There are only two ways of accomplishing education, that is, of lifting out of ignorance. One is through verbal instruction; the other is through demonstration.

Typically these two methods are combined in various proportions. We all begin ignorant of carpentry, for example, and our ignorance is lifted by someone showing us a mitered joint and telling us how it works, by holding up a model buttress and describing where the gravitational forces lean upon it. And so, little by little, we learn carpentry.

For some sorts of education – learning how to box, say, or to swim, or to kiss – the education leans very heavily on the showing; in teaching history or astrophysics, say, the verbal instruction takes most of the responsibility.

“Sinfulness” is a variety of ignorance, and salvation from it consists in education, the education, both verbal and demonstrative, that Christ provides. That is what is meant by Christ saving us from our sins.

Our salvation through Christ is not like being plucked from a leaky boat. It’s like being taught how to patch holes, and how to swim.


We have nothing but our language to describe God, heaven, the work of Christ, and so on, and our language is entirely a product of our concerns and objectives and limitations. The words God, heaven, and work are good examples. So is the word good. So is the word example. So is the word word.

You see the difficulty?

For all its wondrous powers, human language is of little use in communicating that which stands outside of our concerns and objectives and limitations. That’s why Jesus is almost always allusive and parabolic in his speech.

Consider the insistence that God is morally just, and how that contention is used to argue that God’s very nature requires the infliction of punishment – perhaps even never-ending punishment – on the wrong-doer. According to this way of thought, moral righteousness requires that each moral being be treated according to his works. So virtue merits proportionate reward, and vice proportionate punishment. For God to arrange consequences according to any other pattern would run contrary to his own nature, which is impossible. Quod erat demonstrandum.

(We won’t dwell on the unforeseen implications this way of thinking has for commonplace notions of heaven and hell, except to say that no imaginable human virtue is proportional (by any human understanding of proportion) to everlasting bliss, nor any vice to endless torment. Thus this argument from God’s nature would rule out both heaven and hell, as they are commonly conceived.)

But from the point of view of our present reflection, there is a much more fundamental problem. Our God-given conscience does most certainly incline us to think that effortful goodness (virtue) and effortful malfeasance (vice) merit or warrant different consequences, just as an itch merits scratching or a full ear of corn warrants harvesting. And so in order to reflect this warranted revelation of conscience we speak of rewarding the one and punishing the other, here as always utilizing words that are products of our own concerns and practices.

We can trust the distinction itself, since it is revealed by God in conscience; but what we cannot trust is how humans have embodied the distinction in language and therefore in thought. How God embodies the distinction in reality may be entirely different.

It may, in fact, be true of vice, as it is said to be of virtue, that in God’s reality, it is its own reward.


Christ did not achieve or establish the divine truths of the gospel, he did not alter the relationship between God and humanity. God’s love for sinners has always existed, God’s forgiveness of sins has never wavered or changed or grown: these were as much a part of the fabric of reality before the life, ministry and suffering of our Lord as they have been since. The doctrines of the resurrection and never-ending life with God were true before Jesus taught them. That’s why Jesus offered the summary of his work to Pilate in these words: For this cause I was born, and to this end came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.

To bear witness. Not to establish or create. To bear witness to what is and has always been and always will be: the truth.

The same thing is meant by Paul writing to the Romans: But God commended his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

The death of Christ was God commending his love towards us, showing his love. All that Jesus did was making God manifest. The reality that had been kept secret from the foundation of the world was made known when this sun of righteousness arose with healing in its rays, just as the rising sun in the east reveals that which had been hidden by the night.

Jesus did not abolish death; his resurrection made manifest the abolition of death.


Scripture provides us with several examples of when God, frustrated by his own creation, so to say steps back and starts over. The disobedience in Eden is one, the scattering after Babel another, and of course the great Flood. The truth captured by these profound stories is that there is something impossible about community and peace between God, in his unthinkable singularity and remoteness, and anything that is not God.

The solution, or at least the last – or perhaps, the only – attempt at solution, the only possibility for God to escape loneliness, was for God himself to change, we may even say, to die. Reconciliation was not accomplished through humans becoming God, but through God becoming human.

The faith that accomplishes reconciliation is not our faith, it’s God’s faith.


Imagine a father and son stranded on a desert island. There is a small amount of food on the island, just enough to keep them barely alive indefinitely.

The son has limited sailing skill, but the father nonetheless loads their boat with most of the food, and sends the son off in search of rescue.

The father’s action is the manifestation of his faith in his son. Not a proof or a demonstration, a manifestation. It is the father’s faith.

This is the true picture of the atonement. And the son is not Christ. The son is us.


In the beginning…God is alone. There is no other possibility.

If we are speaking chronologically, we must say there was a time when nothing but God existed. Or if we want to say that God is outside time or that God established time, then whatever else these strange words might be taken to mean, it must still be that there – outside time – God is alone.

Or if, in speaking of the beginning, we are instead saying something ontological – that God is the basis or the precondition of Being, or something else equally obscure – we must still posit God’s uniqueness, God’s singularity, and hence God’s aloneness.

And from that it follows that God cannot be love, in the sense that we understand love.

We use love in many ways, of course. We love to dance, we love the outdoors, we love Beethoven. But these are just alternative ways of saying that we enjoy these activities or the activities involving these things, and this is surely not what we intend by speaking of God.

When we attribute love to God – or even say God is love – we are borrowing the term as we use it to name a certain sort of attitude that one person may have towards another. What is that attitude? To describe it in all its complexity and nuance and variety is a task for poets and novelists; but we can say a few things without venturing into their prerogative.

A mother loves her daughter. There are not three separate elements of what is being named here: the mother on one side, her daughter on another, and something (love) between. Nor is the love something that resides, so to speak, entirely in the mother. Without the daughter, how would you even describe it?

A mother loves her daughter mentions something that is complex; we may say, it is relational. For that reason, it cannot meaningfully describe God, because God, in the beginning, is alone.

But a mother’s love for her daughter is also singular, in the sense that it names one thing only: that complex relationship between the exact two of them. This mother’s love for this daughter is not identical with this mother’s love for her son, or for a different daughter.

And therefore we do not rescue our way of speaking about God by positing something like the Trinity, in all its unfathomable mystery. For whatever else the thought of the Trinity supplies, it cannot supply a model for something that is completely singular in its nature.

This is a long-winded way of saying that we cannot model our understanding of the love that God is on our understanding of human love: the very nature of God, in the beginning, rules that out.

Is this to say that God is not love? Not at all. It simply means that to understand, to see, to know what God’s love is, we must look somewhere other than human love.

But where?


A farmer had two children, a son and a daughter. The daughter wanted to learn to grow hay, and the son wanted to learn to raise horses.

At a certain time, the daughter asked the farmer, “Will you show me how to plant and grow and harvest hay?” The farmer quickly agreed.

A little later, the son asked the farmer, “Will you show me how to raise horses?”

“Why do you want to raise horses?” the farmer asked.

“To ride them like the wind,” the son answered.

“There is nothing about raising horses that I can add to what you know already,” the farmer said.

A year later, the son came to the farmer and said, “My horses are dying from hunger. How can I feed them?’

“Ask your sister,” the farmer said.


The conditions for most of the sorts of behavior that our moral world considers grievous and despicable will not exist in heaven: that’s why Jesus is not concerned with reforming them. There will be no advantage to murder, adultery, or financial skulduggery in heaven; the rewards of gaining control over others will not exist; attempts at intimidation and coercion will be regarded with the heavenly equivalent of bemusement. Jesus barely mentions things like that, because his concern is preparing us for a life spent under conditions entirely different from those to which we have been accustomed.

A moral monster, arriving in heaven, will be disadvantaged, not by his vile history, but by his bewilderment.


The oldest and most universal of all religious symbols is that of a tree. The ancient Scandinavians imagined Yggdrasil, the mighty ash tree that binds heaven, hell, and earth together, with the three Fates busy beneath its branches, spinning together the fortunes of our lives.

The worshipers of Astarte honored their goddess within the sacred groves of the Asherah; the Druids enacted dark magic under the brooding protection of massive oak trees; the devotees of Dionysian and Mithraic and countless lesser forms of pagan worship put trees at the heart of their creeds and their pantheons, and made trees their temples. There are the enchanted singing trees of the Arabian Nights; there is the blessed Bo-tree, under which Gautama Buddha bade his great farewell to the illusions of the world.

And we know how trees permeated our Lord’s own Hebrew religion; how the Book of Beginnings locates the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil at the heart of Paradise; how Wisdom, the very Logos, is identified as that Tree of Life; how Abraham planted the tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there called on the name of the Lord.

Why is this? Why do we find the tree at the heart of the religious imagination?

The beginning of an answer is that human conceptions of God and the spiritual world are limited by our human consciousness and human values and, most of all, by our human language. In the scale of being, we cannot give voice to anything other than what our language allows, or give form to any image higher than ourselves. This is the conditioning boundary of all religious insight and expression, whether brutish or sublime. “Let us make God in our own image” is not only a precept of paganism; it is a constraint of our human condition.

But it is not a hopeless situation. God, who made us, is perfectly aware of who and what we are. In sympathetic condescension to our confined understanding, God was made flesh, and dwelt among us. We are humans who worship a human God. That license is the greatest proof of God’s love for us.

And the tree is another. The tree – like Christ himself, only in symbol – bridges humanity and the divine. Erect and strongly rooted and sheltering, standing in imaginative solidarity with the best of Man, the tree stretches out branches like arms and responds to the wind and the seasons in a silent imitation of music, that purest of human languages. And yet, at the same time, all of poetry and myth speak to the uncanny apprehension of friendly life in the company of trees, a life that seems risen and connected with our own from the unfathomable depths of being, a life unthinkably old and mysteriously wiser than we ourselves. A walk through a deep wood is never lonely, and never without education.

And that is the secret of the religious awareness and symbolism of trees. They symbolize both men and the divine, or rather, the mutual indwelling of both, and that intuition fills our Scriptures. The saint, in the first Psalm, is like a tree planted by the river; “as the days of a tree,” says Isaiah, “are the days of my people.” “Then shall the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord,” says another Psalm. The mighty of the earth are always the tall cedars of Lebanon. Our very Lord knows the soul of a man by his fruit, and did not the blind man, in a moment of wondrous mystical vision, like the tender moment of awakening when true reality is suddenly, but oh so fleetingly, perfect and clear…did not he perhaps say it best of all: “I see men as trees walking”?

And as we bring the Christmas tree into our homes and surround it with gifts, we see what has gathered up all these intuitions in human religion from the beginning, and sealed them with God’s signet, and sanctified them with God’s sanction. For what is the gift that is life and death, that is good and evil, that is worship itself, that is man’s sanctuary and also man, that is somehow even God, in silent majesty; that grows on earth and yet has its arms in heaven? Here it is: “Him they slew, and hanged him on a tree.”

The Cross of our Lord. That is the true source and meaning of all the tree-thoughts that figure in the aspirational religious thinking of humankind. This is the tree which the trees of all the divines ever born went forth, from the beginning, to anoint king over them, and which says to all of them: “If indeed you anoint me your king, them come and put your trust in my shadow.”

In that tree, we see the true Yggdrasil; the tree both of knowledge and of life; the temple Ark of acacia wood and the great floating Ark of salvation; the menorah studded with almonds, the sweetening wood of Mara; the staff of Moses and of Elisha; the branch of Jessie and the root of David; the mustard tree and the true vine that are the Church, and the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

And of that Tree of Life, we are not forbidden to eat. On the contrary, the true Adam and Eve, who are all of humankind, are invited to stand in the shade of that tree, and eat of its fruit, that they may not die. It is a tree laden, for us, with all manner of gifts, including the greatest of all, Who died for us in its arms.

And so we return to the Christmas Tree.

Very likely our Christmas Tree, blazing with lights and offering gifts, is a survival of ancient pagan celebrations, but what of it? For Christ is born at Christmas, and has purged the old pagan religious instincts of their harm and unloveliness, and shown us their deep spirit, true and heavenly. All beautiful old traditions show their meaning, when brought into the true Light.

And so where the diminished and secular world might see in this gaudy tree with its ornaments and gifts only a frivolous and fantastic social custom, we of the one true and complete faith, seeing much deeper than they can even imagine, bear witness to a holy and sweet idea, the most ancient, the most lovely, and the most life-giving of all ideas revealed by God to our human comprehension:

Gifts from a Tree.


Imagine as a cultivated Westerner being invited to attend your first traditional Noh program. As the hours of the long performance go by, you are presented with an extremely colorful progression of masked actors engaged in rigidly traditional portrayals of standardized characters, with dancers in gorgeous dress skillfully engaged in completely regimented movement, with singers vocalizing ancient Japanese poetry to the accompaniment of the single uncanny flute and the three driving drums.

What might you get from the performance?

Provided you are open to it, a certain sort of personal entertainment is quite possible from your time spent watching this extraordinary and uniquely Japanese art form. At the least, you might enjoy the experience of an aesthetic addition to what you normally derive from Western theater. You might appreciate the disciplined athleticism of the dancers. You might marvel at the spare stagecraft, and think of how it must have influenced Samuel Beckett. “Reminds me of ‘Waiting For Godot,’” you might whisper to your neighbor in the audience, also a Westerner.

But if you are honest, you would surely confess a shallowness to your experience, a sense that you were only responding to a few of the program’s most superficial elements – to the color, the movement, the extraordinary physical training involved – while missing out on almost all of what the performance has to offer to the native Japanese in the audience, or at least to those who are sophisticated in the meaning and history of their Noh. Not to mention its language!

The point is pretty straightforward. Our appreciation of an experience depends as much – or rather far more – on what we bring to it than on what the experience itself offers.

I’m often struck by how a painter – of the realistic type – can produce a perfect painting of, say, a bird. The skill is wonderful, of course, but what is prior to the skill is the painter’s eye, which has seen and recorded all the details of the bird that serve, when translated into paint, to yield the perfect image. The painter and I have seen the same bird in the wild – or the same house, or tree, or mountain, or cloud – but the painter’s glimpse is so much richer and fuller than my own. It’s humbling to realize how relatively blind most of us are to the world around us, compared to those who through training have opened their eyes to what the world puts on view.

Without adherence to Christ’s tutelage, heaven for most of us will be like a Noh play, or like the everyday robins that hop about the grass, looking for worms.

Christianity is not a set of beliefs. It is training. Training to appreciate heaven.