“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 person 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 a significant 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. 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, I climbed outside of 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 discovered that I could no longer carry around many of its contents, primarily those related to Christianity. Upon further consideration, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with the idea that it is time for me to set aside all religious boxes, for none of them will ever fit me well again.