December 29, 2008

A Grain of Mustard Seed

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.

How are we to interpret Christ’s reference to the power behind a grain of faith? One way is to accept it literally and say miracles can be achieved by exercising the tiniest degree of belief. Even though I’ve witnessed inexplicable occurrences that can only be described as miraculous, I have a problem with that explanation. At the time Christ made the claim, He was still speaking in parables, forcing listeners to ponder the hidden meanings in His teachings. The obvious interpretation, therefore, isn’t necessarily the most correct. Furthermore, it would imply that faith is difficult to acquire (otherwise, we would see the equivalent of metaphorical mountains moving before our eyes as the faithful demand such changes to occur). Yet this isn’t consistent with what seems like a deprecating tone: Christ seems to say all we need is the smallest bit of conviction.

Another possible explanation is that Christ was pointing to the necessity of faith as a prerequisite to any achievement. There are mountains—many in Appalachia, for example—that have literally been stripped away in order to extract the coal and other minerals contained therein. What does it take to remove so many tons of rock and soil? Naturally, one requirement is that the right people share a belief that a commercial quantity of coal is hidden beneath the mountain’s surface. Without such conviction, there would be no action.

In this case, the definition of faith isn’t strictly contained to a religious or spiritual realm. Furthermore, it implies that we all have faith, whether in God, science, or some other ideology. In fact, all our actions—no matter how innocuous—are based upon some logical rationale that eventually leads to a leap of faith. After all, wouldn’t we live our lives differently if we didn’t believe the sun would rise tomorrow morning?

The final interpretation of the scripture is that the term, “grain of mustard seed” doesn’t disparage an embryonic particle of faith, at all. Rather, it describes a powerful ideal, one that compares our beliefs against the massive unknown that surrounds us and encourages us to seek true learning. In other words, Christ may have been saying that, although faith serves as an important guide, it shouldn’t be anything more than a heuristic “rule of thumb.” It shouldn’t, for example, be our standard of truth. Faith, in fact, can evolve (or grow like a plant) as truth becomes known.

I like this last interpretation, because it gives Christ’s followers the benefit of faith as a directional roadmap, but acknowledges the unavoidability of doubt and the need to continually examine personal convictions. It acknowledges that faith—as well as similar concepts such as idea, hypothesis and objective—have more to do with uncertainty than knowing anything is true. Perhaps Jesus was saying that the particle of faith that is the source of our passion lies in a treasure-filled sea of uncertainty from which there is much to discover. The ability to admit, “I don’t know,” is more powerful than the collected wisdom of generations.

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