No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. Jer. 31:34
I often think I have the best job in the world. As a spiritual director, I get a ring-side seat to God’s story as it unfolds in the lives of people who are growing in their knowledge and experience of the Lord’s presence. But this word from Jeremiah is also something I long for—the day when I, and every other pastor, teacher and spiritual director will be out of a job. “No longer will one person tell another, ‘Know the Lord,’” the prophet writes, “for they will all know me.” In the meantime there is a particular insight that gives me confidence that the slow and painstaking work we do in encouraging deeper relationships with God is somehow related to the transformation of the whole world.
There is an urban legend called the “hundredth monkey” that represents something of this phenomenon. The hundredth-monkey effect is a supposed event in which, once a critical number is reached, a learned behavior spreads instantaneously from one group to another. The hypothesis first showed up in Lawrence Blair’s book, Rhythms of Vision (1975) where studies were cited of scientists observing macaque monkeys on the Japanese island of Koshima. They noticed that some of these monkeys were learning how to wash mud off their food before eating it. The researchers then claimed that once a critical number of monkeys had adopted this behaviour—the so-called hundredth monkey—this evolutionary instinct somehow spontaneously spread across the water to monkeys on nearby islands. For no apparent reason, they too started experimenting with washing their food. The story has since been used by others as a parable to support the hope of raising global consciousness in matters of ecology and social justice.
Could this also be what happens in a church, or a nation as more and more people learn to relate to God through prayer? Whether this story is true or not I do believe that something similar happens in the spirituality of community when a quorum of its members start moving more in step with the Spirit of God.
In his book, The Heart of the Parish: a Theology of the Remnant, Martin Thornton applies this type of thinking to parish work. He recognizes the many different relationships to spirituality found in any given community saying, “each of our parishes contain the few really faithful, the occasional churchgoer, and everyone else.” Thornton sees these different strata as concentric circles of intimacy with God where the influence of the center pervades the whole. The few faithful believers—the remnant, as he calls them—are the ones who mysteriously anchor the whole community to the depths of spirituality. According to Thornton, the church and ultimately the whole world depend and revolve around the faithful endeavour of the remnant. He writes,
The Remnant, far from being an amputated segment, the clique detached from the whole, is at the centre of the parochial organism and of power extending beyond it. It is the very heart which recovers and serves the whole.
The concept of remnant theology can be quite motivating if we see our individual growth as benefitting the whole. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when He said, “For their sakes, I sanctify myself” (Jn. 17:19). Consider Thornton’s premise that as you mature as an individual in the knowledge of God you are somehow contributing to the maturity of all. How does your own spiritual transformation serve the emerging freedom of all creation? Paul implies something of this when he writes that “the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed” (Rom. 8:19).
In quantum physics, we are reminded of the great mystery of our interconnectedness, where a butterfly flapping its wings in Australia is somehow related, in effect, to a tornado in Texas. Even if there are only a few people growing in their knowledge of God, it will make a difference to the whole church, to society and to the world. Somehow, through God’s mysterious economy, it will add truth and depth to the spiritual direction of all creation.