A friend, Lydia, told me an interesting story about teaching her young daughter. She explained Matthew 17:20 to Daughter, who was then very young:
I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
The Daughter was impressed in that special way that we too often lose as adults. Daughter promptly asked Lydia to show her a mustard seed. Lydia actually had some whole mustard seed in her cooking supplies, and Daughter was treated to their tiny loveliness. That, unfortunately for Lydia, was not sufficient. Daughter asked if they could plant some and watch them grow.
Lydia went into Full Mom Mode.
‘I don’t think we can do that, dear.’ ‘Mustard seeds for cooking have probably been prepared and won’t grow.’ ‘We could grow some pretty flowers instead.’
The look on Daughter’s face overruled all of Lydia’s rationalisations and excuses. They planted some of the diminutive parcels of life.
The Diminutive became the Substantial, and then the Impressive. The plants were both lovely and much larger than the original germ.
How is is that we can be extolling the virtues of faith one moment, then hesitantly worrying that ‘it won’t even grow’ the next moment? Lydia is not special in this. I have done it, and I suspect that most of you, Dear Readers, have done it. It is not, as some Preachers might suggest, an obvious example of our faithlessness. I hope that we can understand ourselves, and whatever faith we have, by looking at Lydia’s experience another way.
Humans are both prey animal and predator. We have substantial control over our environment while also being subject to a number of vulnerabilities. We have always been a social creature, sharing both our resources and our dependencies with others. We have evolved emotional predispositions to be cautious, because an incautious action may hurt us and burden our family. Following tried-and-true maxims, even maxims that are ineffectual, is essential to a long and productive life. Trying new things, or doing old things in new ways, has the potential for disaster.
Parables and analogies are inherently limited and incomplete. They are often most useful when examined with that realization. Matthew 17:20 tells one thing, but it also omits other things. Many useless, noxious, and even poisonous plants grow from tiny seeds. Will our faith do anything to change their inherent nature? Has faith ever made dandelion seeds sprout petunias?
Those of us who have been reared in churches have been taught how we are ‘supposed’ to view analogies such as Matthew 17:20. We are not supposed to take perspectives other than that handed to us from the immediate context of Holy Writ. We are not supposed to actually try to move a mountain. Our religions are a bastion which protects and preserves our evolved basic -cautious- nature.
Lydia was not being ‘silly’ in her apparently contradictory behavior with Daughter. She was, as a person who has been thoroughly oriented to her church from a young age, not prepared to look at Matthew 17:20 as would an innocent who is not yet prepared to confront a dangerous world.
Lydia could have told Daughter, ‘Yes, we’ll try growing some of the mustard seeds from my kitchen. If they don’t sprout very well, we can buy a new pack of seeds that will grow well.’ Lydia didn’t do this, because she was not troubled with the probability of germination. She was troubled with Breaking A Rule – the rule that the teachings of our church are to be accepted without test or other examination.
Unfortunately, this predisposition has become counter-productive in our industrial and scientific society. We are no longer vulnerable prey animals except to charlatans, thieves, swindlers, and the lazily greedy. We have long repeated the same basic errors in judgement – evidenced by the latest giant swirl of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. We need new social institutions which will encourage critical thinking.
‘Full Mom Mode’ and ‘Full Dad Mode’ are, indeed, the same. I think.