The Tree of Life

We have reached the end of the General Assembly of the World Student Christian Federation.  It has been a magnificent and inspiring event to attend, with really valuable contacts and discussions.  It is amazing to be part of a global network involving student organisations from almost every country that allows free Christian expression, with notable absence the USA.  I had the privilege of drafting the official WSCF public message to report on the Assembly, and look forward to sharing that when it is published. We included the image from the keynote sermon describing the WSCF as like a living forest of trees, reflecting my theme today of the tree of life.

The main negative of the assembly from my point of view was that I caught a nasty cough, thankfully not COVID, so could not participate in all sessions.  Luckily the bit I missed was mainly just a boring constitutional review. 

The great value of the WSCF is its focus on faith from the margins, including people who are excluded by their societies, or who live in places that are excluded by dominant world systems.  WSCF has a genuine and practical respect for diversity.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post, we heard directly from people who face persecution for their identity, and who find support in what our draft assembly message calls “inclusive and liberating Christian faith grounded in critical Biblical reflection.”  While this principle of inclusion naturally faces tension, such as the difficulty that marginalised Christian churches in Muslim majority countries have in affirming Western ideas on sexual inclusion, it is highly affirming and valuable as a basis for solidarity, love and hope.

For this post, I will reflect on the opening sermon at the Assembly, presented by Rev Peter Ciaccio, a Waldensian Methodist Minister from Italy, about the Tree of Life. Peter focussed on the strongly urban nature of Christian faith, and how this creates a series of tensions and dilemmas.  Modern life is not primarily agricultural.  We have jumped from Eden to the supermarket, via towns and cities.  In the Biblical myth of Genesis 4:17, the first murderer, Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, also founded the first city, named after his son Enoch, in the Land of Nod.  Peter described this story as symbolising a debate between rural and urban visions of human flourishing. 

I find this all fascinating in a broader historical sense, showing how Biblical analysis can place and deconstruct prominent cultural stories into an accurate historical framework.  In this case social pressures were produced by the emergence of agriculture, metal, writing and cities, as Bronze Age technologies that would overwhelm the ancient hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle from Palӕolithic times. 

These pressures of technological change provide context for the story of Cain and Abel.   It is telling that Cain was described in Gen 4 as a tiller of the soil, representing the settled agriculture that enabled cities and kings, while his murdered brother Abel was a herder, part of the older nomadic clan culture that was largely destroyed by the technological productivity of emerging urban civilization.

This all plays into some quite profound theological concerns that have long exercised me regarding the underlying meaning of Biblical myths.  Cities flourished because of having what Gen 4:15 calls “the mark of Cain”, which the Bible says meant anyone who killed Cain would receive sevenfold vengeance.  That is exactly how urban civilizations treated their nomadic precursors, extending into modern colonial times with the European conquerors of the rest of the world using their urban technological productivity to inflict genocidal retaliation against indigenous resistance to theft of their land. 

The Mark of Cain, according to Gen 4:14, meant Cain could no longer see God.  Cain’s power of technology came at the price of spiritual death, gaining the world but losing his soul (Mark 8:36).  That is the central story of the fall from grace into corruption.  Technological progress produced spiritual depravity.  This human defilement led also to the curse of Cain (Gen 4:10) from killing his brother, that the earth cried out against him.  My view is that this problem played out into Christendom, with alienation between spirit and nature generating a dominant church theology that thought it was totally separate from nature.

Peter Ciaccio went on in his sermon to describe the Biblical tension between rural integrity and urban immorality.  God made the garden but people made cities. King David came from the country as a shepherd but was corrupted in the city by royal power.  The prophet Amos was a herdsman called to the city. Jesus mixes elements of the stories of Adam, Moses and David with their rural origins.  Bethlehem was an insignificant village, outside urban power, unknown to Herod.  Nazareth was remote from the city of Jerusalem (indeed so remote that archaeologists have not even been able to prove it existed at the time of Christ).

The integration of these visions of the city and garden comes together in the visions of the Revelation, with Peter suggesting the city of God with its foundations of twelve jewels coming down from heaven shows God accepts us as city dwellers. The River of Life and the Tree of Life are at the centre of this symbolic holy city, and they explain what this new reconciliation involves. The Tree of Life grows on both sides of the river, unlike any real tree, and has twelve fruits, one for each month, ‘for the healing of the nations’. 

My own interpretation of this mysterious image of the Tree of Life, which I have been crying about in the wilderness for decades, is that it is an obvious symbolic metaphor for the visible heavens of the night sky as the manifestation of the glory and grandeur and order of God. The zodiac stars in their twelve monthly groups appear six on one side of the celestial river, the Milky Way, and six on the other side, in exact match to the Biblical text.  I am yet to find any Christian willing to even discuss this interpretation, which seems to reflect how deeply counter-cultural its natural theology is against the prevailing supernatural theories of God. 

Peter explained how the return of the Tree of Life at the end of the Bible completes the book as a well-structured story, a ring composition signalling closure of the narrative, after the previous appearance of the tree in Eden as the symbol of divine presence and grace from which humanity was excluded at the fall. The Tree of Life has evolved in the story from the centre of the garden to the centre of the city, reflecting human urban evolution. 

Meanwhile, our dominant fallen culture has created a ‘cartel of domination’.  Peter mentioned money, power, greed, class, blood, nation, family, binary ideology, misogyny and patriarchy as factors supporting this cartel.  What matters now is to create space for the Tree of Life, as a holy symbol of how we belong to God, a symbol with power to heal divisions and sorrows and broken hearts, bringing peace and justice for humans and nature.  At the centre of our global village, the Tree of Life is a powerful image, a vision to support our sacred struggle for social, economic and climate goals.

This sort of radical theology is what I love about the Student Christian Movement, opening ideas with deep and far reaching implications for social transformation.  There is little public oxygen for such conversation, and I would love to see WSCF do more to encourage it.

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