I took a class with Stephen Robinson at BYU in the early nineties. I got the feeling I annoyed him a bit. I suspect I might annoy him even more now (if he spends much time on the Web) since my post on why his parable of the bicycle is wrong now shows up as the #4 Google result for the search term “Parable of the Bicycle”. After bashing the parable of the bicycle I felt obligated to try to find a better explanation of what the atonement does for us so I concocted and presented my own parable and called it the parable of the mortgage. The problem was that I was not really satisfied with my alternative either.
Then yesterday in a discussion over at BCC (and after being goaded by my pal John C.) it dawned on me what the problem with both parables was: They both treat exaltation as something we get. I think it is fundamentally misunderstanding exaltation to regard it as a thing that can be bestowed like a bike or a house. Rather, “exalted” is something we become in our very natures, not something that is given like a wonderful Christmas gift.
So here is my latest parable regarding the atonement and exaltation:
The parable of the pianist
A young orphan shows a great talent for music. A wealthy couple, both of whom are world class pianists and teachers, meets the child and loves her and adopts her as their own. From the beginning the child loves music and desires to be like her loving parents (both in character and in musical skills). The parents know the joy they feel from creating great art and desire to share that with the child. But they also know that while they can give her world-class instruments as free gifts they cannot make the girl a great artist; they can only guide, mentor, teach, and encourage her as she struggles and improves and changes. They are always there for her when she needs questions answered, when she needs technique advice, or even when she needs prodding to not slack in her progress toward her goal. Very early on she makes her mind up that the goal is worth her effort and works very hard at it. It takes long hours over many, many years but she slowly becomes better and better. After a long time, and because of the constant mentoring and hard work of the loving parents, she eventually becomes the musical peer of her virtuoso parents. She discovers that reaching her goal to be like her parents not only brings joy in the music, but also brings even greater joy in truly understanding her parents by treading the path they trod to arrive where they are. They know each other in ways non-virtuosos cannot know them — both because of the shared virtuosity and because of the unifying effect the long, arduous journey had on them. She discovers that the greater understanding and intimacy with her parents is a greater reward than the joys the virtuosity brings her.
She decides that she wants to share that joy and intimacy she feels with others.
This story may look like a works tale, but it is more a tale of grace and free gifts. The parents did give gifts all along – A home, a family, a piano, and most of all love and guidance. But since her goal was not to get free stuff, but to become like her parents, these gifts would have been useless to her achieving her objective unless she chose to work hard enough to become what she had the potential to become. There was only one path to becoming like her parents and that was the path they trod before her.
If it is not clear, the orphan is us; the parents represent God. We orphans show promise when we exercise faith in Christ and repent. We are adopted by Christ when we are baptized into his church. We decide all along if we really want to be like him. He offers us, as a free gift, his guidance, mentoring, love, encouragement, persuasion, and prodding in our journey to become like him. (This is in addition to our lives here on earth to begin with.) But all of these gifts are wasted and our goal of becoming like him will never be reached unless we, like the girl in the parable, make up our mind that the goal is worth it and choose to work very hard to change and improve for a very long time. I believe those that do become like Christ after the long and loving mentoring process will also discover that the unity and relationship with Him and the rest of the Godhead will be the greatest reward of all.
One thing non-Mormon Christians and even some Mormons will object to is the assumption I make that humans really are the equivalent of adopted children of God – that we really are the same species as God. As John C. said yesterday after I roughly sketched out my parable idea:
In other words, we may be given a piano, but we start out as a cat.
Believing that certainly would throw a monkey wrench into my parable. But I don’t believe it. I don’t think our scriptures support it either. Either we are the children of God or we are not. I have long complained that one of the major flaws in the doctrines of creedal Christianity is the implication that we are more like God’s pets than his children. I believe that we really are God’s children, and as such we can grow up to be like him if we tread the path God trod in the eternities to come.
So there you have my latest atonement-related parable (which may really be more of an exaltation-parable discussing the atonement actually). I like this one better than my last attempt. What do you think?