Between Heaven and Earth

Faith and Understanding

Jay: We have been trying to understand how education may have affected our view of God and our view of grace. We’ve talked about the psychology of education and last week we began to talk about the parables of Christ, the teaching methods of Christ, and what they were trying to show us and display to us. 

The issue seems to be one of concrete thought versus abstract thought. Things of the spirit tend to be abstract in nature, so how can we think about abstract things of the spirit when about 50% of us struggle with thinking abstractly? It is not easy to think in abstract terms, and our system of education might share some blame for that because (as we have discussed) most of our educational experience is set in the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. 

I said that 80 to 90% of our educational experiences were at the recall of knowledge level—the base of Bloom’s taxonomy. From that foundation, the human mind is capable of moving up the layers of the pyramid—to application, from there to analysis, then evaluation and finally, at the top, to creativity. The more we ascend the pyramid, the more abstract thinking is needed. 

Do the 47 parables of Jesus require that transition into abstract thought? I asked ChatGTP to summarize each parable in one word. For the parable of the prodigal son, it produced two words: reconciliation and forgiveness. The parable of the wheat and the tares was summed up as judgment; the parable of the sower and the soil: fruitfulness; the parable of the leaven: value; of the mustard seed: growth; of the pearl: sacrifice; of the net: judgment, of the lost sheep: salvation; of the tenant farmers: rejection; of the marriage feast: invitation or acceptance; of the wicked servant: accountability; and of the 10 virgins: preparedness or readiness

These key words represent abstract concepts in the parables of Jesus. But the parables are not passive—they describe much concrete, physical activity. To move from the lower levels of concrete thought, of recall and understanding, to abstract thought, you have to move through the actionable level of application. 

Does Jesus’s teaching methodology support this? Has it helped make those very abstract concepts of God and grace more concrete for us today? 

David: The parables you named are among the most familiar, perhaps because they are relatively easy to understand. But some of the lesser-known parables are (to me) so incomprehensible that there is no way to summarize them. I doubt that Jesus meant to be incomprehensible and must assume that something was lost in translation. For example, the parable of the friend in need:

Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 

and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 

“I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (Luke 11:5–8) 

This makes no sense whatsoever to me. Jesus says the friend will get up and won’t get up. It’s utterly confusing. I can’t believe that Jesus deliberately did that in order to make us think about it, because thinking about it gets you (or me, anyway) nowhere. You can’t come to any conclusion from it, as far as I can see.

C-J: To me it comes down to relationship—relationship with each other, relationship with God—and the transformation. The application of grace isn’t anything that we do of ourselves, it is a gift. I think what that parable says is: “I myself say I’m not giving you anything. But when I’m transformed into the image of Christ, when the old cloth around me cannot be used because it is not beneficial to me, then you have to cut around what is old, so that you have good fabric again.” You can’t throw away all of your history, but throw away what did harm or is no longer useful. 

I think this parable is set to say: “You in your former life would not get up. But now you have a new relationship, a new revelation, and you will get up because you prepare for others what they cannot do for themselves; for you yourself may someday be knocking at their door saying ‘Can you help me?” 

I think everything in the Scriptures old and new is all applicable to relationship. So of course, if he was a decent human being he’d get up. Even if he didn’t have three, he might have one. Give what you can, and then a little bit more than you think you can, and God will bless that because God is a God a provision and this is about faith. This is about that relationship of faith.

Donald: Rather than focus on that one parable, I’m thinking that some people are more intelligent than others, which must affect capacity to think. I think we’re all generally more comfortable with concrete thought using facts and data. The difficulty comes when you have to apply reasoning. It’s been said that we only use a portion of our brains, and maybe we were designed to use all of them, rather than just a portion. Christ recognized that the ideas that he was sharing with human beings were greater than what people could probably grasp.

I asked ChatGPT why would you use a parable to explain something as opposed to just describe it? Why make something an analogy to something else? It replied: Simplicity, engagement. relatability, interpretation, memorable, and lasting. And we know that when somebody shares a story with you, you’re much more likely to remember the story than the specific data that the story was trying to share. So maybe Christ himself recognized that human beings are not at full capacity, and used parables to help us better understand concepts that are complex and abstract.

Michael: I agree, but I too find that the parables often don’t make much sense to me. It bothers me that the church seems to make sense of them very easily, but its explanations don’t always sound right—they are simplistic and even sound as if the church doesn’t want to be be honest with itself and admit that it too doesn’t know what Jesus was trying to say. 

Analogizing is not the problem, because an analogy can achieve what Donald was saying and may have some spiritual truth behind it, though I must say that, at least for me, there often seems to be something missing in them.

Jay: Following many of those parables, you don’t often see a direct interpretation. There are a couple of examples of it but they are rare. Christ is seldom more specific about what he’s representing. More often his parables are open ended and pretty baffling.

Don: But could it be possible that it’s not just one solution that that fits the parable? It’s the genius of the genre that it fits you in this age, it fits Michael in a different age, and it fits someone from the Middle Ages. And each person who sees it, where they are, from their vantage point, sees a spiritual truth that is timeless and immutable.

Do we do Jesus a disservice when we try to take his parables and boil them down to the essence of their meaning? It’s not that the essence is not the meaning, but that the parable may have much greater meaning and a much broader expanse of information and point of view to share than perhaps we’re willing to give it credit for.

Donald: So getting ChatGPT to break it into one word is almost working backwards.

C-J: I think when we take into consideration the time that Christ was living, there was little predictability in the environment. There was chaos. And in chaos, we’re able to see those levels that Dr. Weaver was referring to. Trying to make sense out of chaos really requires abstract. It requires you to be present in the time and place, but also consider the possibilities of what the future will hold both positive and negative. 

During all that time, we are interfacing with things, we have little control of other people, their experiences, our own survival; and each of those things make us come at it from multiple perspectives in order to be able to keep some sense of equilibrium. So I think Jesus was at an advantage, living in chaos and uncertainty.

Even when you look back in the Old Testament, it does not speak of parables as such, even with Boaz and things like that. But I think when you live close to the Earth, and life is known to be relatively short, you have to really maximize that time, and make preparation for a future, even if it’s an uncertain one.

Don: Can you come to know God through abstract thinking only? Can you come to know God through concrete thinking only? Or do you no need to have both concrete and abstract thinking? And how do you manage the balance between the two?

C-J: That’s the wisdom of walking in the garden, and then being out of the garden. I don’t think there was any surprise, I think that God always knew that there was a time when the experience of relationship with God had to be hands-on experiential, not just in ideas, when everything is predictable, and you’re protected, or protected in covenant. But when I think of the garden, I think of absolute protection, I don’t really have to do much other than show up and attend class, but when I’m outside of the garden, it’s work, there are some serious decisions to be made, and it’s not safe. 

I think we need both. That’s why I think the foundation of our lives is very critical as to what the outcome will be, oftentimes, unless God snatches us and says, “No, no, no, I have a plan for you….” Because life really is challenging outside the garden.

Don: We’ve talked much about the stages of faith in this class before. I’m wondering to what extent our own stage of faith influences whether we see God in a more concrete or a more abstract way.

Jay: Looking at it in terms of your view God and your relationship to God, the garden experience is extraordinarily concrete. You walk with God every day. It’s a sensory experience, and sensory experiences tend to be more concrete. After the fall, the view of God or experiencing God became much more abstract. At the second coming presumably there will be a shift back to the concrete, The cosmic plan is on a continuum from concrete to abstract to concrete again.

What we often do is make certain points on the continuum more valuable than other points. It’s the mistake we make when we talk about stages of faith too, believing that one stage of faith is better than another stage If they are just parts of a continuum, with people moving along it, their value as a human being isn’t determined by where they happen to be at any given time on the continuum. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that the parables try to make the abstract seem concrete through sensory content that helps us picture the concept, relate to it, place ourselves in the story by sharing the feelings of the people in the story. This provides a very concrete basis to help us in our concrete level of processing and thought, as opposed to a more abstract place further along the continuum, where the big picture, the timeless principle, is maybe much more abundant and much more valuable for the person at that time. 

But either way, whether we are very much concrete thinkers or very much abstract thinkers, the genre of the parable meets our need.

Donald: A Harvard case study done a number of years ago by a preacher came up with a concept that affected the way in which his church operated. It was the concept of seekers and believers. The problem with corporate churches is that they assume everybody’s a believer, so they go right over the heads of all the seekers who might be there. It was found that church population operates on the level of seekers—there are more seekers than there are believers. 

This particular pastor decided that it was not ideal to speak to both audiences at the same time, so on Sundays he preached to seekers, because that was a greater population, and on Wednesday nights he preached to believers, You might say that on Sunday, he did more concrete preaching, and more abstract preaching on Wednesdays. 

Can both audiences be successfully preached to concurrently, or do they need sermons made just for them?  

C-J: I think the concept is incredibly arrogant, in the sense that believers should be seekers and there are times when believers say “I believe” but what they’re saying is “I refuse to give up.” Because we all struggle when we go, “Lord, where are you? What is happening here?” And so we hang in there, the seekers constantly asking those really hard questions, not to be like a Christmas tree (“Prove it to me, prove it to me”) but because they want the depth, they want that relationship, they don’t want to flow in comfort. They are the people who are passionate. When somebody says to them, “Why do you believe?” they can give you a laundry list, where the others might say, “God has given me a revelation.” 

You don’t seek something you don’t believe in. If you don’t believe in democracy, you would never study it, it would be a waste of your time. It’s not of essence to you. So I think it was a mistake to divide the house of God. I think we need both of them—the person who doesn’t struggle, not with doubt, but moving forward; and the person who says “Tell me more.” We need each other. 

As a seeker, I’m going to go to the person who’s been in Christ a lot longer and say, “I don’t understand this. It’s not just about where I am in my life in this situation—I just don’t understand this relationship and the juncture here.” I would never separate the church. Would you have somebody else raise your children? No. 

It’s a process. And we all are in the body of Christ. I never saw anywhere in Scripture where God separated those who came easily, willingly, or those that you just go, “What is wrong with you, Peter? One minute you know, the next you’re not sure, you deny me. What’s up with that?” He never said, “Peter, when you figure it out, come back.”

Reinhard: If we had lived through Jesus’ time during his ministry on this earth then, of course, most of the parable would have seemed abstract to us. We have to remember that Jesus tried to convey the message of his Father, to show the salvation, and God’s love. Some of the parables seem unfair or irrational, like paying the same to laborers who work one hour and those who work 12 hours, but this is to show the love of God. The prodigal son parable also is almost impossible—a father so lavishly accepting back such a wayward son. 

Another side of Jesus’ teaching involved miracles—healings mainly, involving lepers and the demon-possessed. They were concrete, for sure, people could see what happened. But we have to go on what the Bible tells us about those miracles, to understand the message Jesus told directly to people back then, to understand the Holy Spirit, to develop more faith. 

I don’t know if stages of faith make a difference. Jesus used all the senses to teach us to grasp God’s plan for our salvation, and I think that’s the key. So by reading his message through the Bible, using the Holy Spirit, then we can see. The bottom line, whether we use concrete or abstract thinking, is that we need to get to know God’s love and how to live as disciples according to his will, to strengthen our belief and our trust in God and in his salvation.

Don: I come back to Michael’s observation a couple of weeks ago where he said that the results of Jesus’ teaching are not spectacular. Either he was a poor teacher or he had a pretty stupid bunch of students. Because even in the parable where he explained it to the disciples afterwards, he said some of these things are difficult to understand. It’s remarkable, and it seems to me interesting to ponder why he would offer parables as well as a method of teaching. 

If, in fact, it’s so difficult to understand them, you would think that he would simply tell truth in short, declarative statements that were obvious to understand. Instead, he goes into these elaborate parables for purposes that are not entirely clear, it seems to me.

David: Maybe it’s like Babel: God doesn’t want us reaching in to him too deeply, he doesn’t want us to understand. Maybe the parables are confusing on purpose—they serve to keep us in the dark! In the spiritual realm, Bloom’s hierarchy just doesn’t apply. 

When Reinhard mentioned developing faith, it struck me that developing faith and understanding God may be contradictory. The common presumption is that the more we understand God, the stronger our faith will be. I would challenge that. We are told to be born again, to walk like newborn Adams and Eves with God in the Garden. But from the moment of birth on, it’s all downhill. It’s a long, steady fall, and the older we get, the further we fall and the further we get from the true, born-again, spiritual walk with God. 

Of course we think the opposite. We think that the older we get, the deeper our knowledge and understanding of God becomes, and therefore we kid ourselves that we must therefore have developed more faith. I think nothing could be further from the truth. As I see it, Job and Isaiah reached the final stage of faith—absolute faith in God through acceptance of their absolute ignorance of him, like a newborn.

C-J: Michael said that Jesus wasn’t successful because it all kind of crumbled after him and people went back to their regular lives, Rome did what it did. But somehow there was a thread that remained as described by Josephus during that period of approximately 100 years, and Paul made giant concessions in order to perpetuate the foundation blocks, building off of Judaism, the Judean tribal belief system which was based on paganism, into the singular deity. 

Then we see how that gets woven into the tapestry of other people’s pantheon of gods, Greek and Roman. But this relationship with God had been a common thread. And I think the revelation that Jesus had is something that is spiritual. It is not concrete. I see God’s hand moving, but I don’t see why it’s moving that way, or at this time and place, but that’s the revelation of grace and relationship. I think that’s what Jesus was saying through the stories. 

When we get older, we can become very jaded, but we can choose to seek the abstract and come into the fullness of recognizing God in a different way that you didn’t see when you were younger, going through growing up. It is a choice at some point, but I think it comes through experience seeking, losing, surrendering. It’s a process. 

I don’t think that Jesus failed in his parables. There was enough of a remnant that those stories were perpetuated.

Jay: The concept of an inverse relationship between your faith and your understanding of God is interesting. We assume that by increasing our faith we’ll have a better understanding of what God is. What David seems to be proposing is that with great faith, “what God is”—a complete picture, a complete understanding of God—isn’t really that important.

Donald: A few weeks ago, I talked about worship. My concept of worship has always been plural—worshiping with others, fellow believers. What’s the role of the church in all this conversation? Is it to simplify what we don’t understand? Is the role of the church to gather people with similar thoughts, who share an understanding, so they can grow? What’s the role of the church in this conversation?

C-J: Shelter. Shelter takes us back to the garden. It is predictable, comforting, provisional. There is continuity. So you have a tough week, you go to church. It’s so good to be in a place of God with people who are like-minded. Then you go back out to the real world, and you go, “I can’t, I just can’t deal with this.”

Donald: That’s an interesting concept. So we’re gathering as like-minded people, and that is a comfort. We had people over last night who we’ve known more than 40 years. I know what they’re thinking and they know what I’m thinking. We have shared experiences. Is that a place to grow or is growth somewhat painful or challenging or difficult in that environment? It’s not soothing. It’s pushing you beyond your limits, or what you feel comfortable with.

C-J: And yet the rewards are great.

Anonymous: I’m thinking ofthe verse where the disciples asked Jesus: “Why do you talk to the people in parables?” and he told them: “Because the secrets of the kingdom were revealed to you, but not to them—That’s why I talk to them in parables.” What does it mean that disciples have been given the secret, or the understanding of the principles of the kingdom of God, but the rest have not? Actually, I thought, the disciples probably were just as blind as the rest. They did not understand everything. So why did Jesus say they had the secret?

The question perplexed me, but I think I have the answer. I think the only difference between the disciples and the rest of the people is their faith. Jesus saw their faith, and their willingness to listen, and to continue to follow him even though they did not understand everything; whereas other people followed Jesus for reasons other than pure faith—they sought to gain benefits from Jesus, to be healed or blessed and so on. That does not mean they were not believers—they just did not believe as much as the disciples. Faith makes all the difference, and has done so throughout the ages. 

If God decided that we have, or will be given, the understanding of the principles of the kingdom, that means it will come at some point or another in our lives. And that’s what amounts to the stages of faith. Years ago, when I started reading the New Testament, it didn’t make any sense to me. I’d rather read the Old Testament over and over and over, and not read a verse in the New Testament, because it just didn’t make any sense to me. But now I enjoy it. I see the abstract, I see the meaning. My mind might say some passage is not necessarily true but in my circumstances, in my life, because of my faith in Jesus, I don’t need to understand God, I just trust him. 

We just trust Him to do anything, to lead our lives any way he wants, to allow us to face difficult circumstances. We don’t know why hardships come. But we trust him anyway, certain of his love and his deep and rich grace for us. Therefore, we just follow, we don’t need to understand. If he wants us to understand, he knows the heart and knows how much we desire to understand, to get deeper with him. So he might put us in certain circumstances that open our eyes to the meaning of a parable. 

So I agree with that Dr. Weaver that the parables are valuable, because they fit everybody. They fit every age, so everybody can use them. The only ingredient necessary is faith. If you have faith, you will be given the secrets of the kingdom of God. 

Jay: An inverse relationship between faith and the understanding of God may be on a sliding scale, with space in between the poles where the parables make some things a bit more understandable, more concrete, more applicable in life.

Reinhard: To me, the parable of the sower is one of the ugliest parables. The parables are intended for the public, but only those who know God, those who know Jesus, have the advantage of understanding them. But parables such as the last coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son show God’s love for his people. During Jesus’ time this was a strange, foreign message to the Israelites. It contradicted the Jewish laws of a tooth for a tooth and an eye for eye. It’s almost impossible to turn the other cheek. It’s irrational that people who work one hour are paid as much as people who work 10 hours. But that’s the meaning God intended. God’s salvation cannot be based on human intellect and God wants us to know that salvation is for all. That was a new paradigm to the Jewish people. You can forgive them for rejecting his status as God’s son.

Parables are a place where God declares his purpose for the people. Through parables, people can understand God’s salvation and be drawn closer to God. After Jesus, the disciples of course continued to spread his teaching, up to our time, so we get more understanding using our faith and then get closer to God.

David: If there’s one thread underlying the parables of the sower, the prodigal, and others that we understand, it is simply that God’s love is indiscriminate, reaches everyone everywhere. His word falls just as readily on stony ground as on fertile ground. And that’s it. That’s all he’s trying to teach us. But what a wonderful message! If only we would heed it and think deeply about it, privately, in our closet, or here, with 2 or 3 or 12 or 13 gathered in his name, and not be sidetracked by dogmas that other people have made up, we’d be in a much better place, I think.

* * *

Leave a Reply