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.