The Tree of Life (Rev. Lou Snead)
I love trees, especially those massive green live oaks we find here in Texas whose ancient limbs sometimes bend all the way down to the ground. Trees like these represent for me a natural beauty exuding strength, endurance, and solemnity, not to mention welcomed shade in the hot summer months. Like Joyce Kilmer, I think trees are among the greatest of God's gift on this good earth that we also inhabit with them. Whether they reach high into the sky in verdant forests or sit low hugging windswept sand dunes or cliff sides, I associate trees in all their varieties with Life itself.
This is not something unique to me, of course. Many of the great religious traditions around the world have used the image of a tree as the symbol for the creative power contained in all of life. In the Jewish creation story found in the Biblical book of Genesis we hear about the primordial “tree of life” standing in the center of God's created order, along with the seductive tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Buddhism tells of the Bod-hi tree under which the Buddha gained divine wisdom for enlightened living. The Christian tradition has often talked about the cross of Jesus as a life-giving tree reflective of God's love and grace. Hinduism speaks of the eternal banyan tree while Islam imagines the tree of immortality. The image of a tree of life has often been used to evoke an awareness of the divine that stands beyond our human existence and that continues to shape all of life through the ages.
The Tree of Life is also the name given to an award winning 2011 movie that was filmed around Texas in places like Waco, Bastrop, Smithville, and Dallas. At one level, the movie tells the story of a family history punctuated with moments of grace and tragedy. At a deeper level, the experiences of the characters in this family reflect the mysterious, yet profound movement of a power at work within the contours of life itself. The emotional power of this movie is found in the ancient Jobian question of why the Creator of Life allows suffering and death to occur in the midst of joys of life. With almost religious insight the director of this film juxtaposes the lives of his characters as an interplay between the cosmic forces of nature- often played out in the survival of the fittest- and the forces of grace- the cherishing of life for its own sake. The movie ends by suggesting that we must take a long, wide view of Creation to appreciate how nature and grace are central to life itself.
Interestingly enough, there is also a scientific initiative called The Tree of Life Web Project that represents the collaborative effort of biologists and nature enthusiasts from around the world. Using more than 10,000 World Wide Web pages, the project provides information about biodiversity, the characteristics of different groups of organisms, and their evolutionary history. So, this rationally symbolic image of the Tree of Life reminds us too of the interdependence of all life forms and the importance of valuing all the types of life that make up our world. This perspective about the Tree of Life serves to enlarge our more parochial human notions that our particular “family tree” is the best indicator of you we really are.
As we move through the 21st Century we have these two metaphors about The Tree of Life – one found in the ancient religious symbols of the creative power shared by all life forms and the other captured in the scientific understanding of the interdependence and connectivity of human life to every other form of life. In many ways these two metaphors about Life compliment, rather than compete with each other. We should hope that our human species will come to appreciate one day in the not too distant future that we all are standing under this cosmic Tree of Life that unites us with the rest of a sacred creation.
- Lou Snead