“For in the nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.” – Martin Luther
As you tread beneath canopies of the forest allow your ever restless spirit to take solace for once. Pause amidst the apparent silence to listen. Slow your breath until your own heart matches the rhythms surrounding you. Perhaps this respite will remind you that the most essential lungs for life are not possessed only by humans but also by the trees. For in the heart of the woods throb lungs that give life to all things upon the earth.
There is a certain hesitancy within some Christian circles about broaching the subject of the environment. Environmentalism is so very often perceived as a political or even a spiritual philosophy. To be frank, this perception is not entirely unwarranted and suspicion is no doubt understandable. Some of the more moderate sentiments, which can range from genuine caution, to a healthy dose of skepticism, are both wise and well-meaning and we would do well to take note of these perspectives. When it comes to how we as followers of Jesus theologize about nature and caring for creation, I think it’s important to steer clear of pantheism and the like. Creation is neither God nor a substitute for God.
At the same time, it’s important to circumvent tendencies and ideologies that devalue the natural world. There is no fundamental contradiction between care for creation and Christian praxis. In fact our doctrine of creation (and the environmental responsibility revealed in the creation narrative) should flow directly from Genesis, where the stewardship of humanity over the earth is described in Gen 2:15:
“The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it” (NLT).
Here humanity is tasked with the responsibility to “watch over” or “guard” Eden (the root Hebrew verb here being shamar). This is paired with the root verb abad which describes a kind of work or service. This work has long been understood as stewardship or “tending.” These duties are pre-fall, mind you, and thus carry significant weight as universal ideals (Longman, 49). Unfortunately, various theologians and biblical translations (such as the KJV) have over-emphasized the subjugation of and dominion over creation through the decision to translate the qal imperfect from the root verb radah in Gen 1:26 as “dominion” rather than “rule” or “reign” over creation and all within it. On the other hand, we often overlook God’s declaration of the inherent goodness of creation at its completion (Gen 1:31).
One can also find a steady stream of positivistic creation theology in church tradition which pairs rulership over creation with guarding and stewarding creation. The basic affirmation by the early church patriarchs of the goodness of matter over-against gnosticism is a good starting point (Van Dyke 72-77). Origen’s apocatastasis would contend for the redemption of all things on earth and in the cosmos. Certainly the restoration of creation is prophesied throughout both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. The notion of creation’s inherent goodness was a theological bent found in the works of those such as Thomas Aquinas as well and we would be remiss to exclude any mention of Francis of Assisi, whose love of nature and all living things is well known. These are but a few examples from the Christian tradition.
In contemporary theological discourse, the term “creation care” has been proposed by Christian thinkers as a way to reference the branch of theology concerned with the human relationship to nature, the world and everything within it. There is wide agreement among theologians that humanity has been given the privilege and responsibility of benefiting from and wisely stewarding creation. This foundational axiom assumes that humans do have a unique role in God’s purposes for the earth and perhaps even the cosmos (Longman 56-57).
And while this is an unequivocal mandate for all humanity, the ways in which we each image God in our stewardship and caretaking will inevitably vary from person to person in part due to our own callings and giftings. God writes differing burdens and passions upon our hearts. Some people may be drawn towards care for the waters of the earth and their cleansing. Others may be drawn towards care for the air we breathe and its purification. Still others may be drawn to cultivate and study the soil beneath our feet and the roots and rocks that dwell down below us all. And many, like myself, my find their love of creation manifest in wondrous appreciation for all green things that grow and change with the seasons, trees in particular.
We often forget about the towering (and not so towering) leafy companions all around us. This is especially common in places where green is all around us and we become accustomed to their presence. But when the summer rains bring out the deep green of the leaves and the autumn days give us palettes of orange and yellow, we are reminded of our quiet, verdant neighbors.
Trees truly are remarkable. Constant in their predictable cycles, steady in their thirst and yet generous in imparting gifts to their earthly family. Giving shade from the blistering heat of the sun and refuge to creatures of all sorts. And generous, most of all, in their essential role in the provision and replenishment of the air that all living things breathe.
The lifegiving task of the tree is perhaps unwittingly suggested or symbolized in the Genesis creation account with the introduction of the Tree of Life in Gen 2:9 (וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים בְּתֹוךְ הַגָּן). The placement of this tree “in the midst” or “the middle” of the Garden also seems significant, although there is some disagreement as to how to take the Hebrew here. In any case, I don’t think it is a coincidence that one of the trees in the Genesis creation account is tethered to life (chay in Hebrew). Regardless of whether or not we take the placement of this tree at the center or in the midst of the garden literalistically, the symbolism remains poignant nonetheless. What we do know is that prominence is given to the Tree of life at this point in the narrative. Regarding the interpretation of the two trees in Genesis, Victus explains that, “There are fascinating and endless explorations on this theme which have been done by scholars” (Victus, 142). However, for our purposes we will focus in on the relationship between God, life and the trees, which expands beyond the thematic features found in Genesis to the entirety of the biblical metanarrative.
Scientific research has demonstrated that the forests of the world function as the lungs of this planet. To a large extent the fate of the world’s atmosphere and the diverse ecosystems hinge upon the wellbeing and continuity of our forests. The United Nations Chronicle stated the following almost thirty years ago; “Forests are the lungs of the planet, “inhaling” polluting carbon from the air and “exhaling” life-giving oxygen. Forest covers protect soils, stabilize local climates and provide irreplaceable homes for the wildly rich and diverse flora and fauna of the world” (“Forests: The Lungs of Our Planet”).
There are many stories, both real and legendary, of humanity’s potential to steward and grow the forests of the earth. Think of Johnny Appleseed, who was not as some may think a fictional character, or any number of the great conservationists whose tireless work for the environment has preserved what may have otherwise been lost or logged. Many praiseworthy efforts exist and new stories will continue to emerge as the growing tide of environmentalism seeks to restore and replant our forests. Unfortunately, we have the rather negative legacy of our past and present to deal with. And that is that every civilization since antiquity has made use of the world’s forests, whether for economic prosperity, for comfort and luxury or for war, weaponry and industry. Consider the following:
“For eons, the Earth’s forests were considered to be a limitless resource. But deforestation in this century has reached crisis proportions: in the last 20 years, human activity has resulted in the loss of as much forest cover as was previously cleared in all of history. Some 10,000 years ago, before man cultivated land, a luxurious, virgin cloak of forest and woodland covered 6.2 billion hectares of the planet. In contrast, forests now cover just over 3.6 billion hectares–less than a third of the total ice-free land area of today’s world” (“Forests: The Lungs of Our Planet”).
We have undoubtedly crossed many thresholds as a species, but not all of them have been ones to take pride in. These statistics are dire indeed and denialism or escapism will not solve our problems. On many accounts, humanity has reached various tipping points and the ecological ones are most pressing for they threaten the stability and longevity of our existence (Moo & White 71-73). While I would caution against the doomsday rhetoric used by politicians and the media, it is important that we acknowledge the severity of current global circumstances. As Christians, it is true that we do have the eschatological promise of a new creation and the hope in a God who ultimately holds the cosmos. However, this does not absolve us of the Genesis imperative to steward and guard creation. If anything, we should be encouraged and pushed onwards by the hope that all things will be made new (Rev 21:5). If anything, we must partner with God in this process, even if failure seems inevitable. We must also recognize that the vision of the new creation outlined in the Bible is not one in some far off mystical place in the clouds, but of a restored earth, of physicality and matter. For, “The vision of the future held out to God’s people in the Old Testament is earthly, material and this-worldly” (Moo & White 98).
Therefore I suggest that our eschatology and ecclesiology expand beyond concern for individual well-being and salvation. For while important, the individual being is always a part of the collective and humanity is only a piece of our collective biosphere. But, when reminded of the Genesis imperative, it wouldn’t be haughty for humanity to embrace our unique role and yes, even responsibility to the environment. Still, one might wonder how trees have anything to do with theology, the gospel or scripture. A fair question indeed. However, as I pointed out earlier, trees are one of a number of prominent biblical metaphors and their imagery is used throughout the biblical narrative, explicitly as we covered and more subtly in other places. Commentators have picked up on linguistic and thematic echos connecting the Jewish temple back to the garden of Eden. In the Hebrew language, the roles prescribed to humanity in the garden and to the priesthood of the temple later are also remarkably similar (Gregory K. Beale 7-8). Furthermore, we find implicit associations between trees (or ets in Hebrew) and the various iterations of the temple. One scholar elaborates on the link between ets and the divine, “God reveals Himself [sic] in connection with trees and wood frequently in the Bible, because the Tabernacle and the Temple, made of wood, are themselves arborescent theophanies” (James B. Jordan).
Trees bookend the Christian biblical canon, appearing in Genesis and in Revelation. Strikingly, the Tree of Life (or perhaps more than one tree of life) reappears in Revelation 22 in the New Jerusalem. Here, John the Revelator leaves us with an evocative image in which the leaves from the Tree (or trees) of Life will be used for the healing of the nations. If we follow a universalist interpretation of “nations,” which various exegetes have proposed is legitimate, there is then a seemingly universal or cosmic dimension to this healing, in that humanity and by extension, creation, is restored by leaves from the Tree of Life (J. Wilfrid Harrington for example). Metaphorical or not, the imagery is powerful and gives us yet another reason to consider further the significance of trees for Christian theology.
What I suggest and have been developing here is the formulation and confession of a “theology of forestry.” The Christian tradition has instituted numerous subcategories of theology over its two millennia history, many related directly to doctrinal and dogmatic issues, others branching off from some of scriptures more minor themes. This is hardly a novel idea of course, underdeveloped perhaps, but not unheard of, particularly when placed under “creation care” and what I’ve been calling the Genesis imperative.
A theology of forestry carries two primary functions for our purposes. First, it reminds us of our responsibilities to the environment. In light of our imago Dei nature we can affirm that creation is the province of God and humanity. In the ancient near east, carved “idols” were considered “images of” the gods they worshipped. Following the crafting of these idols came a ritualized “mouth washing” ceremony where the spirit of the representative god came to dwell in the particular idol. The idol was subsequently placed in a human-made temple. In the Genesis creation story, however, God makes his own temple, Eden (or earth/creation), as well as his own idol/image, Adam. He breathes his spirit into Adam’s mouth and then places him in the Eden-temple as his image. This narrative makes Earth a place to be respected and dwelt-in as the sanctuary of God. With these considerations in mind, the stark theological reversals in Genesis are quite profound.
Stewardship is a role humanity has been tasked with and thus the forests are under our care, much like sheep to a shepherd. And so theological reflection on trees will remind us of these responsibilities, hopefully spurring us toward greater practice and discipline in areas the Holy Spirit may be guiding us into. We will begin to realize that trees are a gift from God. Secondly, a theology of forestry reminds us of the symbolic and spiritual testimony trees provide for humanity. Much like other symbols of the Christian faith they function as literary representations of a greater truth. But like the historical and corporeal reality of the cross, trees are existent in our midst and physically remind us of God’s life-giving nature both in actuality and in symbology.
There is something deeply emotive about forest imagery. Something that resonates with us. There is a sense in which the tree is both archetypical and sacred. Unsurprisingly we find that trees are deeply imbedded in our mythos and folklore. In Norse mythology, the “world tree” (Yggdrasil), which upholds the entire world, is a prime example. Judaism and Christianity notwithstanding, one will find that trees play various roles in many other religions too. But their role expands beyond the realms of spiritual and religious. Forests and mythological trees appear regularly in our fairy tales and fantasies, often as expressions of mystery, discovery, vastness, darkness, danger and a number of other themes. I’m reminded of Grandmother Willow (the Willow Tree) in Pocahontas or the “heart trees” in A Song of Ice and Fire. J.R.R. Tolkien’s love of trees is evident in the Silmarillion, where the Two Trees of Valinor feature in the cosmological background of Arda. And Tolkien’s Ents, living, walking trees, provide refuge for the Hobbits. The forest gives seclusion and protection to Robin Hood and his band of outlaws. Across the pages of literature, it is often into the forests that protagonists venture as part of quests that challenge and change them. And even throughout history hermits have entered the woods to experience solitude, silence and unity with God, themselves and creation.
Forests are vibrant ecosystems teeming with interdependent living organisms, largely made possible by the shelter and shade that a community of trees is able to offer. And groves of trees often function themselves as an interdependent ecosystem. Giant redwood trees have root systems that span outwardly rather than downward where the roots then intertwine and bond with each other, forming a vast root network through which water and nutrients can be shared. Similarly, what appears above ground to be numerous individual trees in an aspen grove is in fact one single living organism, in which the same DNA is shared by each particular tree. Creation, like the aspen grove and like humanity is deeply interconnected. The spiritual and the physical intertwine in ways we can’t even begin to understand. This intermingling of the holy and the earthly is not as some believe, a pagan relic attempting to infiltrate Christianity, but a manifestation of God’s creative energies described in both the Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem. Just as the Good Shepherd tends to his flock, let us, like Tolkien’s ents, be shepherds of the forest and in doing so, bring a little more beauty and restoration to God’s creation. That, my friends, is a theology of forestry.
I leave you to mull upon the words of the prophet Ezekiel:
“Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest” (ESV, Ezekiel 17:22-23).
Beale, Gregory K. “Eden, The Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” Journal of the Evangelical Society 48, no. 1 (March 2005): 5-31.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. In “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.” Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1982.
“Forests: The Lungs of Our Planet.” United Nations Chronicle Vol. 29, no. 2 (June 1992): 54.
Harrington, J. Wilfrid. “Positive Eschaton Only: Revelation and Universal Salvation.” Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 15 (1992): 42-59.
Jordan, James B. Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999.
Lennox, John C. Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
Longman III, Tremper. Genesis. In “The Story of God: Bible Commentary.” Edited by Tremper Longman III and Scot Mcknight. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016.
Mettinger, Tryggve N.D. The Eden Narrative: A Literary and Religio-Historical Study of Genesis 2-3.
Moo, Jonathan A. and Robert S. White. Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Silmarillion edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
Van Dyke, Fred. Between Heaven and Earth: Christian Perspectives on Environmental Protection, 1st edition. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010.
Victus, Solomon. “Trees in the Middle of the Garden: An Ecological Rereading.” Bangalore Theological Forum Vol. 44, no. 2 (December 2012): 139-148.
Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Zevit, Ziony. What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.