I’ve already reviewed Matthew Lee Anderson’s excellent little book, The End of Our Exploring at Christ and Pop Culture. One of my favorite sections in the work is his critique of clichés in Christian discourse. CThey stop thought, end discussion, and function as a short-cuts to truth that prevent us from actually engaging with the difficult questions involved with God and life.
In the midst of this discussion, he manages to dispatch one particular cliché that, whenever I encounter it, something in me dies just a little:
One of my “favorite” clichés is that we “shouldn’t put God in a box.” That may be true on one level. But what if God has put Himself in a box, like a Scripture-shaped box? What then? Is the problem the box or the shape? If it was a circle-box that were infinitely large, could God fit inside of it? What if we have to be able to say this and not that of something in order to know it? If we say “God doesn’t judge,” does that put God in a box? (Yes, I just dropped one cliché against the other.) If God isn’t in a box, even a Jesus-shaped box, can we know Him? Does God know He lacks a box? Is He able to communicate to His creatures the shape of a box He could fit in? I think the cliché means something like “God is ineffable,” a beautiful word that simply means “beyond speech.” But does God have a language for His own ineffability? Can He teach it to us? That is a barrage of questions, I realize, but they come like a flood every time I hear someone say not to “put God in a box.” I don’t know the answers, but I do know that the cliché short-circuits the process of finding them. The cliché is of the soul-shrinking, mind-denying variety.
–The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith, pg. 130
What if God has put himself in a ‘box’ indeed? What if the unknown and unknowable God wants to be known and does something about it like engaging with a particular people throughout history? Maybe he reveals his character through great and mighty acts? Or becomes incarnate and walks among us? Or maybe he does all of those things and has the whole thing written up in Text so that we could know something about him? Is it arrogant to take him at his word? Is it presumptious to say God is X, if God has told us he is X? More importantly, is it presumptious to say, even with the intention of being humble, that we can’t know that God is X, if he has told us he is?
I’m all for proclaiming God’s incomprehensibility and the necessary gap in our knowledge of God. Still, these are some questions to think about before you too quickly complain about putting God in a box–it might be one he chose for himself.
Also, go buy the book.
Soli Deo Gloria
Ohhhh Derek; if i had a nickel for every time someone tried to use this cliche on me, i’d be a wealthy man today (only seems fitting to use another cliche when talking about cliches 😉 ) One of many things that ends up being so frustrating is that this statement end up being that whole blind men and the elephant analogy again: the very statement “Can we really put God in a box like that?” presumes that this person knows that He isn’t (either the way we are describing Him or in a box)! Beyond that, it is the classic post-modern, false humility that would claim that if we can’t know EVERYTHING there is to know about something exhaustively, we can’t rightfully claim to know anything. A silly and easily destructible line of reasoning, but no less infuriating when you encounter it.
Yah, kinda nailed it there. Funny thing is the hi-falutin’ forms of this one encounters in academic double-speak. It takes a few more steps and key questions, but eventually it goes down under its own weight.
I think Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great Trinitarian theologians of 4th century, has a good way of thinking about our mode of knowing God. Our minds can never exhaustively comprehend the pure and naked essence of God but we have surely started journey towards knowing God through Christ and the work of the Spirit. Discoveries of God’s attributes and deeds are like stepping stones in this journey.
Gregory is excellent. Thanks for the link!
Or put differently, a response to the “We shouldn’t put God in a box” is “Well, of course not, not when He put in Himself in something much better – a person.”
Ironically, John Calvin himself succumbed to this cliché. One of the biggest reasons why he (unlike the Lutherans, RCC, and the Eastern churches) didn’t believe in a real, physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist is essentially because he thought that would “circumscribe” Christ; I. e., put him in a Eucharist-shaped box. Similar arguments were used by Zwingli, Menno, and the other “memorialist” reformers. Menno Simons advocated a highly non-traditional view of the Incarnation for the very same reason; he didn’t want Jesus in a man-shaped box since that would supposedly diminish Jesus.
That Calvin didn’t preach a physical presence doesn’t mean he didn’t preach a real presence, only he wanted to prevent a Eutychian confusion of natures–you know, in order to not confuse the natures, the way Chalcedon talks about. He respects the logic of the Ascension on this point. Also, lumping him in with Zwingli, Menno, and others on this point doesn’t worth because of Calvin’s pneumatologically-conceived doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.