Religious wildernesses

I remember childhood Bible stories referred to the Wilderness. These days I find it interesting to consider most if not all religions link with the concept of the wilderness. Laura Feldt covered this topic in “Wilderness in Mythology and Religion”: ‘Wilderness is one of the most abiding creations in the history of religions.’ Her book ‘addresses the need for cross-cultural anthropological and history of religions analyses by offering in-depth case studies of the use and functions of wilderness spaces in a diverse range of contexts including, but not limited to, ancient Greece, early Christian asceticism, Old Norse religion, the shamanism-Buddhism encounter in Mongolia, contemporary paganism, and wilderness spirituality in the US.’

In her 2014 article ‘Religions need wilderness’, Kathleen Braden wrote “The three monotheistic religions based on a common root – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have an expression of nature and wilderness as places that allow perception of God’s sovereignty. … Wilderness is a territory (both on land and sea) where one encounters God, and it is not always an easy geography. For the ancient Israelites, it may be a place of repentance coupled with renewal. When the Israelites leave Egypt and displease God, they must wander in hostile lands before reaching a promised place. Abraham casts the slave woman, Hagar, into the wilderness, but she is saved by God, who renews her spirit and gives her a vision that she will build a great nation. Similarly, in the New Testament, the gospel of Mark begins with John the Baptist proclaiming God in the wilderness, foretelling the Christ who is to come, and calling for, again, repentance. Jesus has his own time in the wilderness being tested and honed for his ministry. For believing Muslims, creation is a gift from God and a sign of God’s grace. Similar to Judaic and Christian traditions, in Islam, nature reflects the dominion of God, not the hubris of human control. For these three monotheistic faiths that began in the Middle East, groups of believers through history have set themselves apart in monastic communities, often seeking out the wild places in self-imposed exile to allow the voice of God to be understood more clearly.

In other religions, nature and the sacred helps bring humanity into a right relationship with creation. Baha’i traditions hold that nature reflects the perfection of God and thus, sacred spaces help create a sense of harmony, transformation, and wholeness. In Hinduism and Jainism, nature reflects the abundance that the earth provides and also reminds us of the wholeness of humanity with all other life forms: there should be no barriers or separation.

Likewise, Buddhism suggests that nothing that exists is in isolation, but the sacred can lead us to understand the interdependence of all living things and help us express compassion for creation. Some sects of Buddhism also have, like the desert Christian communities, an ascetic tradition, adherents who must be removed from the material world. Their spiritual quests may be best realized in wilderness.

Religions or traditions with cultural hearths further east in Asia – Shintoism, Confucianism, Daoism – also have expressions of harmony and continuity with nature, but perhaps more in a cosmological view, although places, such as sacred stands of trees with shrines in Shintoism, may be manifest of the need to have a holy place of contemplation and refreshment.

Finally, Indigenous religious traditions are so varied and numerous that outlining them in a short essay might risk stereotyping these faiths. But in many regions, Indigenous spiritual traditions connect the wild with a worldview that interweaves humanity with nature in an unbroken relationship. Whether the shamanistic traditions of Central Asia, Native American religions of North and South America, pre-Christian European practices, animistic faiths of the African continent, or contemporary paganism, none are devoid of practices and stories related to the human relationship with nature. 

While the sacred does not have to be wilderness, wild places must be sacred. Religion needs wilderness. Whether we call this hunger an expression of God’s sovereignty or evidence of the union of all living things or connection with ancestors and a world of spirits, religion requires the wild – the not-us – to show a crucial interrelationship. The threats to wilderness, therefore, also pose a danger to the heart of humanity’s most treasured faith doctrines.”

As an atheist I don’t believe a God or other deities exist, whatever name is given by any religion. However, I am happy to be playful with one ancient Greek god who came out of retirement to meet me. A recent comment by my sister about the danger of snakes when I walk in the Tasmanian bush (all Tasmanian snakes inject their venom poisonously), reminded me of my meeting with Zeus last year. While walking in the visitor-less grounds of one of his temples located in Dion, northern eastern Greece, he and I surprised each other. Zeus has the ability to transform himself and appear as a snake. There he was basking in the sun near the end of the path I was following. Having welcomed me, he slipped away quickly.  I felt very safe then, as I will do when walking along the Derwent River. Besides, Tasmania’s Mt Olympus overlooks Lake St Clair on its western flank, and we all know Zeus’s home is Mt Olympus, albeit the one in Greece. I suspect Zeus will look out for me in some form, and make sure I reach Lake St Clair.

Despite not believing in a God, I do believe in the personally transformative power of the bush, wilderness, forests, whatever you may call those bunches of trees and natural collections of flora and fauna.

When with friends I have talked about walking, particularly in the bush, as a meditative practice. Sometimes the impact of the bush and its flora and fauna is so great that a well of great happiness is tapped – as evidenced, for example, by my bursting into song as described in an earlier post . At the end of any walk, words such as reinvigorated, revitalised, relaxed, uplifted, satisfied and at peace always come to mind. In addition, the power of the bush allows me to put the rest of life and living into perspective. Nature and its forces are so much stronger and more beautiful than any one of us, and it is a delight to be reminded of this in such profound ways. The rich rare world out there, rather than any religious connection, draws me to our wilderness.

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