Good Trees and Good People

Good Trees and Good People

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good”—Jesus (Matthew 12:33, NIV)

I have started to work on my latest book–okay, my only book. It will be on Adventist Ethics. This blog is helping me try out my ideas and get a stride to writing to help me attack some unfinished chapters.

The book will be entitled The Good Tree: Adventist Ethics, Morality and Lifestyle.

It will blend unique Adventist moral theology that arises from teachings like the investigative judgment, Sabbath and human wholeness (themes both conservative and liberal Adventist discuss) with more traditional Christian moral philosophy.

It will also have a lot more moral social science (psychology and sociology) than most Christian ethics books. After spending decades studying and teaching education and administration and helping individuals do empirical research on dozens of dissertations, I can’t think about truth and ideas without a blending of ancient texts and wisdom and current research. One of my favorite sociologists, Philip Selznick (1992), launched me into this thinking over 20 years ago with his phrase:

“The distinctive feature of a moral or humanist science is its commitment to normative theory, that is, to theories that evaluate as well as explain….At its best, normative theory is a fruitful union of philosophy and social science. On the one hand, philosophy acumen is necessary for understanding the complexity and subtlety of basic values and of value related phenomena, such as autonomy, fairness, rationality, love and law. Without sophisticated study of these interdependent variables—including how they have been understood in the history of thought—it is all too easy for values to be trivialized or shortchanged. On the other hand, philosophy alone, uninformed by social science, loses touch with empirical contingency and variation and with the insight to be gained from close study of actual experience” (p. xiii).

I am convinced a theo-social science approach alone can do justice to the complex origins and practices of morality in general. This is especially true of Adventist morality because of its lived nature as well as its deeply theological ideas. Thus applied Adventist ethic must be rooted in theological and philosophical arguments as much as in empirical validations or sociological observations.

With that approach to morality, I was looking for a metaphor to guide in constructing such an ethic.

I found it while driving from Michigan to Oregon/California this summer. When the trees started disappearing in Nebraska and arid Colorado, I realized that tree was the metaphor, because it allowed for growth even though at each stage it good be beautiful and wonderful. Someone told me that if you see an open field in Michigan, someone cleared the trees to make room for tillable land. If you see a tree in Nebraska, someone planted.  I see each human as a planting of God and the growth of it the metaphor for moral development.

So the Good Tree is my guiding metaphor. How does one make a good life with good ethics, good morality and a good lifestyle?

My first glance at this metaphor is this: Morality—in people and in organizations—has roots in ideology and theology and emotions, and these get structured into a deep historical context of wisdom. That feeds a trunk of core teachings (doctrines) and beliefs. Thus the cosmic worldview and historical teachings get manifest into specific believes which then inform more topical areas of ethics: branches with limbs of ethical insights and guidelines for various functions from we experience related to sexuality, income, economics, family and professional work, health care, etc.. These ideas work out into moral practices.

To help me on this journey, I have been studying passages about trees in the Bible. There are literally hundreds. I didn’t know there were so many.

One that really got me thinking came from Genesis 2: 5-9.

“Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground,  but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

What I love about this second explanation of Creation, is that God seems to have left some things “under development” in creation. In chapter 1, it appears He did all the work. And He did. But what’s the joy of making human’s in your image without letting them practice their “creative” ability. “There was no shrubs.” What is creation without some shrubs and trees? What it is an opportunity to co-create with God.

“There was no one to work the ground.” It looks like God had already designed a plan for cooperation with humans. It was a legalistic plan but a co-creating plan.

Seems that trees and shrubs were “coming up” but they needed humans to cultivate them more. It seems God decided to plant the trees—but seemed to look to  humans to help shape them, care for them, do the necessary transplanting etc.

Why? My belief is this is the best chapter to suggest God wanted us to be co-creators with Him. He would bring some rain, but He made it such that human’s needed to be partner with Him in helping those trees grow in the right direction and that our work on those trees would bring us insight into our own growth as moral humans.

The rest of scriptures are full of the weaving of the story of trees with the fall and then redemption of man:

A few highlights:

  1. The tree of life and the tree of tempting…what’s with the sin issue and trees?
  2. The snake in the tree. Why wasn’t he on the ground? Eventually his cursed to that place!
  3. They used tree leaves to cover shame. Why don’t those work and only animal skins now?
  4. Was Cain’s attempt to cultivate fruit using the gardner’s way back to God instead of the sacrificial system? Why isn’t just trying to be good good enough?
  5. The Gopher Wood Tree—When good lumbar goes a long way to saving lives?
  6. Aaron’s rod that budded—sign of authority that get linked to leadership and growth
  7. Ez 17—one of my favorite passages talking about Jesus—

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

“‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.

Am I too Christian to see Christ written all over that ancient passage? Wow, what a planting He proved to be.

And we could talk more about the trees they hung Jesus on. It was on a high mountain. And all the world is coming to find shade and shelter in that tree.

And we could talk of other passages on trees: the  short man that climbed up to see Jesus,  the vine as tree with the humble height but extensive branching and lots of fruit. As the most modest tree it produces the most fruit but branch size. t

And what about the tree of 12 fruits in heaven.

Trees everywhere in the Bible.

Juxtaposing a tree development with human moral and ethical development has helped me see a holistic way of trying to explain Adventist ethics.  An contemporary religious ethical approach must embrace simultaneously the ideological and the practical. To really do justice to an Adventist ethic you have to do theology and social science. You need to be able to trace the profound impact of the cosmological and ethereal view of the  “Great Controversy” on Adventism and with the same stroke of the pen, capture the role granola, fights about cheese and the Lesson Quarterly have had on shaping a moral movement.

Its like a tree growing and growing and growing.

I hope to eventually show that, but right now, just impressed with how important trees were meant to be in the development of humans. Time to go back and read Shel Silverstein’s the Giving Tree.

Hope to explore how we become that tree planted by the waters that bring forth fruit in due season (Psalms 1).


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