After our discussions about postmodernism and cultural relativism, I’ve been thinking about the roots of faith, both my own and in general. What I am discovering is that personally, a few core beliefs form the roots of my current spirituality tree, the trunk of which is simply love my neighbor.
Over the decades I have also pruned many ideas to make space for new growth. That’s a pretty natural part of any spiritual journey, I think, but it’s occurred to me that postmodern faith is like a spirituality tree.
Subjectively (see what I did there?), trees are one of the coolest lifeforms in the universe. From a tiny seed, these majestic beings spend their very long lives constantly embracing the sky. Yet, the boughs of leaves we see outstretched to a welcoming firmament only exist because of the root structure mostly hidden underground.
Without a secured root system, the tree might wither and die. At the very least, an insufficient root system will stunt the tree’s growth, because roots not only anchor a tree, they also provide its nourishment.
The Bible is filled with imagery about deep-seated roots. Root imagery in the bible is about the type of foundation on which we build a faith solid enough to endure a hurricane, yet flexible enough to withstand an Earthquake. It’s about finding an absolute anchor in God, even as the specifics of “Believing in” God might (should) change over the course of our lifetime.
Here’s Jeremiah’s poetic description about keeping our faith rooted in God:
Jeremiah 17.5-8 (FromThe Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter)
This said the Lord:
Cursed be the man who trusts in humans,
and makes mortal flesh his strong arm.
And he shall be like an arid shrub in the desert,
And he shall not see when good things come.
And he shall dwell in scorched places in the wilderness,
A barren land that cannot be settled.
Blessed be the man who trusts in the Lord,
And the Lord becomes his trust.
And he shall be like a tree planted by waters,
And by a stream it sends forth its roots,
And it shall not see when the heat wave comes,
And it’s leaves shall be lush,
And in drought year it shall have no care
And never cease from yielding fruit.
Jeremiah proclaims that we should stay rooted in God because God has never and will never let us down. In fact, our sense of firm faithfulness, our commitment to God, comes from that knowledge. This sense of commitment—especially God’s unwavering, loyal commitment to us, is the spiritual root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Here’s another example, Psalm 80.8-9 (CEB):
You brought a vine out of Egypt.
You drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
then it planted its roots deep,
filling the land.
Psalm 80 is a communal prayer, written during a catastrophic time for the Jewish people (there is debate about just what the catastrophe was). The prayer serves as a reminder of God’s enduring commitment to God’s people, and of the people’s unwavering love for God.
From Egypt, to Babylon and beyond, the Jewish people always remained faithful to God, and time and again, their faith cleared a path for God’s beloved people, whose faith roots are among our most ancient. This unwavering love for one another is of the roots of Judaism. We are to love each other as God loves us: without question and with unwavering support.
The sentiment is also reflected in Buddhism, and I share it with you because I find it helpful to study the intersection of all the world’s magnificent faith traditions. I especially think there is cosmic truth in the common threads that weave throughout Buddhism and Christianity.
From the Dhammapada 23.333(Translated from Pali by F. Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the East, Volume X Part 1)
Pleasant is virtue lasting to old age, pleasant is a faith firmly
rooted; pleasant is attainment of intelligence, pleasant is avoiding
This is one of the things I love most about Buddhism. Its structure isn’t about heaven or hell, but rather it's about an inner peace that leads to compassionate action in the world. This peace leads to the awareness of the interconnectedness of all being. This often creates a more holistic approach to being in the world.
I believe Jesus appreciated Buddha’s sentiment and preaches a similar ideal: If you act a certain way, life will be pleasant for everyone involved! It sounds glib, like just make happy happy joy joy and wish the world’s problems away. But think about the things Buddha and Jesus ask of their followers: Be firm in your faith! Be intelligent! Be compassionate! Care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant. Those actions result in a peaceful world. If we live a transcended life in Nirvana, don’t we naturally become the people who create Jesus’ reality of heaven on earth?
Of course, everything is not pleasant. Even the idea that our faith is to be firmly rooted is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a strong faith foundation provides comfort and hope in the worst possible circumstances. On the other hand, a too-rigid faith structure prevents new growth. We often become too comfortable with one variety of spiritual fruit, so we quit feeding ourselves anything different, especially something we may not like.
I believe that our spiritual roots should hold us firm, especially in times of trouble. But, we must also regularly prune the tree and make room for the sprouting of new ideas and experiences. Culture and language change drastically over time. The practices and words we use to experience Oneness with God must necessarily evolve with our understanding of the universe.
Our spiritual ancestors in the Bible didn’t have access to the scientific language and imagery we take for granted today, and that for many of us is intensely spiritual. They couldn’t look at a picture from the Hubble Space Telescope and be brought to their knees by the sheer majesty and beauty of an infinitely expanding universe. When I look at the billions of realities piercing the inky black light wonderland that is the cosmos it’s as if I am looking directly into the heart of God.
Science helps me approach the cosmic wonder of the Bible with language that is finally truly cosmic. All sorts of scientific language forms the trunk of my spiritual tree now. Science, not the Bible, is how I came to process theology, the idea of God as the Conscious Universe—all of it in constant motion, in process, and everything in every reality all the being of a God fully aware of what’s going on. If our ideas about faith are too rigid, we might miss the nuanced new ways God reveals its being.
Okay, one more tree analogy (actually, a simile this time): Ultimately, I strive for a spiritual life that looks like the rings on a tree: layer upon layer of new experiences, new cosmic knowledge, new understandings of the astounding way in which God is part of the fabric of my being—of your being, of all being, a discovery that still sends shivers down my spine when I think about the magnitude of it.
Each of us is a spirituality tree in a complexly entangled web of other spirituality trees, all branches of God, our anchor and cultivator.