Butterflies everywhere – painted ladies, holly blues, and brimstones – and their shadows flickering on the path in front of me. The ways are full of midges and crickets sawing to themselves among the tall grasses, sedges and seed heads of drying cow parsley. Air thick with insects, the bats are busy come evening.
Compared to golden fields of wheat or swaying barley, the rapeseed crop in the top fields looks scruffy, woebegone, out at the elbow. And amongst the rape are patches of barley blown in from elsewhere. Not weeds, but not wanted either.
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.Matthew 13:24-26
In 1969, British philosopher, John Wisdom (1904-1993) published an influential paper in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. In that paper, which was titled simply ‘Gods’, Wisdom offers a thought experiment in which he describes two men coming across a neglected garden. Some plants are flourishing, still fruitful, and one of the men suggests the garden is tended, cared for by a gardener. His friend points to all the weeds and dilapidation; he believes the garden is entirely abandoned.
They decide to test their contradictory hypotheses, and set up watch. When no gardener appears, and none of the neighbours have seen a gardener at work, the sceptic’s hypothesis looks the more likely. But the believer argues the gardener comes at night, while they’re asleep. Or perhaps the gardener is invisible.
Wisdom’s point is that both parties are able to claim support for their beliefs by reference to evidence already before them; and no new evidence is forthcoming.
Each learns all the other learns about the garden. Consequently, when after all this, one says ‘I still believe a gardener comes’ while the other says ‘I don’t’, their different words now reflect no difference as to what they have found in the garden, or would find in the garden if they looked further.John Wisdom, ‘Gods’
Son of a clergyman, and himself a Christian, Wisdom thought the two characters in his story do not disagree about empirical facts – the garden is exactly as each of them finds it; no, the argument is over differing perspectives as to those facts. And he believes we come across disputes like this all the time, not just in arguments over whether or not God is at work in the world. He uses the example of how we share our views on art, or reach a decision in a court of law. Hearing someone describe why they love a particular piece of music or a painting might lead to our own growing appreciation. Sitting in a jury room, and hearing the views of others who have heard the same evidence and testimony, can – quite reasonably – alter our views as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
Where Wisdom’s thought experiment and Jesus’ parable coincide beautifully is in the notion of ignorance, of definitive proof being unavailable to us. In the parable, the enemy comes when everybody is asleep. In Wisdom’s thought experiment, the believer argues that the gardener comes at night, unseen.
And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’Matthew 13:27
Look around, there are weeds. The world offers itself as a morally equivocal landscape. From one perspective it appears a beautiful garden; from another it looks wild, untended. Like the slaves in the parable, we don’t know where the weeds come from. And we might even differ as to what constitutes a weed at all. I’m looking at scraps of barley in a field of rapeseed. A few yards away, over that fence, this barley would be crop; here it’s weed.
If I’m a red admiral or a tortoiseshell butterfly, a nettle isn’t a weed; it’s home.
The decision we make as to what is worthless weed and what is valuable crop will depend on context, and on judgement. And all the while we’re called to grow alongside one another, our root systems too closely entwined to pull up the weeds without damaging the crop:
In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.Matthew 13:29
More pressing still, perhaps we are weeds. Or perhaps sometimes we’re weeds, sometimes cherished crops.
What to do in this situation? Jesus’ parable offers an eminently practical position. We must grow together for the time being. Where the weeds came from and what will become of them are questions we can ask and about which we can have reasonable opinions, like the opinions of Wisdom’s sceptic and believer in the garden, but the truth will only come at harvest.
The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire.Matthew 13:39-42
Until then we can only look on ourselves, on one another, and on the ambiguous world of which we’re a part, in expectation, in trust: that a gardener comes. And live like this:
test everything; hold fast to what is good1 Thessalonians 5:21
I think this track came to me because of the crickets. Is it just me, or are there many more insects about this year? Seeing Yo La Tengo play with Robyn Hitchcock, Sonic Boom (from Spacemen 3) and Neil Innes (from the Bonzo Dog Band) at the Festival Hall in May 2000, was… like harvest, like heaven. This is the quietly meditative ‘Green Arrow’ from Yo La Tengo’s album I Can Hear The Heart Beating as One. A lulling and faintly exotic Nunc Dimittis…
may we be sown, grown and brought home
in your Son.