The Corner

Charles Darwin and the Parable of the Sower


Yesterday, the many thousands of churches worldwide that follow the Common Lectionary heard the Parable of the Sower. The particular one I went to featured a lib-modernist sermon that I quickly found boring, so I soon replaced the words of the sweet 30something woman priest who was delivering it with my own dark thoughts. (It’s not that I’m against hearing the occasional lib-modernist sermon, and I’m certainly all in favor of sweet 30something women priests, indeed of women priests of all ages and temperaments. But this particular sermon grated: The explanation of the parable, she said, may not go back to Jesus but may have been added later by his disciples. Now, I’m fully aware that not everything in the Bible is literally true, source criticism teaches us about how the texts may have been assembled, etc., etc. But if a preacher is going to deconstruct the text, he or she has the burden of constructing something interesting in its place. This particular preacher failed in this task.)

And that’s how I found myself meditating on this sower, who represents God — and yet doesn’t seem to be very careful in what he is doing. “Some seed fell by the way side . . . some fell upon stony places . . . some fell among thorns. . . .” At the implications of this, my neo-Calvinist heart bridles. Is this negligent sower meant to represent the same God who careth for the fall of a sparrow? And then it occurred to me: Perhaps the Jesus who initially preached this parable was aware, as the rest of mankind became some 18 centuries later, of the process of evolution — in which what appear to us to be various dead ends and randomnesses are quite common? Indeed, in my own understanding of theology, Jesus — as the Logos through Whom the universe came to be — must have been aware of the process of evolution, since He was present at and integral to its creation. But I was brought up rather short by His pointing to it in this way.

The problem, not just for people of Calvinist bent but for anyone who believes in Divine Providence, is that what looks like “waste” violates our moral and aesthetic sense. We view creation too much by analogy with the human process of creation, in which anything that doesn’t “work” or becomes obsolete represents a failure of our process. We thus become addicted to viewing things in terms of all-too-human easy and naïve teleologies — and then impose these teleologies on One who transcends them. It is good to be reminded, then, that “my ways are not your ways.”

As fossil evidence tells us, some aspects of creation don’t last, some don’t appear to work and are evolutionary “dead ends” — but they are nonetheless in God’s care: “Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” It had its beauty and its integrity, and fulfilled the purpose for which God created it. It is a waste only to eyes that do not see it as its creator did. (Incidentally, the chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans from which I just quoted is a favorite among many who take their Calvinism in a more traditional sense than I do. They think it points to a justification for the eternal predestination of some human beings to damnation. “God has the right to damn whomever He likes, and we all deserve it anyway, so what’s the problem?” I think the Christian revelation points toward a different understanding of God’s nature, one in which the Cross is centrally involved; but that is a question for another day.)

We heard in another reading yesterday, from Isaiah: “My word that comes from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please.” The Parable of the Sower is one of these words, pregnant with truth.


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