Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Richard Dawkins and the Mustard Seed

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Jesus replied, “If you had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”Luke 17:5-6
The Gospels give us two variations of the teaching about faith “the size of a grain of mustard seed.” In Matthew’s account, Jesus says that with that much faith you can move a mountain. In Luke’s account it’s only a mulberry tree, although to be fair, the mulberry tree would be “planted in the sea,” which is fairly impressive.

The teaching is not meant to be taken literally. The point is that it does not take very much faith to accomplish great things. In Luke’s story, Jesus has been teaching about forgiveness, and he has just told them that they must forgive one another without limit. This seems impossible and so they plead with him to “increase our faith!” His answer is simple, they don’t need more faith, they just need to use the faith that they have.

A mustard seed is tiny. It is so small that if you pick one up and hold it between your thumb and forefinger, you can’t see it. If you press your fingers together enough to hold the seed, it completely disappears. So we can imagine Jesus holding up the seed, and his disciples realizing that they cannot even see it.

I was reminded of the mustard seed story when I read an article in The Christian Century about a public debate between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and atheist Richard Dawkins. The audience was surprised to hear Dawkins concede a bit of doubt about his conviction that there is no such thing as a creator. But he quickly qualified that by saying that he was still “6.9 out of seven” certain of his long-held belief.

There must be some anecdote that would explain why he chose “6.9 out of seven” rather than ninety-nine out of a hundred, or 999 out of a thousand. But in Jesus’ terms “.1 out of seven” or one in a hundred, or even one in a thousand, would be bigger than “a grain of mustard seed.”

Although the story of the mustard seed is typically understood as a reassurance for those who think that their faith is weak, that’s not how Jesus uses it. The disciples are stuck on believing, and he is focused on doing. It’s not about how much faith they have, it’s about how much they use.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that many times Christians explain their inactivity in terms of doubt. If they were sure that to follow Jesus they really needed to take a stand on an issue, or support a cause, or give themselves sacrificially, then they would do it. If they were sure of God’s presence, then they would do great things. Bonhoeffer insisted that our problem is not faith, it is obedience. Doubt is our excuse for inaction.

The great evangelist, E. Stanley Jones, was often questioned about his close friendship with Mahatma Gandhi. Critics wondered how he could be so friendly with someone who had rejected Christianity. Jones explained that although Gandhi did not believe nearly as much as they did, everything he believes, he does!

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