Falls Tree

The autumn trees have been absolutely transcendent the past few days. From my earliest memories fall has been my favorite time of year, and a large determinant is the trees. Some weeks back, while on the campus of Notre Dame University, I noticed the highly stylized icons of biblical tropes etched into the stone walls of the library. The marble of the walls was highly polished, making images difficult to capture, but I tried to snap one of the tree of life. The tree of life has many associations that go back even into pre-biblical times. Many people are familiar with the story from Genesis, where the tree of life is forbidden to Adam and Eve because they ate from the tree of knowledge. That tree, however, goes back to ancient Mesopotamian stories of paradise as well. Even the Sumerians considered trees foundational.

IMG_1001

I suspect that trees are impressive partially because of their longevity. From a human perspective, they long outlast us—some of the oldest trees in the world are located in western Asia. If we don’t attack them, some species have a pretty good chance of lasting hundreds of years. With roots that run deep and crowns that reach high, trees have been a rich source of symbolism for religions for a very long while. The goddess Asherah was, in some way, connected with trees. I’ve noted in some of my more academic work that the precise nature of this relationship is never really clarified, but some have suggested that the tree of life itself is a form of the goddess. Certainly in Judaism the tree of life inspired the menorah and its gift of light, to be celebrated later this month.

Looking out my window at the brilliant reds and yellows, I am glad for the solidity of trees. Much of life is much less stable than our wooden companions. The myth of the tree of life is a reminder that even if we can hold the eons in our heads, our bodies will not last so long. It is a poignant thought, best captured by the slow falling of the leaves at this time of year. The leaves had just started to change as I strolled the campus of Notre Dame, unaware that my own fall was likely already set in place. The proverbial axe, as it were, was already laid to the root of the tree. I was perhaps too busy thinking about the tree of life to notice the changes taking place around me. A good metaphor will do that to you, and it might even live as long as the tree of life itself.

Com-Passion

I suppose it is always premature to hope that ancient institutions are likely to improve. Like many other followers of developments in religion, I was pleasantly amazed to read reports of Pope Francis declaring that, in my vernacular, that the church should not be so stuck in the rut of doctrinal abstemiousness that it forget mercy and charity. How sad to see that hours later he was forced, Galileo-like, to recant somewhat. The forces at work are far more powerful than the vicar of Christ. In some minds religion is doctrine. I know whereof I speak. For several years of my professional life I worked for a doctrinaire institution where any hint of mercy was considered a kind of Protestant mewling before a God who would’ve made even Jonathan Edwards tremble. Although officially released “without cause,” I can’t help but think that my own pastoral sensitivities were at fault. I don’t believe that religions thriving on condemnation deserve the title.

Ironically, I was at Notre Dame University when headlines about the Pope’s declaration that the church should not obsess about homosexuality and abortion appeared in the papers. It was with a kind of wonder that I heard an academic say, “the Pope is sounding more Lutheran all the time.” I’m not naive enough to suppose that the pontiff is suggesting a change in doctrine—there are rocks so heavy that the Almighty himself can’t lift them—but that the leader of the world’s largest church was suggesting mercy and compassion outweigh legality felt as if Amos or Micah had just walked into the Vatican. The next day the Pope had to come out and strongly condemn abortion. Politics, it seems, will always trump human understanding.

IMG_0996

We live in an era of iron-willed religions. The human element often vanishes beneath a frowning providence that wishes for clocks to be turned back decades, if not centuries. These religions have no place for improving the human lot in this sinful world—it is much easier to condemn than to contemplate compassion. Religion is hard, for people find forgiveness a difficult doctrine to accept. Jonathan Edwards dangled his spider over the eternal fires of hell, but ecclesiastics today suggest that swift shears taken to that silken web would solve all the problems. Time for change? Not in this century. Religions, too, evolve. But evolution doesn’t equal improvement. Many an agnostic has become so because of the reality of “nature red in tooth and claw.”

A Certain Man Went Down

Among the progeny claimed by Wabash College is Dan Simmons. I’ve read a couple of Simmons’ ghost novels, although in reverse order. I read A Winter Haunting, which I quite liked, and followed it up with Summer of Night. Having lived in the Midwest many years, it was easy to visualize the scenes. Then came the time for my trip to Crawfordsville, Indiana. I started the day in South Bend, finishing up my meetings at Notre Dame. I’d noted on the map that, as is often the case, the places I need to get to just aren’t connected by anything resembling a direct route. Although the forecast said “30 percent chance of rain,” I’d awoken at 4 a.m. to a thunderstorm and it had been pouring all morning long. I could swear they were making plans to convert the great Notre Dame stadium into an ark. Perhaps I’d forgotten just how persistent Midwestern storms can be. Soaked, I crawled into my rental car to tool down to Crawfordsville. At least the rain had finally stopped.

On one of those highways in the middle of corn fields as far as the driver’s eye dares look, the low tire pressure light came on. I dutifully pulled over and called Hertz. The suggestion was to find a gas station and put some air in the offending tire. Someone could be there in three hours. Looking about me at the amber waves, I thought of the spirits of Dan Simmons’ stories. A car breaking down in the heartland. No one around to offer assistance. The illusion allusion was shattered when a stranger pulled over and asked me if I needed help. I recall a priest friend once tearfully confessing to me that he had, on a rainy night, refused to stop to help someone with a flat because of fear for his safety. I understood completely—it can be a scary world out there. “And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.”

With multiple stops to put air into my slowly leaking tire, I limped my way from town to town, reaching my destination after dark. Along the way a fierce rainbow appeared to the east as the sun began to set. Once you’ve abandoned the interstate in Indiana, there’s no going back. I began to notice just how many churches dotted each little village through which I drove. Samaritans, I thought. As I write this in Crawfordsville, I think of the corn, sorghum, and soybean fields that inspired Dan Simmon’s ghosts. I think of a stranger, a woman of minority demographics, stopping to see if I needed help along a lonely highway. She was among those our society would deem vulnerable, and yet she was the only one who stopped. And I think of parables. “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?”

IMG_0988

Our Lady of Culture

So I’m in the land where sport and religion become one.  Notre Dame is an intimidating university for a small Protestant like myself.  Like on a first date, I’m never sure what to do with my hands.  Standing below the famous “touchdown Jesus,” more properly, the “Word of Life,” I feel small indeed.  For a long while in US history, Catholicism was treated like some kind of cult.  Those of us reared Protestant were taught to fear “them” and their ritualistic ways.  I’m more afraid that someone might ask me about football stats.  Sports is a religion I’ve never studied.

IMG_0997

Culture is like a colossal Cuisinart.  Lots of stuff goes in, all of it more or less equal, and the blades begin to whirl.  Sports, religion, fast food, alcohol, a dash of education, and we’ve got an American classic.  The only time that sports come to my mind is when they start to take on the flavor of religion.  The level of the devotion of fans is the envy of many a church.  In fact, the word “fan” was borrowed from the lexicon of religious behaviors.  It is not difficult to sense the pride in football here, but then, sports are often a civilized way to assert one’s self-worth in a culture where self-worth feels under threat.  It is hard to recall a time when the Fighting Irish were not mainstream.

“High culture” has put itself on the endangered species list by becoming inaccessible in a culture that doesn’t value education (not to reflect on the academics I’ve seen at Notre Dame, which are pretty impressive).  I cringe, however, when I see polished politicians basking in their lack of introspection on issues that impact the entire human race.  They seem proud to declare themselves untainted by education.  They will support sports, however, and particularly football where violence is padded, but still encouraged.  It is culture for those who enjoy the lowest common denominator.  In the airport I noticed another “touchdown” character who, in some quarters in more recognized than the deity soaring over Notre Dame’s venerable stadium.  I was in the true presence of culture even before I boarded the plane.

IMG_0977