You may well know the old parable of the blind men and the elephant in which numerous blind men are set on the task of describing an elephant; each grab the piece of the elephant that is at hand and proceed to describe what they think “an elephant really is.” Each of the blind men then assume their interpretation or experience is the only one, but in reality it is a very diminished (reduced) view of an elephant.
Interestingly, this parable is used in numerous religious traditions to address the tendency of religious people everywhere to think they have God under control and all nicely boxed up. As Darrell Guder says:
If we accept Karl Barth’s distinction between the Christian faith and “religion,” then the human desire to exercise control would certainly be one of the major characteristics of all [fallen] religious systems. These systems can [appear to] be very pious and impressive. But, in one way or another, they are ultimately expressions of “the hidden desire of the human heart […] to use God merely to serve [one’s] human purposes.”
But God will not, indeed cannot, be put into a box. Guder rightly reminds us that God’s unwillingness to be put in a box or be controlled takes us back to the very revelation of the divine name given to Moses in Exodus 3:13–15. Despite Moses’ request to know God’s name, God refused to allow himself to be confined by a human constraint. The meaning of his name (YHWH) is best translated as “I will be there as I will be there.” The triune God cannot be conjured up; he will choose to appear when and in whatever manner he so chooses. Nothing about him can be predicted or neatly categorized. In other words, God always retains the element of surprise. YHWH claims an always unlimited and uncontrollable sovereignty. The name of God poses a constant challenge to our human attempts to master God for our own purposes.20 God is always ungraspable in himself; he is always more.
We are not saying all religious claims are the same, or that God is relativized in any way—we really believe that the God revealed in Scripture, and especially through Jesus, is indeed absolute. We are simply highlighting the fact that our grasp on him can never be absolute. Humans are limited and cannot comprehend the Absolute absolutely. Therefore, our historical reductions (the pieces of the elephant we happen to be describing) are really not the whole picture, but only a part. The early church Fathers, who were theological virtuosos when it came to exploring the boundaries of what can and cannot be known about God, were right to remind us that when dealing with the Lord of the universe there is always more. Even in our best attempts, we never arrive at a totally comprehensive understanding of God. If anyone claims to have done so, then it is not God that they have understood.
It is this human tendency to control God that lies at the heart of his condemnation of idolatry. All idolatry and religious image-making are implicit attempts to limit (reduce) and thereby control God. Idolatry is the worship of the parts instead of the whole, one aspect of the universe in place of the Creator of all who transcends all. And the Bible is unrelenting in its attack on the religious roots of reductionism, as Guder highlights: “The Prophets unmasked man’s religiosity as being not just a desire for God, but a desire to have a god, to possess him, to have him for their own, at their disposal.” This is as true now as ever.
As beings who are so concerned about control, we find the universal significance and translatability of the gospel offensive, even a shock. A translatable gospel is fundamentally not a controllable one—it’s too big; it breaks our boxes. It unsettles us to discover that faithfulness to Christ can vary from culture to culture, and is expressed with different patterns than the ones we have so painstakingly evolved. Western Christianity has assumed it represents the cultural perfection of the gospel. But no particular cultural rendering of the gospel, Western or otherwise, may claim greater validity than any other, and most certainly none have yet perfected it. Therefore we must always address our tendencies to suppress, own, and limit God and gospel. The church must come awake to our participation in this heresy of reductionism, especially in our attempts to communicate the story of God. “Our faithful witness can only happen when we learn to see and repent of our conformities. These conformities must be addressed when we examine the issue of gospel reductionism and open ourselves to our own continuing conversion.”
Ultimately, the sad (and frankly embarrassing) outcomes of accumulated reductions and codifications of the truth are seen and experienced in our lives and churches as:
- Ossified doctrines; where ideas are believed but not lived, and faith degenerates into religious ideology.
- Wooden proclamations; where little resonates with the people beyond (and inside) the church, and theological boredom becomes the order of the day.
- Empty doxologies; where ritualized religion replaces true worship, with no relationship to the eternal and universal perspective.
- Legalistic ethics; where discipleship is reduced to religious moralism,
and shame and guilt replace freedom.
- Or perhaps if we were to be more specific, we might simply affirm what our good friend Brad Brisco states when he laments that:
- We have reduced the church to a place and a gathering. · We have reduced mission to evangelism.
- We have reduced worship to singing songs.
- We have reduced the gospel to bullet points.
- We have reduced Christology to the cross.
- We have reduced discipleship to the transfer of information.
- We have reduced the ministry callings/functions (Ephesians 4) to shepherd and teacher.
- We have reduced spirituality to withdrawal from the world.
- We have reduced church planting to starting worship services.
Have we brought about such a reduced version of the truth that we can no longer enter into a culture that is so desperately longing for something that makes sense of our lives? And if so, can we own our responsibility and culpability for allowing this reduction to occur?