Thinking outside religious boxes.

I’ve heard a lot of people talking recently about “thinking outside the box” as a good thing.

The more I’ve thought about it, however, the more I wonder which box they are thinking outside of.  “Thinking outside the box” implies a progressive, future orientation.  That is, tradition is like an anchor which, unless you pull it up and get it out of the way, is a huge drag on a ship which is trying to move forward.  Forward, for those who praise thinking outside the box, is better than staying where you are and much better than going backwards.

Take me and technology, for example.  I’m afraid of technology, so I don’t try to use it.  I’m proud of myself that I even do email, but I don’t know how to text or do photoshop or any of the hundreds of other miracle apps available.  I don’t think or venture outside of that box.

But then I realized that many tech wizards are really in a box of their own making and don’t know it.  For example, techno wizards might be able to keep in constant contact with a hundred of their closest friends, but I wonder if they will ever experience the joy of receiving a lightly perfumed, hand written love letter in the mail from the one they can’t stop thinking about.  I wonder if they really believe that they are “best friends” with all those people.  I fear that in the process of gaining access to instant communication, they are losing more than they acquire, like in depth relationships for example.  It’s like the couple on their honeymoon texting each other as they sit side by side on the beach in Cancun.

It is an illusion that you can be outside of boxes altogether.  The only question is, “What box will you move into if you move out of the one you’re presently in?”

Human beings need intellectual boxes, categories, doctrines, mental file folders.  Language itself creates a box which both limits and frees us.   Every second of our waking hours millions of bits of data enter us through our skin, nose, ears, taste buds and eyes.  The human brain, as amazing as it is, can’t process all of that data, so what it does is select which data it will focus on by using the categories it has in place to sort the data into important, less important and junk mail file folders.  What enlightened people do is not to imagine that they can operate without boxes but to recognize that they have them and from time to time evaluate whether their filing system is adequate.

The Existentialists like Camus and Sartre declared that “existence precedes essence,” i.e. we should not accept the boxes people put us into from birth on but create our own essence, sort of ex nihilo.  Last I heard, only God could do that.

When it comes to religious boxes, a lot of people I talk to now days are disillusioned with religion in general and doctrine in particular.  “The old boxes,” they contend, “like original sin or you can’t eat meat on Friday or women submitting to men or six day creation or homosexuality is sinful—those doctrines imprison the human spirit more than protecting and nurturing it.  I’m done with doctrine.  I want to think outside the box.”

They say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

What they mean, often without realizing it, is that they are thinking inside an alternative box to the one they felt trapped in, and the question is, “Are they fooling themselves by imagining that they are finally free of boxes.”  And a second question follows, “Is the box I’m now in more liberating than the one from which I escaped?”  Many folks have initially felt a surge of freedom when they escape from a rigid, judgmental or abusive family system by getting married only to discover that they are trapped in a similar system under a different guise. 

Or conversely, once they got out of the old box, they feel frightened by the ambiguity and loss of control they feel in the new box and want to “escape from freedom” by returning to the old container.  Thus the quip, “We spend nine months getting out of our mother’s womb and the rest of our lives trying to get back in.”  Thus the children of Israel, once they entered the box of trusting God to take care of them, started wishing they were back by the fleshpots of Egypt.  They weren’t totally free of boxes either way.  They were in the box of slavery in Egypt.  They were in the box of dependence on the LORD if they continued travelling through the wilderness.   

If you agree with me that life without boxes is impossible and undesirable, then one question with two parts remains: “If I want to think outside the box I’m presently in, will the box I move into liberate and protect me better than the one I’m in, or would I be better off remodeling my current box to make it less rigid and more open to fresh air?”

Pope John XXIII decided to do the latter.  He understood that the Roman Catholic box, if you will, was too confining in the early 1960s, but far from leaving the church which he still loved, he decided to facilitate a major remodeling project.  He decided to “open windows and let some fresh air blow through the Church.”  What he did was to open the windows of his box to outside influences without abandoning the box itself.  He exposed the Church to the joys of diversity while at the same time maintaining a safe haven for storms and an ongoing sense of identity.  To switch metaphors, he changed the bathwater without throwing out the baby.

My friends who celebrate thinking outside the box perceive doctrine and tradition as an anchor which inhibits progress.  They are right of course.  But a ship without an anchor is powerless against the waves created by the storms of life and will inevitably crash against the rocks.  The question is not, “how can I get rid of anchors, or boxes” but rather “how do I use them properly.”