In our species, pattern sensing is a key way for us to relate to the universe. It is fascinating to watch a child over the weeks following birth, first learning to process the data streaming in from its sensory organs, then recognising common patterns and responding to them. Day by day, week by week, month by month, it adds to its data store and grows in its ability to discriminate – this is a dog; this is a dad; this is my dog and this is not; this is my dad and this is not a dad at all but a brother. In its future might be advanced pattern manipulation that enhances the lives of others – music, visual arts, mathematics, engineering, landscape gardening, child raising.
That’s the bright side. But our drive to see patterns also leads to discrimination, bullying, and bigotry.
As soon as you see a pattern, you create a mental box with a label – this is a category called dogs; this is a category called dads. The box is useful only if it has some elements of the world inside, and others outside. And it is very useful then: once a child knows the characteristics that fit in the box and go with the label, they pick an element by a few characteristics, put it in its correct box, and know what else to expect. This is a biscuit. Biscuits are good to eat. Even though I’ve never seen this sort of biscuit before, I know it will be good to eat.
Babies are good at this; all their boxes, all their labels, are provisional. If a new piece of data comes along, they fix their categories. This Newfoundland has all the right characteristics to belong in the dog box; this animal – although it shares certain characteristics, has a whole new set of characteristics, and it needs a box with the label ‘sheep’.
As we grow older, though, our categories tend to ossify. And we’re at real risk if we think our box and label are true. We apply them to ourselves: in my birth family, I was the brainy, introverted reader, which isn’t too bad; I’ve known children who have grown up knowing that they’re easily scared, or shy, or liars. They can’t explore other aspects of their potential, because they simply can’t see outside of the box. They can’t grow their box, or shift their perception of themselves to another box.
We apply them to others: boy do we apply them to others! That’s been a theme of the last few posts, hasn’t it? Catholic. Conservative. Gay. Disabled. Liberal. Atheist. Humanist. We ignore anything a person does or says that doesn’t fit the box and label we’ve applied – if we even notice it, we assume it is an aberration. We can’t see past the label to the person.
And we apply them to God. It’s inevitable; it’s the way we think. We stick God in the box labelled God. And then we ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit our God category. Believers do it; non-believers do it; people of every faith do it. We Catholics think we’ve got an inside edge on the characteristics that should be in the box – but we’re as bad as anyone (if not worse) in thinking our box contains all there is.
God is bigger than our categories. God doesn’t fit in a box, and our labels don’t describe God. We need to approach our conception of God as a child approaches its boxes and labels – as provisional; as subject to change without notice.
Now and again life comes along and smacks us in the chops, scattering our boxes and our labels, mixing up our categories. It hurts. Some people throw out the God box when that happens. Some clutch it still more tightly. Some manage to move beyond their box to a new conception of God. It’s still a box – but at least it’s a bigger box!