The Modernist, Secular ‘Technological/Materialist Landscape’

THE SACRED IS ALMOST completely leached from the Nature/Earth Landscape and replaced by a sceptical secularism. This is the imaginative construct and ‘focus of perception’ of the scientific, realist and objectivist mind. In the new modernist, ‘secular’ Technological/Materialist Landscape, it could be argued that ‘religious’ enthusiasm is now for the idea of man and man-made progress in scientific discoveries and technological and materialist creations – as opposed to an omnipotent, transcendent God Father revealed through the Bible (His ‘Holy Word’) and in His holy places: temples, cities and churches.

The Nature/Earth Landscape where all natural phenomena are intrinsically sacred has been left far behind and is no longer regarded as a threat. It is derogated as ‘primitive’ or ‘romantic sentimentality’ or ‘new age nonsense’ by the positivist sceptic and materialist alike.

IN THE EARLY 1960s, Erich Isaac described this situation in geography of religion, where in a modern, secular culture, religion’s impact on landscape is minimal. He argued that geography of religion had become in practice “an essentially ethnological and historical study… religion as a great basic power in transforming the landscape has virtually ceased to operate”.[i]

Isaac drew a distinction between ‘religion’ and the ‘religious impulse’, which could be imputed to ‘secular ideologies’. He argued that humanity has become the new object of worship and man’s secular ideologies have important parallels to religion:

“It is not accurate to say that the religious impulse as a transforming power in the landscape has virtually disappeared in the 20th Century. What has actually happened is that this impulse has been translated into another form. … This … has made it possible for secular ideologies to develop, bearing certain important parallels to religion. The important ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries postulate a world order which must be brought into being.”[ii]

One can think of a number of ideologies that would fit Isaac’s description of the religious impulse – in particular Marxism and Capitalism, both of which are based on salvation through material progress, although Marxism in theory is more concerned with social equality and justice. It is arguable that the underlying ideology of the twentieth century is that of human progress as salvation, here on earth, based on a technological/materialism. Indeed, Isaac concluded that for those studying the religious motive in cultural landscape the study of the role of ideology in landscape transformation is essential:

“Problematic though it be, the study of transformations of the landscape made upon ideological principles constitutes the major material for one who would study the religious motive at work in the cultural landscape of the present day.”[iii]

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, 1978, also noted the decline of the sacred and transcendental and questioned whether in fact there is now a secular church – a church which “is increasingly a social and service center”. In contrast, the medieval church “however much it catered to secular activities, was primarily sacred space: it radiated power”. [iv] Wistfully he concluded that contemporary life has lost its sense of the sacred, whether it be in the forests and streams or the sacred space of the church:

“Today the gods no longer dwell in forests and streams. If we abuse nature we shall pay for our wantonness in the long run and ecologists can tell us just how this will happen with the help of systems analysis and computers. But such rational and longwinded argument cannot chill our spine as can the belief that if we polluted a sacred spring our limbs would at once wither. …our pretense to scientific understanding and power has also corroded our feeling for profound mysteries. The world seems transparent. Contemporary space, however colorful and varied, lacks polarized tension as between the numinous and the quotidian. Contemporary life, however pleasant and exciting, moves on one plane – the plane encompassed by rational and humanist vision. Ecstasy and dread, the heights and the depths, the awesome and the transcendent rarely intrude on our lives and on our landscapes except under the influence of chemical stimulus… A sense of holiness and of worldly splendor has dimmed in modern times, and some people feel the loss.”[v]

Belden Lane also expresses a sense of the loss of the sacred and the mysterious for modern humanity: “As much as we might be tempted, amid the spiritual poverty of our contemporary life, to reach back to a renewed sense of paleolithic wonder, it is no longer possible or perhaps even desirable. The oracle is dumb. All shrines are defunct”.[vi] His description of modern life exemplifies the loss of and the longing for both the Nature/Earth Landscape and the revelatory Anthropocentric Landscape of patriarchal monotheism:

“The rootless character of American life, the Neo-Platonic impulse within the history of western spirituality, radical monotheism’s stubborn resistance to circumscribing the holy – all these would seem to minimise the significance of the phenomena [sacred space] being considered here. They are joined, finally, by the extraordinary impact of modern, critical thought in desacrilizing the world of nature, driving all mystery from it.”[vii]

He argues that, since Descartes and the Enlightenment:

“we no longer attribute numinous power to the landscape. The world is not for us the clear window of access to God that it might once have been… Yet human beings have never more longed for an awareness of God’s presence than today. Seldom have they been so divorced from a sense of place and the experience of meaningful dwelling that it can provide. Modern men and women, no less than their forebears, still hunger for the power of myth and place.”[viii]

Perhaps anticipating the imaginal Postmodern Ecological Landscape, Lane concludes:

“If there is hope for a rediscovery of the spirit, it will not be found in looking back to an innocence once lost, a simplistic return to the paradise of Eden. It will demand a reaching through and beyond the harshest criticisms leveled by the whole of western spiritual tradition. It will require a metanoia, a turning away from all efforts to manage the mystery of God. Only then may it be possible to encounter, by grace, a second naivete – a renewed sense of wonder glimpsed within the myriad landscapes of the holy.”[ix]

Lane places emphasis on the imagination, the experience of meeting and the mystery of grace and wonder which reveals the spiritual multiplicity of landscapes. This points to a description of the Postmodern Ecological Landscape to which we now turn.

[i] Erich Isaac ‘Religion, Landscape and Space’, Landscape, v.9, no.2, Winter (1959-60),18.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Sacred Space: Explorations of an Idea’ in: Butzer, K. (ed.), Dimensions of Human Geography, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 94.

[v] Ibid, 98-99.

[vi] Lane(1988) Landscapes of the Sacred, 190-1.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid, 191.

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