But what if I want the box?

Last year I took part in an interfaith dinner, in which all the campus religious groups cooperated and hosted an evening of food, learning, and good conversation. It was advised to write your religious affiliation under your name on your nametag, and I saw many amusing ones: “Spiritual but not religious”; “Jesus not religion”; “Don’t really care.” The standard “Christian,” “Jewish,” “atheist” tags were almost…bland.

Last year I put “Christian” under my name. This year I’m not sure what to put, because if you know me, you know that the labels “Jewish,” “Christian,” and “agnostic” are all, in their own way, applicable.

I know better now than to assume uniformity under one label. “Christian” tells me something, and yet not enough. An “Eastern Orthodox” label, for example, and the aforementioned “Jesus not religion” one create two different images in my mind, as do “atheist” and “agnostic atheist.” All of them are designed to invite conversation, which is the goal, but still I hesitate to get creative in this area.

I appreciate the people who tell me that labels are stupid and limiting; that I don’t need to worry about fitting into anyone’s box. They mean well but they don’t understand how OCD works: I need clean, simple labels. I want the box. The labeled box fits easily into a shelf and looks like it belongs; a container with loose ends hanging out of it is a black hole where items get lost, not found.

Unfortunately, the labels that suit me best are paraphrased quotes, quirky statements, and borrowed lines from books that don’t fit easily onto a Hello, My Name Is tag:

“My doubt is threaded with faith.” “Jew-ish.” “Christian with questions.” “Doubt-filled believer.” “On a journey.” I recently came across this quote, which I love, but definitely wouldn’t fit: “I want the presence of God Himself, or I want nothing to do with religion.”

But they all invite probing questions I might not have answers to. Or, if I do, they come out jumbly, in part because I’m still working through things, and also because I’m allergic to small talk and crowds make me itchy.

And yet, I believe these events are important, and may hold a key – be it a person on a similar trajectory, or insight from listening to another’s abbreviated story – to figuring myself out. I have learned a lot about God from talking with other people. I’ve learned more about the elasticity and purpose of faith by listening or reading someone’s autobiography than hearing a sermon. I hope others react similarly to my story.


“Seeker of God.” “Skeptic.” “Searching.” They’re all me. They don’t fit neatly in one box. I’m willing to bet, though, that behind the cross jewelry, the yarmulkes, and other decorative articles of faith, most people don’t fit neatly in one box, either.

Like this post? Check out Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, now available on Amazon.

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12 thoughts on “But what if I want the box?”

  1. Wow. Wow. I really really love this, too. And I haven’t been sure what labels to use to describe myself either. Sometimes we *want* those labels because it makes it clean and easy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Beth

    I’m never quite sure about what I think about ecumenical interfaith discussion. On the one hand I’m very open to non Jews and to explain my practices, festivals and beliefs. I have a very good and dear friend who is a Christian, whom I met at university. And my brother in law converted to Judaism , after meeting my sister at university and he was an evangelical (although he lost a lot of friends for doing so and converting meant being circumcised , so it wasn’t a decision made in haste) . On the other , I sometimes feel weary because I’ve often allowed my enthusiasm to provide an opening to be preached to and my family /friends and nowadays I just can’t be bothered with that. Where does discussion end and proselytizing / preaching begin? I’m often struggling with that when talking with Christians? Do you have any experiences like that ?


    1. That’s hard to answer, but if a conversation is making you uncomfortable, you’re under no obligation to stay in it. And if you feel like someone is being disrespectful of your beliefs, it’s okay to say that, too.


  3. Here’s something I should have put in the original piece: I am an agnostic who still goes to church, still attends bible studies, still enjoys theological discussions. I do all this because I want faith to come back and come alive the way it did for me years ago. I haven’t stopped looking for answers, haven’t stopped pursuing God (this is explained in more detail in both my memoirs, pardon the plug). So on the one hand, while using a label other than “Christian” certainly implies “Not Christian,” I don’t think it’s quite so simple. The best answer to “What religion are you?” is “Let’s discuss this over coffee sometime.” Otherwise, I don’t owe anyone an explanation of what I believe simply because they ask for it. Faith is complicated and personal.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting read. I like boxes too! Neat and tidy with a bow on top please! Unfortunately life is seldom like that. Rats! Good for you in taking time to think about your “label,” and what it actually means to you. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Ignostic” is the label I feel most comfortable with these days. There is freedom to express and explore and be honest with whatever genuine spiritual experiences I have (or don’t) while freely admitting that any human God-talk is inherently incapable of defining or explaining God. I still obsessively God-talk, but now I approach it as poetry/art to express and highlight wherever I suspect I recognize humanity and divinity intersect, no longer a doctrinal math equation to explain God or how it all works. Upon first coming across the definition of ignosticism, it was simultaneously a liberation from decades of indoctrinated baggage and a profound sense of belonging. “Oh, there I am.” I feel like I’ve finally come home to a box I can truly live in with full integrity for the remainder of my days on this side of life. I’m tired as hell of moving (being shoved) in and out of boxes. Think I’ll stick with this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t see myself ever ceasing to pray or lose interest in learning about all things theology, either. “Agnostic” for me is more of a way to free myself from the burden of having to make things fit when I’m not sure how it all works…things like whether certain social issues are sinful, how God really made the world, and other biblical ‘contradictions.’ I believe it’s possible to be certain about Jesus and yet very uncertain about much of Christianity.


      1. Yeah, an ignostic with a Jesus bent. I’m not even certain what to believe *about* Jesus anymore, and that in and of itself is incredibly freeing. I’m certain through experience that believing Jesus and acting on that bears good fruit. That is enough of an equation for me. Thanks for the post and the discussion. Great stuff, as always.


  6. Good point. No we do not fit into boxes. And having an elasticity is very important
    Although some people would like us to fit into their notions of a box
    Over here in the UK there are a few strident atheists who will not accept the idea that you can have a scientific outlook and still be a theist; they insist you must ditch the latter.

    Liked by 1 person

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