Why “Trees and Rivers”?

(John) My sabbatical theme is “Trees and Rivers,” which refers metaphorically to the yin and yang of religious history.  Specifically, I hope to learn more about religions that branch out like trees growing toward the sun and religions that combine, like river tributaries joining the main stream flowing toward the sea.

The sun, the sea, the mountaintop: all these images are our way of describing the direction of our spiritual journey.  Religion, as Huston Smith defined it, is the human outreach toward the One, the Many, the More.  In the west, we call all those things “God,” and at Breck, we borrow the Hindu maxim that there are many paths to God.

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Trees. The path of branching seems to me to be the most obvious, and maybe the most common path that religions take.  The Buddha created a new religion out of his Hindu culture.  St. Paul and the followers of Jesus took his teachings and his very identity beyond its home tree-trunk of Judaism.  The new religion, Christianity, would eventually differentiate through schism as well as natural evolution into thousands of branches.  My high school world religions textbook, The Tree of World Religions, takes this viewpoint.

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Rivers. The path of a river system follows what Laozi describes as the Dao (often spelled Tao).  The Dao is the way of the universe, the energy which directs the flow of all things, living and otherwise.  The Dao is like the Force in Star Wars, or perhaps the Holy Spirit in Christianity.  Like water, it nourishes all living things, and seeks the lowest place, moving patiently downhill, around obstacles, and returning to the Sea.

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Mountaintop.  Just to mess with the tree versus river idea, one can also conceive of the human effort to understand our spiritual nature as a mountain climb.  The many religions of the world can be symbolized by climbers on all sides of the mountain.  Like the river metaphor, their paths converge, but unlike the Dao-following flow of downhill water, the effort of climbers fights against gravity.

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Yin and Yang. Laozi said that the Dao (the Force, the Way) has two sides to it, light and dark, advancing and yielding, hot and cold.  In my TED-Ed talk, I explain the basics of why we should know yin from yang, but when it comes to trees, rivers, and mountaintops, I’m hoping to use these familiar images to understand better why our religious traditions are sometimes forceful and difficult and sometimes serene and meditative.  Sometimes, we go with the flow, and sometimes we must fight against the current.

The stories from my sabbatical will be snapshots of religions–past, present, and future–which can be seen from at least one of these perspectives.  I’ll try to describe why I chose a tree-ish or river-ish viewpoint for each one.