A Brief Case for the Tree to Replace the Cross as our Symbol of Christian Spirituality
By Cameron Miller
Trees are a better symbol for Christianity than a cross. The tree holds both ends of Jesus’ life, the rough wood of the manger and the painful planks of the cross. In between, it also is a symbol of life itself — the gift of God and all that holds meaning and hope.
The life cycle of a tree is the incarnation of resurrection, which is the core physical property of the Cosmos. From the first law of thermodynamics we understand that energy can be transformed from one form to another, but can be neither created nor destroyed. A tree comes into being when its seed case disintegrates within a soil layer likely made up of other parts of the tree having died and been naturally mulched by the seasons. In other words, a tree grows upon the death of its ancestors and when it dies, its hulking body likewise slowly disintegrates and provides food and substance for new generations of plants and trees.
Trees offer an apt symbol for the interdependence upon which life in the Cosmos also depends. An ecosystem is a matrix: intimately intertwined biological relationships that humans often mistakenly view as individual elements. In a natural ecosystem the parts cannot exist without one another. We see the water in a pond, for example, as if it were free-standing and disconnected from what is happening deep in the silt and clay of its bottom, or in the layers of humus on its banks, and we imagine the trees and plants at its edge are another category entirely. Yet all of those elements, along with countless others unseen and unknown, are desperately comingled for health. Take away something, poison something else, clear cut the trees and soon there will be no pond. Indeed, if we are stuck with the Trinity as a theological concept for God, it is only truly recoverable in the 21st century if seen as a holy ecosystem, each revelation of the divine an indivisible whole.
But back to the tree. The cross reduces the meaning and purpose of Jesus to a single moment and mission. We have historical understanding of how this came to be but in the 21st century, as it has all along, such a singular interpretation distorts Christianity and Jesus. The tree offers the possibility of a far more comprehensive understanding of both prophet and religion, as living life and living it more abundantly.
The cross is as if we have an electric chair or syringe holding a lethal injection as our primary symbol. Yes, Jesus was executed by the state as an insurrectionist, and yes, Jesus did not flinch in the face of the evil of his sentence, but should that be the primary narrative of Christian spirituality or Jesus’ life? No. Just as no one should not have their life judged solely on the basis of his or her worst act, neither is it singularly held by the most heroic moment. Every one of us is far more complicated and nuanced than a single action, and it is the accumulation of our many decisions over time that begins to describe our lives.
Hopefully we have already begun separation from the ruinous Abraham-Isaac mythology that God planned Jesus’ torture and execution so that some pathetic soul like myself, two-thousand years later, would be forgiven for living the privileged lifestyle of the white, American, middle-class. Such a father-son, divine-human drama is not only absurd in our present world, if true, it represents a horrifically abusive God that most of us would not recognize or accept. All of that is nailed into the wood of the cross with Jesus.
We can de-construct the crucifixion away from the Abraham-Isaac cycle and re-construct it to focus on our actions in the story rather than presume we know God’s activity and intention. We appear everywhere in the Passion narrative: Pilate, the clergy, the crowd, Jesus’ colleagues and associates, an even more aptly, ordinary Romans citizens benefiting from and blissfully ignorant of what the Legions do far from home on their behalf. The cross, a weapon of state terror, is an example of what human beings do when confronted with someone that tries to mess with our power and control, and wants to re-orient the gifts of God’s creation toward more equitable distribution. Somehow, we have to surgically remove the cross from the heart of Christian theology and reattach it as a strong limb of the tree.
When we see the image of a tree, a giant sycamore or beech perhaps, we see vitality, sense healing, become curious about its mysteries. We know it is rooted to the earth and can only imagine the size and extent of its gnarly fingers tunneling down and out. We understand that somehow those quavering leaves drink sunshine and transfigure it into sugar. We may even know that high up in the cradle of its branches is a soil layer where other things grow, and where animals nest, hunt, and rest. We rest in its shade, seek protection from it in a storm, drink tea from its roots, carve love messages into its bark, and even build shelter to sustain us from its wood. The symbols and metaphors for abundant life nascent in a tree are nearly endless. The cross is blunt and singular in its meaning.
Why in the world, you might ask, would I want to bicker with such a sacred cow? Because the renewal of Christian theology for those living fully in the 21st century, begins with the contextualization of the cross. It is an element of our wisdom not the primary symbol of it.
Christian wisdom is still needed and well-suited for our century and the rapidly changing cultures we inhabit, but not if it remains shrink wrapped in orthodoxy. To make a home here, we must change how we think, talk, and imagine Christianity. To put it in the crass terms of our marketing culture, a new emblem for a renewed branding is necessary to carry forward our age-old religion. I propose the tree.
Cameron Miller is a writer and preacher exploring the sacred hiding in plain sight. That theme is embedded in his fiction and poetry, along with essays published weekly in a newspaper column, Denim Spirit (Finger Lakes Times — New York). His website is devoted to navigating ordinary spiritual practice: www.subversivepreacher.org. With two novels in print, Thoughtwall Café: Espresso in the Third Season of Life (Unsolicited Press, 2018) and The Steam Room Diaries (DAOwen Press, 2015), Cairn, a collection of poems and essays is soon to be released (Unsolicited Press, July 22, 2020).