God and the Box

Heavy-Duty-Large-Cardboard-BoxIt 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.

17 comments:

  1. Hi Fr. Stephen,

    You have mentioned before that your wife is a big fan of Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries, but I wonder whether you have ever read her book “The Mind of the Maker.” As a writer, you might enjoy her extended comparison between the Trinity and the relationship of author-work-reader.

    Relevant to your post, I think, is the part in which she talks about the futility of the critics’ trying to understand a writer except from the writer’s (incarnate) works. Yes, the mind of Shakespeare was not limited to the plays he wrote, but we can’t see any of that, so in attempting to understand him, we grapple with the box of what we do have. Because he was a good writer, his characters are not all mouthpieces for him–as, in creation, that we have free will tells us something about God, but not all of our actions are consequently a reflection of Him. Yet in the Son’ we do have a particular “character” in the story who we can know does incarnate the Author’s will.

  2. In reflection I have to say that my encounters with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit over the years have largely been them blowing up my boxes. My comfortable boxes often in the midst of a trash dump. Not often comfortable.

    The chaos of the world and in my own heart do not produce good blueprints, materials and tools.

    On my own, I am a bad builder at best. I must repent for the box to be constructed and repaired correctly. Even the little boxes that are not ornate. Then I must rejoice in His work.

    I am not good at either.

    His forgiveness seems to take care of that too.

    Perhaps His perfect justice is in His Mercy which the Cross declares.
    “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

  3. Thank you Father Stephen. This is comforting. Sometimes when all I can do is lean my head against the side of the box, I now see that it might be the chest of Christ.

  4. Father,
    Thank you for this article. So many Orthodox who convert from Western Christian background rest their hearts on their philosophical arguments. These are the arguments that they trip over, blind and bind them. They perceive their arguments as their piety and as far as I know (and admittedly, I don’t know much) this seems to be the mode that they have learned from their Western Christian background. This seems to be what they know ‘being Christian’ is. Perhaps because as you say, to live and worship in an Orthodox manner makes them too uncomfortable. It seems they would rather shape the Church and God into something more amenable to their philosophical taste.

    We are all wounded by the spirit of this world. May God hear our prayers and heal us.

  5. I needed to read and consider all of this blog post, Fr. Stephen, thank you!
    However, I really really like (and will try to “hear”) your final sentences:
    “God is in the box. Listen to Him.”

  6. As Pooh Bear might say, “It all comes from trying to tell God what to do & be. If we were all just content to be our Piglet or Rabbit or Tigger selves and trust Christopher Robin in all things, then everything would make sense or at least we could go to bed and sleep well every night. Oh, and honey is important too…”

  7. Thank you for this. You very eloquently addressed my frustration with this common talking point, and explained the true relationship between our God and His relationship with those of us in the “Box.”

  8. The God “outside the box” is often nothing more than a generic God, a cipher for our own imaginative will. Christians only know the God-who-has-made-Himself-known-in-Jesus-Christ. He’s ever so inconvenient in that He actually spoke and told us about Himself and His will.

  9. Hi Fr. Stephen,
    I just start thinking I’m following you in this “box” metaphor when I get lost again. Please be patient with me while I try to sort out what I think you’re saying.

    Though I don’t often hear people say “you can’t put God in a box”, I’m assuming the intended meaning is that we cannot limit God or define Him. And this is true. However, God has limited Himself (metaphorically), by coming into the box with us, so that we can know Him, i.e. know His love for us and join in His life by being transformed and redeemed by Him.

    The God-made-known to us in the box is no different than the God outside of the box. The “box” is a metaphor that represents our finite nature and understanding. God makes Himself “finite” in Christ (in the box) while remaining infinite (out of the box, in the box, everywhere).

    And then, if I am following you correctly, you write that what makes us uncomfortable is how particular and specific God has made known His will to us box-dwellers. We would rather be left to conjecture about His will (which bears an uncanny resemblance to our own).

    I don’t know if this is an accurate restatement of your thesis. However, it seems to me that, despite the specificity of God-made-known to us and His will, there is still a great deal of supposition and conjecture on our part about God and His will. And we call this “theology”.

    Sometimes I cannot bear theology, even the best of it. Who am I to judge what is the best of it? I want to know God (a heart thing) much more than I want to know about God (a head thing). Sometimes it seems I do pretty poorly at both. I can relinquish theology. But I cannot cease seeking “him whom my soul loves” even though I am incapable of finding Him. I can only hope that He is looking for me.

    And I rest in that hope. Surely He searches for me. He made that known very specifically and I won’t let any theologians convince me otherwise.

  10. Mary,
    Good to hear from you. I think you’re using “theologian” and “theology” in a manner that creates a problem. Theology shouldn’t just be “talk/thought about God.” That sort of thing is about as useless as the speculations of “God outside the box.”

    The Orthodox Church has only ever used the term “theologian” three times: St. John the Evangelist is known as the Theologian; St. Gregory Nazianzus is known as the Theologian; and St. Simeon the New Theologian. All of them take us deep into true knowledge of the true God as He has made Himself known. That’s the only purpose of “theology.” Everything else is just talk.

    I wrote an article on this in the first few months of the blog.

    That said, I think a healthy discipline in the spiritual life is to pursue the God who pursues us. “Theology” may be judged by whether it is of any use in that pursuit. If not, then it’s just a distraction to be ignored like all other distractions.

    But the good God has entered the “box” of our lives – that alone makes it possible to find Him.

  11. Hi Fr. Stephen,
    Always good to be here…

    Please forgive my boldness but, regarding the term “theology” or “theologian”, you are using the term in a much narrower sense than is typical for the English language and even how many Orthodox Christians use it. You are certainly welcome to do so, but that doesn’t invalidate my reflections that are based on the more customary definition. (See the discussion at https://orthodoxwiki.org/Theologian.) Even in this article, you mentioned the “rhetorical ploy to shut down a theological discussion”. It is these theological discussions I am referring to. Some of them may be very edifying and others not, but my point was that I easily tire of them. I am referring to a restlessness within me, not suggesting that this is at all commendable.

    One other clarification: when I wrote “I am incapable of finding Him”, of course I mean that I cannot find Him on the basis of my own effort, an admission of my weakness and need for God. It is one of those synergy things: I must seek Him to know Him but my seeking alone is never enough. During those times when I feel I am wandering in darkness, unable to find Him, it is consoling to remind myself that He is searching for me – and, indeed, has already found me.

  12. Mary,
    Yes. I frequently use “theologian” in a broader sense. In that case, I would make a distinction between good theology and bad. Good theology truly pursues the knowledge of the God who has made Himself known – and serves the need of the soul. Bad theology – well, it’s quite rampant, isn’t it?

  13. Father Stephen,

    Can we take this a step further ?

    Much of your life’s work has been about waking us up to the reality that God is not only ‘out there’ but , in faith , most certainly ‘in here’ with us.

    What if faith was that the ‘God box ‘was our body and that wherever we go ; God is with us. And that by ‘seeking first the Kingdom of God’ with in us , we have an experience of what the Orthodox hymn suggests:

    ‘God is with us , understand all ye nations , and submit yourselves for God is with us’

    This box is real , it is tangible , it is our body ,and God’s reveals himself to us in the innermost sanctity and sanctuary of our hearts.

  14. Since our God boxed Himself into a zygote, it’s a little late to prattle about transcendental sizes.

    Of some interest is how this iteration of the discussion incarnates (?) a long-standing cultural ambivalence. Read J.B. Phillips from the 1940s and you hear a theme of “Your God Is Too Small.” I distinctly remember his reflections on his contemporaries’ reactions to the question, “Can God understand radar?” The naïveté of that discussion goes towards different places but has an identical origin as the current debate.

    Have not heard how your new book is coming along. Do you have a time when you expect to share it with the world?

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