The Forest for the Trees

The forest is not what it seems. Trees, plants, the soil beneath them--they are not simply the inanimate furniture of animal life. Instead they are a living, breathing, speaking reality--a sentient wholeness that can nurture the weak, warn of danger, speak across miles of subterranean networks. We are only beginning to understand this wholeness, it remains mostly a mystery, but it is changing everything we thought about the world around us and the ground beneath our feet.

I was recently reading about these discoveries in a new book titled Underland by the British nature writer, Robert MacFarlane. MacFarlane summarizes the surprising work of a Canadian ecologist named Suzanne Simard who discovered that fungi and trees link together in a kind of symbiosis. Simard, writing of her findings, said that fungi and trees had “forged their duality into a oneness thereby making a forest.” She went on to say that the forest communicates actively across its membership and produces a collaborative intelligence she calls “forest wisdom.”  

Reflecting on this unity, MacFarlane sees within it a kind of love. He quotes the novelist Louis de Bernieres writing that in a long relationship: “we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches, we found that we were one tree and not two.” “I think of good loves as something that roots, not rots, over time,” writes MacFarlane, “and of the hyphae that are weaving through the ground below me, reaching out through the soil in search of mergings. Theirs, too, seem to me then a version of love’s work.”

This union and merging and rooting could not help but evoke images of the Trinity for me.  It too is a unity of variation, a wholeness that could be mistaken for a separation, a difference that is also a communion.  It too is a reality begotten through love’s work, unity moving out into difference through affection. The Trinity, like the underground connections that make the forest whole, is also a mystery we have discovered but do not yet understand.  But it is a mystery that changes how we see the world and our relationships and even our end. 

God is one says Judaism, there is no God but God says Islam, and with these claims Christians have no disagreement.  We are monotheists, after all and these facts are as basic to our faith as the truth that a forest is made up of trees.  But we have also come to believe that there is more to God than this oneness.  We became followers of Jesus Christ and we worshiped Jesus and we came to know somehow that since we worship Jesus then he must in some way also be God because God is one and there no God but God.  The forest is more than trees, God is more than a transcendent deity—there is a connection beneath the surface.

Metaphors for God always are always inadequate, they always run the risk of getting God wrong, but that is true of any kind of claim about a God who goes beyond even being. And so knowing the risk, I want to propose that the Christian insight into the nature of God as Trinity is not dissimilar in many ways from the idea that a forest is an extensive wholeness that is made through a connection of difference, understanding of course that a forest and its connections are also very different from God as Trinity.

A forest, as Simard has helped us see, is a community which implies that it is also a communion—a being with and a being together.  As a forest matures the variety of creatures, from  microscopic bacteria to sprawling fungi to towering oaks settle into a pattern of wholeness, even swapping genes among themselves, so that where one species begins and another ends becomes more difficult to say.  A mature forest works as a completeness, as a whole organism and yet it is made of different creatures, doing different things.  Each member works in concert, even making room for one another in the forest canopy.  The forest is also an open system because new species of trees and plants and fungi can be drawn into it—the forest is always extending its membership.

And so is the Trinity.  God who is strange and different from any creature is not simply beyond the world, but also through Jesus became a part of the world; God who is wholly other than us also became a part of us, drawing us into God’s own unity through the Holy Spirit.  In this way, the three persons of the Trinity, who make room for each other’s life and mission, also make room for us, drawing us into God’s wholeness. 

The hows, the borders, the boundaries of this reality are not clear, just as the realities of the forest remain more unknown than known.  All we can follow are the scraps of truth we know from our scriptures and our worship and our prayer.  But such mystery should not keep us from the awe evoking implications of a Triune God.  That God is one but also a community means that perhaps there is room for us within God’s wholeness, perhaps even we, as the Apostle Paul says, can share in the “glory of God.” The Trinity allows for God to be both beyond the world like a towering oak, but also within the world like roots connecting into the fungi that create the web of life beneath the soil.  In the Trinity we come to understand that while God is transcendent, God is also entangled with creation, and that understanding should change how we see not only God but the world and one another.

After reading MacFarlane’s chapter on the understory realities of the forest, the way in which we should see a woodland as a wholeness of connection and loving awareness, I went on a walk in a place unfamiliar to me.  It was a strange and wonderful woods with plants I did not know and trees I barely recognized.  Given the new eyes of a different understanding I felt as though I was within an awareness and consciousness, a world that was saying something even if I was not yet able to hear it. It was no longer this plant or that, but a wholeness, a membership in which I was merely a guest. I could not grasp the entirety of what I was witnessing there.  I knew only that I moved through this forest differently than I had before and I was in a new relationship with the world around me.

The Trinity, this insight that God is a kind of varied oneness, has also refigured my vision and the way I move in the world.  In the Trinity we have come to know a God who is not distant, but is very close; a God who is beyond us and yet reaching toward us in the Father, a God who is before us and like us in the Son, a God who is kindling love within us in the Spirit.  This God is linking, loving, desiring, giving, hospitable.  We don’t understand it all, we can’t.  Instead we can live into this truth as we experience and encounter it, even in its mystery, even in our ignorance.  Each day we can worship the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, praising our creator, joining in the body of Christ, and going forth in the power of the Spirit recognizing that God loves us, God is with us, God is working within us and through us. Amen.

Ragan Sutterfield