Sunday 19 July 2020
Amongst the great volume of his work, St Thomas Aquinas, the towering theologian of the scholastic period in Europe, wrote his so called “Five Proofs for the Existence of God”. The fifth of those was the argument from design. Thomas basically argued that the order and design that we saw around us in the world must have had a designer, and that designer was God.
In this context, in the 20th century, the English philosopher, Antony Flew, adapted a story called the “Parable of the Invisible Gardener” to promote his critique of proofs of the existence of God based on design. The gist of the parable is that two explorers come across a clearing in a forest where there are plants and weeds with some order about them and one of the explorers speculates that there must be a gardener.
Flew takes his own direction with the parable to disprove design arguments for the proof of God.
But I would like to take up the parable as my philosophy lecturer of the time did by asking the question: “How do we decide that some plants are weeds and others are good plants?” What differentiates one from the other. In essence, weeds are plants as well. Why do we regard some plants as good plants and disparage others as weeds?
I suppose that plants that we regard as not beautiful, or not useful, or not helpful are the ones that we tend to call weeds. But don’t all of our plants come from weeds? Are the plants that we regard as good and useful simply those weeds that we have chosen to breed and apply horticultural attention to.
Who does not love the sight of a beautiful rose plant? Yet, we understand that there are 35 million year-old fossils of rose plants. It is highly unlikely that anyone was cultivating them then. They would have been a weed amongst weeds.
In recent decades, it has been possible to buy lantana plants from nurseries. Just go and tell a farmer who battles lantana endlessly on the property that the delightful flowered plant you have in your pot is not a weed and he or she will laugh at you. If you want to raise goats for meat and the very fine cashmere fleece that they produce, you want a paddock that your local sheep farmer considers a weed infested waste. Goats prefer what we call “weeds” because our nation grew on the sheep’s back and sheep like grass paddocks and anything that is not grass in the paddock becomes a weed in our eyes.
I am trying to mount the argument that what constitutes a weed is contested. A plant does not possess “weedness”, except in so far as all plants were once weeds. Plants are subjectively characterised as weeds and that naming can vary from place to place and even in the same location depending on what value we choose to place on a particular plant.
In Jesus’ parable, the householder counsels against trying to remove the weeds during the growing process for fear that some of the desired wheat might also be pulled up. His advice is to let the all the plants grow together until the time of harvest at the end of the age when the Son of Man will direct the angels to do the sorting.
We might add that, in the light of the previous discussion on the arbitrariness with which we apply the term weeds, not only would this ensure the good plants are not pulled out with the weeds, but it might ensure that “weeds” are correctly identified. In other words, maybe it is not our place to judge the “weedness” of others as we journey towards the kingdom of God.
Jesus states this categorically at the beginning of chapter 7 of Matthew’ Gospel:
‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye’.
And you know, I am happy about that because I hate weeding. I always get a sore back.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen