[This post begins a series of explorations of nine themes that can serve as sources of ritual and common ground for Druids and Christians. I’m setting forth on such a series for two reasons. First, reader interest spiked, with visitors from over a dozen countries in the 24 hours after “Jesus and Druidry, Part 3” was posted. Second, I include myself among the interested.
The great majority of us have Christian friends, relatives or co-workers. Also, many of us know Biblical stories and images, and count them as part of our “wisdom-store”. Some of us have also experienced the more toxic forms of institutional religion but nonetheless have managed to hold on to a love for the Light in its Christian garb.]
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“Image is more transformational than doctrine”.
As I started to draft a list of Druid-Christian themes, that message came through sharply. How to make generous use of imagery in helping to energize the transformations Druidry — and Christianity — can provide? John Muir writes, “The power of imagination makes us infinite”. I’d amend that: the potential in the wise use of imagination can reveal our limitlessness. Not as snappy, but more accurate, for me.
First on my list of image-themes is “trees”. As a primary Druid focus, trees also link to Christianity. One obvious example appears in the book of Genesis with its two trees in Eden, the tree of knowledge* and the tree of life. If Druids are tree-knowers and seekers of tree-wisdom, these two trees have something to teach.
arbor scientiae — tree of knowledge
One year as I read Genesis with my high school students in freshman English, a student quipped that the real problem was one of sequence. Adam and Eve simply ate from the wrong tree first. “What are we supposed to take away from this? Go for immortality, then knowledge!” (The other order may leave you wise but dead.)
Wit can take you surprisingly far at times. Perhaps the serpent as well was mistaken in the advice he gave. Why no mention of the other tree? Was immortality in fact already an option at that point? After all, God never banned that second tree. Or did we need it, even then? Was that an early mystery? Isn’t life inherent in all we are and experience? We’ve all sensed the undying in us, even as the physical body faces all the many challenges that will one day wear it out, even as our beloved Druid trees must eventually fall.
We can also see in the two trees a kind of psychic split, perhaps — a split in us, in our consciousness. But together the two name a wholeness that Druidry and other traditions point us towards. The cycle of birth and death reveals an underlying energy or vitality — the thing that makes worlds possible, that greens (and reddens) them with life, with chlorophyll and hemoglobin. “From the One come Two; from the Two, Three; from the Three, the Ten Thousand Things”, says the Tao Te Ching.
A persistent Christian legend has it that the wood for the cross of the Crucifixion originates from the Tree of Knowledge, or in some variants of the story, from a tree that grew from seed that Adam’s third son Seth planted in his father’s corpse. A full circle of ritual story here, or better, a spiral: it’s a tree that stands at the center of the Christian drama. Literally, wood serving as the stage for the unfolding of the human experience of the loss of innocence that comes with maturation, and the return, for those willing to make the effort to learn and grow and change.
The fruit of the tree of knowledge is, after all, desirable, because it holds the power “to make one wise”, as the serpent tells Eve. Life (the Hebrew meaning of Eve) tells us as much.
Why not then a Druidic-Christian “Mass of the Holy Trees”?
“Tree and leaf, breath and fruit, wisdom and life — all these come from you …”
Bring branches and leaves, images of both cross and spiral, Brighid’s cross serving well for a combination of these. A cross — the quartered world of directions and physical energies, the elements, the cycle of death and life. Spiral — an image of eternity, of rebirth and continuity, the cycle continuing.
But wait … there’s more.
The book of Revelation gives us the image of heaven or eternity in the holy city, foursquare (four again!) and whole. And through it runs
… a river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the middle of the main street of the city. On either side of the river stood a tree of life, producing twelve kinds of fruit and yielding a fresh crop for each month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:1-2).
“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”: the tree of knowledge has merged with the tree of life — or rather there is no difference between them. All the healing we have sought in knowledge now issues from a double(d) tree — one on “both sides” of the river. And it is fruitful in every month, a cornucopia, a message that each month has its life and healing energy, freely given, whatever the apparent season. In the middle of a city, a human and humanly-shaped place, grows life in its most potent imaginal form as Tree, the world-tree, a worldwide image and cluster of stories.
Here are powerful images to unite Christian and Druid observance and practice. A second Druid-Christian theme is up next.
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Images: tree of life; Brighid’s cross tattoo; tree of knowledge.
*Tree of Knowledge: the illustration comes from Ramon Llull’s Arbre de Ciencia or Tree of Knowledge. Llull, aka Raymond Lully (1232-1315), was a renowned medieval writer and thinker, who studied both Latin and Arabic science and mathematics.
In Tolkien’s legendarium, his two trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, are silver and gold, both fruit-bearing, and the originals of the moon and sun.
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Either-or? How about both-and?
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The jury’s just heard the last of the testimony. The voices of the four defendants — two humans, one animal, one deity — still seem to echo in the paneled courtroom.
The DA rises slowly from his chair and approaches the jury to give them their charge before sending them off to deliberate. As he stands before them, he leans forward a little, resting his hands on the railing at the front of the jury box. At such close range, they can see shadows under his eyes. His suit is rumpled, and the once-crisp blue tie is stained and hangs loosely knotted. His trim physique looks pale, and his eyes rather glassy behind the heavy metal-framed glasses he has worn each day as this case goes forward. He speaks:
OK, folks. You’ve heard everyone involved tell their side. The facts are clear: God plants a garden in Eden, puts the man there, makes all kinds of trees grow out of the ground, good to look at and good for food. In the middle of that garden stand two trees. Let me refresh your memories here: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The DA pauses and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He looks around slowly, catching many eyes. Then he resumes his summary.
God tells the man, “You’re free to eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When you eat from it, you will die.” Note that God doesn’t say “if” but “when.”
God realizes it’s not good for the man to live alone, and after a dry run with animal companions who just don’t fit the bill, he puts the man to sleep, and from him makes a woman.
The serpent says to the woman — and everyone agrees on his words — “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman answers, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” It’s here that confusion enters the record. Does Eve know which of the two trees to avoid? Or has this all-important distinction already been lost?
I know we’ve arrived at the appearance of “he said-she said,” but it’s important to note everyone still agrees what was said.
“You certainly won’t die,” the serpent says to the woman. “God knows when you eat your eyes will be opened, and you’ll be like God, knowing good and evil.” Again, “when,” not “if.” Up to this point everyone agrees on what was said.
Now the serpent claims he tried to get Eve’s attention at this point, before she moved from her spot in the middle of the Garden, staring at the Trees of Knowledge and Life, and took that famous fruity bite. His words don’t appear in any of our official transcripts, and here’s the first disagreement. But I repeat his testimony here:
“Hey, Eve. Eve! EVE! A piece of advice. Eat from the Tree of Life FIRST! The tree of LIFE!”
Again the DA pauses, rubbing his eyes and cleaning his glasses, which he prefers over contacts. This time he takes so long that the judge is just about to admonish him, when he suddenly resumes, as if startled out of a dream.
When Eve sees the fruit of the tree is good for food and good to look at, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she takes some and eats it. My next question to you is this: how does she know these things before she eats?
Folks, to make short work of the rest of the story, which again nobody contests, God finds them. There’s an ugly episode of shirking responsibility and buck-passing to the serpent who can’t blame anybody else (though you might look again at God).
God curses the three of them, serpent, Adam and Eve. And this is my final observation to you. In spite of what we’ve heard today, neither Adam nor Eve dies for many more centuries.
Consider these things carefully, and you can only arrive at one verdict. All right, ladies and gentlemen. You’re dismissed.
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But what is the verdict? Is there, can there be really only one, in spite of how we often interpret the story? A better question or at least a more Druidic one: what’s the range of possibilities?
My apologies to those of you who know this story well. I taught it in high school for a decade and a half in a “Bible as Literature” unit, and we looked at characterization, at gender, at issues of truth and specificity, and the implications of distinctions like if and when, and what the story may subversively teach below and around and in spite of what we’re traditionally told it teaches. (A small detail: as many of you also know, there’s no apple anywhere to be found.) And we looked at over-reading the story, too, which teachers are infamous for doing, and which I do here.
I’ve also manipulated the story, and added to it, for my purposes. The “if/when” distinction, however, does appear in the New International Version, which comes in for its share of criticism for instances like this, and many others.
Student atheists in my class often didn’t know the story, Jews and Christians who actually did know it (and not all did as well as they thought they did) expressed often widely disparate views on what the takeaway is or could be. It’s safe to say all our eyes were opened. If we left some discussions feeling uncomfortable, it was a useful discomfort.
Among the reasons I like this story as a Druid is that trees are mediators of such potent energies as wisdom, moral law, and life. And as the song “The Wisdom of Trees” says, “Church bells ring, and I’m glad they do, but …”
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Let’s refuse to choose between wisdom and life. Like Thérèse of Lisieux, when presented with a choice, will I say “I choose all”?