Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Idolatry of Identity Part 1: Wondrous Not-Knowing and Magical Boxes

At the beginning o Shakespeare’s Henry V, many of the characters are struggling with what they perceive to be the transformation of young, wild, party-boy Prince Harry into the warrior-king they are now encountering. One of the characters expresses that tension to the Prince Dolphin of France in this way:

And be assur’d, you’le find a diff’rence,
As we his Subiects haue in wonder found,
Betweene the promise of his greener dayes,
And these he masters now:

It is an ingrained part of human nature to put everything we find into the proper boxes. We are categorizing, classifying, compartmentalizing, specializing creatures. We do this with the universe we encounter because it is too large for us to grasp (at least intellectually) unless we break it up into nice little pieces. Most of science is classification, and most scientific discovery is realizing that something does not fit as neatly as we thought in the box we had created for it, and we need to move it to another box.

Human beings classify everything. Everything we encounter goes into pre-conceived boxes… and when something does not fit any of our boxes we either force it to fit (most common) or we create a new box. When something does not seem to fit in a box, it disturbs us… for it reminds us that our boxes can never contain all there is, and that what we have placed into the boxes we have may not fit there as well as we think it does.

There are three primary responses to this tension between our human need to understand all that is through classification, and the reality of a universe that is too complex, too dynamic, and two enormous to be classified: Idolatry, magical boxes, and one of several forms of “not-knowing”.

Not-knowing itself takes on several different forms. One form is by approaching the universe with a kind of personal and intellectual naiveté that makes every moment, every encounter, every discovery a new and bold thing, standing on its own. Very few even approach this kind of engagement with the world, sometimes termed as the “wonder of a child”. I have thought that this might be part of what Jesus meant when his disciples asked him who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus brought a child to them and said that the greatest would be anyone who “feels himself small like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4).

Not-Knowing can also be a form of nihilism, where someone accepts that the efforts to understand the world through classification is flawed, but then sees that not as a call to awe and wonder but as an excuse to simply not care about the world we inhabit. Both the wondrous not-knowing and the nihilistic not-knowing exist as a continuing tension in Buddhism as well as other faiths.

Another method of coping with a universe that resists such easy classification is what I call “Magical Boxes”. Of all of these coping strategies, this is the one I encounter most often among those on the religious left, including in myself. I find it humorous that it is also one of the preferred solutions by some on the religious right.

What I term a “Magical Box” is an effort of classification in which the boundaries of the box can expand, shift and change in order to encompass all. There is nothing in the universe that cannot, with a little effort, be made to fit into a Magical Box. I will admit that my primary tension with my understanding of God as “totality inclusive of time and conceived as a realm of meaning” is that one of its results is to function for me as a Magical Box. In my theology, there is nothing I encounter in the Universe that is not a part of God… and therefore I can gain perspective on “my” universe because it fits in my concept of God.

For myself, I have found I need the Magical Box of this theology to give me the distance I need to then approach what is within that box with a little “wondrous not-knowing”. I aspire to wondrous not-knowing… and yet I need the “training wheels” of my Magical Box. Perhaps one day I will truly be able to enter into, to paraphrase Einstein, the library of the Universe with the wonder of a Child. I take heart that Einstein, who probably approached that wondrous not-knowing closer than anyone else, had his own Magical Box of mathematics.

There are many such Magical Boxes. Understanding all of humanity as “The Children of God” is a magical box. Believing that the Bible is the Word of God and contains all of God’s wisdom for us is also a magical box. Even saying that all of humanity has “inherent worth and dignity” can function as a magical box. Gaia, Mother Earth, Zeus, Brahma, Kronos, Jehovah, and many other understandings of God throughout history have functioned as Magical Boxes. Some understand Love as their Magical Box, for others it might be Faith. For many on the political left, their Magical Box is Justice, or Peace, or Equality. For some reason, we humans like to capitalize our Magical Boxes when we write about them… This is why so many of my Deist friends always capitalize Reason.

Sometimes we choose not to put everything into our Magical Box… but rather to put in it only the things we like. The tool of the Magical Box then becomes a way not of including all, but of dividing the Universe into a dichotomistic paradox, based upon our own interpretations, values, and judgments. We end up with two Magical Boxes.

It is from the coping strategy of having two Magical Boxes that we gained Good vs. Evil; Right vs. Wrong; Us vs. Them; and even Me vs. The Rest of the Universe. With two Magical Boxes, we are then able to impose our own control over the Universe we inhabit, instead of being a non-controlling part of a much larger whole. The theological personification of these two Magical Boxes is often God vs. The Devil.

In my own theology, the legacy of years of having two Magical Boxes exists in my understanding that that Universe is composed of the force of Creation and the Force of Destruction. The difference is that I do not perceive Creation and Destruction as opposing opposites, but rather as two ends of a single dynamic tension and paradox.

Having two Magical Boxes in which to place our Universe gives us the beginning of an illusion of control over the Universe we inhabit. We increase that illusion of control in two ways… we first make our boxes no longer magic, and then we drastically increase the number of boxes that we have to put things in.

All human beings do this, every moment of every day of our lives. We each have thousands of little, non-magical boxes that we put everything we encounter into every day. When we realize that the coping strategy of all of these little boxes is simply a tool we use to live each day in a complex world, then the lid of each box remains open, and what we place in each box can move around from box to box, (Magical Boxes) or even maintain its existence outside of all of our boxes (wondrous not-knowing).

When we close the lid on those little boxes, however… when we demand that what we put into a box stays in the box, we have crossed into Idolatry.

Yours in faith,

3 Thoughts on “The Idolatry of Identity Part 1: Wondrous Not-Knowing and Magical Boxes

  1. David, i feel we function in an environment that is defined by its randomness and our ignorance. i feel that for the most part we imply our way through the days. Keeping hope alive is the task of the ministry, the chaplain, the parent. Teaching that the open box is the best policy is a good lesson. Can i still send in my box tops to redeem a valuable prize somewhere? bs

  2. Ben,

    Hah! You made my day… Box-top redemption! Priceless.

    I’m also waiting to see if anyone can identify the paradoxical pun at the heart of this essay…


    Yours in Faith,


  3. Patrick McLaughlin on Saturday December 19, 2009 at 17:39 +0000 said:

    “Little boxes, little boxes…”

    “And they’re all made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.”

    Pandora’s Box?


    I’ve no idea if that was just stream of consciousness or thought, because I have to go back to writing the things I really should be (have already been…) writing.

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