In my living room, I have an oil painting of the grove in Palmyra where Mormonism’s First Vision occurred. It is a family heirloom painted by the wife of a well-known RLDS Seventy of my parents’ generation who befriended them when they retired to Independence. Since Joseph Smith is not shown in the picture, nor the picture labeled in any way except with the painter’s name, its religious significance is not apparent to any of the Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or other students that enter the home for piano lessons each week. That is so despite the fact that the painting is directly visible to them from their seat at the piano. To them it is simply a woodland scene.
They do not speak my religious language, and so my religious symbols are as meaningless to them as the religious symbols they may enter the house wearing — or the festivals they are absent to celebrate — have often been to me.
The ability to recognize common meanings in religious symbols without having to “translate” the concepts into words provides a good check on how closely religious communities remain related. If you see a symbol and can more or less intuitively understand much of what it means to the person beside you, you are both probably part of the same community, or at least closely related communities. However, if you hear that person offer an explanation of the meaning that would never occur to you in a million years, you can take it for granted that your two communities have diverged. Like someone famously said about the Americans and the British: “They are two peoples divided by a common language.”
The photo at the top of the post is of a “grove” behind the rostrum at the Community of Christ USA National Conference specifically built as a worship setting for the conference. (I previously wrote about the events of that conference that offered rights of ordination, marriage, and commitment ceremonies to LGBT members of the church in the United States here.) The symbolism of the “aspen grove” was one of the emphases in the early publicity releases of the church on the conference (which is why the photo got printed in local Kansas City media in the first place). It was also the emphasis in a “worship reflection” order of worship made available for use by congregations throughout the USA after the conference as part of the effort to minimize disunity following the results of the conference.
Traditional Restorationists — of either the LDS or RLDS variety — will easily connect the grove in the conference with the grove where the First Vision occurred (shown in a 20th Century photograph to the right). Of course, they might say, the Community of Christ is seeking wisdom from God in the sense of the New Testament Book of James! How appropriate to build the symbol of the grove into the worship setting of the conference!
However, that was not the symbolism of the “grove” that the leaders of the church wanted emphasized in either the media releases or the worship reflection. What they wanted emphasized was the “aspen-ness” of the grove. Quoting from the worship reflection:
“We gather for worship today in a grove of aspen. Aspen trees only grow in community; they cannot grow alone. Though they appear to be separate trees, they are connected by their roots and in fact an entire grove of aspen trees, though they appear many, is really one organism, one body. Their deep roots give them the strength to weather difficult times and to reach the full potential that the Creator intended. Connected this way, aspen groves endure for many thousands of years.
“And so, we find ourselves here in the grove – the place where we gather together to discover God’s will for the church. We have been here before, and know that God is faithful and will meet us here again. We know that every encounter with God, every touch of the Savior, every dance with the Holy Spirit leads us into the unfamiliar future. God will meet us there, too, as we are being rooted and grounded in love.”
The phrase “we have been here before” in the second paragraph can arguably refer to the First Vision — if you are familiar with the First Vision from some other source. Of course, if you wanted to interpret it solely in light of the first paragraph, you could do that as well and end up with only a generalized statement of God’s faithfulness to all peoples and all places.
It is the first paragraph that carries the main message — that is pretty standard training for marketing/communications professionals — and was the only part of the related press releases that was noted by local media. The nature of aspen trees is a fairly obscure aspect of botany for a main message, and so the intended symbolism had to be explained for the media and, indeed, for the church as a whole.
When the casual observer goes into a woods in the northeastern United States where Joseph Smith lived, he or she probably can’t tell whether the trees are aspen, birch, or oak, let alone whether any aspens present are generated by the fall of seeds like other trees (which, of course, is how every wild aspen grove starts originally) or as clonal communities from the root system. You have to stretch your thinking a lot to see the aspen grove as your best symbol of a community that is so interconnected that it endures through all things.
Perhaps that is what the Community of Christ means when it speaks of the need to “go deeper” into the meaning of our religious sacraments, scriptures, and symbols. “Going deeper” can always uncover greater theological insights, because we deal with a topic, God, that is inherently infinite. But the aspects of the infinite that we discover are also conditioned by the biases we bring to the decision of what we look to see first. In other words, preconceptions can cause Americans to wind up with “boot” being a symbol for a heavy-duty foot covering, while the British can conclude that a “boot” is a rear storage compartment in an automobile. To which the American will reply, no, the rear storage compartment of an automobile is a trunk, and the British will retort that a trunk is a large box for household goods. Too much of that, and the two peoples can no longer understand each other.
Let me “go deeper” into the meaning of an aspen grove, too, but along a different axis. Aspens can grow perfectly well by themselves. They are used in the Great Lakes area, for example, to line long driveways or provide shade in big lawns in new developments because they grow fast and do not leave lower branches alive as obstacles. Neither do they require high-quality soils. The only special care that is required to keep them exactly where you put them is the need to mow down the little aspens that sprout near the base of the original trees for a few years — until the shade of the original kills them itself.
Because that’s why the aspen evolved the trick of cloning little copies of itself from its roots, and why most of the root system grows almost horizontally, contrary to what the press release emphasizes. If you are aspen, you can’t behave like birch or oak or maple or hickory or evergreen. The aspen is so intolerant of shade, it must literally escape from its “parent” tree or die. An individual must grow straight skyward and not spread out, lest there is no sunlight left for its clones. And the seeds it generates must find open territory, not forest underbrush, to sprout successfully.
It is a tree that appears early in forest succession, only to eventually give way to hardwood species more tolerant of shade. Groves can indeed survive for thousands of years, but not because they are especially good at weathering hard conditions, or because of any special affinity for deep-rootedness. They survive for such time spans only where there is constant disruption by things like fire forcing the local forest to “start over”. (Such disruption has been provided in the Northeast during more recent US history by clearing or logging most of the earlier hardwood forests to meet the needs of European settlers or importers for wood.)
So what is the grove to symbolize to someone in the Restoration? Is it to be defined as the place we go when we lack wisdom and must ask of God? Is it to be the symbol of enduring as a single, connected community through all things on into times to come? Or is it to be a symbol of the need to constantly disrupt or escape the environment that gave us religious birth before the taller status of our predecessors cuts off our own access to the light?
What does seem clear to me is that if the Community of Christ has reached the point where any one of those meanings is intuitively obvious to some of us, while either of the other meanings strike others of us as requiring a Rosetta Stone to process, than the existence of separate communities within the body is a fait accompli, not merely a dread for the future. Then, our languages have been confounded.
And there is a Mormon scripture about the importance of avoiding that outcome, too, in Ether 1:34-37:
34 And the brother of Jared being a large and mighty man, and a man highly favored of the Lord, Jared, his brother, said unto him: Cry unto the Lord, that he will not confound us that we may not understand our words.
35 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did cry unto the Lord, and the Lord had compassion upon Jared; therefore he did not confound the language of Jared; and Jared and his brother were not confounded.
36 Then Jared said unto his brother: Cry again unto the Lord, and it may be that he will turn away his anger from them who are our friends, that he confound not their language.
37 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did cry unto the Lord, and the Lord had compassion upon their friends and their families also, that they were not confounded.
May it be so.