Wednesday, November 14, 2007

River Religion

Connecting to the river is part of a daily pilgrimage, a spiritual and sacred practice of homage. Watching the Spoonbiil slurp through the mud along Sandy Creek is a measure of reverence for this place and its extended ecosystem from watershed to ocean. The water flowing on the tidal exchange between fresh and salt is the ritualistic dance of this river religion. The sound and sight of birds, lizards, skinks, dog wallkers and joggers, rowers and kayakers, all combine in an expression of what the early sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to as 'collective effervescence' - a religious fervour that emerges in society during periods of social change or upheaval.

At a time of increasing awareness of global warming and the need for pro-environmental behaviours to transcend the rush towards devastation, the notion of collective effervescence is celebratory.

Present day theorists of religion such as Gary Bouma (Australian Soul, 2006) and Danièle Hervieu-Léger (Religion as a Chain of Memory, 2000) note the shift towards a more experiential embodied quest for the sacred in post-industrial society. Hervieu-Léger suggests that the hierarchy, dogma and social institutionalisation of mainline religions has dwindled in the spread of what was seen as secularisation but, as Bouma has observed, there is a lingering spiritual attraction that bubbles along in the hinterland of organised religion as well as through the diversity of emergent individualised expressions of self-styled spiritualities.

On one hand the upsurge in religion as experience has spawned an outflow of emotionally-based worship; on the other, it has given rise to a range of spiritual dimensions from ecclectic self-serve new age practices to a deep engagement in ritual magick, various dynamic forms of nature religion and an ecological revisioning of mainstream scriptures and religious services.

The river and the extended ecosystem offer a stage for the outpouring of collective effervescence. The overhead shriek of the cockatoos as they descend on the eucalypt branches and tree hollows, the high-pitched delicious call of the Butcher Bird, the purring whirr of the Black Faced Cuckoo Shreik, the clever sprouting Mangroves which line the riverbank - these encounters with the wilder parts of urbania can be seen as an upsurge of effervescent feeling through mutual interaction between human and nature.

Hervieu-Léger (2000:52) citing WIlliam James says that the essence of religion is found in inner experience, the wondrous emotional connection 'at once collective and individual'. What is important, she says, is the process of religious engagement - first comes the intensity of feeling which emerges from connection with the sacred and then, in terms of organised religion, the sacred is vesselised, contained and rationalised into beliefs, rituals and teachings.

Breaking down the steps in an ecological sense removes the distinction between feeling and teaching. Wild and sacred places have the power to excite, to stimulate feelings of intensity, insight and personal transformation. They teach not only about the ecosystem services, they create an opportunity for learning about ourselves. Borrowing from Hervieu-Léger (2000:60), there is a mutual involvement of the sacred and religion, an emotional renewal that surfaces on the wavelets of this precious stretch of the Brisbane River.

Bouma GD, 2006, Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality for the 21st Century, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.
Hervieu-Léger D, 1993, 2000, Religion as a Chain of Memory, Cambridge, Polity Press.