What would a maple tree do?
I don’t see it quite so often anymore, but for a time folks would pose this question: what would Jesus do?
I think it’s a poor question on several counts, though I understand the folks asking it had good intentions, and certainly in some instances, asking and answering that question, brought about desirable results. But still.
I’m not sure my proposed alternative – what would a maple tree do? – is any better, but I do think it might nudge our thinking in interesting directions, which in turn might prove helpful in terms of the world we bring forth.
Anytime someone says “Jesus” it is prudent to ask what they mean. It is one of the more complicated pair of syllables one can utter. When it is said, is what is meant the historical Jesus? The Jewish peasant who was a follower of John the Baptist, assumed and transformed his teacher’s ministry for several years, and then was executed by the Romans?
To say one is going to do what that Jesus did is not easy because we don’t really know what he did. That is, constructing a rational narrative for that man’s life is a matter of informed (to greater and lesser degrees) conjecture because there is so little evidence with which to work and all of it is deeply biased.
Almost inevitably, when we talk about Jesus then we are really talking about our own political and cultural interests and agendas now.
There is nothing wrong with talking about political and cultural ideals and projects, but to assume that the historical Jesus would be on board with them is a largely unjustified leap.
Folks might also be referring to the Jesus of scripture. But that Jesus is an idealized (as in “existing in imagination or idea,” not “the best” or “perfect”) Jesus. It is Jesus according to an author or authors who had specific goals and constructed a Jesus that furthered their goals. (Hence the generous variation in the Pauline epistles). Since scripture does not have one author but many, there are many Jesuses in the New Testament, and even more in the various communities that have evolved in response to its scriptural variegation.
That Jesus – because it is an idea – can be put to literally any end one likes and so more or less ceases to function in any meaningful way. Jesus opposes the death penalty! Jesus supports the death penalty for cop-killers! And so forth.
Critically, nobody can admit that the scriptural Jesus is merely an idealized Jesus – they always claim it is the true historical Jesus. Why? Because absent that embodied authority, their position becomes merely one among many, and not the right or true position.
There is a lesson in that for those of us still working through what it means to be a body or a spirit or a spirit in a body or a body with a spirit . . .
One can see this dynamic at play in the community of A Course in Miracles as well. This Jesus also functions in an idealized way – rewriting traditional Christian concepts like forgiveness and atonement (though not quite as radically as Ken Wapnick and others proposed), indulging nonduality, et cetera – and is also the historical Jesus. Indeed, in the creation stories that surround the scribing of the ACIM material, Helen is positioned as having been one of Jesus’s followers in a previous life.
In other words, when somebody asks “what would Jesus do?” it is always code for “what do I want to do in this situation?” Using Jesus is just a way of blessing off on our preferences, of implying that what we do is right or true or The Way. And while sometimes this produces happy results – feeding the poor, visiting the imprisoned – it can also produce unhappy results like discrimination and other forms of violence.
Is my suggestion – what would a maple tree do? – any better?
Jesus was a human observer whose range of activity – both mental and physical – approximately mirrors our own. He could lay a hand on the sick. He could lecture a crowd. He could eat bread and drink wine. He could go for a walk or kneel to pray or draw in the sand.
A maple tree does not do those things. It can’t. Thus, to compare ourselves to a maple tree is to fundamentally reframe our idea of what it means to act and think. It moves us out of the familiar “human” range and into another range.
Maple trees do not move. They don’t travel. That means that what happens, happens. When a hurricane comes, they can’t move to another town. If somebody comes by with an ax, they can’t hide. They can’t fight back. If a squirrel decides to live in their branches, they can’t say “I’d rather save that space for a chickadee.”
Maple trees don’t foliate in winter. Tough luck for them if they’d like to. In fall their foliage dies in lovely reds, yellows and oranges. Tough luck for them if they want to try blue, purple and silver. In spring, they produce a sweet sap. Tough luck for them if they’d rather produce beer. Or just take a break from sap-production altogether.
Do you see the trend emerging here?
In our human observing, maple trees are essentially passive. Their relationship to their environment – their way of living in a world – is one of acceptance. What happens, happens. Their ability to actively shape is muted. They don’t have dramatic powers of resistance. If an evil man who has just slaughtered a thousand men sits beneath a maple tree, he will enjoy the same cool shade as a virtuous woman who just midwifed a baby would.
Is the challenge the maple tree poses becoming clear?
Maple trees need sustenance to live; in that sense, they have appetites. Yet they don’t take more rain or sunlight than is given to them. The rain that is given is what they receive. The sunlight that is given is what they receive. The soil is the soil; they don’t shop for a replacement.
Is the discipline the maple tree demands becoming clear?
So when we are faced with a crisis – when we would call on the model of Jesus to help us choose how to act – what happens when we call instead on a maple tree?
I think – that is, it seems to me in this wordy and meandering way of living – that maple trees counsel acceptance, patience, and tolerance. They would counsel these practices to a radical (a demanding and unfamiliar) degree.
Yet we are not maple trees! If a tiger is bearing down on us, we should by all means move. But maybe we should also not adopt a policy of killing or containing all tigers because they are incredibly efficient carnivorous killers.
If we are hungry, then we should eat. But maybe also opt for food that was grown in a sustainable way, the value of which is measured not only in its cost at the grocery store. Maybe align our appetite with justice and love: farmers and homesteaders who are thinking not only of economic bottom lines but also ecological wholeness.
We are not maple trees – but we are not Jesus either! We are just the human observer that we are, doing our living in coordinated ways, with other human and animal and plant and mineral observers. Together we bring forth a world. The question is always what world shall we bring forth? Since love is the foundation of our being – the pliant nutritious loam of our shared existence – what actions and coordinations most probably and efficiently and sustainably bring love forth?
Jesus is okay but confusing to the point of distraction. So maybe let Jesus go on that account. At least see what happens when you do. Maybe become the disciple of maple trees. Maybe find out what a maple tree does in the domain of its experience and then – to the full reach of your own being – do the same in the domain of your own.