Authentic Community Engagement

WHAT AM I LEARNING?

1. Church planting in a public housing estate, I discovered that my excellent historical theology had to become ‘this minute, today’. First, casting myself on the mercy of God to catch me, I learned with their kind help and support for my Oxford ways, to respond today to the leading of the Spirit. Second, we did things only in the way that the locals did, and required of the denominational rules that they be the ones to conform. Thirdly, we learned to live the beauty of a healed and holy life, not the harshness of holiness. So, a small church flourished, miracles happened, lives were changed and new music was born.

2. Commencing a new beach mission up the coast, the team were good at praying and preaching, not great at agreeing theologically, and lousy at connecting and sharing with holiday makers. I think we were so busy that we spoiled everyone’s holidays. As a leader I had to find a way to empower their hearts for authentic witness. We did it by accident. Our efforts at exercises that actually helped would later become ‘Makes You Wonder’. We cut down the programme and made spare time, rather than add one more programme and then another. By our second year, we had more adult conversions than all other WA beach missions put together. This approach would later empower people in 22 languages of Australasia and the Pacific. It is still working.

3. Hanging around street kids and mothers groups, seniors lunches and business breakfasts, everyone without exception loves to be heard on their deeper yearnings. Most people also value a positive word of reframe and encouragement for their journey. It must be done such that their autonomy is respected, e.g. “it is up to you what you do with this but what I am hearing is this…” but it must simply offer help for the journey.

4. At a Stolen Generations Conference one year, one of the Aboriginal elders asked for me to close the national meeting in prayer. It triggered a traumatic response, based around the abuse of the missions to which most of thousands of children were taken. Later she said that she had asked for prayer because she had recently decided to forgive the church for what they had done to her mother and her siblings and herself. I told her she had made my day, made my decade in fact, I was standing on holy ground. Seven years of walking together in compassion and justice without asking for a right of reply, had proven my heart, and I was not too proud to represent the church saying thank you for forgiving us.

5. In the desert, the majesty of the stars and horizon is very present, and people feel both small and special at the same time, cherished and at risk. Life is on the edge, not of the abyss of European thought but of the fullness of fragile life. The current almost universally held ecological meta-narrative is a great opportunity for us that the New Age was not. Connecting with Creation and Creator removes the consumption addiction, sets up the bigger intimate questions and scripture answers those personal questions with a personal invitation, another question if you will, and not with objective proof. People are enlarged into this good news, not judged. In a pluralistic environment the lived life of Jesus can easily hold its head up above the rest without having to be try hard or a put down.

6. We were surprised to receive a modest bequest for evangelism, so we decided to do something of lasting experimental value. We would run a Christian Information Service advertising for enquirers in the newspapers. We tried all kinds of ‘relevant’ approaches e.g. ‘do you want to know the meaning of life?’, ‘are you troubled by something’, etc and each of these approaches received some enquiries. We printed colour booklet which was itself a very popular outcome from the experiment. Then we tried ‘do you want to understand Jesus?’ and the response rate immediately doubled. Being both human and God, both historical and present, he is already relevant and accessible. There is the main focus. Not church, not a better life, nor the various idealisms of the liberal elite. I cannot overstate this – our goal must be NOT to be like the church BUT to be like Jesus. Speak like Jesus about Jesus. Live with all the passions of Jesus.

7. Even when people are empowered for witness, all is not well. The task of evangelization belongs to all of us and other parts of the church have other gifts of service. One essential role, as both Scripture and Basis of Union attest, is the gift of the Evangelist. Church people can learn to witness in their own words with their own faith in their own world – if they are willing but reach their limit. They need an evangelist in their midst not visiting from interstate! Two questions: How will you find yours? What will you do to form them into maturity? On the latter, we have a course work outline below, but as usual it is not the reading that forms them. More exposure and experimentation is required. Methodists have profited from organising ‘Lay Witness Weekends’. On finding those ten percent of Christians who might be evangelists, they are hard to find:

· firstly because they prefer not to be with the church people, but with the yet-to-be churched people.

· Secondly they are not patient of the casualisation of church, preferring adventure and enthusiasm to procedure and caution.

· Thirdly, the Uniting Church has so privileged caution and concensus that now no one’s gifts are named and formed. Blend is our recipe and bland is our style.

· Fourthly we have too narrow an image of what an evangelist is. – a ‘Billy Graham preacher’ or someone who corners the unsuspecting into a prayer of repentance, or… Anyone who helps others to find faith in Jesus or to commence the path of Christian discipleship. Look for anyone who is enthusiastic, outlooking, expressive, hospitable and centred in Jesus in their personal life.

8. I am a bit shy. I do get around though and a lot of my contacts are valuable, appreciated but too brief. I resolved to resource the ongoing conversation by starting a web site or two that was resource-rich and introductory. Here is the outcome, and let you be the judge:

Chaplains’ Web: www.spirituallife.uwa.edu.au

Ian’s Blog: www.wa.uca.org.au/uwachaplain

Max Doubt: http://maxdoubt.wordpress.com/

Interfaith Online http://www.symbaloo.com/mix/uwaucafrontpage

They get over a thousand hits each year., which is more than I expected.

9. In our small presbytery when I was first ordained, in the first decade there was only this – let us not attract more people like us, let us evangelise and church plant as our first funding priority. In ten years the denomination tripled in size. So, because I am still concerned to mirror the mission of Jesus, I know that healthy growth can happen.

I conclude by asking honestly what will review MY evangel? I am not very good at this. I see too few conversions. So what has been my response?

· I pray that God will lead me each day to someone with who I can share his influence in my life. And he does.

· I see very many conversations with lots of community contact. They are food and drink to me, as to our Lord in John 4.34. There are times when I run dry and start again. Perhaps join me in that prayer- “Please God lead me today to someone with who I can share your influence in my life”

· I know it gets through to some. Every month someone says to me something like: if I had known you earlier in my life I might have been a Christian (to which I say ‘it is time for us all to start fresh’).

· Within me, I have a very divided mind but I have cultivated by spiritual discipline a heart that is deeply passionately simply for Jesus. That is my essential base for avoiding secondary issues. My daily, weekly, annual calendar reflects that cultivated task. I would be dangerous without it.

· I would like to be supported by a church that spoke up that Jesus was not a white man and repented of the atrocities of the enlightenment and colonialism.

· I would like tools that I didn’t have to invent all the time.

· I would like congregations, to take people to, which are not glorified singalongs.

· I would like to have confidence that my colleagues are not going to let me down and water down either the blessedness or demands of discipleship.

I see the different parts of the task rejoicing together: John 4.34-38. The Message

34-35 Jesus said, “The food that keeps me going is that I do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started. As you look around right now, wouldn’t you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I’m telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It’s harvest time!

36-38 “The Harvester isn’t waiting. He’s taking his pay, gathering in this grain that’s ripe for eternal life. Now the Sower is arm in arm with the Harvester, triumphant. That’s the truth of the saying, ‘This one sows, that one harvests.’ I sent you to harvest a field you never worked. Without lifting a finger, you have walked in on a field worked long and hard by others.”

That’s my church.

The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet

Recently translated Old Babylonian flood tablet describes how to build a circular ark

Noah Wiener • 01/29/2014

 

The so-called Ark Tablet, recently translated by Irving Finkel, is an Old Babylonian (1900-1700 B.C.E.) account of the flood in which the god Enki instructs Atrahasis–the Babylonian Noah–on how to build an ark. The twist? This Babylonian ark would have been circular.

We all know the story of Noah’s Ark. Ever since George Smith’s 1872 translation of Babylonian texts similar to the Biblical Deluge (see “George Smith’s Other Find” below), we’ve also known about echoes of the Genesis narrative in pre-Biblical Mesopotamian texts. A recently translated Old Babylonian (c. 1900–1700 B.C.E.) tablethas literally reshaped our vision of the Babylonian vessel used to weather the storm and builds bridges across the floodwaters dividing the Biblical and Mesopotamian accounts of the flood.

The Babylonian Flood Tradition

Babylonain flood traditions have been familiar material for BAR readers since the early days of our magazine. Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s 1978 feature “What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood” introduced the Sumerian Flood Story, the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Atrahasis Epic:

The Babylonian flood stories contain many details which also occur in the flood story in Genesis. Such details in the story as the building of an ark, the placing of animals in the ark, the landing of the ark on a mountain, and the sending forth of birds to see whether the waters had receded indicate quite clearly that the Genesis flood story is intimately related to the Babylonian flood stories and is indeed part of the same “flood” tradition. However, while there are great similarities between the Biblical and Babylonian flood stories, there are also very fundamental differences, and it is just as important that we focus on these fundamental differences as on the similarities.

The Babylonian accounts differ from each other. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Enki tasks Utnapishtim to save the world from the flood, and for his good deed, he is granted immortality (and subsequently, Gilgamesh’s envy). Later discoveries revealed that the account was an abridged and modified version of the Akkadian Atrahasis epic, a similar flood myth that was copied and adapted for centuries in the ancient Near East. Memories of an antediluvian (pre-flood) period were preserved throughout Mesopotamia: The Sumerian king list includes antediluvian kings, and reliefs of antediluvian sages known as apkallu figures (winged genies) lined the walls of Assyrian palaces and remain one of the most iconic forms of Mesopotamian art to this day.

How to Build an Ark

 

The Ark Tablet describes a gufa or coracle–a round boat that would have been familiar to Mesopotamian audiences. Unlike the boat shown above, Atrahasis’s gufa would have had a base area over 35,000 square feet, with 20-foot-high walls. Picture from Atlantic Ship Model.

With such a well-documented Mesopotamian flood tradition, why is this newly translated cuneiform tablet making waves in our understanding of the Babylonian flood myth? The so-called “Ark Tablet”—a cell-phone sized piece of clay inscribed on both sides—is essentially an ark builder’s how-to guide, according to its translator, British Museum scholar Irving Finkel. Enki gives Atrahasis instructions on how to build an ark, but the resulting boat isn’t what you’d expect. According to Irving Finkel, this boat was round. In an article in The Telegraph, Finkel writes:

The most remarkable feature provided by the Ark Tablet is that the lifeboat built by Atra-hasıs— the Noah-like hero who receives his instructions from the god Enki—was definitely, unambiguously round. “Draw out the boat that you will make,” he is instructed, “on a circular plan.”

The text describes the construction of a coracle or gufa, a traditional basket-like boat that would have been familiar to Mesopotamian audiences. Of course, this is no average coracle—Atrahasis is to build a boat with a diameter of close to 230 feet across and 20-foot-high walls. The boat is made out of a massive quantity of palm-fiber rope, sealed with bitumen. This isn’t exactly the same ark that Noah built—or Utnapishtim, for that matter:

Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI, 54-65On the fifth day I laid out her exterior. It was a field in area, its walls were each 10 times 12 cubits in height, the sides of its top were of equal length, 10 times It cubits each. I laid out its (interior) structure and drew a picture of it (?). I provided it with six decks, thus dividing it into seven (levels). The inside of it I divided into nine (compartments). I drove plugs (to keep out) water in its middle part. I saw to the punting poles and laid in what was necessary. Three times 3,600 (units) of raw bitumen I poured into the bitumen kiln, three times 3,600 (units of) pitch …into it… Genesis 6:14-15Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.

The Animals Went in Two by Two

 

This reconstruction accompanied the Telegraph article by Finkel. Photo: Stuart Patience @ Heart Agency

At first glance, it would seem that the Ark Tablet, while extremely descriptive in its instructions—it features twenty lines just describing the waterproofing of the vessel—is describing an ark narrative that differs more from Noah’s than its other Babylonian counterparts. However, according to his Telegraph article, Finkel was shocked by the rare cuneiform signs sana in the passage describing the animals on the boat. Sana is listed in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary as “Two each, two by two.” Compare this with the Biblical text:

And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.”

The cuneiform wedges were pressed into Babylonian Ark Tablet a full millennium before the Genesis narrative was written down, but the two bear a strong thematic resemblance in their treatment of the animals. However, this tablet describes how to build an ark, and the resulting vessel couldn’t be much more different from the Biblical boat. Would a round gufa-style boat weather the Deluge? Irving Finkel points out that a pointed ship may be easier to sail to a particular destination, but Atrahasis’s ark had nowhere to go—it merely needed to support its human and animal occupants for the duration of the flood. He told The Telegraph:

In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it. But the ark didn’t have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well. It’s still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods.

Click here to read his account in The Telegraph.

Learn more about Irving Finkel’s book The Ark Before Noah.

10 Things Christians Should Say More Often

Huffington Post Posted: 09/01/2013 8:26 pm

By Christian Platt

I had a series a while back about the Christian Cliches that we should drop from our lexicon, and since then I’ve had people ask what they should be saying instead. So here’s a list of handy phrases to help bring followers of Jesus into a post-Christendom, 21st-century world.

1. "I’m Sorry." – There’s plenty of hurt in the world related to Christianity, and even though we may not personally be responsible for that damage, it’s amazing how far an apology will go. Even if we’re only acknowledging the hurt and disenfranchisement, we should show some regret that something of which we are a part has contributed to someone’s suffering.

2. "How can I help?" – Sometimes we have a bad habit of diagnosing problems and coming up with the solution without actually sitting down and talking with the folks we’re supposedly helping. Though well intended, this can come off as arrogant, and can also end up being a waste of time and resources. Yes, it’s more vulnerable to ask an open-ended question like "How can I help?’ since the answer might require much more of us than we planned on. But that’s the risk of doing real servant work.

3. "I don’t know." – I’ve listed this one before, but it bears repeating. Some of us have been raised with the misapprehension that we always have to have an answer to every question having to do with our faith. But better than pat, rehearsed (or worse, pulled-out-of-our-asses-on-the-fly) answers is the humility of admitting we have no idea sometimes.

4. "I could be wrong." – This goes along with #3, as one of the most damaging things in any faith tradition – or in any cultural system, for that matter – is the idolatry of certainty. When we hold so fast to an idea that the people involved take second chair to our certainty, we’ve created a space where pain and alienation are sown, rather than compassion and reconciliation.

5. "What do you think?" – A third in this theme of what Tony Jones calls "epistemic humility," when it comes to scripture at least, though asking people their thoughts on the Christian faith, the Bible or anything else is a healthy practice for all involved. In fact, I learn more about my faith sometimes from non-Christians than I do from those who are so close to it (like me) that they become blind to the problems, right in front of us. Any good Christian should keep some non-Christian friends on retainer to help keep them in check and lend them some necessary perspective from time to time.

6. "I love you." – We have the best of intentions when telling others about God or Jesus, but unless this is already a central theme in your life, talking about how God loves you can come off as strangely abstract and a little bit crazy. Rather than speaking for God, it’s best if we take the risk and simply speak for ourselves. It sounds nice to say "God loves you," but it’s a real and important risk to say "I love you."

7. "Tell me more…" – Showing genuine interest in the lives and stories of others is the foundation of Christ-like family. So often we sit right next to people – be it at church, work, school or elsewhere – whose stories we know little or nothing about. Whereas in the past, Christendom’s aim was mainly assimilation, a post-Christendom world requires us to be willing to be changed as much as we seek to affect change in our relationships with one another. It’s no longer about eradicating differences, but rather, it’s about cultivating a love that is stronger than those differences.

8. "That just sucks." – This goes along with the Christian compulsion to try and fix everything. But if I’ve learned anything from thirteen years of marriage, it’s that solutions don’t always go as far as empathy.

9. "Let’s give it a try." – Along with presiding over decades of prolific growth (both numerically and institutionally) many Christians began to believe that they were primarily stewards and guardians of the institution rather than preparers of the way for a divinely-inspired kingdom on earth. It’s in the nature of institutions to resist change, however, whereas preparation is all about making room and clearing space in anticipation of something new. As Paul says, our faith requires a childlike "What’s next?" kind of openness, rather than leaning so heavily on the spirit-killing mantra of "But we’ve always done it this way."

10. Say nothing at all– Filling awkward silences with chatter is endemic in our entire western culture, but Christians are particularly guilty of whipping out the cliches when there’s dead air. Sometimes the best prescription is simply to be present, or maybe to listen. Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we have been commissioned with fixing everything. We could start by adding intentional silence more often into our own spiritual practices, just to get used to how it feels.

HOW TO MAKE MYW YOUR OWN, AS YOU MUST,

THAT IS, WITHOUT KILLING IT.

By Ian Robinson

At MYW we are keen for you to create your own MYW leaders handbook, including the work sheets we have sent you and the sheets as you have amended them, including your own stories, notes, etc. How will you do this? Here is some help.

I have two questions and one statement.

First the statement: you MUST make MYW into something you really want to share, arising from your own experience and theology. You are not to try to be Ian Robinson.

First question: What are the distinctive values of MYW that should be preserved?

Second question: ask yourself, what are my key values that should be implemented?

It is most essential that you answer both these questions by reflecting on your experience of the MYW workshops themselves and your own experiences of sharing your faith with others. A theoretical view will only engender the same outlooks that have held us back for many decades. The wisdom of experience is required and a sincere awareness of the ‘magic’ that takes place when people interact on spiritual things (when the Great Spirit seems to operate freely).

LEVELS

What about a different use of words? That’s pretty easily fixed.

‘In our church we don’t say ‘x’ we say ‘xx.’’ Use your phrasing.

‘In our church we avoid that question, you know…’ OK there are several KEY questions in each exercise, use a different one or come up with one of your own.

Technically, you will have to use a programme to unpack the pdf format of the exercises and re-type it to make it your own. It can be as simple as copy and paste into a new document, then edit. Do this for your leader’s documentation as well as for participants pages if you are using them.

At a simple level, you need to find the stories that arise from your own experience and include them in each session. The session outlines usually state this explicitly. It is really easy in MY STORY, YOUR STORY, OUR STORY but gets harder in the more theologically acute area of THE STORY.So lets go there next.

Some of the whiteboards/frameworks may not work inside your head. Naming the importance of Jesus is a collaborative and creative exercise, the only problem will be people who insist on their own exclusive ‘right’ views, usually either for or against Jesus miracles/divinity. That is, the material rationalist philosophy acting as atheism, agnosticism or deism versus a variety positions accepting supernatural dimensions which may become present in space- time. MYW does not work with such exclusivists. It works for people in the broad middle ground of Christian orthodoxy, and most of its categories in feedback/whiteboards are biblical categories.

What about the FOUR QUESTIONS?

The problem of evil, the problem of hypocrisy, the problem of suffering, the problem of the cost. The frameworks used to sort out the questions have sometimes been difficult for others to pick up. It’s a matter of mind maps, personalities, personal emphases can be quite different. Well, I will explain a bit more about these in a moment, but for now, let’s say you tried to get your head around them and it just didn’t stick. use something else that works for you, and then let us all know by entering it on the whiteboards at the blogsites. If you do not into these areas at all, you will by default have reduced the task of Evangel to just MY STORY or OUR STORY and that is quite unbalanced.

Why are these questions and whiteboards the way they are? Why these boxes in that order?

· They do seem to be able to receive the input of most people. They are broad enough that everyone present can contribute to the creative whole. If you substitute, watch out for that.

· They are not really theoretical categories, but steps in action that you might be able to step through gently and respectfully in conversations with another:

The Suffering board starts with the silence and listening, but does not end there. IT sees the steps of hope and redemption unfold.

The Hypocrisy board starts with the admission that we all fail our own best intentions, it does not try to defend the church and does not avoid the wrongs we have done. Werall need to know to restore and change.

The Cost Board admits up front that discipleship is difficult but it is worth it. All good things are like that.

The Truth board sets out the four different fields of evidence that can be used in a discussion about proof or knowledge about Jesus. This is the closest one to theoretical knowledge but that is what this topic calls for – maybe a bit more reading on this will help you. This framework does not leave you just talking about your own journey but provides a frame in which you help another person to establish their own knowledge base.

If you can any of all that some other way I want to know about it. Seriously. I have used these successfully for so long that I can’t see it anymore. I need your help and feedback.

You are already aware that you can sequence the sessions any way you like. They are positioned in the order in the books because there is a gradual development implied. As you get used to them, you will develop favourites, but this must be moderated by expanding to other topics also, and finding ways to make these equally engaging.

Reminder. In the Leaders Notes, it warns the leader about saying too much or leading too little, and questions of authority which work differently in different cultures and traditions. Keep these in mind. You can preach or lecture or write your memoirs some other time, MYW is about empowerment, getting people talking and affirming their real discoveries. The ‘six questions to ask at the end of every session’ keeps bringing you back to this.

Keep in touch, help others, trust that what you are learning is really good value for others too.

Blessings

ian

Rev Dr Ian Robinson

Five Kinds of Wonder

By Ian Robinson

You could tune out, plug in your iPhone, stay distracted. You could collect wow photoes, gather tweets on new exo-planets, speculate on the possibility of life out there. It would be… interesting. On the other hand, you could wonder.

That would be no small thing. Like Love. Below are just a few of the categories of wonder that are the stuff of life, that great experiment. I here follow and build upon the science of Roy Abraham Varghese.

(References: Varghese, RA (2003) The Wonder of the World – a journey from modern science to the Mind of God, Tyr Publishing, Fountain Hills, Arizona. Shorter and more accessible is Varghese’s Appendix in the controversial book by the former atheist Anthony Flew (2008), There is a God –how the world’s notorious atheist changed his mind, Harper One, New York. )

1.Life

DNA has only four words, Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, Thymine (GACT). From these four, arranged in sequences and chains comes three and a half billion nucleotide bases in each cell, which cooperatively and intelligently manufacture all life forms. And that is just the beginning of the wonder of cell chemistry. It is a great wonder that we humans have come to know about it, but it is a wonder that it exists at all. We can speak too of the puzzling dynamics of insect flight and birdsong, the Cambrian explosion, the evolutionary story, the power of consciousness, brain plasticity, the universality of beauty and the default mechanism towards symmetry, just to spin off a few. Life in all its wonder.

2.Home Sapiens

The five empirical senses are amazing. For instance, eye -images reverse and invert in the brain, so we can know what’s going on around us. Add to that the senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and hearing. Add to them temperature and weight and these seven senses drive empirical science. Scientific instruments are extensions of these. With these we register and measure the four dimensions of time and space. These seven senses provide data to human reason to process and systematize. And it does find patterns and symmetries at all levels of enquiry.

In addition, however, there are seven other intuitive senses which shape our lives and tell us what is going on around us – a sense of beauty, of justice, of connection, of consciousness, of value, of spirit, of simplicity (e.g.Occam’s Razor). With these senses we create and relate to the world, its creatures and persons. These too provide data to Reason to process and systematise. That’s why there are all those books in all those other libraries. Reason, data and evidence are not the sole preserve of empiricism.

Homo Sapiens shares much with less intelligent creatures, but we are also aware that we are self conscious beings. The ‘I’ is not a particle in us or a part of us, but some whole thing.In just 200 thousand years since homo sapiens emerged from the tree, we have moved across the entire planet and into outer space.

And then there is you – beautiful, unique, a mystery unfolding, capable and loving, an awesome human, seriously streaked with flaws and egotism, able to leap great brilliance and great wrongdoing in a single bound. Amazing homo Sapiens.

3.Microverse

Since Heisenberg a hundred years ago, the science of the microverse has been characterised by the logic of paradox and endless leaps of imagination. But emerging from the Big Bang came instantaneous relationships of immense wonder. A proton is 1836 times bigger than an electron, but the two have equal and opposite electric charges, both behave as quantum waves or particles, creating photons. They achieve the only right balance before which molecules can form, and for the suns can explode. Last year, why should we be surprised, some experiments appear to overturn the speed of light as insuperable constant. And then there is the mutli-billion dollar search for Bosun’s Hick, the ‘God particle’. And who does not wonder that the strong and weak magnetic forces emerged from the Bang just right for anything at all to exist. Every one of these even by itself is a captivating wonder.

4.Macroverse

13.7 billion years ago , we had a singularity, a ‘Big Bang’. It is not over. But the galaxies are accelerating so the explosion is still getting Bigger. If it had all happened one part in 107 slower, it would have all collapsed in by now. We are now 100-200 galaxies, each comprising 100-200 billion stars, and that is only 4% of the knowable universe. Any suggestion that empirical science can rule out the existence of all other dimensions is over-stating what we know.

Dark energy, so called because we don’t know what we are talking about, is driving the Bang forwards. Dark matter is exercising a force of gravity on every kind of known mass but, being relatively evenly spread through the galaxy, is not itself affected by its own kind of gravity.

If the known gravity had been any stronger than it is, the universe would have collapsed. Any weaker, the galaxies and stars could not form, all would be gas and dust. Wondrous and wonderful.

5.Meta-terrestrial intelligence

The universe or multiverse or pluriverse, whatever, is dominated by over-arching smarts. It works together. Just a few constants control it all, and just a small variation in each one would see us off the plain of existence.

We have something rather than nothing, but why this particular sort of something? Mind and science can explain things really well, and mathematics has an inexplicable power of correspondence and explanation for the way things are. We are finding overall and comprehensive order that is already there, working away.

So, with humility this time, that sense of order asks us to demand again – How did any thing come to be? How did consciousness (and value and beauty) come to be? Why are there laws, structures, symmetries and super symmetries? Many scientists are concluding that it is a smart universe, steadily moving in this direction for billions in the direction of an Intelligence that is all pervasive. The universe ‘knew we were coming’ they say. Charles Birch uses the intriguing notion it was being pulled along as much as pushed or caused.

It is a cheap shot, in my view, to despise this sense of ‘design’ that is espoused by those who do not share your own philosophy of scientific knowledge. Whatever your capacity for complexity or enquiry, the universe is wondrous to behold at every level, in every language, in every place.

Even the position of the earth in space, just off the edge of one arm of a moderate spiral galaxy, means that we can see far into a heavily populated space, wondering who and what is out there and able to discover amazing things through our fantastic powers of observation. It is as though we are riding a huge Hawaiian wave of extraordinary wonder. And our surfboard is that planet. If we were more centrally located in our neighbourhood, a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, the sky would be uniformly grey, like twilight, and only a few bright stars would be visible. But walk out into the desert away from the campfire, and you will hear gasps and sighs, an excited sense of connection with all that blazes upon you, the tone of deep longing to be at home there, and the tiny voice of those who know we are so much smaller than we want to believe.

Finally

We have been positioned to wonder, designed to wonder, given the ability to wonder, in a world that was instantly Bang-full of the most unlikely coincidences, and a world that yields up its laws of stability.

All science is built around the wonder at the way things are, and why is it so. Science grew where people believed that some Intelligence had made a stable universe, not a capricious unpredictable one. Old ones in the modern science like Copernicus, Galileo, Pascal, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Planck and Heisenberg, through to today with Collins, Humphreys, Lennox, Polkinghorne, Birch, Plantinga, Tillich, McGrath, Davies and Flew. So many top scientists and philosphers of science put the lie to that well-publicised, absolutist atheistic fundamentalism that is being falsely called Science and Reason by some today.

All science is built around finding how things work and why that happened. That is, ‘Why’ in the sense of ‘cause’ not ‘why’ in the sense of ’purpose’. The universe came into being. Why? Consciousness has come into being, why? Morality and Beauty has come into being. Why?

One theory has a personal God did it and does it and remains on staff for the life of the project. This being is only interested in enquiries around their particular chemistry of genuine love, truth and respect . Everything about this theory or belief is like some aspect of contemporary science, and there are no rules of Reason or evidence that are being exempted to establish this belief. So please consider, and get started.

You and I are an experiment in extraordinary wonder. To wonder is to do great and persistent science. To wonder is to meet the Great Spirit, and to learn to engage with the intuitive language of spirit, like all the billions through the years who have tried this great experiment, and have been found. It is simply wonder-ful.

WALKING IN SACRED GROUND

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.

Pilgrimage

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.