Clapping Trees
March 3, 2021

Do trees clap their hands at the coming of the Lord? (Isaiah 55:2). Do they really? We instinctively think not, and quickly classify such passages as literary personifications or anthropomorphic metaphors. Perhaps, writes Mark Harris in an essay in Knowing Creation, we’re too hasty. What’s the alternative?

One, proposed by Richard Bauckham, is that created things praise God by virtue of their sheer existence. Bauckham writes, “all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves and fulfilling their God-given roles in God’s creation. A lily doesn’t need to do anything specific in order to praise God; still less does it need to be conscious of anything. Simply by being and growing it praises God” (297).

Harris isn’t convinced. If applied to human beings, we conclude that we praise by sipping coffee, typing a newsletter, or sipping coffee while typing a newsletter. That seems to empty out the content of the word “praise,” which typically refers to verbal acts. Harris suspects “that this definition of praise, whereby creatures praise God simply by being themselves, is too platitudinous to hold up to scrutiny” (298).

A second option, proposed by David Horrell, is eschatological. Creation not only praises, but suffers the pangs of childbirth (Romans 8). Together, humans and non-humans strain toward an eschatological consummation. Harris finds this appealing, but notes that it “pushes the reality question into the unknown temporal future where it is automatically less troubling” (299). “What, if anything, are trees doing now?” he wants to know.

A third option, argued by Terence Fretheim, comes close to “panpsychism,” the notion that creation is infused with spirit and soul, which implies that all creation has some form or degree of consciousness. Harris sums up Fretheim’s point: “Steering close to the wind of a panpsychic reading, [Fretheim] suggests that the texts indicate an ‘inwardness or interiority’ in the relationship between God and natural phenomenon, such that there is ‘a greater continuity between the animate and the inanimate than we have commonly been willing to claim’” (295).

Fretheim asks, How can Yahweh be a Rock if a Rock is wholly inert? Further, Yahweh commands creation to praise (e.g., Psalm 69:34), which assumes creation has some capacity to respond. Harris thinks Fretheim is too reluctant to explore how creation praises, but thinks Fretheim’s suggestion is “enriching.”

Harris’s reservations about Fretheim’s proposal assume we know trees are inanimate, soul-less beings. In biblical terms, that’s strictly true: A tree isn’t a nephesh chayyah, like a fish, bird, beaver, man or woman. But the personification and anthropomorphism of “clapping trees” isn’t merely a literary device. It’s founded on created analogies between souls and non-souls. Plants bear seed, as do human beings; trees produce fruit, as nepheshim are fruitful.

Some naturalists elaborate these anthropomorphic possibilities. David George Haskell (The Songs of Trees) describes a pine needle’s reactivity to the sun as “making . . . assessments and decisions . . . sending and receiving signals, modulating its behavior as it learns about and responds to its environment.” Trees engage in a kind of “thought,” albeit without a brain or central nervous system.

Trees, Haskell says, remember. If caterpillars or a moose nibbles needles from a balsam fir, the tree will defend itself by producing unpalatable resins as it grows. “Plant memory,” he says, can “cross generations, as the offspring of stressed parents inherit an enhanced capacity to generate genetic diversity when they breed, even if this next generation experiences benign conditions” (36-37).

Perhaps Haskell is exaggerating, but, theologically, it’s worth exploring. Why wouldn’t the Tri-Personal God have a personal relationship with trees? Why wouldn’t He be nearer to them than they are to themselves? It sounds puerile, perhaps, but I think Harris is right: As we “articulate a deep sense of the numinous and the spiritual in nature,” we shouldn’t be “especially concerned to prioritise ‘non-laughable’ solutions over ‘laughable’ solutions” (Harris, 291). In science as in all life, childlike folly is the deepest wisdom.

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