The Tree of Salvation

YggdrasilRonald Murphy’s fine book Tree of salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North provides some intriguing insights into the relationship between mythology and Christianity. As the title implies, the main focus is on the Germanic cosmic tree Yggdrasil. Indeed, this Tree was converted to the Tree of life from Eden and the tree on which Christ was hung when the Norse cultures were converted to Christianity. Moreover, these people were told to abandon Odin and the other deities but were allowed to keep Yggdrasil, which became the structural principal of the stave churches and the round churches as Murphy demonstrates at length.

Although a Christian could hardly worship Odin, there are some interesting elements in his myth of interest to a Christian who uses Girard’s critique of myth. Odin had one eye, having sacrificed it for wisdom. Although the victims of primordial collective violence are arbitrary, anything, such as a physical blemish, that makes a person stand out makes that person a likely target. More interesting yet, Odin hung on the tree Yggdrasil to gain more wisdom. It is the Girardian thinker James Alison who coined the phrase “the intelligence of the victim” to indicate that the victim understands what the persecutor do not. As a likely target for violence because of his deformity, he would already have understood the sacrificial dynamics of society more than other people. The early medieval Germanic poem The Heliand and the old English Dream of the Rood both write of the cross as the cosmic tree, namely Yggdrasil. Murphy analyzes these poems well for their rich theological vision where redemption is glorious with no punitive aspects to it. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.

Of greatest interest is the role of Yggdrasil in the Ragnarök myth. The Ragnarök myth is unique in world mythology as far as I can tell because of its future orientation. Normally the chaos  precedes civilization and culture emerges out of it. According to Girard this emergence is possible because of the collective violence that puts a tourniquet on the chaos. With the Norse, the chaotic violence concludes civilizatoin. All social order breaks down and Yddgrasil, always subject to attack by the serpent that eats at its roots, is subject to more intense attack. As humanity unravels and reaches the brink of destruction, Yggdrasil saves the couple Lief and Lifthrasir by sheltering them unto the danger is past so that they can start humanity anew.

When Murphy describes the Yggdrasil symbolism in the stave and round churches in Scandinavia with all the carved and painted leaves and the enormous central pillars in the round churches, he suggests that the church has become Yggdrasil that offers shelter from the culture of violence. Only, rather than sheltering only one couple, it shelters everybody who comes into it, making the church a symbol of what it ought to be in human culture.

The Viking culture is notorious to this day for its wanton violence and cruelty, especially for people like me who are descended from inhabitants of the British Isles. Horrible as their violence was, maybe it was that very violence that helped them understand the Gospel in new ways that we could profit from today. Their dread of eschatological violence is quite a contrast to the fascinated desire for the same in American culture today. Perhaps they had some instinct for knowing that chaotic violence would be the result of their sacrificial way of life if they were not turned around. With this emphasis on deliverance from violence, there is little or no room for a penal notion of Christ’s Atonement. Murphy’s book is a great place to start to learn about the Norse contribution to Christianity.

A Peaceable Hope

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The strongest tension in the New Testament is that between the teachings of non-retribution and forgiveness on the one hand and eschatological retribution threatened for those who fail to follow the way of forgiveness and non-retribution on the other. The first problem is that it sets up a double standard between God and humans. We should be meek and mild but God will throw the bad guys into unquenchable fire where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. The second problem is that Jesus’ accepting death on the cross turns out not to be the ultimate revelation of God that Christianity usually teaches; violent retribution at the end of time is the last word. The third problem is that if violent retribution on the part of God is the last word, the hard practice of non-retribution doesn’t seem to be worth it.

David Neville’s fine book A Peaceable Hope is an indispensable examination of precisely these issues. He sees the divide primarily between some parables and some retributive sayings in Matthew and pretty much the rest of the New Testament. The tension, then, is strongest in Matthew since it includes the Sermon on the Mount and a stress on Jesus being the silent lamb led to the slaughter but also has many threats against those who do not live by these standards. So lopsided a division suggests that the weight of the New Testament as a whole comes down firmly on the concept of God as totally without violence. Neville draws the tension in Matthew and contrasts this Gospel with the three other canonical Gospels, all of which are strongly peaceable in its eschatological teaching to various degrees with John being the strongest on peace themes. The reception history of Revelation has often taken the book to teach retributive violence by God but Neville builds a strong case that the slaughtered lamb is the guiding image for the book as a whole.

Neville doesn’t try to speculate why Matthew would have as vindictive an eschatology as he does. We can make some educated guesses based on our own experiences with rejection and injury. If we can’t or won’t strike back, we like to think somebody bigger than we and our adversaries will come and tear them to pieces on our behalf. There are alternate ways of understanding these violent passages in the New Testament, among them the suggestion that they use firm imagery to show the consequences of rejecting Christ and Christ’s way. Raymund Schwager, for example thinks along these lines in Jesus in the Dram of Salvation. In such a reading, God is not actively acting out revenge on those who reject him; they are suffering the alienation and violence by which they have lived.

Neville’s careful and thoughtful exploration of this difficult issue is valuable for anybody who wants a firm biblical basis for believing in and teaching a God of peace.