Faith as a Grain of Mustard Seed

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.


2 Responses to “Faith as a Grain of Mustard Seed”

  1. 1 Jim
    June 8, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Jim one, Faith can be very mundane. We exercise faith every time that we get in our cars and expect them to start! Real faith is more than belief – it is based upon substance. Such substance may be the fact that our cars have been reliable and always started before.

    Engineering’s history of wishful thinking and hubris is, compared to other human endeavors, relatively non-repetitious. Science and Engineering have the best capacity for correction of any of society’s components. But when there are errors, they’re doozies! – Jim too

  2. June 8, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Jim too,

    This is an excellent, thought-provoking post.

    Many may extol the virtues of faith, but alas, despite many decades of trying hard I find I have little of that left.

    I have often pondered the nature of “belief”. Is belief something one decides to do, or is it something that happens to you? I have decided that it can happen either way, and that has profound implications for human behavior.

    I think that “faith” is a protective function of evolution that is ubiquitous in all human cultures, but is lacking in a small cohort thereof.

    The tendency to faith is similar to, and perhaps synonymous with, wishful thinking, which might account for disaster in projects like the gulf oil disaster. Linking it to this mode of thinking causes me to reflect on the history of engineering, which a non-engineer might think is one of science and careful testing, and in some sense it is. But the preponderance of that history, as I’m sure you know, is one of trial and error – lots of error.

    A prime example that comes to mind is the design and building of the enormous ship, “The Great Eastern” and its prime-mover, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the so-called engineering genius of his day. As you may know, the ship was plagued with just about every kind of error imaginable, both during and after construction, but sailed and functioned despite all of it. It was a veritable monument to wishful thinking and stubbornness.

    Thanks for jogging my brain cells.

    Jim one

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