(Freeman, C. 2014. Thylacine Rock Art1)

3. Soul Search: A Grounded Theology: Radio National, ABC, Meredith Lake 2021

Section
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
Chapter
1.10 Spiritual Responses
Page
1.10.3

It is a bit embarrassing to be so shamelessly mining Meredith Lake’s fine work on Radio National, ABC Australia, again! (sorry Meredith, I hope you see it as a compliment), but the previous programs and Pope Francis’ encyclical are largely, but by no means exclusively, focused on several large, established religions, like Buddhism and Catholicism, and there is a need to investigate indigenous beliefs, particularly as they are seen by many in environmental movements as the way forward. Of course, it is impossible to summarise indigenous beliefs as regards the environment as there is great diversity now, and there must have been great diversity over time, only little bits of which have come through to the present day and have been filtered through an array of interests, perspectives and experiences.

Nonetheless, ‘A Grounded Theology’ –  https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/soul-search/indigenous-theologian-garry-deverell/13435772 – offers a very interesting view of the spiritual understanding of the Trawloolway people of north-east Tasmania and this, for now, will have to serve as a stepping-off point for exploration of other indigenous belief systems, both in Australia and around the world.

The program interviews Garry Deverell, a Trawloolway man and theologian at the University of Divinity in Melbourne. He describes the essential features of their country as being that the ancestors “are alive in the landscape” and that this is manifest in a ‘dreaming’ that is a sort of spiritual world that is going on around them all the time. Interaction with the land, its creatures and spirits is all about relationships, about kin, and this kinship must be tended and maintained through a system of ethics, one of which is the search for harmony with earth and other people. Ritual is vital to tending these relationships and is exercised through the mind and the body. Deverell goes on to emphasise that the relationship with the land is “earthy and humble”.

This seems like a very positive framework for building the human-Nature relationship and adds weight to the desire of many environmentalists for an indigenous spirituality to guide how we live with Nature. This said, other aspects of the podcast had me wondering if this is uniformly so. Garry Deverell is at pains to say that the above understanding is not like Western or Eastern experiences of transcendence or mysticism, but very much a pragmatic approach, all about “economics and relationships”. This has given me pause for thought before (see Articles 1.1.10), a concern that an emphasis on use values could lead to a sort of ruthless utilitarianism that would lead believers back to the sort of narrow and controlling extrinsic understanding of Nature where ‘country’ is reduced to a wholly owned subsidiary of Humans Inc.; to nothing more than a sort of farm. Without great care this emphasis can tip over into the very colonial notions of ownership, control and dominion that have been so rightly railed against. I certainly think this mistake has been made in the current run of books in Australia extolling Aboriginal ‘farming’ and ‘agriculture’ (has similar occurred elsewhere in the world?), which has, unwittingly I presume, underplayed the spiritual setting and hunter-gathering of indigenous life and played up the sedentary economic rationalist. This seeking to outcompete the white colonist at his own game (hardly the gold standard of environmental care) is most unhelpful, I believe, in building a healthy human-Nature relationship.

Hopefully this obsession with the ‘practical’ is a phase required to correct previous under-valuing of Aboriginal ingenuity and achievements, and we will return to a more balanced and healthier embracing of the other, or as Garry Deverell says twice in the interview, to become “enfolded in a reality greater than myself” – or ourselves.

To help build this ‘greater reality’, he tells an interesting story of being approached by the leader of the Greens Party in Australia at the time, Christine Milne, to develop a ritual for environmental healing and relationship-building with the natural world. He developed a Liturgy in the Forest which set out to talk to the forest and earth through Western religious forms – an interesting amalgam and idea – and I wonder how participants found the experience. It also reminds me of Albert Tucker’s idea about the necessity of combining ancient myths with the Australian landscape (see Paintings 1.7.6) and the blending of existing musical and religious forms with ‘new’ subject matter in Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered (see Music 1.6.3).

Ultimately, all our claiming and counter-claiming, our hubris and our fears, come to nought. As Michael Leunig wrote when musing on citizenship tests and the like in Australia2: “The land with its human and non-human creatures is the great teacher, not the bureaucrat; the land has its unique pulse and power, a peculiar spirit that cannot be quantified. That spirit of country has been fundamental to the Indigenous people, and is also seen in the ideas of great Western thinkers like Carl Jung, who believed that each land mass has a unique mysterious energy or spirit that in time affects the temperament of those who live there.

“I was once told by a senior Chinese theologian that he enjoyed his extended academic visits to Australia because the country had an immense spiritual feeling which, although not obvious, was palpable and had an observable effect on the people here”.

 

1 Freeman, C. 2014. Paper Tiger. Forty South Publishing, Hobart, Tasmania. (Note: this rock art is from the Dampier Archipelago of n-w Western Australia where Thylacines have been extinct for at least 3000 years).

2 Leunig, M. 2017. A New Land Still Learning. The Age, 24/6.

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