The Revelatory ‘Anthropocentric Landscape’

BY STANDING HIMSELF in spiritual opposition to the Nature/Earth Landscape and hence separating himself away from this landscape, Judaic and Christian man was enabled to objectify and secularize it.

The Canaanite and pagan pervasive I-Thou relationship with a polytheistic sacred Nature/Earth Landscape was driven underground by the powerful, transcendent, patriarchal, monotheistic religions and their adherents who perceived the spirituality and religions of these peoples as a threat to their hegemony.

The relationship with the natural landscape was to become increasingly I-It and de-sacrilised. The new focus was now on man and his salvation in an Anthropocentric Landscape, separated from the Nature/Earth Landscape, which had become perceived as profane. This in turn would open up the way for scientific study and the technological and materialist, manipulated, landscape of the modern era. It was to be the landscape of I-It relations par excellence. Belden C. Lane describes the new state of affairs, or rather the new landscape focus:

“In much of Jewish and Christian theology the freedom of a transcendent God of history has regularly been contrasted with the false and earthbound deities of fertility and soil. God has been removed from the particularity of place, extracted from the natural environment. Hence, the tendency in western civilization has been toward the triumph of history over nature, time over space, male dominance over female dependence, and technological mastery of the land over a gentle reverence for life… The result has been a rampant secularization of nature and activism of spirit in western life, leaving us exhausted in our mastery of a world stripped of magic and mystery.”[i]

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan argues, it is now generally agreed that the “intense attachment to land based on the belief that the sacred soil is the abode of the gods waned as man acquired increasing control over nature and as Christianity spread to dominate the Western World”.[ii]

FROM AN AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND PERSPECTIVE, ecologist Geoff Park recounts the relationship of Maori to the land prior to the advent of missionary Christianity:

“Before contact with the missionaries of the 19th century, Maori believed their physical health and wellbeing were achieved in two principle ways. One was by maintaining the mauri of their places – the life force by which their natural elements cohere. The other was by lifelong observance of the laws of tapu. Rites and rituals broke down the barriers between people and other species, allowed people to flow spiritually into nature and for nature’s rhythms to permeate their own being. A host of daily tasks depended on conscious connection, both to benefit nature and limit human excesses.”[iii]

In contrast, the early European explorers, scientists and colonialists were outsiders who found the landscape harsh and despite using Maori guides and experts, they were sometimes patronising and critical of the Maori relationship with the landscape.

The new colonizers brought with them a new vision of the landscape. The New Zealand landscape – as exemplified by the vision of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862), the British politician and driving force behind the early colonisation of New Zealand, via the direction of The New Zealand Company – had exploitative and monetary value.

The new colonialists also desired to populate and tame the New Zealand landscape. One could term these landscape perspectives as anthropocentric and materialist. Generally the colonialist and the missionary view from London was that the Maori Nature/Earth Landscape perspective and hence Maori spirituality was primitive, backward and in need of salvation:

“Clearing the land was equated with Christianising the country. Converting the Maori to Christianity was seen as one’s duty inextricably bound up with another, that of “civilizing” the landscape. The firm assumption was that both duties would inevitably bring improvement. By the time the twentieth century arrived the landscape was regarded as an adversary against which the settlers pitted themselves.”[iv]

An example of an early missionary’s attitude to the Maori Nature/Earth Landscape perspective and spirituality is given in a sermon by the young German missionary Cort Schnackenberg at one of the Wesleyan West Coast mission stations in 1844. Schnackenberg admonishes Maori to:

“…apply the same rule to the cultivation of your hearts – the light from Heaven is shining upon you – look at yourself in that light and if you find your mind, your heart to be a wilderness, cultivate it in the same manner as you do your fields, cut down the bush, great and small – spare no sin… dig your hearts by deep repentance that it may become soft and fit to receive the seed of God’s word – if it strikes root within you. Watch it carefully and weed your hearts ever afterwards until the harvest – in times past the preaching of God’s work produced no fruit in this place, because it fell on strong ground, or was choked in the bush.”[v]

Park notes that while Schnackenberg and his wife were told by European visitors that they were living in the finest place in New Zealand, this:

“representative of religion committed to getting away from nature could only see what he called ‘The Tapu of Mokau’ cruelly infusing the lives of the river people. [Maori] were intelligent enough, even ‘touched occasionally by nobility’, but their primitive union with nature had empowered ‘the works of the devil’ – pagan spirits, cruelty and superstition – to operate unchecked.”[vi]

However, as is often the case, there is another side. This writer’s own nineteenth century northern Irish ancestors who settled in Canterbury opined in letters sent home after six months in New Zealand:

“I feel as happy as a king. I have not been to church, mass or meeting but twice since I left home and that was in Australia. There is not a house of worship within 25 miles of me. I used to have some queer notions about religion and you need not be surprised if they are queer still (such as no personal Devil yet Devils many). I have nature in her truest form and revelation for my guide and with God for friend and Father I may be little worse than many who like the parson’s horses find their way to the church gate but there they leave their religion behind and if far from church be near grace. I am far enough from church but I sincerely believe New Zealand is as near heaven as any country. But for the people I can not say… there are times when the more lonesome the place and the wilder the scene, I take the most delight.” “[vii]

It must be admitted that other early Europeans, or the new Pakeha, also saw the landscape as inherently beautiful because it was God’s handiwork.[viii]

By contrast, Lynn White, JR writing in Science, 1967, is explicitly damning of Judeo-Christianity’s impact on the Nature/Earth Landscape.[ix] He argues in his now famous paper ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, that modern science and technology have grown out of Judeo-Christian values of man’s transcendence of and mastery over nature, which has caused an ecological crisis:

“The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture… Our daily habits of action … are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology… We continue to live, as we have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian axioms… By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”[x]

From the thirteenth century until the late eighteenth century – when the hypothesis of God became unnecessary to many scientists – every major scientist up to and including Leibniz and Newton explained his motivations in religious terms. Thus modern science “is an extrapolation of natural theology” and modern technology can be at least partly explained by the “Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature” because:

“Over a century ago science and technology – hitherto quite separate activities – joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecological effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt… Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes towards man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.”[xi]

The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian – that is “that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man” – is irrelevant; because no new set of basic values has been accepted by our society. Both “our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecological crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny”.[xii]

Here again a qualification should be added. Different spiritual imaginal-visionary landscapes can be held and interwoven at the same time – either by individuals or by different sectors of the same society.

In this regard Peter Bishop points out, in a note to this author, that care should be taken that the view of non-western religions in terms of environmentalism should not be too idealized nor should be the “historical suddenness and definitiveness of a shift to a modernist, secular landscape”. In particular, Bishop argues:

“There have been numerous counter-trends. For example, the bulk of Europe’s population in the 18th and even 19th century were peasants and farm labourers. Their relationship to nature sustained continuity with much earlier beliefs. Much of the European Romantic tradition valued nature in terms of its spirituality. Nature writing, especially in North America was a major influence throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.” [xiii]

A LANDSCAPE ‘FOCUS OF PERCEPTION’ is not necessarily a totality of landscape perceptions in a particular historical period nor is it mutually exclusive, although it can be a major trend. Hence an analysis of landscape should not be reductive – rather it requires an attitude of circumspection and awareness of complexity while still taking cognisance of predominant phenomenology.

In other words, what we are talking about here is a predominant spiritual imaginal-visionary landscape ‘focus of perception’ – in this case the revelatory Anthropocentric Landscape. If White’s and the other theorists’ arguments are accepted, there will still be exceptions and counter-trends.

[i] Lane(1988) Landscapes of the Sacred, 19. See also: Walter Harrelson, From Fertility Cult to Worship (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1969), especially Chapter One; Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York: Macmillan, 1965), Chapter One; Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 184-5.

[ii] Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Geopiety’, 26.

[iii] Geoff Park, Nga Uruora – The Groves of Life (Victoria University Press, 1995), 134.

[iv] Trudie McNaughton (ed.), Countless Signs — The New Zealand Landscape in Literature (Auckland: Reed Methuen Ltd., 1986), 8.

[v] Park (1995) Nga Uruora, 134-135.

[vi] Ibid, 134.

[vii] Letters from James and Hamilton McIlwrath (Canterbury: September 8, 1862 and December 1, 1863 ) to parents John and Jane Logan McIlwrath and brothers in County Down, Ireland.

[viii] McNaughton(1986) Countless Signs, 6-7.

[ix] Lynn White, Jr ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Science, v.155, no. 3767 (10 March 1967), 1203-1207.

[x] Ibid, 1205.

[xi] Ibid, 1206.

[xii] Ibid, 1207.

[xiii] Peter Bishop, ‘Note to the author’, September, 2009.

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