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November 16, 2007


Steve Smith

Great essay on eccesiology!-- as a genuine and personal rather than a merely abstract issue. I suspect that many people who are concerned about the issue have gone through reflections similar to these, though obviously we don't all reach the same (provisional?) resting point.

As for the particular verses you ask about, I've thought about those verses quite a lot from time to time. I've never read any sort of commentary on them, so my thoughts are entirely homespun. But, first, the negative interpretation you report hearing seems to me pretty implausible. Nothing in the tone or context seems supportive: being a home for birds, etc. sounds like a positive function. And Jesus says the seed does become a tree; maybe that's an exaggeration (which seems okay in an analogy or parable), but it's not the same as saying it's not really a tree. And the fact that yeast was forbidden in some limited contexts (specifically, when unleavened bread was being used as a way of recalling Israel's haste in leaving Egypt) hardly makes it a bad thing in all contexts.

My own past thought was that the juxtaposition of these quite different metaphors for the kingdom of God was, if not deliberate, at least fortunate. The "tree" metaphor presents the kingdom as something very visible, and useful for supporting other creatures (birds) that are not themselves the tree. The "yeast" metaphor presents the kingdom as something hidden but nonetheless powerful and valuable. I've thought that the metaphors might thus envision what are sometimes called the "visible church" and the "invisible church," and to suggest that both are truly aspects of the "kingdom of God." For those who (in part because of some of the difficulties noticed earlier in the essay, maybe) find it necessary to attach themselves in different senses to both "churches," this is a comforting thought.

Joyless Moralist

Thank you -- that's a nice narrative. It's clear and frank and touches a lot of sympathetic points. Of course, I have to note that you don't say much about a worry that would be quite prominent in a corresponding account as written by me: "here I am trying to sift through different churches and beliefs to determine what is right, but I have nothing to go on except my own foolish reflections and brute intuitions! How unlucky! At the very time when I most wish to submit to the good and the true, I am constantly pushed by necessity into the position of the arbitor and director, a position I am in no way qualified to assume." This is the quandry of the would-be "mere Christian." His goal is to stand by those things that are most clear and true and well-grounded, without letting himself get sucked into peripheral and perhaps foolish sectarian conflicts. But in fact, he often ends up as the chief architect of his own peculiar little conglomoration of different ideas, which project is actually quite inimical to his original aim. Anyway, that is how it seemed for me for the several years that I wanted to be a mere Christian.

As long as I'm on the subject I might as well say a bit more... it's somewhat odd to think about now, but in many ways, it was precisely when I reached something that seemed close to the "mere Christian" existence that I became firmly convinced that there really was no such place. When I was in college, I was fairly enthusiastic about the idea of mere Christianity -- I might have even identified myself as a mere Christian a few times. It seemed to make sense then. In those days I think I was sort of "kept busy" by numerous interactions with different people and thinkers and sects. I could always define myself in opposition to other people; they believed in X but I thought such-and-so about that, but on the other hand I could agree with groups Y and Z about this, that and the other thing... you get the idea. In that sort of environment there's always a way to invest one's religious "energies", and it's easy to find measuring-sticks against which to define and explain where you stand. I still had the worry I mentioned above, but I don't think it bothered me quite so much. Mere Christianity was also fairly comfortable in that period, because it allowed me to get along with everybody and left me lots of freedom for exploring whatever avenues of thought seemed interesting.

When I was in the Peace Corps, the environment changed completely. From a religious standpoint, it really was rather like leaving the world, because I had almost no interaction with serious Christians (some of the other volunteers were at least nominally Christian, but none of the people I saw daily were), and I had chances to go to church only a few times a year. There was essentially no external pressure at all to live any kind of Christian life. And actually, I found that to be in some ways a very joyful thing, because my motivations felt so clean. I read my Bible more, prayed more, and did more voluntary spiritual reading than at any other period in my life, but all with the delightful feeling that it was *chosen*, and that I could really see and feel how these central Christian truths provided my life with a foundation, and made it meaningful. The absence of external "complications" (social pressures, or the feeling that I needed to be able to articulate my own "position" against that of various other people I conversed with) made it natural to focus more on the basic or "central" Christian truths in more or less the way that I had figured would be ideal.

But here's the funny thing -- all this did actually make me quite happy, but I also found myself unexpectedly reaching the conclusion that, as much as I loved Christianity, I wasn't a Christian at all. One becomes a Christian through *following* Christ, whereas I was more of an intense admirer. Being a Christian involved committing oneself, with one's heart, might, mind and strength. But I really hadn't made any commitments. I sneered at people who passed Christ off as a "great teacher" but actually, both intellectually and morally, that was how I had been relating to Him. At the same time, Christianity *was* in some sense the most important thing in my life, and the thing that most made it meaningful. So I came to identify myself powerfully with the Syrophronecian woman in the Gospels who asks Jesus for help and is told that "it is not right to take the bread of the children and throw it to the dogs." I had never been able to make much sense of that passage before, but one day I realized in a flash of insight that it applied perfectly to me. Notice: the woman readily agrees with Jesus' (seemingly harsh) statement, but adds that "even the dogs may lick the crumbs from under the Master's table," and in that spirit, her request is granted. It was possible for her to love Jesus (with a greater faith even than almost any of the Israelites!) and still recognize herself as being *outside* the fold. So that was me, I figured -- one of the dogs. The crumbs were sweet and even, one could imagine, lovingly dropped for me by the Master. But if I really loved them, it obviously made no sense to go on sitting under the table forever. One can only imagine that the woman in the story became a Christian as soon as the option became open to her, and so should I.

Well, anyway, you know the end of the story in my case, but as I say, it just surprised me that it was precisely when I came closest to achieving what I thought would be the mere Christianity "ideal" that I came to think that I hadn't achieved anything at all. CS Lewis likes to talk about mere Christanity as a lobby with doors opening to different rooms. I used to like that analogy, but it came to seem misleading to me. A lobby is still a place in its own right. It wouldn't be comfortable to live there, but you technically could. It could also theoretically stand on its own even after the rooms were somehow all torn down. Mere Christianity -- or at least the things that I had been identifying as such -- came to seem to me more like starting a sentence and nonsensically cutting off halfway through, or jumping off a cliff and wanting to stay floating in air, or beginning to make a cake but only mixing the dry ingredients. It had no integrity of its own; a follow-through was required for it to mean anything at all.

Anyway, concerning your passage, I agree with everything that both of you said, and I thought I'd chip in by offering a few supporting quotes from the Catena Aurea. (Which is what I always consult when I'm pondering the meaning of a passage from the Gospels.)

Chrysostom: Seeing the Lord had said above that three parts of the seed perish, and one only is preserved, and of that one part there is much loss by reason of the tares that are sown upon it; that none might say, Who then and how many shall they be that believe; He removes this cause of fear by the parable of the mustard seed.

Therefore it is said, "Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed."

Jerome: The man who sows is by most understood to be the Saviour, who sows the seed in the minds of believers; by others the man himself who sows in his field, that is, in his own heart. Who indeed is he that soweth, but our own mind and understanding, which receiving the grain of preaching, and nurturing it by the dew of faith, makes it to spring up in the field of our own breast?

"Which is the least of all seeds." The Gospel preaching is the least of all the systems of the
schools; at first view it has not even the appearance of truth, announcing a man as God, God put to death, and proclaiming the offence of the cross. Compare this teaching with the dogmas of the Philosophers, with their books, the splendour of their eloquence, the polish of their style, and you will see how the seed of the Gospel is the least of all seeds.

Also from Jerome: For the dogmas of Philosophers when they have grown up, shew nothing of life or strength, but watery and insipid they grow into grasses and other greens, which quickly dry up and wither away. But the Gospel preaching, though it seem small in its beginning, when sown in the mind of the hearer, or upon the world, comes up not a garden herb, but a tree, so that the birds of the air (which we must suppose to be either the souls of believers or the Powers of God set free from slavery) come and abide in its branches. The branches of the Gospel tree which have grown of the grain of mustard seed, I suppose to signify the various dogmas in which each of the birds (as explained above) takes his rest. [margin note: Ps 55:6]
Let us then take the wings of the dove, that flying aloft we may dwell in the branches of this tree, and may make ourselves nests of doctrines, and soaring above earthly things may hasten
towards heavenly.

Gregory: Christ Himself is the grain of mustard seed, who, planted in the garden of the
sepulchre, grew up a great tree; He was a grain of seed when He died, and a tree when He rose again; a grain of seed in the humiliation of the flesh, a tree in the power of His majesty.

Hilary: The Lord compares Himself to a grain of mustard seed, [p. 504] sharp to the taste, and
the least of all seeds, whose strength is extracted by bruising.

And about the story of the yeast:

Chrysostom: The same thing the Lord sets forth in this parable of the leaven; as much as to say to His disciples, As leaven changes into its own kind much wheat-flour, so shall ye change the whole world. Note here the wisdom of the Saviour; He first brings instances from nature, proving that as the one is possible so is the other. And He says not simply 'put,' but "hid;" as much as to say, So ye, when ye shall be cast down by your enemies, then ye shall overcome them. And so leaven is kneaded in, without being destroyed, but gradually changes all things into its own nature; so shall it come to pass with your preaching. Fear ye not then because I said that many tribulations shall come upon you, for so shall ye shine forth, and shall overcome [p. 505] them all.

He says, "three measures," to signify a great abundance; that definite number standing for an
indefinite quantity.

Augustine: The leaven signifies love, because it causes activity and fermentation; by the woman He means wisdom. By the three measures He intends either those three things in man, with the whole heart, with the whole soul, with the whole mind; or the three degrees of fruitfulness, the hundred-fold, the sixty-fold, the thirty-fold; or those three kinds of men, Noe, Daniel, and Job.

Hilary: Or otherwise; The Lord compares Himself to leaven; for leaven is produced from meal,
and communicates the power that it has received to a heap of its own kind. The woman, that is the Synagogue, taking this leaven hides it, that is by the sentence of death; but it working in the three measures [p. 506] of meal, that is equally in the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels, makes all one; so that what the Law ordains, that the Prophets announce, that is fulfilled in the developments of the Gospels.

But many, as I remember, have thought that the three measures refer to the calling of the three nations, out of Shem, Ham, and Japhet. But 1 hardly think that the reason of the thing will allow this interpretation; for though these three nations have indeed been called, yet in them Christ is shewn and not hidden, and in so great a multitude of unbelievers the whole cannot be said to be leavened.

Hope that helps!

Nathan Smith

Joyless Moralist: Thanks! About mere Christianity, I think I've come to feel that mere Christianity *is* Orthodoxy, free from both the Catholic superstructure and the Protestant reaction to that superstructure. Since Anglicanism is between Protestantism and Catholicism C.S. Lewis was able to find a middle way between the former and the latter and dodge both, more or less. And there are a lot of Christians I admire and even *need*-- in the sense that if I had to strip out my admiration for them I'm afraid my faith would stumble-- which makes me reluctant to draw a line in the sand and say, "the Orthodox Church is the true church," full stop. But for practical purposes I wouldn't say the "resting place" is "provisional." The last thing I would want to do is to set out wandering among churches again-- for exactly the reasons that Joyless Moralist expressed so well. One doesn't want to be a *judge* over churches, one wants the church to be a judge over oneself.

Thanks for all the Catena Aurea quotes. I wish I had that book...

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