The humbling of the kingdom?

In Matthew 13, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed which, though tiny, grows into a tree in which the birds can nest. A verse later, Jesus compares the kingdom to yeast that the baker “hid” in a loaf of bread, causing the bread to rise. The comparisons seem to reflect quite different conceptions. In one, the kingdom is large and conspicuous, visibly structuring and supporting those who knowingly depend on it. In the other, the kingdom is a tiny and mostly imperceptible part of the mix. It is not and will never become a very substantial part of the product: the bread will be mostly composed of flour, sugar, water. Not of yeast– a loaf of bread consisting mostly of yeast would be inedible. And yet the yeast– and the kingdom?– will have an essential influence that permeates the whole, quietly lifting and sustaining it.

From the outset, it seems, in thinking of the Latter-day kingdom, Church members have embraced the mustard seed/tree conception. Expectations were high, even grandiose. A striking instance is the proclamation written by the Twelve Apostles in 1845 and addressed “To all the kings of the world, to the president of the United States of America; to the governors of the several states and to the rulers and people of all nations.” The proclamation in effect audaciously announced, and demanded acknowledgment of, a new sovereign. “Therefore we send unto you with authority from on high, and command you all to repent and humble yourselves as little children . . . .”

Another common scriptural metaphor expressing a similar idea is Daniel’s description of the “stone cut out of the mountain” that rolls forth and fills the whole earth. I myself recall giving an enthusiastic missionary talk on the theme, and I recall a stake leader thanking me for my “discurso vibrante.”

That was decades ago. And the proclamation to kings and rulers was issued more than a century and a half ago. Now, in what has been declared the bicentennial of the Restoration, we might pause and wonder whether this vision of our role remains plausible.

True, the Church has endured, and grown. It has blessed the lives of millions of people, in all sorts of ways. And I suppose that in a sense the Restored Gospel has rolled forth and if not exactly “filled” at least established a presence in, if not the whole earth, at least the non-totalitarian portions of it. Missionaries have served in most countries. Temples are being built throughout the world. These are impressive achievements, for which we can be thankful. And yet . . . .

Realistically, the Church remains an important but still quite marginal actor on the national and world stage. Its percentage of the national and world populations is still, and now seems likely to remain, tiny. It may be mentioned in general history books but will not be credited with any impact matching that of, say, the abolition or women’s or civil right movements. Or the Russian Revolution: not even close. Is this what our ancestors contemplated when they talked of the stone that would fill the whole earth, crushing all before it?

I don’t know what the future holds, of course, or what the providential plan may be. The information’s unavailable to the mortal man– or at least to me. Still, I wonder whether it might be apt at this point to begin thinking of the Church less in tree and stone imagery and more in terms of leaven that quietly and inconspicuously sustains and lifts the loaf.

What would such a shift entail? The implications would be far-reaching, I suspect, and I can only notice a couple of possibilities here. One specific area affected by the change has already been mentioned– missionary work. The older image suggests that the aspiration is to convert the world. But is this a realistic aspiration? Is it even an attractive one? Just as a loaf of bread made entirely of yeast would be inedible, is the prospect of a whole world that looks like, say, Provo pleasant to contemplate? I’m joking, of course (and in fact I have mostly fond memories of my years in Provo). But still. . . . Maybe the primary goal should not be to convert the world, but rather to humbly serve the world?

My sense is that members themselves have long worked more according to this sensibility– which is why so many of us are wary of enthusiastic missionaries who want to come over for dinner and afterwards commit us to proselytize all of our friends– and that the Church itself has moved in this direction. When I was a missionary (in a somewhat dysfunctional mission, to be sure, with grotesquely high baptism rates coupled with discouraging retention rates) we were instructed that we should not do service, or even visit newly baptized members, unless we could expect more baptisms to result. Today, in my ward at least, the missionaries seem eager to do service. And of course there are now thousands of service missionaries; I’ve had occasion to work with some of them, whose service has been valuable. This is all to the good, I think.

The larger, harder question is how a shift from tree to yeast might lead to revisions in our overall narrative. The standard way of explaining– and distinguishing– our Church relies heavily on the Great Apostasy-Restoration theme. This is a tree story, I think– or a story about the stone that fills the whole earth. To use a different analogy: it is a spectacular instance of “Whig history”– of the idea that nearly everything important that happened over the last two millennia was all teleologically leading up to . . . Us. To be sure, I don’t think a particular understanding can be discredited just by calling it “Whig history” any more than it can be discredited just by labeling it a “conspiracy theory.” If the Church had grown to fill the earth in the way the proclamation of 1845 seemed to contemplate, the Whiggish self-understanding would have been vindicated. But that hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t seem likely to happen.

My sense is that Apostasy and Restoration are so deeply entrenched in our self-understanding that they are never going to be discarded. But might there be interpretations of apostasy and restoration that resonate more with a yeast conception of our role– that might allow us to perform a leavening function in a way that is not oriented from the outset in an intrinsically triumphalist mode?

Let me put the point more generally: the tree conception implies that the kingdom will become the world’s supporting structure. The stone analogy suggests that the kingdom is going to crush and replace sovereigns and sects. Subtly or not so subtly, these conceptions shape our attitudes toward the world, and toward Christianity generally. And in fact a triumphalist and thus implicitly or explicitly adversarial attitude probably has dominated our thinking through much of our history—even when we try to be genial and polite. But things seem to be changing of late. The Prophet meets cordially with the Pope, who would once have been viewed as the leader of the great and abominable church. We minister and serve cordially with our Protestant brothers and sisters, and with adherents of other faiths. Is it time to rethink our self-understanding in a way that is humbler in its pretensions and aspirations but more conducive to these collaborative efforts?

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