Thinking About Boxes

November 20, 2007 at 11:48 am 12 comments

Boxes“Thinking outside the box” is a current buzz phrase in North America. Common Wisdom has it that people who succeed in business are those who can think beyond their usual boundaries and imagine possibilities that their peers don’t conceive. Thinking “inside the box,” in contrast, is considered stale and uninventive, a sure recipe for fiscal disaster. In this post, I want to consider the notions of thinking inside the box, outside the box, and finally, about the box itself.

I first learned to think outside the box about ten years ago, when I taught an undergraduate course in Human Relations, which typically covered such issues as racial, ethnic and gender discrimination. I was an evangelical Christian at the time, snuggled cozily inside my spiritual and intellectual box. I was comfortable with my worldview and, until that point, had experienced little difficulty in fitting new ideas into my old box without changing much about the box itself. My mission in the Human Relations course, as a graduate assistant I had little choice but to accept it, was to teach undergraduate teacher education students to think outside their boxes. This entailed, of course, that I could learn to think that way myself. Fortunately, my faculty supervisor and fellow graduate students taught me how to think outside of my conservative, evangelical Christian box.

An example of the kind of thinking I mean is this: the most difficult Human Relations concept for me to grasp was the notion of “white privilege.” It took me months to understand how, as a white woman in American society, I enjoyed many hidden privileges. For example, when I walk down the street, people don’t cross the street and walk on the other side as they sometimes do when they see a black or Hispanic man coming their way. The implicit trust extended toward me, simply because of my skin color, was something I took for granted. I assumed such trust was granted to everyone who walked down the street, but that was not true. Once I grasped this concept, and other related ones, everything I had ever learned about human social intercourse took on new meanings. I finally was able to a) think outside of my old conceptual box, and b) build a new and better box for myself.

In hindsight, I now realize that this initial experience in thinking outside the box was the first step in my de-conversion. As I learned to consider and understand race and gender issues in new ways, I had to re-define my theology. I had to build a new theological box so that I could add the new content to it and dispose of some of the old junk that couldn’t merge with the new stuff. Of course, as time went by, the new box became comfortable and I settled into it until it became my regular box.

Over the past few years, as I viewed the world from within my box, I gradually became aware that it was getting tight and stuffy in there, with little room for new materials. When I hit the crisis period of my de-conversion (see The Stages of Grief Over My Loss of Faith), I climbed outside my box and, instead of merely thinking outside of it, began examining the box itself. After several weeks of looking at that box and its contents, I realized that I could no longer carry around many of its contents, primarily those related to Christianity. I’m now at a stage in which I am thinking about all religious boxes. I know that I can’t fit into any of them and I have no interest in picking up and trying on another one. The question I’m wrestling with now is whether there is room in the world for religious and secular boxes to co-exist amicably, or whether the world would benefit most by dispensing with all religious boxes. I’ll need a lot more time to think about those boxes.

– the chaplain

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. karen  |  November 20, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks for this, the chaplain. Again, you struck a chord.

    When I was in therapy a few years ago, my counselor used the box metaphor and it really amazed me. I had no idea that’s what was happening to me.

    She pointed out that I had grown up so completely enclosed by the box that I never realized I was inside! As I began to venture out, with much fear, I saw for the first time that a whole world of ideas and possibilities existed in brilliant colors.

    Going back inside the black-and-white world of a cramped, stuffy doctrinal box is very unappealing after you catch a glimpse of the beautiful universe of thought and ideas outside. I thought about trying to crawl back inside, but I realized it would have been very mentally unhealthy – nearly impossible – for me.

    I wonder how those “backsliders” who return to church do it? Anybody ever had the experience of knowing someone well who was an apostate and later repented?

  • 2. Lorena  |  November 20, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    the chaplain,

    There is so much in your post that I could sink my teeth into.

    For starters, it was in writing school while learning rhetoric and public relations that I learned to think critically, and my de-conversion started there.

    The other thing is something that happened to me in church a lot. I am a short, brown Latin American who lives in Canada and attended church with white Canadians for many years. Often people would patronize me, ask me stupid questions, or leave me out of activities because they thought I couldn’t handle it or I didn’t have money to spend.

    When I complained they said, “Impossible, that person is really nice to me.” I wanted to say, sure, but you are a white person without an accent.

    This is a problem of society, not of the church only. But I feel tremendously validated by your bringing up the issue here.


  • 3. Slapdash  |  November 20, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    Great entry, thanks! But speaking of boxes, someone just posted on my blog semi-accusing me of trying to put GOD in a box, and trying to make him be/do what I want him to be/do. And since, apparently, he isn’t conforming to my wishes, I am losing my faith. (It’s fun when total strangers think they have you all figured out…)

    So I am not sure that any practicing Christian will think THEY are in a box of any kind. After all, the scales have fallen off of their eyes; they know the Truth.; My guess is that many Christians will pity the de-convert who has tried to put God in a box of their own making, and found that god lacking.

  • 4. Been there done that  |  November 20, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    Karen – I am a former “backslider”, returner to the fold, now de-converting former fundie. If that isn’t a mouthful?!

    The difference in my case was my first leaving the faith had to do more with me initially feeling rejected and unable to measure up to the standards of the group. Then tumbling head long into a hard season of self-fulfilling prophecy of medicating the pain with alcohol and drugs further ingraining the idea that without the fundie god I was doomed to a life of hell both here and in eternity.

    When I hit bottom, went into treatment and followups w/ AA I was encouraged to try to whole higher power thing again. As the stability in my life grew, it was easy for me to internalize that god had given me a second chance, I could be forgiven and start over again.

    In my apostasizing, it has been more of an intellectual epiphany regarding the absurdity of it all which actually had its start while I was on staff at a fundie bible college and had the opportunity to read more church history and theology than is normally allowed or encouraged for the average pew sitter in the particular fundie group I was involved in.

    It began with questions and serious doubts about the rapture and end times theology. Discrepancies in history of what really constituted a 1st century church model, and a few years exploring Eastern Orthodoxy have brought me to a place of having a hard time understanding how I ever accepted all the sin and atonement theology of the christian faith.

    Based on my experience, I’ve wondered if there may be a subtle distinction between a backslider and an apostate.

    I have really enjoyed finding this blog!

  • 5. Jon F  |  November 20, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    Here’s a poem I wrote earlier in the year about this:

    Some people love boxes.
    Boxes have straight edges and sharp corners.
    Boxes are either open or closed.
    Best of all, you can stick labels on boxes.

    Some people think a church is a box.

    Some people hate boxes.
    Boxes have straight edges and sharp corners.
    Boxes are either open or closed.
    Worst of all, you can stick labels on boxes.

    Some people think a church is a box.

    If you put chocolates in a box, do you get a box full of chocolates or a chocolate box?
    If you put Christians in a church, do you get a church full of Christians or a Christian church?

    Some people think a church is a box.

    Some people love boxes; especially boxes with labels.
    Some people hate boxes; especially boxes with labels.
    Some say that the people that love boxes and the people that hate boxes are simply each in their own box.
    They say the only difference is the label.

  • 6. the chaplain  |  November 20, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    Jon – Nice poem. It fits so well and says a lot in far fewer words than I used.

  • 7. Rachel  |  November 21, 2007 at 12:44 am

    the chaplain,
    Was it more the fundamentalist “boxes” you rejected or a theistic worldview in general?
    And I do have to mention that most theologians would laugh at a little box labeled “God.” If the God of the Bible is real (and you’re perfectly entitled to believe he’s not), then he is quite often in the business of shattering our preconceived notions about him.

  • 8. owen59  |  November 21, 2007 at 8:50 am

    Some more poetry. I wrote this back in ’93.


    Believers in their darkest hours, dismay,
    while scholars in their books and thoughts despair
    reaching out from the moments disarray
    find anxiously, God is nowhere.

    In a flower, beauty is a twirl, a red.
    the tree, branch and leaf, a mother’s breast,
    from rock, all above ‘ below is spread.
    the sun, in giving, is power at its best.
    Know every sign by a careful pare
    beyond all this, God is nowhere.

    The universe is there to claim a mind,
    yet adherents of careless thought beware,
    in any search we are left behind.
    Outside existence, still, God is nowhere.

  • 9. the chaplain  |  November 21, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    I’ve rejected theism in any form. I started as an evangelical, slid through a fairly lengthy liberal stage, then a brief sort of deistic phase. I don’t think any of the prevailing or past theistic views are feasible, but concede that some sort of deism may be a tenable god-belief for one to hold reasonably.


  • 10. dovelove  |  November 21, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    … “he is quite often in the business of shattering our preconceived notions about him.”

    Isn’t it interesting how “believers” invariably pull out the fear card, heh And brrrr, that “shattering” word is indeed frightening, no? 🙂

    I say, “he” shatters nothing 🙂 If notions (or whatever) get shattered, we do the shattering — we create or destroy with our beliefs (believe and it shall be so, remember?), many of which have been burned into us via the fear that is the controlling tool of most religions.

    The “God” in the bible is a term that collectively describes an energy that is within us all. That book’s all about us. It should be interpreted like a dream, symbolic.

    I mean really, think about it. If this was a real entity named “God,” why in hell would he have interest in beings that are in no way powerful or valuable even in their own eyes. I dunno. But if I were this all-powerful god, I’d want “my children” to know they are powerful, just like me. Extremely valuable to me, no matter what they do (much like human children to loving parents, eh?) I’d write ’em a book advising them about their own power, how to use it safely. I surely wouldn’t want them to learn dependence on me, as if they could do nothing with their own power — WEAK, and essentially nothing without me. Those would be some boring kids, lol — and I surely wouldn’t want to spend “eternity” on the other side with them 🙂

    If the bible is potent with contradiction, there’s a reason for that. It hasn’t been properly interpreted 🙂 There are people who do see truth in the fairy-tale, symbolic stories of the bible. An interpretation that shows that we are the “God,” we create our own lives, and we are so very valuable — no matter what we do or believe. “Children of God.” That reference is one of a plethora of little clues 🙂 “God” is within us. We are God.

    And even if there were a separate God, it’s an impossibility to both love and fear someone. How many people do you deeply love and fear at the same time? If you’re in such a “love” relationship, I’d advise re-thinking your definition of love.

    … “or whether the world would benefit most by dispensing with all religious boxes.”

    Any religion or other organization that references others as lesser (“sinners,” “wretches”) is a cancer in our world. Their euphemistic ramblings are about nothing but hatred and judgment. I don’t care what they consciously say or think they believe. When you look at another as less, that’s hatred. And fear is the root of it.

    We don’t need religion — we very much don’t need it. But I know of at least one “old religion” that embraces, loves and accepts all, respects and loves nature… That one is in no way harmful to us, and the loving nature of it surely blesses us.

    Again, regardless of the type of organization, if it spews judgment and hatred upon any of us — bellowing at a pulpit that we better do this or that or else… That kind of ongoing “affirmation,” brainwashing from ludicrious interpretations of an old book, will eventually kill us per the self-loathing that it seeds and cultivates, every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night…

    I don’t need any more time to think about it. Traditional/mainstream religion is a disease in our world, in our minds and heart. And either we “cure” it or it’s gonna take us all out. It has created a world of hatred, not love. Go figure.


  • 11. timethief  |  November 21, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with what dovelove has posted.

  • 12. Boxes « An Apostate’s Chapel  |  January 5, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    […] An earlier version of this post appeared at De-Conversion a couple of months ago. It grew out of a response to a post by […]

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