make-believe quest.

Dragons are. We ignore and forget this at the cost of our ministries and our lives.

But– Christ is. Christ will be. Christ forevermore. We live and minister within that brilliant truth, regardless of the cost.

Expect dragons, dear friends, and then prepare to willingly see them slain.

© Crystal Kirgiss 2015

Language (in which I present Sayers’ sage and timely warning about words)

Dorothy L. Sayers (image from Bodleian Library)
Dorothy L. Sayers (image from Bodleian Library)

[From an address Sayers gave in February, 1942 (“The Creative Mind” in Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays, Dorothy L. Sayers. Gollancz Ltd., 1946. p. 57). These words are as true now as then, but even more pressing because of how immediately and how widely words are today cast out into the world.]

“It is as dangerous for people unaccustomed to handling words and unacquainted with their technique to tinker about with these heavily-charged nuclei of emotional power as it would be for me to burst into a laboratory and play about with a powerful electro-magnet or other machine highly charged with electrical force. By my clumsy and ignorant handling, I should probably, at the very least, contrive to damage either the machine or myself; at the worst I might blow up the whole place. Similarly the irresponsible use of highly-electric words is very strongly to be deprecated.

“At the present time we have a population that is literate, in the sense that everybody is able to read and write; but, owing to the emphasis placed on scientific and technical training at the expense of the humanities, very few of our people have been taught to understand and handle language as an instrument of power. This means that, in this country alone, forty million innocents or thereabouts are wandering inquisitively about the laboratory, enthusiastically pulling handles and pushing buttons, thereby releasing uncontrollable currents of electric speech, with results that astonish themselves and the world. Nothing is more intoxicating than a sense of power: the demagogue who can sway crowds, the journalist who can push up the sales of his paper to the two-million mark, the playwright who can plunge an audience into an orgy of facile emotion, the parliamentary candidate who is carried to the top of the poll on a flood of meaningless rhetoric, the ranting preacher, the advertising salesman of material or spiritual commodities, are all playing perilously and irresponsibly with the power of words, and are equally dangerous whether they are cynically unscrupulous or (as frequently happens) have fallen under the spell of their own eloquence and become the victims of their own propaganda.”

Lord, help us all – especially those of us whose vocations are language-centric – be mightily careful of the work we do, never forgetting the power and import (and sacredness, for did you not speak the universe into existence?) of the tools we wield.