Occasionally, when discussing catechesis, particularly when it comes to teaching the Lord’s Supper, an objection is raised. It goes something like this: “Children really cannot understand the Lord’s Supper because they are not able to think abstractly until around ages 12-15.” In fact, many use this reasoning to explain why we deny children the Lord’s Supper and why we delay formal catechesis (aka confirmation class).
But here’s the thing, the Lutheran teaching on the Lord’s Supper is about as concrete as you can get. The idea of “abstract thinking” has been heavily influenced by the work of Psychologist Carl Jung. He defines “abstract thinking” in his work Psychological Types:
There is an abstract thinking, just as there is abstract feeling, sensation and intuition. Abstract thinking singles out the rational, logical qualities … Abstract feeling does the same with … its feeling-values. … I put abstract feelings on the same level as abstract thoughts. … Abstract sensation would be aesthetic as opposed to sensuous sensation and abstract intuition would be symbolic as opposed to fantastic intuition.
Another way to define abstract thinking is “a level of thinking about things that is removed from the facts of the “here and now”, and from specific examples of the things or concepts being thought about.”
In language “abstract thinking” takes the form of metaphor, simile, and allegory. In pedagogy, we also use an “illustration” (which is why most children’s sermons are completely not age appropriate).
But let’s think about this. Concrete thinking is concerned with “what is this right in front of me?” Abstract thinking looks at something in terms of categories, systems, metaphors, etc. The Lutheran teaching on the Lord’s Supper is simple. Jesus takes bread, breaks it, gives thanks, gives it to his disciples and says “This is my body.” In the same way with the cup, that is, the contents of the cup, he says “This is the new testament in my blood.” Scripture teaches the bread and wine ARE Jesus Body and Blood. This is at the concrete level.
In fact, it is abstract thinking that gets in the way. We start to think since bread and wine are of different categories than flesh and blood, it can’t be. So quickly reason jumps in and says “Jesus must have meant represents his body and blood,” of course, this is to say that when Jesus says “This is my body” he really meant “this is not my body but something different.”
Of course, concrete thinking brings us back into the faith of children, who hear the words of the Lord and simply believe. I will take that over abstract thinking any day.