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?

22 comments for “The humbling of the kingdom?

  1. at
    January 23, 2020 at 3:19 pm

    I admire your intelligence, and your writing, and am very intrigued by Jonathan’s post about you book. Thanks for your work.

    I get that you are probably joking a bit to make a point, but I would like to add my anecdote and my perspective. I live in a ward that has multiple missionary companionships and have had missionaries over many, many, many times over the course of 15 years. I’ve never met a missionary who attempted to “commit [me] to proselytize all of [my] friends”. They have almost invariably asked me to seek and follow the Spirit, and when they are really enthusiastic, they have asked me to determine, through prayer, if there is one person (among all of my friends) to whom I can make an invitation to experience the gospel.

    The problem is not that we don’t share the gospel with all of our friends, nor is it that the missionaries try to get us to — the problem is that we fail to have that much interest in seeking and obtaining spiritual promptings on what we should do with respect to that one person that might be ready for something more than what they have, and are lacking something that we have.

    Missionaries don’t care if we proselytize all of our friends. However, they would love to have one referral.

  2. Razorfish
    January 23, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    Excellent and thought provoking post. Thank you. Nephi saw our day and described the Church throughout all the world and yet the members were few (and tiny) compared to the all the peoples of the earth. But numeric superiority has never been the benchmark for God’s people while on the earth. The 12 Tribes were always a fraction of the earth’s people, but the power of Old Testament prophets and miracles they wrought are as awe inspiring today as when they occurred thousands of years ago. If the Restoration was not divine in origin, it would have come to naught…but slow growth today is only a numeric indicator of the moral decay and wickedness of the world we live in. I’m convinced the values we stand for will be increasingly unpopular as time marches on. But the doors of history swing on very small hinges…and as President Nelson said the Church is at an important hinge point. I think we are all very interested in this coming General Conference and the 200th anniversary it represents in the beginning event and opening act of the Restoration. I’m fine with the leaven bread analogy (over the mustard seed) as a metaphor for the destiny of the Church prior to the Second Coming. Thanks for the post.

  3. larryco_
    January 23, 2020 at 4:35 pm

    This is very good. Thank you.

  4. p
    January 23, 2020 at 8:10 pm

    The best piece I’ve ever read in T&S: a humane, intelligent way forward in a spirit of Christ-like service, maturity in lieu of decline, otherwise inevitable even with 124B in the bank. I will broadcast this post far and wide.

    As for Provo, it was big-time for a 17 year-old from the Arizona sticks. Then there was the great LaVell Edwards. Other than that, well, it’s no Lawrence, Kansas. Why, exactly?

  5. SDS
    January 23, 2020 at 8:11 pm

    Thanks, all, for these thoughtful comments. I won’t try to respond to them all here– I may try to say more about Chad Nielsen’s thoughts later– but let me just say a bit in response to at. You are right. Proselytizing all one’s friends is basically what we tried (unsuccessfully) to get people to do in my mission (“Let’s start by making a list of everyone you know . . . .”), but that isn’t a fair description of my experience with missionaries in wards here. So I apologize for overstating the point.

    Even so, I do think the tree/leaven distinction is indicative of contrasting attitudes, and subtle tensions, that many members (including myself) feel in our interactions with missionaries. For them, in tree mode, converting people is the primary objective. (Naturally enough: they are after all missionaries.) So they implore us with stories about how guilty we will feel when our friends come to us accusingly in the next world: “Why didn’t you share something so precious . . .?” Etc. Whereas we ordinary folks want to maintain cordial and mutually respectful relations with our associates, to share the good things we have and believe when we think this will be welcome and helpful– but also to learn from them about their faiths without projecting (or, for that matter, concealing) any sense of superiority. If a friend takes an interest in the Church and actually joins, we will be delighted; but conversion is not a conscious or even tacit objective in our relationships. Nor do we necessarily feel that it should be. For myself, I talk about religion with friends regularly, but I confess that I would feel just slightly compromised if in the back of my mind I were thinking, “My unspoken goal is to bring you into the Church”– much in the way I would feel just mildly distrustful or resentful if I somehow discovered that a friend had some unspoken design to induce me to join or do something.

    I acknowledge a very real possibility that my thinking on this point is seriously misguided. And I suspect that it depends on whether our implicit guiding notion is a tree/stone idea or a yeast idea. But in any case, I doubt that I’m alone in this respect. And for those of us who feel this way, I would say that we have, basically, a leavening attitude.

  6. Justsomeone Passingthrough
    January 23, 2020 at 8:32 pm

    http://www.eugene-burnand.com/Parables/parables%20images/mustard%20seed.jpg

    I haven’t understood “the kingdom of God as a mustard seed” as grandiose. I understood it to intend more limited expectations, like the tree isn’t particularly beautiful and not useful for wood species more of a large bush really.

    I understood the parable to mean the kingdom is small but if you let it grow it can connect you with heaven in unexpected ways. The birds being heaven/angles coming to land and make a home there.

  7. T. L. Peterson
    January 23, 2020 at 10:49 pm

    Excellent. Thanks for this, SDS.

    The humbling of the kingdom could also be described as the maturing of the kingdom. Our ambition to fill the world with the gospel by converting billions (or at least hundreds of millions) was thrilling because it matched the scope of the Prophet Joseph’s vision. But it was always, in a sense, fantastical. It was not tested against the mundane challenges of actually building the Church. (There’s no shame in that. The restored gospel is so exciting that of course we would want to aim high.) Now we’re growing into a reality that, as we really should have expected, does not entirely match what we imagined. Our conception of our mission needs to mature to match the realities of physical and cultural growth.

    Experience ought to teach us some things about the Church’s growth. First, we do not need hundreds of millions of members to have a meaningful influence on the culture, whether for better or worse. Second, the Church does not need hundreds of millions of members to be economically prosperous. We’ve managed to build enormous wealth with probably fewer than ten million actively participating members worldwide. Third, the Church’s increasing diversity gives us the opportunity to influence others in more diverse ways, both outside the Church and within it. I believe fervently that we ought to embrace that opportunity instead of resisting it.

    I agree with those who have suggested that the yeast idea does not necessarily conflict with the Mormon narrative of apostasy and restoration. What is restored, or renewed, in us–in the way we live–ought to be above all the purity of God’s love. We don’t need to dominate politically or demographically in order to be pure in heart or to win a place in our neighbors’ hearts.

  8. GEOFF -AUS
    January 24, 2020 at 3:35 am

    I am old enough to remember when we believed we would fill the earth, with the restored gospel. There was a period after racism, and before homophobia when it seemed possible.
    There are some reasons it won’t happen now;
    First the restored gospel comes packaged in conservative culture. If we could get rid of that culture we would be less offensive. Leadership have to realise that US Republicanism, is very extreme to most people in the first world, and not better.
    Second if we want to be leven, does that imply some moral leadership? If Utah votes for Trump in November it will be clear members have no moral judgement. There is no leven.
    So in order to be a good member, you need to accept a list of political junk that is the opposite of Chists teaching. Opposing gay marriage, opposing equality for women, opposing climate science, opposing abortion (even though that will not reduce it, voting as a block to increase inequality, opposing gun control, opposing universal healthcare.
    The number people in the first world who are this extreme are very small, and they also oppose immigration, and muslims particularly, they will be white supremacist too. Are people like that searching for the Gospel of Christ, even the mormon version?
    The leadership have allowed their culture to make the gospel unacceptable.
    Very few people want to buy what we are selling. If I had not been a member for 60 years, I would not join.

  9. Em
    January 24, 2020 at 6:45 am

    I’m pretty torn on this, because I think it’s easy to swing the other way and just be serving without sharing and giving people the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want to learn more. Clayton Christensen wrote a great book talking about this. Gave me much to think about.

    I also really resist comments like Geoff’s that want to reduce us all to binary-thinking, closed-minded people (or speaking as though Utah is THE measure for the whole Church. It’s been a long time since Utah was anywhere near a majority representation of Church membership). To me, it’s exactly that kind of generalization that makes it harder for people to get past stereotypes. Please, can we let people have the chance to make their OWN judgments about the Church? They can’t do that if they aren’t invited to give it a try. To engage the process we’ve all been invited to continue to engage — to ask God directly. It’s a pretty amazing thing, actually. Maybe we need not wring our hands so much about whether it’s seed or stone, because it is what it is and people have the chance and choice to find out what it is and what God would guide them to do if they asked about it. Let’s not be too afraid to invite. That’s what I hear our leaders saying — not to force conversion, but to allow opportunity for agency. Like I tell my kids — you can’t exercise agency without options.

  10. Chad Nielsen
    January 24, 2020 at 7:49 am

    I wasn’t sure that my comments came out how I wanted them, SDS, so I deleted them yesterday before seeing your comment. In case you were wanting to say something in response to them, the two main things I was trying to say were that:
    1) I really appreciated this post and agree with what’s said in it.
    2) I do feel like the Great Apostasy/Restoration narrative is an important part of how we see ourselves as a religion, but I agree that we could find a way to talk about it in a more nuanced way. One of the reasons I really liked the Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young Standing Apart book is that I feel like it was a collection that showed some ways in which we could do so.

  11. at
    January 24, 2020 at 8:14 am

    SDS, thanks for your charitable reply to my comment.

    And for me to be fair, I have been presented with the “make a list of all of your friends” approach, but despite my initial fears, it turned out that it was merely an exercise to try to identify “the one”.

    I think you’ve described very well the “subtle tensions” at play between members and missionaries — and the struggles that we experience in not wanting to have self-serving motives in our interactions and friendships. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  12. Jon Miranda
    January 24, 2020 at 9:48 am

    Geoff Aus
    The Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day saints is not a liberal Church.

  13. GEOFF -AUS
    January 24, 2020 at 9:12 pm

    Jon, I know that, but Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith both were liberal/progressive. My problem is that the church is republican. If it were in the middle OK.

  14. Chet
    January 24, 2020 at 11:06 pm

    Wearing BYU gear at the office (I live/work in Salt Lake County) is no longer a badge of honor and this has nothing to do with the football team…

  15. ji
    January 25, 2020 at 5:21 pm

    Geoff -Aus,

    Your hatred of U.S. and Latter-day Saints is well known, and seems uncharitable to me. And establishing a worthiness test for Utah Latter-day Saints based on their voting in a civil election also seems unfair. I understand you’re not an American and may not understand our republic, but may I ask for more civility and more Christian conversation here?

  16. Ben H
    January 25, 2020 at 10:44 pm

    Steve, thank you for this wonderful post that asks about as important a question as we can ask about the church right now! Christ’s parables are fascinating in the way they describe the same concepts using such different metaphors. Thinking about what each one has to tell us and not letting ourselves be too stuck on any one of them is important if we are to take his teaching seriously.

    There are some pretty important contrasts between the two metaphors of the tree and the leaven, but maybe the contrast is not as stark as it sounds from your post. The metaphors of the tree or the stone suggest that the church will fill the earth, as though most everyone will join it. The metaphor of the leaven is different in that the members of the church remain a small portion of the whole, but the church transforms the loaf nonetheless.

    I think there is room to hope that the effect of the church on the world will be dramatic even if the number of actual members is small for many decades or even centuries. Perhaps our influence so far has not been transformative, but there is no question that a loaf is a completely different thing because of the leaven. The leaven transforms the dough from something that would have a pasty flavor and tough texture, hardly desirable to eat, to something tender, fragrant, and delicious.

    While church members have been relatively obscure for much of our history, we are growing steadily in education, status, and potential influence. We have already had a big impact on many other religious people through our example of faithfulness, conviction, and success in sustaining the church across generations. We have produced a number of influential political figures. We have also built a surprisingly cohesive global community, exemplifying something the world will need much more of as the world continues to become smaller. Who knows what we will accomplish?

  17. GEOFF -AUS
    January 26, 2020 at 10:36 pm

    Ji, I do not hate anyone, and am surprised you can find hate in anything I have written. I do think for members to vote for Trump, who I see as immoral on so many levels, requires a lack of moral judgement.
    Do you see a moral reason to vote for Trump in 2020? Where is the hate in making that observation?

  18. Travis
    January 27, 2020 at 12:38 am

    Yeast is a good metaphor. Allegro went so far as to link yeast with vision-producing mushrooms, citing Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls. Bread and wine are sacraments where yeast plays an important role. In holistic agriculture, yeast in the soil is an indicator of health, harmony and balance.

    A note on wine: wine is food, not drink (no water is added). Yeasts are used with fermentation as a preservative that helps wine “age” to optimum. The yeast slowly matures the bottled fruit. In time, the wine blossoms a rainbow of aroma—with holistically produced wine, the grape translates the quality of the time, the place, and even the season. The Master of the vineyard determines the quality and sanctity of the vineyard by the fruit it produces.

    Now think about Noah after the flood, when he was caught drunk-naked. Consider that Noah (as High Priest of the New Creation) partook the fruit of the vine as an emblem of discernment and judgement. His drunkenness was not an indication of sin, but a manifestation of an acceptable offering: the Earth was truly cleansed and the fruit thereof was good—so good that Noah was drunk—from the wine, and from the joy that the Earth had been purified by the baptismal floodwaters and renewed to a higher glory.

    The trajectory of Zion must include a covenant that recognizes the Living Earth as part of our celestial progression. If we are waiting for apocalypse to restore the world, we misunderstand the responsibility of priesthood—more than stewards, the duty of priesthood is to teach righteous practices, to heal and mend, and to purify and seal, and to conduct the orchestration of God’s Creation.

    The covenant that recognizes the Living Earth will be the catalyst for gathering the tribal peoples into Zion. The covenant that recognizes the Living Earth is linked with Enoch’s lamentation in Joseph’s translation of the Book of Moses. It will require us to compromise how we produce and consume, and we will find ourselves living closer to the principles of indigenous people. The Word of Wisdom, arguably the most misunderstood revelation today, far from being a mere dietary code, is an outline for the sacraments of Zion.

  19. ji
    January 27, 2020 at 1:20 am

    Latter-day Saints vote in whatever elections are allowed wherever they live, choosing among whatever candidates are made available to them. It seems uncharitable (and very presumptuous) for one Latter-day Saint to prescribe a voting outcome for other Latter-day Saints, saying they must lack moral judgment if they vote otherwise. Your animus towards the U.S. President does indeed seem to extend to Latter-day Saint voters in Utah.

    I also dislike some things about Mr. Trump, and am hopeful that his party will provide some additional choice in upcoming primary elections in the several states — but he may well be his party’s nominee in 2020 — the current pressures seem to be reinforcing that eventuality. Latter-day Saint voters, and all others, will have to make their own voting decisions based on the facts at the time. Perhaps the other party will nominate someone who offers a better overall platform? We’ll have to wait and see. Some or even many Latter-day Saints in Utah might vote for Mr. Trump’s re-election — if so, I will not use that to challenge the righteousness or moral judgment of my fellow Saints in that state.

    I’m not a Utah voter myself, but I understand a little of how voters in the U.S. system have to make choices. Voting for particular candidates is more often a larger and broader public policy matter than a moral judgment. I don’t recall any elections where we had a moral versus an immoral candidate to choose between.

    But I will agree with you — if Jesus or the Prophet Joseph Smith were running for an office, I would likely vote for either one, although perhaps for different reasons than you indicated. But I think both of them are okay with letting each of us make our own voting decisions and maintaining a sense of fellowship with each other while doing so.

  20. Taiwan Missionary
    January 27, 2020 at 2:27 am

    Ji: VERY well-written comment! Devastated the target, IMO. In Addition to many interesting stories from his life, and many cogent observations on a variety of Mormon topics, Geoff-Aus has a bit of an obsession about Trump, and it can also be seen in the comments he adds to posts on Wheat and Tares. Speaking as a never-Trumper conservative, I would enjoy hearing more from Geoff-Aus on gospel topics and issues related to Mormon culture. I had quite enough in the 70and 80s of John Birch Society types attempting to use Church meetings to bludgeon me into thinking that I had to share their ultra-conservative political views to be a good member of the Church, and will resist Geoff-Aus’ moralistic browbeating aimed at getting me to vote against someone whom I do not plan to vote for, anyway.

    In the meantime, can we get back to the original Humbling of the Kingdom (great job) and the many excellent comments that followed?

  21. Jon Miranda
    January 29, 2020 at 12:04 am

    Geoff Aus
    Why do you feel people have to vote and think and behave the way you do?

  22. Chad Nielsen
    January 29, 2020 at 12:27 am

    As Taiwan Missionary noted, I think it’s time to shift focus back to the topic of the post rather than fixating on Geoff.

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