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ARC Home > Projects > Sacred land :
Theology of Land

Theology of Land

Cedar of Lebanon growing in the Maronite Protected Environment of Qadisha Valley, Lebanon.

Summary

World-wide the term ‘Sacred Land’ is being used by environmentalists, religious communities and heritage organisations. The vagueness of the term presents both opportunities and problems and this programme is designed to address, from the religious perspective, what this term has meant, does mean and could mean within an overall theological framework. It also brings into the mainstream of the debate the major faiths, which for ideological reasons rooted in Western secular perceptions, have been either sidelined or ignored in this growing debate. Through the programme we hope to develop a shared platform of concern and action helping to better protect the vast swathes of the world which the major faiths each view as sacred. To do this, we are inviting the major faiths to articulate their own Theology of Land.

1.0 A Growth Area of Interest

The rise of interest and of commitment to ecological issues by the major faiths has been one of the most significant movements of the past 20 years. Worldwide, faiths have responded to the climate change and environment debates in a variety of ways -from simple auditing of their use of energy, to land reform, to enhance the protection of nature in their forests and on their landholdings.

At the academic level, religion and ecology now features on the syllabus of many universities and colleges, as well as of increasing numbers of faith and secular schools.

At the same time another growth area has emerged – almost independently of the faith-based movements. This is the interest in the ecological significance of sacred land. Anthropologists, ecologists, economists, sociologists and even psychologists have found much to fascinate them in the role sacred lands have played in helping preserve nature.

2.0 Sacred Land and Religious-owned Land

2.1 Sacred Land

From vast sacred mountains to tiny cemeteries in urban settings, the faiths have often provided sanctuaries for wildlife. Up until recently this has tended to have happened more by accident than by intent, in that simply because a temple, church, hermit cave or shrine has been situated on a mountain, in a forest or beside a river, its presence has created a penumbra of holiness protecting the land and species around it, sometimes for a radius of ten miles or more.

We estimate that some 15 percent of the land world wide has a sacred connotation, from the sacred river valleys of India, through the sacred mountains of Mongolia to the holy cities of the Middle East. Although much of this land is not actually owned by the faith, proximity to a faith site has led to the area being considered sacred, regardless of actual ownership.

2.2 Religious-owned Land

On top of this, world wide, the major faiths do own considerable tracts of land – land which is not always considered especially holy in itself, but which has been donated to the faiths to help fund their vast array of social networks and projects, and which they often rent out to tenant farmers. We estimate some eight percent of the habitable land surface of the planet is owned by religions – ranging from for example the 10 percent of England owned by the Church of England, through the 49 percent of Lebanon owned by the Maronite Church and the 18 percent owned by the Druze - to the 28 percent of Cambodia seized under the Communist rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s and due soon to be returned to the Buddhists.

3.0 Action So Far

3.1 On Land with a sacred connotation

Some faiths have, in recent years, made their traditional passive protecting role of land into an active one.

For example:

* Buddhist monks in Thailand have built small temples in threatened forest areas, thus deliberately offering a degree of protection from hunting and logging.

* Christians in the USA have created wilderness experiences for young people based on their Biblical understanding of nature and creation and with a deliberate intention of encouraging the next generation to look after the land, because they love the land, and because they have explored it in the context of being God’s Creation.

3.2 On Religious-owned land with a commercial significance

Considerable work to address key uses of this land has been undertaken by the faiths over the past few years, aided by ARC in partnership with organisations such as WWF, the UN and the World Bank Attention has focused primarily on religiously owned farmland and forestry. For example:

* Organic farming training centres run by religious communities have been created in a number of countries.

* A partnership of the Church of Sweden and the Shinto of Japan, aided by ARC, has encouraged and facilitated religious forestry owners to work on their own forestry standards.

4.0 Partnerships with the faiths – why theologies of land?

4.1 To remember the element that makes sacred places special: and give foresters and farming advisors from the faiths and secular environmentalists a relevant underpinning to back their practical work

A key element that has been missing from both the general discussions about sacred land, and from the practical work on commercially significant land owned by the faiths has been serious theological reflection which has been made available to the wider world. This has meant that the (secular) discussions about sacred land have often not considered how the faiths themselves view it. This means not only that the very element which makes such places special is missing, but that even the foresters and farming advisors within the faiths have no theological underpinning with which to back their practical work.

It is interesting to note that the first recommendation to emerge from the first meeting of the faith forestry owners in Sweden in August 2008, was that each faith should develop a theology of land generally and of forests specifically - which would then guide how they develop “faith-consistent forestry management systems”.

At that meeting it was discovered that the different theological perceptions of different faiths produced widely divergent approaches to understanding and thus caring for or managing the forests. All of the faiths’ beliefs led them to the desire to be more thoughtful in how land was used, but the reasons for this were very diverse.

For example:

* Both Christian and Islamic traditions have notions of humanity having a stewardship role: they can therefore speak about a faith ‘protecting’ a forest or sacred landscape.

* In Shintoism and Hinduism, this makes less sense. Shintos and Hindus see us as being protected by the forest, and from this understanding of the human situation flows their moral and spiritual responsibility to care for and with the land.

4.2 To help the next generation understand

A major problem for the continuity of sacred sites is the loss of the tradition or the rationalisation of it into purely ecological, economic or cultural issues. Without the maintenance of the oral and written traditions, rituals, pilgrimages, rites and worship at such sites, it only requires a couple of generations and then it is lost. Developing a theology of land will help to anchor these traditions into the mainstream thinking, preaching and worship of the faiths and thus help to sustain the tradition. Such a theological exploration can also aid faiths in rediscovering the significance of stories, actions and beliefs which have often been relegated to the back cupboard under the critical eye of modernisers and in response to criticism from secular bodies.

For example, it was only when asked about a theology of land that the Zoroastrians in India remembered that the very underpinning of their faith was as a response to environmental crisis and that this was captured in one of their core theological stories about the earth and God.

4.3 To underline the importance of protecting sites sacred to other traditions

In many parts of the world major faiths share their sacred sites. For example Jerusalem is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims while Ayodhya in India, is revered by both Hindus and Muslims. Added to this is the fact that a persistent criticism of the major faiths is that they have sought to destroy sites sacred to other (particularly indigenous) traditions. While much of this is hearsay, there are enough examples of religious extremists attacking sacred trees, groves and shrines throughout history to warrant concern.

No-one has ever asked the faiths explicitly to explore their teachings and traditions of respect and protection of other people’s sacred sites (and sense of the sacred). Yet all traditions have such teachings and some faiths have worked on theologies of land. And even though in many cases a latent ‘let it be’ attitude has been developed over centuries of co-existence, this can be disturbed by the rise of more extreme strains of the major faith tradition. Better to have it explicit.

4.4 Moving on from general theologies of the environment

The development of these theologies of land is an important new step, moving us all on from the general statements and theologies of nature/the environment which have been produced since the Assisi Declarations of 1986. These multitudinous statements are now commonplace and the basic theologies of the environment for all major faiths have been set forth. The task of the Theology of Land is to take these general theological principles and apply them to a specific issue – land and our understanding and relationship with it in the framework of faith. While some faiths have done some work on this, not all have and none have done so in the context of the wider discussion and interest in sacred land as a term of environmental protection and care.

5.0 Ideas on Developing a Theology of the Land

5.1 How?

Each faith has its own theological structures but certain elements are held in common. Certain levels of authority exist which carry responsibility for theological reflection either because of an academic basis or a traditional role of decision making. Each faith has touchstones of Scripture and Tradition from which inspiration and guidance is drawn or sought.

Most faiths have forums through which ideas are debated or shared such as Synods, Councils, Assemblies or media networks.

Finally, most faiths have key individuals or centres which undertake the task of thinking a little beyond the normal in order to help the majority of the faith explore new ideas and fields.

But what is usually needed is someone or some group who will start the ball rolling, in full awareness of the role and significance of elements outlined above.

ARC would therefore like to propose that each tradition establishes a working group to produce a first draft of a Theology of the Land from its own teachings. In doing so they will be joining a number of other such theological groups around the world - and we will ensure that at appropriate opportunities information, insights and problems will be shared between the groups. However the main purpose of each group is to address the specific theological insights of its own tradition.

5.2 What?

So far, from our initial discussions with several of the faiths, the following key themes and issues have emerged as an initial indication of the way we hope each faith will tackle the Theology of Land.

5.2.1 Creation – Existence

a. Who or what created this physical world?
b. Why does the physical earth exist within the teachings, stories and traditions of your faith?
c. What is the relationship between the physical earth and the rest of nature/creation?
d. Where does humanity fit into this picture and what role, if any, does humanity specifically have?
e. Does your tradition ascribe sacredness to all aspects of creation, including the land or to specific areas or places only?

5.2.2 Humanity and the Land

a. Within the holy books, is there a specific theology or series of stories which explain or set out humanity’s relationship to the earth and to land?
b. What are the key theological terms used to describe humanity’s relationship with the land – for example: steward; protector; protected by; master; carer; priest; blessing; other
c. What legends, stories or historical accounts does your tradition have, which illuminate the way we should relate to, use or interact with the land?

5.2.3 The Land as Sacred

a. What is your theological understanding of the role and significance of specific sties being set aside as sacred?
b. Are there any traditional practices which embody the faith’s understanding of land - for example:
* setting aside land for wilderness habitat for species;
* resting agricultural land on a regular basis
* the role of natural landscapes as places of retreat or meditation;
* viewing certain natural features – mountains, rivers, specific rock formations etc – as especially charged with spiritual power or significance;
* traditional practices which ensure sharing natural resources such as water with other creatures;
* pilgrimage or annual rituals associated with the land;
* harvest festivals or their equivalent such as blessing the land at spring time
c. Is there a theology of urban spaces and built communities which differs from the theology of natural landscapes or agricultural/rural landscapes?

5.2.4 Spreading the ideas

a. What is the best way of communicating the theology of land as widely as possible within your network?
b. Are there current land related issues for which this could provide a theological framework or which could be used as tests for the relevance of the theology to practical issues today?
c. Could you convene a meeting of those responsible for land management within your tradition to discuss the implications of this theology?

6.0 Next Steps

Through these questions and the debates which we hope they will initiate, plus the other questions or issues that each faith will identify as particularly important, we aim to help the faiths discover or explore perhaps for the first time, a fundamental aspect of their theologies of ecology – namely what is the earth and what is our relationship to it?

7.0 An Invitation

We invite you to create a working group which will produce by April 2009 an initial outline document reflecting upon the issues of a Theology of Land for your tradition. Once you have completed this please send it to us at ARC and we will respond with ideas and suggestions. Following a meeting, which we hope to hold in the summer of 2009, we would ask you to finalise the discussion document for your Theology of Land and to then discuss with us how this can be brought into wider discussion within the decision making structures of your tradition.

Our hope is that by 2012, all key religious traditions will have in place such a theological document on the subject of land, designed to stimulate debate, reflection and action.

ARC

Links

Link here for more details of ARC/UN 7 Year Plan and the Use of Assets.


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Related information

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Wherever you live, your landscape can be as sacred as any holy land
Beyond Belief: groundbreaking WWF-ARC publication
In 2006 WWF International and ARC produced an important document, listing 100 protected areas around the world, where faiths look after their sacred land.
July 11 2008:
UN/ARC Seven Year Plan for Generational Change
After a year of discussions, consultations and drafts, ARC is proud to announce the launch, with the UNDP, of the Guide to Creating Seven Year Plans. The purpose is to help faith communities to move into a new stage of environmental action, reflection and thought. Many have already done audits and have looked into traditional practices for eco-friendly ways of living. This is the next level of engagement.