I am someone who very much believes that God cannot be confined to the narratives and metaphors religion uses to describe the immanent divine. Whatever is sacred is so much grander than our meager language could ever do justice, and so I struggle even with the Bible or with the Church in its definitions of God that are often too strangely limiting. This is something I don’t feel alone in, as I’ve moved from Tennessee to New York and seen this struggle all too apparent among my new friends here. What I see is this yearning, this real desire for the “God beyond God,” for something beyond the “box” in which religion – and Christianity specifically – have placed around this grand concept.
And yet, the box is something I know quite well and even love. I did not spend my time in seminary focusing on theology or studying the transcendence of God, as some of my classmates did. Instead, my focus was centered around Biblical criticism. I was fascinated – and still am – by inspecting the box, tearing at it, even poking fun of it at times. I was less interested in the questions about Jesus’ divinity – which I saw as a problem for the theologians in seminary to sort out – and far more concerned with historical questions about what Jesus did or didn’t say, what his family looked like, what his culture and language told us about him or the compelling nature of his life. So, in some sense, despite my view that God was bigger than the box we long to put God into, I spent considerable time inside the box where I was most comfortable, because history was more tangible to me. The discussions about the indescribable God haunted me on some level. Yes, God was bigger. Most will admit that much despite the limits they’re eager to place around God. What else was there to say? Didn’t I have to work with the box I’d been handed, as I’ve only ever got my own social location to work with? I’m a big-picture person, but I couldn’t conceive of what there was to say that didn’t just bore the daylights out of me if we were going to start talking about what happened off the canvas.
Religion, as I’ve come to understand it, has for a long time now been concerned with putting God into this very box. Quite literally, that happens with the ark of the covenant, and it happens again in the building of a temple for God’s residence. Which is not to say the Hebrew mind believed God remained in this one and only spot, but that there was a specific place for God was evidence of the limits of God’s grandness defined even in the ‘gates’ of Jerusalem – that there were clear and defined points of entry and exit so that what belongs vs. what doesn’t could be clarified. In the Gospel’s story of the curtain in the Temple being torn after Jesus’ death, you could argue that there was a momentary desire to get God out of the box only to have house churches (and later, cathedrals) once again confine God to an enclosed space with new limits arising in arguments about the nature of divinity. I want to be careful here in acknowledging that I don’t think Jesus was undoing the box Judaism had placed around God. Jesus wasn’t the first critic of the box within Judaism and certainly not the last. And, so too, Jesus wasn’t without his own limits for God’s character. Or at least for how humans should conceive of God. That, of course, raises the important question of what God is not. If God is so much grander than the limits religion have placed around God, where does the grandness stop? I can think of plenty of places in our society where God’s presence should seem lacking, and yet it’s often those very places where God’s presence is also most apparent.
To me, the desire for breaking out of the box is an important desire. I think we need to come to see God as bigger than we might have thought of God growing up in Sunday school or at church camp or wherever, but I also think to toss aside the box and just frolic in nature singing “kumbaya” misses something, as well. While religion has failed in an epic way to bring us the fullness of God, it’s nevertheless been the one vehicle through which our limited minds could experience an important (albeit limited) picture of what’s truly sacred. Many of my friends who have this earnest desire to seek God beyond the confines of religion are, ironically, not having that need met outside of the confines of religion. That’s not to say they don’t get glimpses of it on a hike through the wilderness or in a conversation with a friend, but the communal approach to religion, the (often-failed) goal of achieving some higher, loving good, the guarantee of guides and mentors through the process of searching for meaning in this silly life: I don’t see that happening without at least some aspect of the box. Even if we’re needing to scream at the box, it’s still the box we find ourselves needing to work through in order to feel as though God has heard us. So, by all means, let’s break out of the box, acknowledging to live big and to love bigger than we might have imagined ourselves doing before, but before we go constructing new boxes, let’s not forget how important the ones we love to hate really are to us.