Why order is necessary: breaking down the three boxes

During the Summer of 2017, I did a lot of writing. Shortly after I began writing about my faith journey, I was presented with the contract of silence. I stopped writing and even closed down the site where my writing was found, but I saved most of what was written there. When I talk about my experience over the last several years, it is impossible not to talk about the experience of deconstruction. This post and the box of disorder were two of the most honest things I’d written, so I wanted to share them again before I start talking about reconstruction – or as I like to call it: Diving into heresy.

I sat down at my keyboard today and wondered, Is it ok to write about writing? Do people want to read that? Which is a silly question because I have five readers, and obviously you are the five I can’t chase away no matter what I write about. We’re stuck together for life, and I’m very ok with it. But then I considered the layers beneath that seemingly innocent duo of questions and peeked at a familiar theme. What is expected of me? Am I upholding those expectations? That’s the voice of codependency and trauma. What are the rules and how do I follow them perfectly? Those questions tell me instead of writing about writing, it’s time to break down some boxes, starting with order.

I learned about the concept of three boxes from Richard Rohr, a formative voice for me over the last several years. He breaks the universal faith journey into three boxes: order > disorder > reorder.

In the interest of brevity–and because you can read more at the linked article–let’s call the first box the box of immaturity. It holds the foundational tenets which we are taught from the moment we draw breath. Whether or not we are talking about religion, we begin life by following certain rules, ways of explaining how the world works. This is a good thing. In fact, it’s a necessary process enabling us to grow in an emotionally stable environment. One of our most basic needs is security. Foundational rules keep us safe and provide order: the stove is hot; the street is not safe; God loves us; the sun will rise every morning.

These rules create order and provide the framework for reality. Without them, the world is a Salvadore Dali painting, skewed, unstable and unpredictable.

All of us rely on rules daily. But most of us don’t follow them blindly once we gain maturity. For instance, the rule about going into the street. It is true streets can be dangerous. But when I take my morning run, I frequently run on the street if the sidewalk is bad All streets are not dangerous all the time for all people. As I grow in wisdom I realize black and white is fine for starting, but it doesn’t remain true as I mature. The principle is true though the practice isn’t always true.

When I run in the street, I leave the box of order and venture into disorder: I ran on the street and was nearly wiped out by a car. Eventually, we reach reorder: I can avoid a collision by carefully assessing traffic patterns before assuming street safety.

Religion can be a very first-box-oriented endeavor. We make rules because we want to know and understand the Divine, which is fine. A god who is too big or too mysterious to understand is a power with which we can never connect. Knowing and understanding are key to a healthy relationship, therefore the Divine makes Herself knowable and comprehensible because she desires a relationship. However, there are parts of her being which are not immediately knowable and even those which are essentially unknowable due to the limits of human understanding.

We use these revealed truths as cornerstones on which we build our theology. God is good. The universe is Divinely ordered. Jesus is God enfleshed. Jesus’s life is worthy of emulation. We can love like God, and She desires this way of love for us. Through Love we are formed into the Divine image. These beliefs matter. They create order in our chaotic reality. When they are distorted, our minds and bodies, as well as our religions fall into dysfunction.

Unfortunately, we often remain at this immature stage. It’s easy. Other people tell us what to think and how to behave. We don’t have to think for ourselves very often. We come to see the rules as immovable constructs for all time rather than starting point for a long conversation. Yes, the stove is hot and may burn us. However, the stove also allows us to create an endless variety of food, which may lead to conversation, laughter, togetherness, and community. What is true about the stove is not ALL that is true about the stove. It’s a starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

The same is true of our religious beliefs:

The Universe is Divinely ordered, but there is more to the conversation.
Jesus life is worth emulating, but there is more to the conversation.
We can love like God, but there is so much more to the conversation.

Sometimes having more conversation is scary. Sometimes, the stove burns your house down; the street proves deadly.

Sometimes theology goes horribly, maniacally wrong.

At this point we face a sort of crisis, is it easier to continue the conversation, or do we revert to the basic tenets and never deviate? Do we conform to the rules and reject anyone who does not or cannot conform to them, calling them a heretic and casting them away from us for our own safety? Do we dare question if the original rule might not even be a true rule at all?

Where did the rules begin and who decided they were necessary anyway?

Now we’re in uncharted territory. It’s not safe, not secure, not popular, and definitely not easy. Which is why so many of us never leave the safety of the rules. If a thing is always true, we always know what to expect. We always know the outcome. We never have to worry about the consequences. So we live this way for years. Some of us live this way forever. It isn’t inherently wrong to live our entire lives in the box of order, but it’s an extremely exclusive way to live. If a set of rules is true, then every other set of rules must be false. There can be only one set of true rules.

But somehow the Divine isn’t as binary as all that.

The box of order is safe, but it breeds superiority, contempt, and disassociation. At its extreme, it is completely anti-community. There can only be us and them, and we are always completely right.

Order is a necessary starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

Author: Dana Portwood

I'm a writer, reader, library lover, grower of feminists, leaver of church but friend of Jesus. Inclusive minded, married to my best friend. Sometimes afraid of my own voice, but using it anyway.

4 thoughts on “Why order is necessary: breaking down the three boxes”

  1. Thank you for sharing this! You are helping me make sense of what I’ve also experienced, and why so many people I care about dont see the world the way I do.

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    1. Michelle, that makes me SO happy! When I began the process it was one of the most isolating and lonely times of my life. It is so hard to find safe spaces to speak of these things. That is part of the reason I feel driven to share my experience. We are not as alone as we may think! And we are Divinely loved and held!

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