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Ch. 6: The Tree of Life

Atheism denies knowledge of a God of any kind. Pantheism and Theism alike profess to give us a God, but they alike fail to perform what they have promised. We can know nothing of the God they offer us, for not even do they themselves profess that any of our senses can be cognisant of him. They tell us that he is a personal God, but that he has no material person. This is disguised Atheism. What we want is a Personal God, the glory of whose Presence can be made in part evident to our senses, though what we can realise is less than nothing in comparison with what we must leave for ever unimagined.

And truly such a God is not far from every one of us; for if we survey the broader and deeper currents of men's thoughts during the last three thousand years, we may observe two great and steady sets as having carried away with them the more eligible races of mankind. The one is a tendency from Polytheism to Monotheism; the other from Polytypism to Monotypism of the earliest forms of life-all animal and vegetable forms having at length come to be regarded as differentiations of a single substance-to wit, protoplasm.

No man does well so to kick against the pricks as to set himself against tendencies of such depth, strength, and permanence as this. If he is to be in harmony with the dominant opinion of his own and of many past ages, he will see a single God-impregnate substance as having been the parent from which all living forms have sprung. One spirit, and one form capable of such modification as its directing spirit shall think fit; one soul and one body, one God and one Life.

For the time has come when the two unities so painfully arrived at must be joined together as body and soul, and be seen not as two, but one. There is no living organism untenanted by the Spirit of God, nor any Spirit of God perceivable by man apart from organism embodying and expressing it. God and the Life of the World are like a mountain, which will present different aspects as we look at it from different sides, but which, when we have gone all round it, proves to be one only. God is the animal and vegetable world, and the animal and vegetable world is God.

I have repeatedly said that we ought to see all animal and vegetable life as uniting to form a single personality. I should perhaps explain this more fully, for the idea of a compound person is one which at first is not very easy to grasp, inasmuch as we are not conscious of any but our more superficial aspects, and have therefore until lately failed to understand that we are ourselves compound persons. I may perhaps be allowed to quote from an earlier work.

"Each cell in the human body is now admitted by physiologists to be a person with an intelligent soul, differing from our own more complex soul in degree and not in kind, and, like ourselves, being born, living, and dying. It would appear, then, as though 'we,' 'our souls,' or 'selves,' or 'personalities,' or by whatever name we may prefer to be called, are but the consensus and full- flowing stream of countless sensations and impulses on the part of our tributary souls or 'selves,' who probably no more know that we exist, and that they exist as a part of us, than a microscopic insect knows the results of spectrum analysis, or than an agricultural labourer knows the working of the British Constitution; and of whom we know no more than we do of the habits and feelings of some class widely separated from our own."-("Life and Habit," p. 110.)

After which it became natural to ask the following question :- "Is it possible to avoid imagining that we may be ourselves atoms, undesignedly combining to form some vaster being, though we are utterly incapable of perceiving this being as a single individual, or of realising the scheme and scope of our own combination? And this, too, not a spiritual being, which, without matter or what we think matter of some sort, is as complete nonsense to us as though men bade us love and lean upon an intelligent vacuum, but a being with what is virtually flesh and blood and bones, with organs, senses, dimensions in some way analogous to our own, into some other part of which being at the time of our great change we must infallibly re-enter, starting clean anew, with bygones bygones, and no more ache for ever from age or antecedents.

"'An organic being,' writes Mr. Darwin, 'is a microcosm, a little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms inconceivably minute and numerous as the stars in Heaven.' As these myriads of smaller organisms are parts and processes of us, so are we parts and processes of life at large."

A tree is composed of a multitude of subordinate trees, each bud being a distinct individual. So coral polypes form a tree- like growth of animal life, with branches from which spring individual polypes that are connected by a common tissue and supported by a common skeleton. We have no difficulty in seeing a unity in multitude, and a multitude in unity here, because we can observe the wood and the gelatinous tissue connecting together all the individuals which compose either the tree or the mass of polypes . Yet the skeleton, whether of tree or of polype , is inanimate; and the tissue, whether of bark or gelatine, is only the matted roots of the individual buds; so that the outward and striking connection between the individuals is more delusive than real. The true connection is one which cannot be seen, and consists in the animation of each bud by a like spirit-in the community of soul, in "the voice of the Lord which maketh men to be of one mind in an house"-"to dwell together in unity"-to take what are practically identical views of things, and express themselves in concert under all circumstances. Provided this-the true unifier of organism-can be shown to exist, the absence of gross outward and visible but inanimate common skeleton is no bar to oneness of personality.

Let us picture to our minds a tree of which all the woody fibre shall be invisible, the buds and leaves seeming to stand in mid-air unsupported and unconnected with one another, so that there is nothing but a certain tree- like collocation of foliage to suggest any common principle of growth uniting the leaves.

Three or four leaves of different ages stand living together at the place in the air where the end of each bough should be; of these the youngest are still tender and in the bud, while the older ones are turning yellow and on the point of falling. Between these leaves a sort of twig-like growth can be detected if they are looked at in certain lights, but it is hard to see, except perhaps when a bud is on the point of coming out. Then there does appear to be a connection which might be called branch-like.

The separate tufts are very different from one another, so that oak leaves, ash leaves, horse-chestnut leaves, etc., are each represented, but there is one species only at the end of each bough.

Though the trunk and all the inner boughs and leaves have disappeared, yet there hang here and there fossil leaves, also in mid-air; they appear to have been petrified, without method or selection, by what we call the caprices of nature; they hang in the path which the boughs and twigs would have taken, and they seem to indicate that if the tree could have been seen a million years earlier, before it had grown near its present size, the leaves standing at the end of each bough would have been found very different from what they are now. Let us suppose that all the leaves at the end of all the invisible boughs, no matter how different they now are from one another, were found in earliest budhood to be absolutely indistinguishable, and afterwards to develop towards each differentiation through stages which were indicated by the fossil leaves. Lastly, let us suppose that though the boughs which seem wanted to connect all the living forms of leaves with the fossil leaves, and with countless forms of which all trace has disappeared, and also with a single root- have become invisible, yet that there is irrefragable evidence to show that they once actually existed, and indeed are existing at this moment, in a condition as real though as invisible to the eye as air or electricity. Should we, I ask, under these circumstances hesitate to call our imaginary plant or tree by a single name, and to think of it as one person, merely upon the score that the woody fibre was invisible? Should we not esteem the common soul, memories and principles of growth which are preserved between all the buds, no matter how widely they differ in detail, as a more living bond of union than a framework of wood would be, which, though it were visible to the eye, would still be inanimate?

The mistletoe appears as closely connected with the tree on which it grows as any of the buds of the tree itself; it is fed upon the same sap as the other buds are, which sap-however much it may modify it at the last moment-it draws through the same fibres as do its foster-brothers-why then do we at once feel that the mistletoe is no part of the apple tree? Not from any want of manifest continuity, but from the spiritual difference-from the profoundly different views of life and things which are taken by the parasite and the tree on which it grows-the two are now different because they think differently-as long as they thought alike they were alike-that is to say they were protoplasm-they and we and all that lives meeting in this common substance.

We ought therefore to regard our supposed tufts of leaves as a tree, that is to say, as a compound existence, each one of whose component items is compounded of others which are also in their turn compounded. But the tree above described is no imaginary parallel to the condition of life upon the globe; it is perhaps as accurate a description of the Tree of Life as can be put into so small a compass. The most sure proof of a man's identity is the power to remember that such and such things happened, which none but he can know; the most sure proof of his remembering is the power to react his part in the original drama, whatever it may have been; if a man can repeat a performance with consummate truth, and can stand any amount of cross-questioning about it, he is the performer of the original performance, whatever it was. The memories which all living forms prove by their actions that they possess-the memories of their common identity with a single person in whom they meet-this is incontestable proof of their being animated by a common soul. It is certain, therefore, that all living forms, whether animal or vegetable, are in reality one animal; we and the mosses being part of the same vast person in no figurative sense, but with as much bona fide literal truth as when we say that a man's finger-nails and his eyes are parts of the same man.

It is in this Person that we may see the Body of God-and in the evolution of this Person, the mystery of His Incarnation.

[In "Unconscious Memory," Chapter V, Butler wrote: "In the articles above alluded to ("God the Known and God the Unknown") I separated the organic from the inorganic, but when I came to rewrite them I found that this could not be done, and that I must reconstruct what I had written." This reconstruction never having been effected, it may be well to quote further from "Unconscious Memory" (concluding chapter): "At parting, therefore, I would recommend the reader to see every atom in the universe as living and able to feel and remember, but in a humble way. He must have life eternal as well as matter eternal; and the life and the matter must be joined together inseparably as body and soul to one another. Thus he will see God everywhere, not as those who repeat phrases conventionally, but as people who would have their words taken according to their most natural and legitimate meaning; and he will feel that the main difference between him and many of those who oppose him lies in the fact that whereas both he and they use the same language, his opponents only half mean what they say, while he means it entirely... We shall endeavour to see the so-called inorganic as living, in respect of the qualities it has in common with the organic, rather than the organic as non- living in respect of the qualities it has in common with the inorganic."]


Samuel Butler

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