April 30, 2012

Thinking Inside The Box

To have an integrity as a religious person, one must be engaged in a continual struggle against the tendency of religion to domesticate God. Part of giving oneself to a life in community is the willingness to take up the sacrifice and difficulty of doing this not just against the background of one's own distraction and sin, but the cocktail of the collective distraction and sin of a group of Christians.

As if that weren't enough metaphors for one day, in reflecting on this I've been playing with another one: the box.

Religion is like a box into which we are supposed to put ourselves. It is a set of boundaries and definitions, practices and behaviors revealed by the Holy Spirit and built up by sacred tradition. Placing ourselves in this box helps us to hold on to the salvation we have received by providing practices that keep us mindful of the economies of grace around us and of the ways God wills us to be useful for the salvation of others. The boundaries and limits of the box help us to avoid the errors and confusions that lead us back to our former way of life, that we may be daily delivered from the misery of the vain way of life bequeathed to us by the legacy of brutality that is original sin, the vana conversatione a patribus tradita. (1 Peter 1:18. I love that phrase; it's one my favorite Easter slogans.)

Things turn around all too easily, however. Religion becomes not the box into which we put ourselves for our safety and in order to remain attentive to God, but the box into which we put God in order to domesticate him and protect ourselves from him. We can  use religion to make God into a safe and intelligible commodity, perhaps a nice resource that we as religious people are privileged to possess and even share with others (aren't we nice!) or a bean-counting judge who is happy with us and unhappy with everyone else. Or perhaps he is unhappy with us too! That's something one notices a lot as a confessor; how easily an idea of God is instrumentalized by human self-hate. Or we think that because we are religious people, we know exactly what God wants and what is expected of us. Perhaps this makes us into Pharisees, but sometimes it also makes us domesticate God by making him the nice and 'pastoral' mascot of our relativism, protecting ourselves from the discomfort and political incorrectness of ever having to say that anybody else is wrong or that their behavior is unacceptable.

The world and the flesh, in their infantile arrogance, want a God who can be safely stored and who will not challenge their rule over our lives. Of course the world and the flesh are wily; they will help us to think that we are being 'stretched' and 'challenged' even when we are growing ever more safe and comfortable with ourselves and the 'God' we have put in a pretty box.

Let us put ourselves in the box instead, the box of true religion that is God's means of freeing us for the salvation of our brothers and sisters.


E said...

For me, religion is not a box but more of a house. It offers shelter,a place to store my stuff, windows to look out at the passing world. I didn't build or design the house, an architect and construction crew did long before me, but somehow it seems perfect for me. The proportions are good,the foundation strong,but it does require constant upkeep or it will start to get seedy. It has books and art and music. I can invite my friends over. Even though I may visit fancier houses, or travel to interesting places,I am always happy to return to what is mine. It is a place where I can rest and feel safe. It is sanctuary. It is home.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the beautiful and encouraging comment!