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Pagans and Christians, Siblings in Creation

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Pagans and Christians, Siblings in Creation

By Walter Hesford

“Scratch a Judeo-Christian and you will find a Pagan,” writes novelist Ishmael Reed in “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972), his satire exposing the façade of monotheism and critiquing the oppressive monocultures it sponsors.

Paganism and Christianity are defined in opposition. Pagans have been perceived as uncivilized people in need of conversion to the one true faith. Historians, however, have long recognized that Christianity contains within it many Pagan elements. One need not look any further than Christmas and Easter celebrations to see syncretism.

Judaism may have claim to more purity. Hebrew prophets rail against fertility cults and the worship of nature deities. Psalm 121 reminds us though we may lift up our eyes to the hills, our help comes not from them, but from the Lord who created heaven and earth. We are admonished to worship the Creator, not creation.

Yet we do lift up our eyes to the hills, the trees, the hawks, the stars. How can we keep from doing so? Genesis 1 celebrates the goodness of creation; it seems wise for us to do so as well. In Proverbs, wisdom tells us that she was with the Lord from the outset as creation’s master worker (8.30). She is “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her” (3.18).

Recent books insist that trees have the life-giving wisdom to sustain themselves, and also us, if we have ears to hear.  Richard Powers’ The Overstory” (2018) and Suzanne Simard’s “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest” (2021) are especially eloquent calls to open our ears.

“The Overstory” unfolds two over-stories: the canopy provided by trees throughout earth’s time and space; the story of civilizations’ destruction of forests, beginning with Gilgemesh and continuing on through current clear-cutting practices. Its protagonists (along with the trees) are those who try to save forests from the chain-saw. Their efforts are unsuccessful, but not meaningless. The last section of the novel, “Seeds,” affirms the value of their work and the survival abilities of trees. One of the epigraphs for this section comes from Julian of Norwich: “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of the hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed….  I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, “What may this be?” And it was answered generally thus ‘It is all that is made.’” The nut of a tree reveals to Julian, and to Powers’ readers, the mystical/physical truth that all of creation is interconnected and glorious.

Book jacket of “The Overstory”

Since  several of those who have fought to preserve the glory of trees despair over their seeming failure, an activist artist  takes and sends a video of a poem he has shaped out of fallen leaves: “For there is hope of a tree, if it / goes down, that it will sprout again, / and that its tender branches will not cease. / Though the roots grow old in the earth, / and the stock dies in the ground, at the scent / of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs. / But a man, man wastes away and dies / and gives up the ghost, and where is he?’ Bible readers will recognize this as a version of Job’s lament in the Book of Job 14.7-10. What Job laments, the artist celebrates: the mortality of man in contrast with the tree’s life cycle which ensures it will be keep springing forth.  The hope of a tree is, “The Overstory” suggests, our hope.

Professor of Forest Ecology Suzanne Simard provides scientific grounding for this hope, which can be realized if we listen to the forest’s wisdom, allow  mother trees to nurture in life and death all of their children. Coming from a logging family and having helped logging companies plot out large clear cuts, Simard knows we often close our ears to this wisdom in order to make more money more quickly. After years of research she proves that trees are interconnected through fungal threads; it is in the long term interest of the forest industry to recognize the value of tree communities. Simard also challenges the view that paper birch, considered a trash tree, interferes with the growth of the highly prized Douglas fir, and so should be cut down. In fact, she proves, the birch and fir nurture each other.  There is wisdom in this for us.

Toward the end of both The Overstory” and “Finding the Mother Tree”, the wisdom of Aboriginal peoples is acknowledged. Since time immemorial these people, these “pagans,” have known that they need to listen to and honor the trees and all their other creaturely relatives. Can Christians have the humility to listen in and join this endeavor? If diversity is essential for our ecosystem, it also is for us. Pagans and Christians are, after all, siblings in creation.  

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About Walter Hesford

Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho he taught American Literature, World Literature, and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.

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