Secular Parable

Or simply an analogy of my life-story?

Journey to the Forest of Freethought

(a secular parable for the trail to truth)

My roots are in the Pacific Northwest, specifically Western Washington. Growing up in the soggy suburbs of Seattle, I soaked in the natural environment as it absorbed me. Early on I began to look up. Storm clouds, birds, planes (my father worked at Boeing) and my beloved trees. As a young boy, the trees in our yard and the surrounding woods, constantly beckoned. My first “calling” was to explore both out and up. Climbing trees was not just second nature, it was first. Helping my Dad build a small platform on low branches, what we called a “tree fort,” set me on my earliest “mission”—to scamper up cedars, pines, firs, alders. A vertical adventure, ascending the green canopy where I was alone and could see a new world, from a higher perspective, without being seen.

Still in childhood, a new tree was shown to me. An odd thing. No species I could identify. A tree with no roots or branches, no leaves or fruit. A dead tree, naked, rugged with no bark. I was told it was used for execution in the Roman Empire long ago. This one tree—called “Cross”—was not for climbing, not for tree houses. It was used to kill a kindly, bearded, be-robed young man named Jesus. We had to imagine him on the tree since we were Protestants. The emphasis was on resurrection. The young teacher had come back to life. Strangely enough, the empty tree hung as a symbol, in the church, around my neck—a message that “he’s alive” yet “he died for me.” A very sad thought I felt guilty about, though I was told “he took my guilt.” I was forgiven, but could never forgive myself that something I did—as a child!—caused him to die such a horrible death. I would have liked to climb a tree with him, but now that one tree only made me think of blood, suffering and death. I cried for him, and for myself.

Then I began to branch out in my experience. I learned that this tree was in a whole forest of trees, a forest of the Christian faith: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal and more. This was a thick “ecumenical” grove. Each towering tree of tradition was decorated in many ways by those groups, carved in creeds and confessions, but the message was similar: the Cross is the most important tree.

My roots were still deep in that forest when I discovered there were other forests with other trees that grew beyond the Christian forest. In my evangelical college, I heard wondrous stories of different faiths and read interesting scriptures made from species I had never heard of. Most importantly, I met people who lived by those stories and scriptures just as I lived by mine, whose trees were not dead, whose branches were never scarred with bloody iron nails. These new forests were actually very old. I had just never been told about them. I was surprised to find wisdom in each forest, browsing among trees new to me, yet somehow familiar. Others were seeking roots too, simply looking for ways to grow and thrive. And each cherished their own forest, clinging to their own trees, as I did my own cold, rigid, splintered tree.

After studying to be a minister of The One Tree, I was drawn to a new kind of forest, one where a diverse variety of species were growing side by side, nourished by the same soil, sun and rain. I found a sense of home in this “interfaith” landscape where one tree did not dominate but all trees were respected and cared for, even as people lived, learned and enjoyed livelihood together. That delightful forest provided sustenance, shade and shelter to many wanderers, outsiders who did not identify with any specific kind of tree. The human species mattered more than any species of tree, especially the artificial variety.

As years passed, I emerged from that forest of faiths and another terrain of thought presented itself. I worked on a farm and cleared paths through thick forests on a salty-sea island. Calling myself a “pathfinder,” I practiced a daily mindfulness of how I was impacting the land—planting, harvesting and consuming vegetables—and how the land was impacting me. I kept climbing (in body and mind) and found the best cell reception was high in a cedar! It was easy to imagine I was immersed in “The Spirit of Nature,” a part of everything; I became a pantheistic, pagan sort of student of all my fellow inhabitants on that wild patch of earth. I listened, observed, reflected and wrote, trying to put into words, on more paper cut from living trees, a new sense of Life and Living.

With a fresh harvest of ideas, leaving paths in places no one had walked, I left that forest, journeyed from that land, carrying a lighter pack full of curiosity. Faith had faded into the forests, washed away by the rains of reason. I still climb (on my Christmas birthday, if I can). Now, I simply see trees grounded in dark and dusty earth. Living, life-giving trees are enough. No dead and denuded tree can stand as a symbol of health and hope. No forest can stand for all other forests. Now I see the trees, and the forest—one vast forest of many species, each a home, giving life to those who live in and near, and each providing the breath of life to us all.

No forest is better than another. No species of tree is more valuable. No individual tree is more magnificent than any other (though one aged juniper near Tahoe, a giant sequoia in the Sierra and a tall fir near the Pacific Coast make me wonder!). I emerged from the forests of faith and that has made all the difference. I wouldn’t want them cut down for “holy places,” scriptures, or out of hatred for faith itself. When healthy trees are preserved, not used as weapons or symbols of death (or other worlds beyond death), when tended for the benefit of all, forests of freethought may find root, planting new sprouts, sending refreshing green life to a thirsty world. If old or new groves stand as invitations for new generations to climb, to delight in new perspectives, who knows what they will see up there, ascending into wonder.

Chris Highland, 2021

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  1. As is your and mine’s commonality, your sense of the divine in nature is quite similar. Trees group into forests just like churches belong to denominations. In fact the largest living object according to some biologists is an Aspen grove in Central Utah which is thousands of hectares as their roots interconnect and support all of the trees above ground. Now that is a Humanist Grove. For most of my adult life I have considered the Latin Cross particularly with JC hanging bloodied and crowned to be the most macabre symbol of all the religions. I have always liked the fish of the first two centuries particularly as a fly fisherman who has a real kinship with the ichthyic symbol especially when it is flopping around on my line or in my grasp soon to be released after a pat on the belly heading into the oncoming waters. If I must bow before a cross I prefer a Celtic one supposedly arranged by St. Pat in the 6th C. Ireland. It has combined the Christian cross with the Pagan Sun symbol which is they way most religions have evolved over time. They incorporate the old into a new image and say it is only to represent the new. Christianity always borrowed many pagan symbols and rituals but they never footnote the theft. Thanks for passing on the Shoemaker legacy as I will be reading it soon to learn of how important my namesakes is to Secularity. I think I intuitively knew this. Cheers,

    • I may need to clarify my “emergence,” Marty. I see no “divine” in nature. That was during my “pantheistic pagan” stage on that NW island. Glad you mention the Aspen grove. An amazing natural ecosystem. As for the Celtic cross, I’ve thought of removing the tattoo of that on my arm, yet with the Yin-Yang symbol in the middle of it, I still appreciate the balance, and the sense that an ancient tree symbol retains at least some meaning, if only the unjust execution of radical criminals, Jesus being one of many. You should indeed be proud of your shoemaker heritage.

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