Saturday, November 24, 2007

River Spirit and Religion

Contemplat-ive practices such as prayer and meditation can encourage greater care for others, including the natural world. Projects such as Faith in Action link deep theological reflection with awareness and knowledge practices embedded within a mainstream religious framework. Such projects hearten thoughts on oneness, impress 'seeing in a sacred manner' and enliven spiritual effervescence with what is holy (Samz, 2007).

The Faith in Action project lays out a four step process from awareness to action to become immersed in projects to protect the other. First become aware of the issues. Then analyse what's happening, who is affected, who is involved? Reflection comes next, for example, around projects such as Earth Charter or interfaith alliances. These three steps then lead to action, involvement, solidarity and regeration. So, Faith in Action implores: 'Follow where your heart leads.' 'Walk gently on the earth.' 'Be in touch with creation.'

Getting in touch with the river is a contemplative practice deepened by falling in step with the patterns and changes of the water, the tidal flow, the movement of birds, the slithering of lizards and, with recent rain, the regeneration of habitat (inlcuding problematic plants galore). These intricate shifts in the ecosystem become sacred signifiers for co-creative encounters. This is an additional step in the from awarenss to action process but is overlooked in the Faith in Action four step program - frequent and meaningful communion with the riverscape.

Sometimes it seems as if the river is alerting me to the damage along the banks and, with the 'green' drought, the sparsity of the tree canopy, the decline in small birds and the disappearance of small mammals and carpet snakes. Through connecting to this sacred waterway, the river itself offers the opportunity for deep reflection about the health of the ecosystem and the sorts of actions needed to create healthy waterways - like getting involved in replanting, weeding and water monitoring rivercare projects.

There is a link here between the religious and spiritual practice of contemplative reflection, nature engagement and holding an action orientation towards environmental and social justice. Yet there is limited Australian research into the dimensions of this relationship between nature connection, awareness and environmental responsibility. There is little information on the meanings people attribute to natural environments (e.g. the sanctification of nature) or how this stimulates their interest in taking responsbility over water resource issues.

What research exists about these links from a religion point of view comes from the US where studies reveal low levels of environmental concern related to Christian ‘biblical literalism’ (Greely, 1993) and church attendance (Guth et al, 1993), although Boyd (1999) found that pro-environment behaviour amongst Christians, Jews and even those expressing no religion increased with the increasing frequency of prayer.

Being involved in a religion and attending church were also found to be indicators of ecological awareness. For example, research on Presbyterian church adherents in the US operationalised participants’ views on the sanctification of nature inquiring whether nature is sacred because it was created by God, whether it is sacred in its own right, or whether there was any sense of the sacred or spiritual at all in nature (Tarakeshwar et al, 2001). Responses were then linked to environmental concern and behaviour.

Sanctification of nature, considered by participants as a significant dimension of religious life, plus their level of religious involvement, were positively associated with pro-environment beliefs, attitude and behaviours. However, none of these American studies, as well as more recent research on the interplay of religion and environment, has considered nature connectedness as a variable in their research (e.g. Biels and Nilsson, 2005: Skerkat and Ellinson, 2007).

What emerges from this brief interdisciplinary exploration of research is that engagement with nature, in this case with the Brisbane River system, is located within a complex, multi-faceted relationship with water resources and nature generally, in which physical, sensory, cognitive and spiritual experiences interact with cultural meanings and values as an engaging and effervescent ‘lived experience’ of the river environment.

Biels A. and A. Nilsson, 2005, ‘Religious Values and Environmental Concern: Harmony and Detachment,’ Social Science Quarterly, 86, 1, 178-191.
Bouma G.D., 2006, Australian Soul. Religion and Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.
Boyd H.H., 1999, ‘Christianity and the Environment in the American Public,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 38, 36 - 44.
Department of Environment and Conservation, 2007, Who Cares about the Environment in 2006? A Survey of NSW People’s Environmental Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviours, Sydney: Department of Environment and Conservation.
Greely A., 1993, ‘Religion and Attitudes toward the Environment,’ Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, 32, 1, 19-28.
Guth J.A., L.A. Kellstedt, C.E. Smidt, and J.C. Green, 1993, ‘Theological Perspectives and Environmentalism Among Religious Activists,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 32, 4, 373-382.
Kearns L., 2004, ‘The Context of Eco-theology,’ in G. Jones, Ed., Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Sherkat D.E. and C.G. Ellison, 2007, ‘Structuring the Religion-Environment Connection: Identifying Religious Influences on Environmental Concern and Action,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 46, 1, 71-85.
Samz, M., 2007, Visioning the Circle of Life: Our Oneness,
Tacey D., 2000, ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality, Sydney, HarperCollins.
Tarakeshwar N., A.B. Swank, K.I Pargament, and A Mahoney, 2001, ‘The Sanctification of Nature and Theological Conservatism: A Study Opposing Religious Correlates of Environmentalism,’ Review of Religious Research, 42, 4, 387-404.
Taylor B., 2004, ‘A Green Future for Religion?’ Futures, 36, 991-1008.