Brief synopsis of the readings: Ezekiel, speaking for God, promises to take a shoot from the highest branch of the cedar tree and plant it on a high mountain. There it will grow and become a noble cedar that will provide shelter and protection to all. “And every tree of the field will learn that I, the Lord, am the one who stunts tall trees and makes the low ones grow.” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a farmer who throws seed on the land. The seeds grow while the farmer sleeps and the farmer doesn’t know how the seeds grow into food. Then Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that grows into the greatest of shrubs.
I’ve spoken about this many times before, but let me say it again: translating readings from Scripture from thousands of years ago can be difficult. And while our world still has shepherds and farmers as of old, most of us have limited understanding of what they do. Most of us get our food from cans, bottles, or shrink wrap.
Given that, when Jesus talks about how the farmers of his time don’t fully understand the process of seed germination and growth I feel a little better. He understood that if he harvested the seeds from the previous year’s crop and planted them, he would get a new crop but he had no concept of photosynthesis or cell division.
And even to this day we benefit from processes we don’t fully understand. We take pain medication, and even if we don’t know how it works, we know that it does work and that’s good enough for us. I’m guessing that I’m not alone in experiencing biology class this way: “Will this stuff still happen if I never learn how? Good.”
Still it appears that we are curious to our bones. How does that work? What’s over that ridge? Can we predict what will happen if we do this? We boldly go where no one has gone before.
Right along with this curiosity, though, comes fear of going too far and messing with God’s plans. In the 1800s some doctors began using anesthesia for women in labor while others claimed it violated Genesis 3:16: “To the woman [God] said: I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children.” Today advances in IVF and other fertility treatments cause conflict and legislation as we grapple with how much we should ethically be allowed to do. Our quest for understanding continues to welcome us into new worlds of things we can do.
But why would God give us the gift of curiosity and the intellect to pursue hard questions if God didn’t want us to do that? I think when we explore, question, theorize, and experiment we are doing what God wants us to do. But this belief is far from unanimous. Some Christians view the progress made by science, and even science itself with suspicion or even hostility. They feel that some treatments, particularly at the beginning of life, violate God’s will and we will pay the price for that. Some have gone as far as to deny scientific theories like evolution. They believe in a God who places temptation before us and punishes us for making the wrong choice: salvation is reserved only for those who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis.
On the other side are those who believe only in science and progress, that God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. They believe in ethics but not a higher power.
One side denies God’s trust in us and the other denies God’s existence or supremacy. We should do neither.
I think we should find ourselves on neither extreme. God created an elegant, beautiful universe and gifted us with the desire to explore and understand. But I’ve found in my experience that the quest for answers often leads to newer, better questions. In other words the more we learn, the less we know. Opening a door doesn’t lead to an answer so much as it leads us into another room with more doors to open.
We should also recognize that these open doors have yielded tremendous good. Our exploration of biology has led us to fight cancer, often successfully. Our desire to explore has shown us the beauty of hard to get to lands. And our exploration of ourselves and each other has taught us that we live and work best when we recognize the best in each other and move away from prejudice and archaic beliefs (happy Pride Month, by the way).
And of the farmer? One extreme will tell him not to explore photosynthesis or why seeds germinate lest we stray from God and think too much of ourselves. The other will tell him that if we explore long enough and well enough we will master the process and have no need for anything or anyone else.
Today he would be a better farmer because of the doors opened for him (and us). Knowledge of how photosynthesis works wouldn’t make much difference to him but he’d have the satisfaction of knowing that his crops daily battle against climate change. But he would know which seeds from this year will yield better crops next year. His advanced knowledge of soil chemistry will not only produce more food for all of us, it will improve his standard of living.
And in the midst of this I hope he recognizes his role, the role of those who went before him, and that he worships and elegant God.