Definitions vs. Stories

I’ve mentioned that one of the books I am reading is The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, written by James Martin, S.J. This is one of those books that pretty much everyone will get something out of.

One of the things I’ve read in the book thus far that intrigued me comes from his chapter on Friendship with God. In talking about that fact that one comes to know God by learning more about Jesus, who “embodied God, and so anything you can say about Jesus you can say about God”, Martin talks about Jesus’ use of parables. For example, when asked who is my neighbor

Jesus offers not a precise definition but instead spins out the story of the Good Samaritan….Where a strictly worded definition closes down thought and can be shallow, a story opens the heart’s mind and is endlessly deep. Stories carry meaning without having to be converted into a rigid statement.

When I read this, it immediately reminded me of the way a close friend of mine always defined terms. Rather than give a specific definition, his approach was always to say the meaning of the word in question was somewhere in the intersection of three other words. His point was not dissimilar from Martin’s – the attempt to define was too constraining. To say, rather, that a word was somewhere at the intersection of some other words gave more space. I was always intrigued by that way of approaching definition and often continue to define words that way.

Martin’s point (and my friend’s) is an important one. We often look for clear statements, well defined rules, specific definitions. But there is a danger – rigid statements are limiting and have the potential to close us off to valuable truths. They can be comfortable – their very rigidity creates an allure of security. But we lose something when we gain that comfort – we lose the ability of the story to “open up [our minds] to new ways of thinking about God.”

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