It is a commonplace that you “cannot put God in a box.” It is an affirmation of the transcendence of God and of the limits of human understanding. It is also a common rhetorical ploy to shut down a theological discussion. But, let’s think a little more about the box.
I am deeply averse to statements that begin: “God cannot.” They are often little more than bad theological reasoning. For example, “God cannot deny His justice.” This is often affirmed by those who assert that God “must” condemn some to hell. Sinners “must” be punished – God’s justice requires it and His justice cannot be denied. Even if the statement is granted, the rest of the corollary does not necessarily follow. For the mystery of God’s justice lies indeed “outside of the box.” If it is true that His justice cannot be denied, His justice remains incomprehensible to us. I cannot therefore insist that, based on His undeniable justice, God “must” do one thing or another.
But there is a much larger problem concerning God and the Box. We live in the Box. We are not infinite creatures who live in an infinite universe. We are limited, circumscribed, utterly bounded by our own ignorance. The only God who can be spoken of is the God who enters the Box.
This is the Christian proclamation.
When the Gospel of John says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he could just as easily have said, “God came into the Box.” God not only entered the Box, but did so in a way that can be known and spoken of. It is significant that St. John chose the title, “Logos” (Word), when speaking of Christ in the prologue of his gospel. He could have used any number of other titles for the Second Person of the Trinity, but he chose to speak of Him as the Word, the Logos of the Father. For this aspect of Christ is uniquely related to the Box.
The Logos describes God as Speaker, Fashioner, Reason, Order, Structure, and the like. And St. John notes that the cosmos is created by and through the Logos, which gives this Box in which we live its very shape. The Box is a place where we can speak and reason and consider order and structure, because it was fashioned through the Logos. So we can say that though we live in the Box, the Box itself bears some particular relationship and reflection of the Maker of Boxes. God has so created us and the world in which we live that He can enter it and all of creation rejoices at His coming. “He came unto His own.”
The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom says of God: “For You are God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same.” The Church confesses from the beginning that God transcends the Box. But it also confesses that this same God, in His love for the world, entered our world in such a manner that He might be known and spoken of. He came into the Box.
This is the great difficulty in Christian theology: we are not speaking in the abstract or ideal. Were that the case, then the infinite flexibility of ideas would be our playground (sadly, much modern theology is done in this manner). But we deal with a God-in-the-Box. And this God has made some very specific things known about Himself. To recognize and confess these specific things is not “putting God in a box,” but admitting who the God is Who put Himself in our Box.
God outside-of-the-Box very quickly becomes a cipher for whatever we choose to consider ultimate. Outside-of-the-box is a simple blank slate available for every imagination. Of course, imaginary gods are not God at all, only idols that we make for ourselves. Even to attribute certain characteristics to the God outside-the-Box is meaningless. As imaginary attributions, they are just guess work, or worse.
It is only the God Who put Himself in the Box that can be discussed or considered. And we know Him only because He makes Himself known. And this is very bothersome. For a God outside the Box is far more convenient and subject to the imagination and safe from any authoritative meddling in human affairs. Such a God, while interesting as an abstraction, is actually no God at all.
And this brings us back to the Box. It’s possible to complain that someone is “putting God in a Box,” but it really isn’t the problem. The God outside the Box is no God at all. The real question is a little different. The question is whether the God someone has in the Box is actually the true and living God and whether or not they are willing to get in the Box with Him.
Everything that can be said about God belongs to the realm of the particular. For Christians, the only God that exists is the Holy Trinity, that is to say, God as He has been made known through the God/Man Jesus Christ. That “Box” does not confine God, but makes Him known. And there is much that comes with the Box. This God has a history, marked by His relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has said specific things and made Himself known. As the only true and living God, He is the most “particular” of all things, the Transcendent Particular.
The difficulty for us who live “in the Box” is that God is indeed particular and has placed Himself in the Box as well. Our trouble is not in knowing God, but, in that He has made Himself known, how do we live with what He has said? The reality and presence of Christ are not abstract or hard to know and find. They are present, even obvious. And that is where our discomfort begins.
And with the discomfort, others will beg us not to “put God in a box.” We prefer to have Him elsewhere, imaginary, pliable, and congenial. But He loves us too much to stay out of the Box. God is in the Box. Listen to Him.