John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
When I look at the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the starts that you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands … (Psalm 8:3-6, Catholic RSV).
Harvard Divinity School is cutting down a tree. It’s an old oak tree that is apparently dying and poses potential danger to passers-by. It also interferes with renovations of the Andover Hall library.
Once upon a time, cutting down a tree would not make the newspapers, gain television coverage, or convene services of passing. But that’s not the world we live in.
The Boston Globe headlines that “Debate Swirls about the Fate of Oak Tree at Harvard Divinity School.” Even more bizarre, The American Conservative carries a report, allegedly from an HDS alumnus, that a two-part event is planned before the arboreal artifact is axed. Part I will involve “storytelling” about what the tree meant to me; Part II will gather in those “for whom this tree is a religious/spiritual site and/or being; they will invoke great sacred trees in their respective spiritual traditions.”
I don’t know if this event, as described, is apocryphal, part of the exaggerations of tree-hugging correctness spoofed in some quarters, but I fear it may be real. And that’s what worries me.
God’s majesty is revealed in creation. It’s a standard element of Catholic theology that man can discover God through nature. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles says he turned from vague agnosticism to a path leading to Catholicism when, as a Harvard student, he saw a tree beginning to flower on the Charles River. That’s why the Catholic poet Joyce Kilmer could declare: “I think that I shall never see//a poem as lovely as a tree.”
So far, so good.
One is, of course, sorry to see something that has been part of a place go. But it happens. Maybe memories of that place or thing even had a connection to my spiritual life. Many important things in the life of Abraham, for example, happened beneath the oaks of Mamre (see, e.g., Genesis 18: 1).
But that’s a far line from declaring “this tree… is a religious/spiritual… being” and or “invok[ing] great trees in spiritual traditions.”
No, it’s not a “religious/spiritual being,” and it would be of concern if graduates of HDS think in those pantheistic categories. Granted, HDS defines itself as “nonsectarian” and even has a program in Buddhist studies. But Harvard was not founded by nonsectarian freethinkers who fell down in adoration before the pine scrub they encountered around Plymouth Rock, nor did John Winthrop put much focus on the “caliper and canopy of red oak” landscaped into his “City upon a Hill.” And, if the memorial actually is true, HDS can pretend to be serving its “nonsectarian” religious constituency, even though the fact is that most HDS graduates are likely to land ministerial jobs in Christian communities, which hopefully long ago acknowledged their incompatibility with pantheism.
This kind of gauzy “spirituality” is of concern to me because I think it often tries to attach a vague and inchoate “Christianity” to a revival of paganism. I’ve listened for years to the Adrian Flannelly Show, a particularly intelligent ethnic radio program for Irish Americans in New York City, and I recall back in the 1980s a number of speakers whose basic thrust was “St. Patrick did such an unnecessary and unjust thing to the wee people and their spirituality.” Back then, some might have thought it was just a critique of Christianity’s prevalence over harmless ethnic customs, like leprechauns. But I thought then—as I do now—that there was something more there: either you appreciate the cultural advance that Christianity brought, or you are endeared to paganism. And with paganism comes all sorts of other things, as the subsequent history of Eire’s progressive de-Christianization suggests. Druids worship in oak groves.
I’ve repeatedly said that the danger of certain strains of ecology is that it undermines the qualitative difference that is part of our Genesis, Judaeo-Christian heritage: man is different. He is not something else or alongside of; he is someone, a person. He is given dominion by God over creation, not to abuse it but certainly to use it. He is more than a tree.
Which brings me to another concern, where I think gauzy “spirituality” and confused ecology is leading us down a wrong path.
“Traditional Christian funeral rites are becoming less significant in Germany,” says one report. Even German Catholics are opting for “forest burial,” a phenomenon whereby an urn of ashes is buried at the base of a tree, with no further markers other than perhaps a band on the tree with a number or, more rarely, the name of the deceased. The urns are sometimes designed to decay so that the ashes “are absorbed into the tree’s nutrient cycle.” Some even think of buying and planting their trees as they go through middle age, so that “their tree” will be there for them and even so they can “build up a relationship with your tree.” The Church in Germany is, as usual, is ambivalent even as it tries to “accompany” German Catholics in “woodland burial.”
This is not Catholic theology. This is Disney theology from “The Circle of Life.”
One of the constant arguments for life after death has been the virtually universal aspiration, across cultures, for immortality. The development of eschatological thought in the Old Testament follows that course, from immortality through children to shady Sheol to the emerging vision, in the Book of Wisdom, of personal immortality.
But Germans (like much of the West) are not having children. Instead of giving life through “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” they want to produce babies in test tubes (while wanting trees to absorb their remains naturally). Instead of seeking immortality through the “two-in-one-fleshedness” of a child, they aspire to “the circle of life” through a tree. I am now thoroughly confused: which speaks more about my desire to survive—being fertilizer for a deciduous or a coniferous tree? And will it be a new form of “getting together for the holidays” when one chops down Uncle Joe’s spruce for the family Christmas tree?
I am not making this stuff up. A Washington State legislator is pushing legislation to make “recomposing” the third legal way to dispose of a body, alongside earth burial and cremation. “Recomposition” essentially involves combining human remains with oxygen and organic material (think alfalfa or mushrooms) so that bacteria (like a kind of yeast) accelerate breakdown of the body into compost-like material that could then be used in your backyard, garden, or forest. There are other methods that involve the equivalent of freeze-drying the body so it can be pulverized into powder and formed into a kind of fertilizer spike to pound under your tree in springtime.
Christians are heirs of a tradition that says the body is sacred, a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” They have inherited a tradition that calls the body an inherent part of the person, laid to rest to be rejoined to the soul and raised to live forever on the last day. For the Christian—unlike the Gnostics or dualists of antiquity—the body is not a “prison” of the soul, something akin to a snake’s skin, sloughed off when we depart this mortal coil and discarded in the sun.
But that is what we are coming to. Part of it is our own Western, Cartesian heritage, which treats the body as subpersonal, a tool for the “I” understood as consciousness, to manipulate. It’s the mentality that gives us contraception; that tells us an unborn child with a beating heart is not “human” (does that mean a woman sometimes has two hearts?); and that the comatose and severely disabled become, by some kind of ignoble alchemy, “vegetables” at the end of life.
Well, I am not broccoli. Nor am I an oak.
It’s indeed paradoxical that, while we call living human beings “vegetables,” the language HDS used to justify cutting down a dying oak tree was quasi-medical and quasi-human. Lest anyone think our nonsectarian divinity school was too quick at the saw, we’re told HDS sought “three recommendations” (try getting your insurance to authorize a second opinion) about the tree’s prognosis, only to conclude it was in “a state of decline,” even “’irreversible’ decline” (their quotes on ‘irreversible,’ suggesting they were perhaps not ready to forego hope for our quercus rubra’s “’high risk’ of failure.” Will there be an electrocardiograph monitor at any goodbye ceremony, waiting for a flat line?
I have long urged the Catholic bishops to reinstate Catholic discipline against other forms of handling the body after death than burial. The prohibitions against cremation were modified in the 1960s because the Church no longer believed that people were motivated by an anti-Christian ideology, as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they resorted to cremation. The ascendance of cremation in that era was largely tied up with materialists and rationalists who wanted to deny the possibility of personal immortality and the resurrection of the body. By incinerating their remains, they were thrusting a defiance at God: “just try to put that together!”
Today’s cremators and composters may not be motivated by a denial of the resurrection of the body, but they are motivated by an equally invidious ideology: an ideology that man is not the crown of God’s creation, with responsible dominion over the world. He is, instead, $4.95 of assorted chemicals and an undue carbon footprint who should not take up space in the continuing “circle of life.” That ideology is just as bad as Enlightenment materialism, and needs likewise to be combated.
Leo Tolstoy wrote a famous short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” making fun of excessive human ambition and avarice. The story relates a Russian whose appetite for land ownership grew and grew, until he heard that Bashkirs of Central Asia would give him as much land as he could make a furrow around in one day, provided he returned to his point of origin. He began carving out a huge estate for himself, until he realized that he might not make it back to where he started on top of a hill. In his maddening rush to reach the finish line, he rushes up the hill just as the sun sets … and dies of a heart attack. The Central Asians bury him there, observing that a man needs about 6 feet of land from head to toe.
At least Tolstoy wanted to give man 2 meters of earth. Today’s intellectuals begrudge him that. They begrudge him a name and a grave. They tell him he should think long and hard about giving life to a child, but to aspire to be a Jobe’s tree spike for an oak.
For a society fixated on sexual libertinism as a constitutional liberty, we have an amazingly low regard for the body: some doctors barter over fetal organ prices; Indiana has to go to the Supreme Court to demand that fetal remains not be treated like so much waste; and now the average person (with a large measure of Catholic acquiescence) thinks that what is done to his body after death really is not that important. Just consider even the symbolism: we bury what we value, like treasure; we incinerate what we regard as valueless, like garbage.
“Garbage” that was “bought, and at a price; so glorify Christ in your body” (1 Cor. 6: 20). You are a little less than the angels, but you are a lot more—and a lot more loved—than a tree.
All views herein are exclusively those of the author.