By Ian Robinson

Travellers often report a spiritual experience in the desert. As one friend said about her visit to Uluru, ‘I am the least religious person I know, but something definitely spiritual happened to me at Uluru, and no one can tell me different.’[1] One journalist concluded, after attending a birthday party in a desert night, ‘I’ve been here before and felt the magnetic pull of the landscape… But I still haven’t fathomed how a place so empty can feel so complete?’[2] These secular spiritual people made their profoundly positive statements somewhat in personal self-defence. The sacred in their life was a kind stranger. If we had in our culture a better dialogue about spirituality of place, their reluctant spiritual experiences could have been better understood, they could have coped with its intrusion, and then they might have seen a path forward to grow spiritually.

This dialogue is already under way in a number of ways:

a. A widespread interest in ‘Sense of Place’, including a caring attitude to the place where one feels one belongs.

b. Christian Theology of Nature/Creation have made a number of new beginnings in recent decades.

c. The popularity of Pilgrimage is rising in many traditional places.

This article will explore each of these and identify some elements which can guide the exploration of the spirit of the Australian deserts.

Sense of Place

John Cameron’s social ecology project[3] cited eleven reasons why it remains hard for European Australians and others to have a sense of place on the Australian continent. His aim was to foster a sense of place with sufficient depth that it motivated a sustainable environmental ethic and engaged with people about the continent we share. These reasons were:

· the remoteness of the colonies and the farms from each other

· the long journey from the UK

· the conflict between convicts and settlers

· the strange new flora and fauna

· the rapid decimation of the indigenous people (so that the landscape was changing as the immigrants watched)

· a poor understanding of the indigenous culture, technologies and country

· the battle to establish agriculture

· immigrants bring the memory of their homes with them

· globalisation threatens the distinctiveness of particular places

· the internet disembodies communities and communications

· the current population and economic shift from rural to urban effaces the natural[4]

Against those eleven influences Cameron noted four factors which are bringing the study of ‘sense of place’ or ‘spirit of place’ to the fore:

· Art has undergone a renaissance in Aboriginal communities. This bridge of understanding has raised the desire of some Europeans to be reconciled with a defeated first nation, though all attempts fall short in different ways.

· Environmental concerns have increased in the general populace raising the desire to re-consider how to live sustainably in it. These concerns are strengthened by the changing weather from global warming which questions the viability of our current lifestyle.

· With Judith Wright and Les Murray in the 1940’s and 1950’s, a lyrical sense of landscape emerged in Australian poetry alongside a new post-war appreciation of painting landscape. Cameron echoes Haynes (above) in this.

· Post-structuralism as a post-modern philosophical trend seeks to rediscover raw experience upon which to base non-institutional constructions. The key twentieth century concepts of Feminism and Self-determination are generating new theologies of place, gender and race.[5]

All of these points are in agreement with the picture that has emerged from the work of Haynes (1998), Brown (1991) and Tacey (1995). In colloquia held over several years, Cameron gathered academics and cross-cultural practitioners to reflect on their sense of place. They gathered together authentic responses to places in Australia, useful both for their breadth of viewpoint and the sensibility of their experience. They brought personal stories as well as perspectives that were cultural, psychological, spiritual and literary.

All contributors were seeking a way out from the use of land as an object for wealth-creation which is a pattern of exploitive practice and personal alienation. ‘Reconnecting and reanimating the world has great healing potential’, Cameron said, ‘while the denial of a deep connection with land produced alienation and loss in both the land and the people’.[6]

The ways of ‘healing’ and ‘alienation’ were explored by Sr Veronica Brady (2003). Appropriating Helen Cixous’ two ‘economies of perception’, Brady showed that attitudes to place can move in two different directions.[7] On the one hand ‘the economy of the proper’ is concerned with property, appropriation, and propriety. This objectifies land as an ‘it’ which is economically ripe for exploitation. Within this perceptional economy, poets are subjects in search of an object to write about, artists hold up a brush at arm’s length to get the perspective right, which Victoria King calls ‘agnosis’ – a Western condition of ‘being able to look but not see’.[8] Critics from within this economy call lyricism the ‘pathetic fallacy’, where inanimate objects are metaphorically attributed the feelings or thoughts of the human author. The land has no meanings except what people bestow for themselves – by legal possession, psychological projection or cultural subjugation.

On the other hand the ‘economy of gift’ is characterised by gratitude, acceptance, holding without the desire to subdue or possess, and ‘loving attention’. Land-sympathy in this view is not a ‘fallacy’ – land does actually speak to an imaginal sense, which is beyond the bodily senses.[9]

Brady’s point in this comparison was that people could change attitudes by moving in the direction either of the economy of the gift or in the direction of the proper. The two attitudes could co-exist, she adds, but Australian history has been almost all dominated by ‘the proper’.

A number of authors on ‘sense of place’ broadly concur on the change process. John Cameron called the change of direction towards ‘gift’ a ‘deepening into place’. It involves ‘a willingness to let go of mental and visual preconceptions and dream into a mutual relationship with country in the manner of the poet and the artist.’ By its inward response it is distinct from a moral commitment to an abstract principle like ‘sustainability’.[10] The environmental scientist Peter Cock (2003) echoed this view, concerned that motivation can not be sustained when involved in the environmental movement without a personal eco-bonding.[11] Susan Murphy, a writer and film director, called this movement of attitude ‘opening into place’.[12] Psychologist David Russeldrew from Martin Buber’s classic text on modernity to claim that instead of an I-it relationship, people need to move to an I-thou relationship with the land.[13] An example of this is from a novel by David Malouf, An Imaginary Life:

I must drive out my old self and let the universe in. The creatures will come creeping back… then we shall begin to take back into ourselves the lakes, the rivers, the oceans of the earth, its plains….then the spirit of things will migrate back into us. We shall be whole.[14]

Furthermore, this dynamic of ‘drive out/let in’ was the precondition ‘for a mutually respectful dialogue with people about what it means to inhabit this continent in the new millennium’.[15]

The contributors to Changing Places moved away from technical and literal views received from the empiricist and imperial tradition, and focussed upon the change of human consciousness through the importance of imaginal perception as well as perception through the bodily senses.

It is possible to summarise the process of change in three different stages:

a. From the structures of culture and memory which had already been received, they spoke of story-sharing with those whose experience of place is different from their own.

b. Secondly, they allowed the awareness of the richness of wonder and gift arising from those stories.

c. Thirdly they accepted the spirituality of this wonder, in whatever way they imagined ‘spirit’. There was no agreement on this third step and their levels of discourse vary. We will return to this issue when considering Cavan Brown’s contribution, but these three stages form the backbone of the attempt to synthesise the processes of transformation in Chapter 5.

In Christian circles, both the American Walter Brueggemann (1977) and the Australian Geoff Lilburne (1989) set out to elucidate the meaning of the land in biblical terms. Brueggemann’s theology of land was extensive, and concluded that the land (Hebrew eretz or adamah) is ‘a central if not the central theme of biblical faith’, which has often been overlooked in biblical theologies which are more interested in an inward spirituality or an ethnic narrative.[16] In this observation he joined several others who have observed a lack of interest at this level during the period of the European Enlightenment. He does, however, see the land in dialectical terms with the ongoing significance of the ‘dispossessed’, which will be discussed later where Jesus takes the standpoint of the ‘landless’.[17]

More particularly, Lilburne focussed on the meaning of land as a ‘place’, with a particular history, as distinct from a ‘space’, a calculable piece of geography.[18] This storied particularity is at odds with the genericised way in which Bible translators render the Hebrew words for desert localities (to which we shall return in chapter six). Lilburne’s most creative contribution is the intellectual centring upon the ‘Christification’ of place (though that term itself may not be a great contribution), that is, the alignment of the Incarnation of Christ with the meaning of embodied and grounded life. This is a call for a new epistemology and takes its place alongside many others who call for the same radical intellectual change. His purpose in writing also included the care of the environment and indigenous land rights. Sally McFague ( 1993) went further to call Creation ‘the Body of God’. Hamma (1999) provided practical ideas for reflection on how this sense of place can be uncovered for oneself.[19]

Writers on ‘sense of place’ have provided a rich phenomenological vein of insight which removes ‘land’ from narrow empirical categories of physical possession, visual art or ecology. The theological world is similarly diverse with new approaches to Nature, a recovery of the doctrine of Creation.

Natural Theology

Whereas ‘sense of place’ is a new concept to many, theologies of Creation are not. The church has always had much to say about attitudes to Nature, including many arguments about scientific developments that are either initially or actually inimical to that theology. The arguments are witness to the ambiguity of life. Even the songs of worship in the Bible, the Psalms, contain both bitter laments over the vicissitudes of earthly living and outpoured thanksgivings to the God who sustains the earth. Between these two phenomena, natural theologies are constructed.

In an early modern environment, William Wordsworth spoke for many in finding an easy metaphor in nature for the God of his faith. He was not naïve about the constructive role of the perceiver, but believed that God’s handiwork was fairly directly observed in people and nature, and that the God-held creation provided metaphors for faith. This excerpt is an example of Wordsworth’s natural theology:

Retrospect – Love Of Nature Leading To Love Of Man [20]

…Call ye these appearances –
Which I beheld of shepherds in my youth,
This sanctity of Nature given to man –
A shadow, a delusion, ye who pore
On the dead letter, miss the spirit of things…

In the generation that followed this poem, however, the theory of evolution began its ascent as the widely held explanation for the prima facie design of each creature of the earth. Parallel with this science, astronomy explained and distanced the heavens, and naïve natural theologies lost their appeal. In addition to the change of scientific view, there is also now a much stronger critique of the act of perception, of what persons read into their experiences, and certainly what they read into a landscape.[21]

This issue has an intellectual version and a popular version.

Intellectual trends hover between critical realism and deconstructionism. One intellectual view came from the multi-layered historical landscapes of Britain: ‘Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.’[22] Simon Schama questioned whether anything comes out of the landscape that wasn’t put there by the observer. The valid aspect of this view can be seen in the changing traditions of landscape art – the human eye sees different things in the same place as cultural epochs turn and change. Therefore, it suggests that any sense of connection with or design by or metaphor for God is solely a human projection. Thus some people are extremely sceptical of their experiences to add shape and content to their spirituality. This breeds either anarchy or fundamentalism.

On the other hand, Veronica Brady was not as completely sceptical about human perception. She agreed that she was not inclined to place her trust fully either in personal experiences or in history. She has learned

…about the impurity of mere reason, the ways in which it is entangled in history and can become an aspect of power and, at the personal level, of self-interest. I now understand better the dangers of subjectivity in general and religious feeling in particular; the delusions, dishonesties and distortions they make possible. Yet for me it remains undeniable that existence is dialectical, that there is an interdependence between what we know and some larger reality…[23]

No Wordsworthian expositor of the analogy of Nature, Brady seeks ‘the articulation of silence’, but expects that silence to have shape. For her, a genuine spirituality of land is possible.

At the popular level, there is another reason for the revision of natural theology. It is not the debate in the media and schools over theories of Origin, held between advocates of Creationism, Intelligent Design and Evolution. The issue of a purpose in Creation is much more pressing. Since nuclear proliferation and widespread pollution driven by mass technologies, technological Reason has lost its popular supremacy. Therefore, just as some distrust experience, some are extremely distrustful of intellectual constructs that are received from somewhere else. This breeds either subjectivism, where people select with their not-so-honest hearts the most appealing ideas, or it breeds cynicism, which opposes any perceived dominant view.

There are people in between, searching responsibly for ways to reach valid and satisfying balances. For instance, Colin Gunton describes the theological task as one arising from a perilous contemporary gap between the ‘docetic’ tendency of orthodox Christology, where ‘domination by treatments of the divine Christ… has often failed to do justice to Chalcedon’s ‘of one substance with ourselves’’, and the ‘immanentist’ culture, which ‘cannot easily come to terms with apparently transcendentalist thinking.’[24]

The discussion so far has formed a matrix formed by dualities including Christ’s divinity and humanity, perception and reality, experience and reason, origin and purpose, agony and ecstasy, time and eternity. To address these issues, theologians in this generation have begun to develop six distinct fronts in the recovery of a Natural Theology:

1. A revived dialogue with science.

Science has been allowed to make positive contributions to religion. Gregg (2000) cites Jean Danielou (1961) that technology ‘frees religion and the supernatural from a whole cumbersome burden of the pseudo-supernatural and the pseudo-religious’.[25] Conversely, the study of Quantum Mechanics (sub-atomic events) has challenged western rationalism’s methodology. Since being humbled by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, some scientific disciplines have looked to theology and Taoism for interpretive models.[26]

2. Creation-spirituality.

Matthew Fox (1983) revived the reading of leaders from the pre-industrial Christian Europe like Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen. As he reconstructed spirituality in tune with Creation he demoted the doctrines of redemption and church in favour of indigenous spirituality and of humanity in general. This position became known as Creation Spirituality, and was a corrective to a perceived over-emphasis upon doctrines of Redemption. In Coming of the Cosmic Christ Fox called this ‘Christo-fascism’.[27] His programme over-compensated for modernity’s emphasis on knowable doctrine (kataphatic spirituality), in favour of an idealized view of indigenous spiritualities. Traditional Christianity has said that both creation and redemption are accomplished by the same personal Logos, so some better synthesis of this duality is possible. In Australia, Eugene Stocktontook a middle way, both in the theology of reconciliation (1990) and in his spirituality of the environment(1998). His way is ‘Wonder’: ‘Wonder is a way open, not only to followers of conventional religion, but also to the agnostic, the unbeliever, the searcher, the carer.’[28] This direction in Creation Spirituality is not about structured content but about the well trodden path of contemplation through the Wonder of creation.

3. Theology of aesthetics.

While Matthew Fox was right in naming the need of the church to re-capture creation spirituality, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (1905-1988) addressed the need through his systematic theology of Aesthetics and Dramatics. ‘For him, the true and the good had to be joined to the long neglected third member of the trio – beauty – for without it the first two could be ‘gravely damaged’’.[29] His aesthetics sought to redress the balance in history of a theology focused on truth (knowledge of God) or goodness (righteousness, holiness and justice). Despite the biblical emphasis on ‘Glory’, he said, ‘the aesthetic dimension of theology has been gradually purged from western theology.’[30] Downing (2003) also sought to re-establish the biblical importance of ‘beauty’ or aesthetics in ecotheology.

4. Eco-theological ethics

There is a fourth nature-quest which presses even more sharply upon humanity, which is addressed by Eco-theology. Moltmann’s groundbreaking theology (1985) – God in Creation – an ecological doctrine of Creation – brought environmental ecology on to the agenda of trinitarian theology. He tackled scientific and psychological issues. In Australia, Norman Habel (2002) took up a broad-based project in political ethics called ‘eco-theology’. His Earth Bible project seeks ‘to read the Bible from the perspective of the Earth’ using ‘a hermeneutic of suspicion and retrieval’.[31] This worthy task has many co-labourers, including a dedicated journal EcoTheology.

The major critique is that these principles are ideologically driven towards a single ethical outcome, and therefore manipulate scripture to that end.[32] This programme bypasses the depth and richness of a broader creation spirituality and diminishes its motivating power for environmental recovery at the very time that the secular Cameron (2003) and his contributors are seeking a renewal of that motivational level.

5. Everyday spirituality

Most people actually live their beliefs and values about the world in their everyday life, not necessarily in their academic thinking. Therefore, Natural Theology must interact with everyday theologies. In Australia, the Zadok Institute has published on this topic for thirty years.[33] The Macquarie Christian Studies Institute in Sydney Australia has implemented this vision in a tertiary training environment.[34] Ian Barns (1996 a and b) set out to reframe a biblical theology of creation in everyday life, which was not just about the ethics of public life: ‘A theology of everyday life does not involve simply legitimising people’s ‘responsible’ involvement in a capitalist society’.[35] Nor was it just a reflective activity, but a pro-active activity. Barns explored in scripture the levels of meaning beneath the pre-scientific cosmologies assumed there. In conclusion, he set forth a pattern of ‘Everyday Life with a Trinitarian God’ in three distinct dimensions – Worship, Sabbath and Community:

a. A life characterised by worship of celebration and thanksgiving for the eschatological renewal of creation

b. The reshaping of the political and economic life of the Christian community, to practise ‘Sabbath’. This includes giving a central role to reflection on one’s work practices, and conscious ‘dialogue’ with the surrounding culture rather than ignoring it or scapegoating it

c. Maintaining the tension of worldly engagement in the way the Christian community operates as paradigm, or as a sign of what the world is called to be.[36]

6. Contextual Theologies

Where the approach of Everyday Spirituality is aimed at persons and congregations, another approach arises from the slightly larger perspective of differing ethnic and cultural contexts. Barran (2007) reports a converging academic interest [37] on the significance of social location in biblical interpretation: ‘…widespread agreement on the contextual ‘locatedness’ of all biblical interpretation’.[38] In multicultural and cross-cultural societies, the quest for a new identity is simultaneously both subtle and compelling.

Out of this quest, new insights about Christ and his church emerge from the life of those persons and communities. Their agenda is not a systematic theology that sits in abstraction above the lived life, indeed such a quest has been abandoned in Contextual Theology. Clive Pearson said: ‘The Christologies and ecclesiologies that mingle with quests for identity are designed to stimulate the theological imagination and furnish part of the vision that will accompany the life of discipleship.’[39] There are some risks in this approach. It may become too pragmatic, or it may eulogise aspects of context that the gospel should be allowed to overturn. However the act of listening to other contextualized theologies creates the tension that enables a humble honest critique to continue, even without a single dominating view. Spencer describes the process:

Further, decolonisation requires a contrapuntal reading of shared histories to enable new and liberating discourses to emerge. Cultures are relativised in the process, guarding against the risk that a contextual theology can become captive to its cultural context and unable to offer critique. [40]

In this article my approach is be to prioritise Australian culture and settings, to be anchored in real place, but to remain in dialogue with international resources.

It is too soon to see what these six ventures in Natural Theology produce in the context of an ailing and diverse planet, but it is unlikely in this generation to be an overarching meta-narrative that claims to fit all contexts.

Desert spirituality places the theology of nature in a particularly strong light. Desert is so ‘useless’ . It is of little agricultural value and is devoid of the water-views that the housing market finds so appealing. Its Tourism potential depends on retaining its stark identity. Even if a company mines it for minerals, it is still desert when the mine is exhausted. In church life, the desert subverts the diocesan or parochial model, because very few live there.

A Natural Theology of the desert appreciates its stark beauty, its inhospitality and its fertile spirituality – sees it for what it is in itself and in any one place. When people do this they return home ready to appreciate other environments – the ‘sacred city’. The desert journey is a vital resource, therefore, within the task of environmental education, as well as within the spiritualities of the twenty-first century.


So far, many of the disciplines have focused on the sacredness of land and sense of place. This leads to another formative discipline – pilgrimage, a sacred journey to a sacred place. What is the transformation that this journey brings? We turn first to the anthropological dynamic of the concept of liminality, before analysing the structure of the journey. We close with how these apply to a journey across a desert.

In anthropology, Victor Turner (1967) observed how formative it was for a youth and his community to undergo a journey which was a ‘liminal’ experience. An individual departed to a wilderness area, endured some trial, and returned a different person, both culturally and spiritually. It held implications for how both they and their community adjust to the new roles and status (communitas). The expression was first observed in connection with initiation rites for Ndembu (African) youths, as well as the process by which the village resolved a crisis of authority. The ‘departure, endure and return’ rites were both a means of preserving essential values as well as a way of transcending what has been, an opportunity for creative exploration within the community.[41] These stages parallel the stages of pilgrimage.

‘Liminality’ is a term now used more widely for being on the ‘threshold of change’[42], and by extension, any life-changing or epoch-changing phase. One arctic adventurer described such a life-changing event ironically – ‘one man’s journey to the edge of the world and to the centre of his soul’.[43] Thus, it is not surprising that Turner turned to research on ritual and pilgrimage, and, later still, to a study of the meaning of performance.[44]

With the renewal of interest in pilgrim routes both in Europe and Asia, five studies of Pilgrimage in various religious traditions, [45] provide a structure of three broad stages which both receive and impart the meanings and values of the experience:

· Entering the journey, preparing oneself, facing the rigours of travel and the dangers both physical and emotional.

· Being on the journey, which may include performing rituals of arrival at a sacred place or simply the sense of journeying onwards until the mind switches over to the homeward journey.

· Returning home, which can be more dangerous than the outward journey. Arriving home may be the most difficult stage of all.

How does this apply to a desert journey? In a desert pilgrimage, the ‘sacred place’ of arrival may be a known locality such as Uluru in Central Australia[46] or Nungdrayo Ranges in the Gibson Desert,[47] or others.[48] More often the sacred site is the whole desert, gradually becoming known in its immensity in every day of travel and in its majesty in every sunset and night of stars.[49] Rituals of arrival, then, may be those of daily travel – lighting a campfire, praying together before mounting, or stopping to watch the sun set. The return journey needs support, as one first encounters the artifice of paved roads, then the cacophony of radio stations, the insistence of mobile phone signals, then the gradually increasing crush of traffic, the insult of advertising, and the imposition of large human constructions. ‘The red dust’, said Dr Howard Sercombe (of Edinburgh University who was at the time a youth-worker in the remote town of Laverton WA), ‘gets into the blood. Once you have been to the desert, you have that ‘dreaming’ look in your eyes.’[50]

Certain places almost always give this gift to the traveller, and these become sacred places. In ancient Celtic terms, the desert is a ‘thin place’:

In simple terms a ‘thin place’ is a place where the veil between this world and the Other world is thin; the Other world is more near… Whatever you perceive the Other world to be, a thin place is a place where connection to that world seems effortless, and ephemeral signs of its existence are almost palpable.[51]

The journey to and from these places is the pilgrimage. There may be no single site which attracts spiritual importance, but the tract of land in its entirety. The vast Australian desert is one of these.


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