_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 4 – The Parable
Posted by joespencer on June 17, 2012
I fear and tremble a bit before the task of commenting on “the parable of the bicycle,” but the time has come to do so—since I now need to finish working through chapter 2. I want to begin with three caveats.
First caveat: As the book is constructed, the parable is an illustration of “how perfection comes,” and it’s only the last of several illustrations. I think it has to be put in conversation with these other illustrations, these other parables and analogies, if it’s to be understood in the right way.
Second caveat: Robinson comes back to the story of his wife’s burnout just before introducing the parable. I think this, too, is important. The parable isn’t meant to be a perfect illustration of how the atonement works. Rather, it’s an illustration that worked at a particular—and particularly crucial—moment in the history of a particular family. Robinson indicates this right in the text, and even more strongly in some ways in the pre-book versions from the BYU Devotional and the Ensign. At any rate, I think it’s important not to overlook the particularity of the context in which the parable arose, and the “at our house” nature of its effectiveness.
Third caveat: Robinson has, as you might guess, had a fair bit to say about the parable of the bicycle in the years since the publication of the book. Some have expressed nervousness about the parable, and he has responded with some clarifications. These are interesting and important, but apart from explanations that the parable was not meant to be rigorous theology, they don’t really bear on what I’ll have to say.
If those caveats are clear, what needs to be said about the parable of the bicycle?
First, as I said, the parable is meant to illustrate “how perfection comes.” Remember that in my last post I expressed some concerns about the way Robinson handles the question of perfection—particularly about the way that he draws a distinction between the short and the long run in order to divide, off in the distance, our individual perfection from that of Christ. That’s a problem, yes, but it isn’t one here. The long run is entirely out of the picture for the moment. And indeed, as I hope to show, Robinson even suggests in certain ways in his several illustrations and analogies that the short run/long run distinction doesn’t make much sense.
How does perfection come? Robinson begins with the analogy of the bank account (repeated more or less without variation in the “corporate analogy”:
It’s as though two people with separate bank accounts got married and formed a joint account. When Janet and I got married, my checking account was overdrawn, but Janet had money in hers. After the wedding, we went to the bank and merged our accounts to create a single, joint account. As far as the bank was concerned, I was no longer just Stephen Robinson, and she was no longer just Janet Bowen. Now we were Stephen and Janet Robinson. A new partnership had been created that included the assets and liabilities of both its component parts. And since Janet had more assets than I had liabilities, the new account had a positive balance. (p. 24)
Obviously, this analogy works at the finite level, but Robinson goes on quickly to “consider the mathematics” of merging accounts with the infinite: “If Christ is infinite and unlimited, but I am finite and limited, and we become one, what do Christ and I together add up to?” (p. 26). If that solves one minor problem with the analogy, it doesn’t solve what is for me a much deeper problem: that the analogy begins from the dilemma laid out in chapter 1, about which I’ve already shared a number of concerns. It doesn’t start out from that presupposition in every way, but it presupposes a kind of dilemma that needs solving by some kind of outside influence—and that makes me nervous. But I’ve already had my say about those problems, so let me ignore that concern as well. What are we left with?
I think we’re left with two very important qualifications of what Robinson’s teaching in this chapter. First, note that the analogy problematizes the short run/long run distinction I worried about in my last post. It would be very strange to say that two people seek marriage in order for the one with money in the bank just to set the overdrawn other on good financial footing—and that with the aim, ultimately, of establishing financial independence. Marriage—here a token of covenant relation in general—is meant to be eternal, unending. Being welded together is not an arrangement in the meanwhile that aims ultimately an breaking the bond. I’m happy to see the way this analogy problematizes a distinction that, I suspect, Robinson indeed only inserted to satisfy some readers who would be nervous about the sense of dependence all talk of grace introduces.
If this first qualification looks backward to the first part of the chapter, the second looks forward to the chapter’s end, to the famous parable of the bicycle itself. One concern that has been expressed in response to the parable—particularly by Evangelicals—is that Robinson’s daughter contributes anything toward the bicycle, however minute sixty-one cents really was. But notice that in this first analogy for the covenant relation, the one saved by the merger isn’t contributing a positive amount, however small, but a negative amount. Robinson himself notes when considering the mathematics of the infinite: “What is the sum of an infinite, positive quantity and a limited, negative quantity?” (p. 26). The point of the parable of the bicycle isn’t that God can only add to our contributions, however meager, but that He can overcome our messing of everything up—our negative (but finite) contribution.
These are helpful qualifications, I think. They apply equally well, I think, in the other major analogy that precedes the parable of the bicycle: “the athletic analogy”:
In team sports, it doesn’t matter which of the players makes the points. When one individual scores, the whole team scores. If the quarterback throws a touchdown ball to the tight end, then it doesn’t matter that the guards never touched the ball, or even that the defense was sitting on the bench. It doesn’t matter that some on the team may have missed their blocks or run the wrong routes. It doesn’t even matter that the second or third string hadn’t yet been in the game. When one member of the team scores, the whole team scores. (p. 29)
Here all over again the two qualifications apply. First, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about short run and long run here. The point of team sports isn’t to make great individual athletes who can play without a team. Second, there’s no hint here that one has to contribute something positive for grace to take hold. Even those who did nothing but set the team back are, if their team wins, still part of the winning team. This second qualification, now repeated twice, is particularly important for making sense of the parable of the bicycle. I think it helps to make clear that the parable isn’t meant to explain the whole story of the atonement, even for Robinson. It’s an illustration that helped a family member at a particular moment.
I’m going to assume that the parable itself is well known. Indeed, I think it’s safe to assume that you’d only be reading these posts if you’re familiar with the parable. So what’s to be said about it? What’s to be said about especially in light of the several caveats and qualifications I’ve already offered?
I’ve already made clear that I don’t think Robinson’s point ultimately was that we have to achieve some kind of positive minimum, some kind of “all we can do,” before grace gets involved. I think it’s clear also that grace doesn’t get involved until relatively late in the game on Robinson’s account, but I think it’s equally clear from the other analogies and illustrations in this chapter that what one brings to the table in petitioning grace can be negative as much as positive. What seems to be important is just that one comes before Christ in complete humility, fully recognizing that it’s He that does the real work of salvation.
All that makes me nervous here, in the end, is that grace gets involved relatively late in the game. Again, my concern is that grace comes as a response to a dilemma, rather than vice versa. I’ve said plenty about that problem, so I won’t rehearse it again. But Robinson isn’t wrong to have grace appear anew at that point, late in the game. The worry is that if we think that grace is only coming into the story at that point—regardless of what we have or haven’t done, regardless of whether we “benefit” the relationship or not—we are likely to fail fully to repent, fully to recognize the depth of our self-deception. If we fail to see that the dilemma is imaginary, something we’ve created in order not to deal with grace, it isn’t clear that we’ve really come under grace’s sway in being delivered from it.
Let me see if I can illustrate this problem by telling the parable of the bicycle in a slightly different way—though it’ll sound rather bizarre!
Father gives daughter a beautiful bicycle entirely for free. She’s, however, upset because it isn’t the bicycle she’s always wanted—and everyone else will see that it isn’t the bicycle she’s always wanted. So she refuses to ride it, despite father’s coaxing. It sits in the garage while the girl wiles away the hours fantasizing about the bicycle she doesn’t have. She imagines the air in her air, the buzz of the rubber tires on the concrete, the looks of her jealous friends. The more she fantasizes, the more she demands that father give her the bicycle she really wants. Father, for his part, refuses, pointing always to the beautiful bicycle she refuses to ride. Months pass, and daughter spends most of her spring and summer afternoons on the living room couch, fantasizing about what she doesn’t have. Finally, she comes to herself, and she realizes that she’ll never have a bicycle if she keeps fantasizing without actually riding. So she comes humbly to father to ask for a bicycle. Again he explains that she has one, at which—this time—she leaps for joy and runs to the garage to pull it out. She rides it through the streets, praising father for his love. But as she rides, she pretends this bicycle isn’t the same one she’s had all along because she fantasizes, while she rides it, that she’s riding the one she really wanted. The bicycle she actually has is finally being ridden, but it’s more a prop for her fantasies than the bicycle actually given to her.
That’s a bit poorly done (I’m a philosopher, not a writer!). But I worry that something like that is ultimately behind the parable of the bicycle. Grace doesn’t come only after the dilemma; it comes before and after. And if we think of grace only as what comes after, it’s only because we hope to use it as a prop in our fantasies about something other than grace—in our fantasies about what it was we rejected grace in order to hold onto. In a word, we remain self-deceived.
Repentance comes before covenant, as the first chapters of Mosiah teach us, and what we do in repentance is recognize that grace has been there all along. There’s something new in the covenant, yes, but there’s nothing new about what we hope to bind ourselves to in covenant. Until we see that, we’ve missed too much. I’ll begin to explain that in my next post.