From the Gospel according to Mark:
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 4:26-29 (NRSV) – January 24, 2013.)
My late brother had a cartoon cut from some magazine taped to the door of his university office (he was a professor of political science and constitutional law) for years. I suspect it came from either Playboy or The New Yorker, but I really don’t know. It depicted two scientists working at a chalk board. To their left on the board was a complicated looking mathematical formula and to their right, another one. Connecting the two sets of numbers were arrows drawn from and to the words, “The a miracle occurs.” One of the scientists speaking to the other says, “I think you should be more specific here in step two.” (Of course, I’ve been able to find the cartoon on the internet and will post it with this meditation.)
That bit of scientific humor came to mind when I read this parable. I know this parable is meant to portray the church, the work of discipleship, the eschatological reality of the last judgement, etc. However, I am fascinated by the actual reality of planting seed, growing a crop, and harvesting the result, and Jesus’ words, “He does not know how!” 2,000 years after he spoke those words we truly still do “not know how” plants go from seed to harvest. We know a lot more of the “how” than we did, but we still don’t really have a clue what’s going on. We can name the elements and chemicals involved; we can describe the interactions and processes; we can pretty much point to the genes and DNA code that produce the end characteristics of the particular species. But when it comes right down to it, we don’t know how or why it happens, and we can’t actually produce it from scratch. We could mix all the constituent elements and chemicals together in exactly the right proportions and all we’ll have is a batch of chemicals, not a seed or plant or harvestable fruit.
Some day, perhaps, but not now. Research scientists keep pushing back the horizons of our knowledge, but there is still something we don’t know. Australian physicist Paul Davies put it this way in his book The Fifth Miracle, “Scientists still can’t quite put their finger on exactly what it is that separates a living organism from other types of physical objects.” Elsewhere, in an article in the journal BioSystems, Davies has said, “Living systems form a very special subset among the set of all complex systems. Biological complexity is distinguished by being information-based complexity, and a fundamental challenge to science is to provide an account of how this unique information content and processing machinery of life came into existence.”
In other words, the “how” (and especially the “why”) of what happens between planting of seed and harvesting of fruit remains a mystery. And, Dr. Davies helps frame the question: “Given a soup of classical molecular building blocks, how did this mixture ‘discover’ the appropriate extremely improbable combination by chance in a reasonable period of time?” I applaud the efforts of scientists to figure that out. I came across Dr. Davies’ writings because of my interest in quantum mechanics and string-theory; he proposes that quantum processes are at work in the origins of life. It’s an interesting hypothesis and might go a long way in answer the “how” question. It won’t, I don’t think, answer the “why”.
From my perspective (which I know some of my less religious friends and colleagues think is naive), what we don’t know (both the “how” and the “why”) is the second step in the cartoon’s equation. What we don’t know is the miracle that occurs, the miracle that occurred when the first primordial organism developed in the original soup of elements and chemicals way back when in the history of our earth.
It seems to me that this “then a miracle happens” unknown element is present in other parts of our existence, as well.
Two people meet, then a miracle happens – they fall in love. Sure, there’s a lot of interplay of pheromones and hormones and brain chemistry and what-not; we know a lot of the “how”, but we don’t know the “why”. Why these two and not those two, why each of these with the other and not with some other person, why sometimes two people once in love find themselves no longer so . . . . It’s in the second step, “then a miracle occurs.”
A human being grows to maturity and develops the ability to paint beautiful portraits or landscapes, to sculpt exquisite models of the human form, to write entertaining scripts, or to pen moving poetry. We can talk of environment and education and innate artistic ability; we can describe the “how” of her up-bringing and her craft. But we cannot answer the question “why” this person develops these talents and her sibling did not. It’s in the second step, “then a miracle occurs.”
The cartoon is right; we can’t just leave it at that! We need to be more specific in step two. So I cheer on the scientists who are seeking the answers. But I also celebrate the mysterious and the miraculous, and cheer on the mystics, the religious, the spiritual, the artists, the poets, the priests, and all the other seekers after truth. Let’s all try to learn what’s going on when a miracle occurs.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.