Feast upon the Word Blog

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_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.

18 Responses to “_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 4 – The Parable”

  1. [...] « _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 2 – The Great Dilemma _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 4 – The Parable [...]

  2. [...] _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 3 – Introducing Atonement « Feast upon the Word Blog on _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 4 – The Parable_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 4 – The Parable « Feast upon the Word Blog on _Believing [...]

    • James said

      Hi Joe, I’m really enjoying this series. The question I keep returning to as I read is what does this mean at a practical level? That is, does being reconciled to God involve any initial modifying behavior or is it primarily a change in attitude? Also, how do we begin to recognise what is self deception and what is God’s will?

      • mjberkey said

        Yes Joe, as they say in meme-world, one does not simply “stop it”. I agree, it would be helpful to see examples. Til We Have Faces is absolutely amazing for illustrating exactly what you’re talking about, but I think some practical modern examples would be helpful too. I like how you talk about the Sabbath as a practice of stopping, but I think for Mormons at least, it can easily be incorporated as another “prop for our fantasies”.

        I’m sure we could also find plenty of examples in scripture. I thought of Isaiah 6 yesterday. When Isaiah is brought into God’s presence, he says, “Woe is me! I must be silent!” He sees his own inadequacy before God and volunteers his silence (unlike Zechariah in Luke 1, who should have stopped his speaking, but doesn’t). Ironically, he speaks to stop his own speaking. I wonder how often our stopping/repenting might entail the same kind of irony.

        Awesome posts, Joe! We’re loving them!

      • Yess : Thanks you !
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  3. [...] Bike Parable By Karen Joe’s been working through Stephen Robinson’s book Believing Christ at http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2012/06/17/_believing-christ_-revisited-4-the-parable. [...]

  4. rameumptom said

    Not to speak for Joe, but I think what he is explaining helps us see grace and atonement in a different light than before. Robinson wrote this book because many LDS did not understand how grace and atonement actually functioned. Many LDS doubted they were saved, because they had not earned their salvation. I actually had an Institute director suggest that D&C 132 taught we actually did have to earn 100 points, and then any sin after that did not matter, as we had earned exaltation!

    Joe is helping us see Robinson’s book two decades later, in view of how many LDS are now beginning to understand and see grace. I applaud him for this effort. Why? Because, if we do not understand grace, then we do not understand what the “practical level” actually is. And Joe has noted what we must do on the practical level.
    His version of the parable of the bicycle flows from what he’s written on the book so far: stop rebelling and pouting. Humbly and gratefully accept the atonement and grace of God. Stop walking away from God, because we want things our own way. Stop being miserable, and accept Christ’s joy and love.
    It really can be that easy, but our minds just do not want to believe it. We mortals love to complicate things, and sadly, we’ve complicated the heck out of grace (or did we mix heck into it to complicate it?).

    I also agree with Joe mournful statements about Mormons not knowing the Book of Mormon. I also harp on this. Sadly, we’ve gotten used to skimming stones across the ocean of doctrine, rather than diving in to experience its richness in the deeps. (It actually surprised me to see that in the PH/RS George Albert Smith manual, they are discussing missionary work for 3 chapters, instead of just one!).

    I truly hope that the current group of scholars, Joe included, will help the Church to find its way into actually learning what the Book of Mormon says, and not just use the 25 seminary scriptures.

  5. joespencer said

    James and Mjberkey,

    I wear a shirt that says, “Sure, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” There’s something very right about that question. One of the things I think we’re supposed to learn from grace is that our demands for concrete practical application are part of the problem. We shout at the heavens: “Just tell me what you want from me! Just tell me what to do to make you happy!” And God answers, yet again, by asking whether we’re done pouting. So if by “practical level” you mean to ask what we’re to do, there’s no answer—no unchangeable answer.

    But if by “practical level” you mean to ask how we’re to be, there are plenty of answers, I think. I stop working for my salvation, and I finally start working for the sake of working. I stop reading my scriptures in order to get blessings, in order to be good, in order to follow God’s commandments, in order to be an example, etc., and I start reading my scriptures in order to see what they say, in order to make sense of their giftedness, in order to hear God’s word, in order simply to enjoy their truth, etc.

    I’ll be coming in later posts to the “importance of works,” but it won’t be a question at all of balance. There’s a completely different way to address works in scripture. It’s absolutely baffling to me how obvious it is, but how completely we miss it….

    And Rameumptom,

    Thanks for your overly kind words. I have the same hope.

    • James said

      Okay. That does help. Thanks. Once again, really enjoying the series (and the Book of Mormon posts as well – just my study is taking a while and the discussions have usually ended by the time I get round to them!)

    • mjberkey said

      No, I’m not asking what we need to do, not at all. I do understand that to ask that question is to maintain the false dilemma. But in the terms you used, I think seeing examples of the practice (do you think Isaiah 6 works?) help illustrate the theory, perhaps even lead to a better understanding of the theory. Would you agree with that?

      • joespencer said

        Certainly, but I’m not one for coming up with illustrations. I think Isaiah 6 works, but I’m not sure how much it fails to illustrate, nor do I have a sense for how much anyone today can identify with it….

  6. Robert C. said

    Regarding the practical, we had lots of discussions about this issue in the early days of the blog. My take, based largely on Joe’s provocative comments in that discussion (though please don’t use my words to implicate Joe!) is as follows.

    Reading scripture in the right way is itself is one of the most practical consequences of all these theoretical issues Joe is wrestling with (and helping us wrestle with). That is, scripture study is itself a practice, and therefore it is the most practical thing that we do in a strong and robust sense. The most important practical thing that we do each week might just be scripture study in our families, in our wards, in our communion with God, etc.

    On this view, to give a more concrete(/practical) example, consider having a conversation with a non-member friend who is confessing how burned out he’s feeling with his job and the rat-race of life. If we have a proper “theoretical” understanding of grace, then we naturally see how this burned out feeling is a classic symptom of refusing grace, and we start talking about this with our non-member friend in the most natural way. Suddenly, this conversation turns into what we often refer to as “a missionary opportunity” (scare quotes because I think we often have a wrong-headed approach to missionary work…). If we have practiced our theory, so-to-speak, then the concrete implementation of grace will never happen.

    So, although we are accustomed to thinking about practical issues rather than theoretical issues, this is really just a symptom of our failure to really immerse ourselves in scripture study and make it the foundation of our lives….

  7. jake said

    I really enjoyed these four articles and hope you keep adding to them. I’m curious about your thoughts on grace and the sacrament, especially the idea of worthily partaking of the sacrament which seems like a contradictory idea. If one is worthy, does one need atonement? Anyway, I think the sacrament has something to do with grace, faith, and hope in Christ.

    • rameumptom said

      Jake,
      As I read it, nothing makes us worthy except the atonement. Only Christ’s grace can bring us into the presence of the Father. None of us can resurrect ourselves, and without resurrection, the prophet Jacob tells us we would be condemned to be angels to the devil forever. Then, because of the Fall of Adam, all are out of the spiritual presence of God. Our own sins just compound that problem. Without atonement, we cannot be worthy. Without the atonement, there is no grace nor mercy.
      When we believe in Christ and repent, we become worthy of the Sacrament through the grace of Christ. Of course, the definition of repentance may include a visit to the bishop, who holds the keys to the gospel of repentance.

      As Joe explains in slightly different terminology in “An Other Testament” we have a pattern of Creation, Fall, Atonement/Covenant, and Restoration to God’s Presence. He notes that Nephi’s introduction in 1 Nephi 1, actually has these points. In the BoM, we find this pattern noted many times, including 2 Nephi 31, 3 Nephi 11, etc. We believe in Christ, we repent, the atonement comes to us in a covenant form (baptism, Sacrament, temple ordinance), and we become worthy (or more worthy) to enter God’s presence. The Sacrament is our re-baptism, or renewal of covenant with Christ, wherein we promise obedience and faithfulness in exchange for becoming Christ’s seed. Then, as we keep the covenant, we receive a member of the Godhead (in this case, the Holy Ghost; in the temple it is the Lord’s presence).

      • jacob said

        Rameumptom,

        I like how you seem to be equating atonement with ordinances and covenants or that without ordinances we are forever unworthy including the “ordinance” of resurrection, a la 2 Nephi 9. I’ve been pondering the idea that without ordinances there is no atonement, that ordinances (and faith in Christ) are what link us to what happened in Gethsemane and Calvary, Section 84: 20-22. Therefore, it seems to me that taking the sacrament makes us worthy to take the sacrament, if we do so with a broken heart and contrite spirit as a way of coming unto Christ. Grace for grace…

  8. JKC said

    My stake president once gave a talk where he said that ordinances are acts of grace that, by the power of the priesthood, make the atonement effective in our lives, or in other words, that give us access to the sanctifying power of the atonement. I’ve often thought about that since then. I think it is incomplete, but true.

    • jake said

      I think what your stake president is saying reinforces the idea of our ultimate dependence on the Savior (and his holy order/ordinances) that I think the Joespencer and Rameumptom are trying to bring home. We don’t work out our own salvation because we don’t really want it but it comes to us anyway and we will see that grace was there the entire time when we’re finally childlike enough to surrender to it.

  9. [...] Lesson 27: “Beware the Bitter Fruits of Apostasy” (Joseph Smith Manual)jake on _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 4 – The ParableJKC on _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 4 – The ParableVăn Thiệp on _Believing Christ_ [...]

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