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An Introduction to Landscape Theology

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Landscapes play a prominent role in our lives and myth-histories, and yet they are rarely acknowledged as actors. Geographers tell us that the landscape is an inert stage where historical individuals act. However, the story I want to tell is how places are “agentic.” Landscapes enable, inspire and constrain our activities. We are literally moved by them, and landscape elements such as trees, rivers, mountains and fields attract us to their surfaces and they shape societies. For example, archaeologist Christopher Tilley (2004) argues that our prehistoric social identities were created, reproduced, and transformed by stone outcroppings. Rock forms were landmarks and social sites, and viewing rock art was an important process by which we could tap into ancestral powers at specific locations. It also helped us anchor identity in those powers and locations.

Landscapes fill our lives with time and space. People pilgrimage through them as a form of their religious and everyday lives, and through time-space routines of movement we know where we are in relation to familiar places and objects and “how to go on” in the world.

Space is not homogenous; some spaces are “wiser” and more sacred than others. Theologian Belden Lane (2001) says sacred space is a “storied place” because certain locales come to be recognized as sacred through the stories told about them. However, chthonic forces are also at work in the complex process of sacralization. Geological features inspire specific stories, and only then can the sacred place hold and transmit culture across time. This is one reason why anthropologist Keith Basso (1996) assures us that “wisdom sits in places.”

In 1836, Emerson declared “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” Harvard Divinity School’s foremost Talmudic scholar, Jon Levenson, makes a similar observation: “Geography is simply a visible form of theology.” Mircea Eliade points out the large, cosmic mountain that permeates many world religions as “axis mundi,” and we read in scripture again and again that “God is our rock.” Landscapes are situated inside people as people are situated inside landcapes. Feminist and semiotic Theologian, Sally McFague, puts it well: “the interior landscape is influenced by the exterior.”

The geographical center of the Islamic faith is an enshrined black stone, the Kaaba. The oldest known Buddhist temple, just recently unearthed in Nepal, is organized around an ancient tree. Today, people travel from all over the world to visit waterfalls, caves, and trees in national parks, and the recent United States government shutdown highlighted how economically and culturally valuable these spaces truly are.

A horizon becomes a metaphor for the limits of our knowledge. Land and sky become metaphors for the body and mind, and they affect how we experience both. Spinoza regards human emotions such as love, hatred, anger, envy, pride, pity, “and other agitations of the mind not as vices of human nature but as properties pertaining to it in the same way as heat, cold, storm, thunder, and such pertain to the nature of the atmosphere.” Lane: “There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokeness we find within.” Sky mind, ocean mind, desert mind, landscape mind.

The distinction of inside awareness from outside stimulus is only a convention. Merleau-Ponty describes the sky: “As I contemplate the blue of the sky I am not set over against it as a non-cosmic subject; I do not possess it in thought, or spread out toward it some idea of blue…I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it thinks itself in me.”

A vast, uncluttered place operates on the human mind to give rise to a singularity of vision. There is healing power in mountain silence and desert indifference. Landscapes point out “what matters” or what, as a material substrate for the meta-system of culture, remains. Like our genes, they are more permanent than we are, and thus the landscape becomes a symbol for the eternal (Eliade’s “eternal return”). In our myths, the prophetic vision always occurs outside the city and in the landscape. Moses leaves the walls of Egypt and finds God in the desert; Buddha leaves his tribe and finds God under a tree; Joseph Smith leaves his organized religion and finds God in the forest; Carlos Castaneda leaves the modern city and finds God in the jungle. As we move into the wilderness, the lights of civilization recede and then disappear. The landscape gets bigger, and the stars can speak to one of vast reaches of cosmic time; stones murmur stories from deep time; rivers, winds and rains tell stories of ethereal, fleeting time where nothing lasts long enough to even exist. This quality of the landscape is reflected in the Japanese Buddhist ukiyo-e “floating world” pictures which flatten sky, mountain and sea into 2-D patterns on semi-transparent paper. These oriental visions, the mirror opposite of the solid, eternal landscapes in occidental spirituality, attracted impressionist painters like Monet to fill in the area between the tree branches with thick, solid paint, foregrounding space.   

In the final years of his life, Cezanne painted over sixty images this way of the same scene; a view over fields to Mont Saint-Victoire.  Vincent Van Gogh left his job as a preacher to study God more directly through “the language of nature.” Landscape painters explore ways in which humans and landscapes are involved with each other, intertwined, tied together, depend on each other. They show how the lines between imagination and our material reality are blurring. 

Now it is widely accepted within the humanities and sciences that subject and object, mind and matter, human and landscape co-constitute each other. The seemingly irretrievable Cartesian wedge between the material world and the human mind is finally being dissolved. The reciprocity of imagination and landscape, of mind-bodies and worlds, of art and life implies that mythic narratives are not merely poetic descriptions of a certain world, but material performances of one as well. 

Words and basic experiences are lifted from the objective world, and because they become the substantive base from which all our thoughts and mythic narratives appear, we can conclude there is a material landscape from which the mythic archetypes are formed. These archetypes do not have real, breathing, itching, leaking bodies, but they are always generated by bodies which are situated within material landscapes.

What is objective and universal may be called transpersonal, or ‘archetypal,’ in the Jungian sense; it is that more-than-human place we share with others, that “earthly ground of rock and soil that we share with the other animals and the plants” (Abram 1996: 281). Merleau-Ponty: “My body is made of the same flesh as the world.” Therefore, if we wish to look for the “real archetypes,” we may want to pay attention to landscapes and their elements.

This review of the cultural and material power of landscape serves as a reminder that there are geological conditions that, operating in conjunctions with sociocultural dynamics, make possible the rise of consciousness, language, myth, and a sense of the sacred.

This is the first part in a series.  Stay tuned here and at the Landscape Theology blog. 

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Image: “Secreted” by David Titterington


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