Prophet of the earth
Lutheran priest and scholar, Norman Habel, has two great passions in his life – the spirituality of the land and the aboriginal people.
Tui Motu spoke to him recently in Adelaide
When people are culturally deprived there are inevitably issues of abuse of women and children. The strong emphasis in recent times on Aboriginal rights has concentrated on their situation as regards the outside world and internal issues have been hidden. In the centre of Australia many Aboriginal people have been deprived of their reason for living: no work, loss of their tribal structures. So they turn to alcohol, petrol sniffing, and these other abuses also occur.
My experience has been at a Lutheran mission station at Finke River, near Alice Springs. This was set up by German Lutherans in the mid-19th Century. At first the mission provided a stable environment for the people, but eventually control was taken over by the Government. The people were bereft and could not return to their old culture which they had largely lost. They had lost the old with its values. The old tribal law was superseded by Australian law. They had lost one culture and not really gained a new one.
There is a lot of criticism presently as to whether the Aboriginals should receive the hand-outs which they have become dependent upon. One of their leading spokespeople, Noel Pearson, is very critical of the dependency mindset which has been inculcated. He is extremely eloquent. He also makes the white people realise they still have responsibilities. He has done a lot to persuade the Lutheran schools to make provision for Aboriginal children to be taught the skills to survive in Australian society without losing their cultural base. Sadly the retention rate among these students is poor, but the Lutheran schools are making a much better job of it than the government schools.
One healthy development is that many of the city schools now have lots of overseas students, so the Aboriginal pupils do not stand out as completely different. They are simply one of several cultural groupings. Emmanuel College here in Adelaide has also succeeded in associating the actual site with Aboriginal cultural history: identifying their sacred sites, identifying the native trees, finding out who lived here. There is a statue of reconciliation outside the school with the school symbol, a dove, along with the ibis which is the symbol of the Aboriginal people. The symbol can be made alive for these students.
The first Governor of South Australia, Hindmarsh, encouraged the Lutheran immigrants to learn the local language so that the aboriginal children could be taught. He maintained that the indigenous people also should have a choice of land. These ideals were not lived out. I often ask: “What was God doing in Australia before the Europeans came?” God didn’t arrive with Captain Cook, the great white hope. The eternal search for God has always been there.
I worked with an indigenous group and we put out a book called Rainbow Spirit Theology. There were six Queensland aboriginal men who wrote it with me. The book helped indigenous people to reclaim their own spiritual heritage via Christianity.
I was helped by George Rosendale, who taught me a lot about indigenous faith and spirituality. George’s grandparents had been murdered by the local police. His mother was rescued by a local mission. George was born under a tree and the mother buried the afterbirth in the earth so that the spirit could connect between George and the land his people had come from. The aboriginals are always bonded with the land. They have had a sense of kinship with the land, something Europeans have largely lost.
The ‘rainbow spirit’ up north was in fact a huge snake, but this was not approved by the missionaries who considered the snake to be diabolic! This idea was negated and never explored. Of course the snake, in aboriginal symbolism, has nothing to do with the devil. It is the life-force emerging during the monsoon – and it all emerges from the ground. Christ himself is linked with the serpent of Moses, which was the healing spirit.
A spirituality of the earth
There are two strands in my life: my passion for the Aboriginal people and for the land. I worked for years with the indigenous people – but I came to realise that I would never fully understand them until I came to understand the land.
So I explored the different ideologies about land we find in the Scriptures. I discovered that none of these quite compared with the way the aboriginal people feel: their sense of the earth is even more basic. Psalm 139, for instance, speaks of the psalmist being “made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth” (v 15). But nowhere in Scripture can I find a place where one would talk to the land, go to the land for the message. The sense of kinship with the earth is never quite as strong as one would learn from these primitive peoples.
George Rosendale not only speaks of Earth as Mother, but as father, mother, brother, sister – the lot! Your ancestors are in the earth, and you are bonded with the earth. For instance there is a tradition in Central Australia that to discover the particular ‘dreaming’ of a person you must discover where the mother was when she felt the first movement in the womb: that is when the ancestral spirit from the earth entered her. The child is from the earth.
The second influence on me is that I was born and bred on a farm in Western Victoria. My great-grandfather came from Germany and settled on the land. The land was cleared, but my great grandfather in 1870 planted native trees. He established a native reserve, and was an early conservationist. Those are my roots. I realised that I have this kinship with the land in my genes.
Ten years ago we had a conference on Religion and Ecology, so I put my other indigenous issues aside and launched upon the Earth Bible project and also the composition of liturgies to celebrate the Season of Creation. In 2008 we hope to put out a volume of ecological hermeneutics.
Ecology and Christian Faith
In the Earth Bible we ask ourselves what are the Eco-justice principles by which we could seek answers both from the Biblical text and the Christian Tradition of the West. This brings us to question how we have treated the earth in the West – and how radically different it is from the way the indigenous people regarded the earth.
I am a committed environmentalist, aware of my kinship with creation, but also asking the question: how do I read the Bible with a new set of eyes asking: is the text eco-friendly or not? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In some places the cultural context was by no means eco-friendly. So where can we look to grapple with the big forces presently at work which are destroying the planet.
Christians become bogged down debating Creationism; evolutionists become preoccupied with the view-point of human beings; what I call ‘heavenism’ implies that it doesn’t matter what happens to the earth – our home is in heaven! The earth doesn’t seriously matter to these viewpoints. Meanwhile the great corporate giants give grudging acceptance to sustainability – but only on their terms. Sustain the affluent lifestyle we’ve got. What it doesn’t mean is sustain the life of the less affluent people. The sense of St Francis is lost and ignored.
So what is our contemporary meta-narrative? How can we speak to the politics of ‘progress at all costs’? How can we persuade people that the resources of the earth are finite, that ‘growth’ has got to stop?
In a recent New Internationalist the concept of ‘carbon credits’ is discredited. As long as we continue to dig carbon out of the earth and burn it we are promoting global warming and diminishing the planet’s energy reserves. Al Gore has appeared in a new movie which graphically portrays the shrinking icecaps and the rising oceans and emphasises that the crisis is not in the future: it’s upon us now.
The dilemma is that we in the religious community are busy arguing about Creationism and Evolution as concepts – and the planet itself is being destroyed. We need to be asking: who or what is the cosmic Christ? Christ fills the cosmos. What is this telling us?
Teaching on Wisdom in Job 28
In Chapter 28 Job asks where wisdom is to be discovered? There are all sorts of stories as to where on earth wisdom can be found. The answer is in the final verses – God searches the earth and discovers wisdom, and affirms it as being fundamental to the cosmos. Wisdom, according to this, is not so much an attribute of God – one who saves me from sin – as an asset which God employs, something integral to the cosmos. So what is this designing force?
Is Wisdom the logos (of John’s Gospel, the Word) or is it the Spirit, that hovers over the deep and ‘renews the face of the earth’? My sense is that Job 38 and Proverbs 8 point to a designing force, a core characteristic. The planet has its core or its wisdom. The Cosmic Christ is with us to restore and reconcile the planet.
We must ask what is this planet? Is it just one of a stream of creations? Our planet is a unique fragment of the Universe. We are a unique and sacred site in the Universe, the Garden of Eden. It is more than just our home. All faiths need to contribute towards the answer. The earth’s creatures intuit the answer – reflecting the glory of God. We humans can utter it in speech.
The breathing of the earth is happening all around us. Presently we are choking the earth. In the season of creation the hardest part is for us to say: ‘we as the people of the planet are raping the earth’. Not just me as a sinner, but the human race I belong to which is sinning. Israel blows up an oil installation; the whole Lebanese coastline is polluted – and no one seems to care a jot about that. This earth is undeniably special. It is the garden of Eden. It is the pearl of great price God has entrusted to us. Let us cherish and preserve it.