If I tell you about earthly things and you will not believe, how will you believe when I tell you of heavenly things? (John 3: 12)
The night wind was sweeping through the narrow street as Jesus spoke with his interlocutor. Perhaps, during the inevitable pauses in the conversation they watched leaves spiraling around the courtyard or the dust being stirred up where the narrow alleyways ran together. The teacher had come to investigate; there had been interesting observations, which raised deep questions. Some of them went beyond ascertaining the facts – what did the actions ascribed to this new rabbi mean?
However, the law-based theology of the Pharisees had made the teacher almost impervious to new spiritual apprehension, particularly from outside his system. What Jesus was laying out for him was outside of the “groove” in which his tradition had situated him.
Jesus wanted to tell him about the “Spirit of Holiness” at a level of insight which was hinted at in, but which transcended the treatment of, the Torah and Writings. It also transcended the teacher’s own subjective experience.
So Jesus began from what could be seen and understood together, openly. He recognized the process in thought and belief by which abstractions are developed. If you can’t show something that makes sense on the ground, you’ll have a hard time introducing philosophical or theological principles.
You can be a great help to a person with whom you are interacting by posing questions that tie their “higher-level” beliefs (theological or metaphysical) to concrete realities. Use word pictures, parables, analogies. Jesus started what was a very philosophical discussion by pointing out and encouraging reflection on the observable world. Do you want to understand the way God’s Spirit moves? Then consider the wind.
Don’t get frustrated if people don’t understand or are not on board with your philosophical ideas if you haven’t attempted to lay out common ground on a more basic level. People have a diversity of philosophical starting points, but we do all live in the same world of nature. It’s going to be very difficult to get to common ground on matters spiritual and theological – some of the things that are most significant to us – without finding some common ground regarding perception of things that can be seen, felt and touched.
As we saw earlier, the person to whom Jesus was speaking was so steeped in their academic tradition that they had become practically immune to any truth coming outside of it. Opening an encounter with someone with a different worldview will seldom be advanced by tallying the differences in metaphysical assumptions or philosophical implications between divergent systems of thought. Building a common language often begins at the level of the lowest common denominator. We have high-level, abstract beliefs… but our knowledge of them is “through a glass darkly.” Jesus began with what was palpably a reality in front of people… He didn’t expect the teacher to grasp the truth which lay outside his groove without tying it to concrete reality.
In this we see the value of knowing and interacting with one’s local context, the ground-level realities. We can draw upon those elements to illustrate and draw people into the deeper spiritual truths we may wish to share. Build credibility that is local, practical, as a basis for (and means to) seeking to engage people at a deeper, higher level. Make those personal connections first; from them you can construct a platform to challenge people to expand their paradigms. If you do not do this, you have no ground to question their openness to your message or its meaning.
Of course, that doesn’t guarantee success in communication, what J.L. Austin would call a felicitous speech act. Some people will have worldview related obstacles to accepting or even rightly comprehending your message. The attempt to break through such an impasse, as Jesus illustrates, requires starting with reflecting at street level on common experience.