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CONTEXT

Several articles address the historical human relationship to plants, not so much in terms of plant utility but more through changes in attitudes and beliefs, and therefore shifts in plant meaning. This article on plant lore introduces the world of animistic beliefs of prehistory, Natura, when humans as hunter-gatherers were a part of nature itself, existing within nature, essentially as they had evolved from it. As communities grew, human environments were more man-made, hierarchies developed, writing emerged, and culture began to dominate nature – so the narratives of belief changed.  Former animistic beliefs were now married to accounts of deities that populated spiritual but more human-like worlds, the deities, heroic sagas, and legends of Agraria. This system of belief reached its zenith in the rich recorded narrative of Greek mythology, outlined in a separate article for its insights into the changing human experience of plants. As cities expanded, the spirits of animism were lost, replaced by a polytheistic world of many gods, and eventually the monotheism of the Abrahamic religions.

Christianity & nature

What were the assumptions and beliefs of the early European settlers and how did they influence the way that they behaved towards one-another and their environment? What did they believe was their relationship to the land – was there a duty of care; was the land sacred (as the Aboriginals believed it was); what were the ideological or legal constraints on land ownership and use? Would Australia have been vastly different if it had been settled by the Dutch, French, Indonesians, Pacific Islanders or Chinese?

A more challenging question. If we were settling Australia today, what would (or should) be our attitude to nature if we were to off afresh – and what are the assumptions about the environment and land that we carry with us today?

We accept the behavior and beliefs that we are born into, often without much questioning or review. These basic beliefs are assembled from many sources including our long-term experiences; religion; general traditions followed within the society, family, and other social groupings; and specific social laws and customs.

Four articles draw together some of the major ideas that would have been accepted by the settler community: Christianity and nature (the Christian beliefs that gave an account of the Creation, the spiritual world, a moral code, and a general account of the human relationship with God’s creation); Politics, property and prosperity deals with more practical day-to-day life: things about which the Bible was not specific such as land and property ownership and exchange, trading conventions, the operation of the legal system and conduct of politics, the use of technology, relationship to people of different races and creeds; methods of discipline; ways of gathering food and so on; Grand narratives looks more generally at the way we all develop and use ‘world views’; and Plant lore which looks more specifically at the spiritual and intellectual relationship with plants, especially closely as it had been passed on to the settlers through ancient mythology.

Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden

Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Settler Christianity

It would seem that Australia’s maritime explorers and first settlers were Christian, at least in principle. In all probability most believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Of course we can never know for sure. There is a difference between what people profess and the rituals they follow, and what they actually believe. Perhaps a few people felt the Bible was being used to stifle any rebelliousness, and perhaps a few thought that its explanations were unconvincing. Certainly within a band of convicts there were people who had flaunted the Biblical moral code by placing the demands and desires of the here-an-now ahead of abstract concerns about God’s divine retribution, the after-life, sin, spiritual damnation and other religious matters. Superficially then there were a few who were not ‘God-fearing’ although their crimes, often trivial, may have been committed out of necessity. Even so, as today, we know that people were prepared to take a calculated risk in the present in full knowledge of possible religious consequences later.

We know that as the Enlightenment progressed religious skepticism was increasing and literal interpretation of the Bible would have been under question, at least by the well-educated. However, the new trust in observation and experiment and rigorous logic as a means of understanding the world did not undermine religious faith. Natural theology regarded science as a revelation of the wonder of God’s design. At the time of settlement there was little other than the Bible to provide an explanation of the world, public ceremonies would all make reference to the Christian God and most of the First Fleeters could not read. Key papers in geology explaining the origin of the Earth’s rock formations, fossils, and the vast time-frame of geological change were yet to be published, few questioning that the earth had originated in 4004 BCE. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was about 70 years away, and the most respected European naturalist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), made no secret of his belief that all species were unique and immutable, each individually created by God: ‘All the species recognized by Botanists came forth from the Almighty Creator’s hand, and the number now and always will be exactly the same.’[1]

It would appear then that, for most settlers, the Bible would have been a document to be interpreted as a true and literal account of the creation and human history (at least the history of people of any consequence in God’s eyes) together with an absolute God-ordained moral code. The black Holy Bible was a source of authority that ensured people knew right from wrong and what it was to sin: it would be many years before the Church would officially treat any of the contents of the Bible as allegory or metaphor.

So when, in the late 18th century when settlers and convicts dutifully attended Church on Sundays to listen to what God had to say about the Earth, human beings, animals, and plants and their significance in the scheme of things – what did they hear?

The Biblical narrative

The account of the Creation – the origin of everything in the world – is explained in the first few pages of the opening book of Genesis.[12] The Earth was created by God in six days (he rested on the seventh). Dark and formless Heaven and Earth were created first, light was then created to distinguish day and night, followed by the formation of the oceans, sky and land.

It was on the third day of Creation that God created all the plants:

Then God said “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so (Genesis 1:11-12 New International Version 1984)

This part of the Creation was followed by the Sun, Moon and stars giving rise to the days, years and seasons. Then all the animals, birds, livestock and other creatures were created and encouraged to multiply. It was then that God created humans.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so … (Genesis 1: 26, 28-30)

The connection between humans and plants is described in more detail in the second chapter of Genesis:

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. … The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2: 5-17)

It is probable that Eden and the rivers referred to in the Bible were loosely based on actual historical features in the region of Egypt and Mesopotamia but there has never been agreement on what these might have been.

Christian beliefs

Christianity is a monotheistic religion which, together with Judaism (Holy book the Tora), and Islam (holy book the Koran), trace a common origin to a Middle-Eastern man called Abraham (hence the ‘Abrahamic religions’). Beliefs are based on ancient writings (scriptures) contained as a series of ‘books’ combined into a single publication. The religious status and selection of books to be included in the ‘Holy Book’ varies according to the sect: Protestants, Catholics and Hebrews, for example, each use a different combination of books.

The Bible is divided into two parts, the Old Testament mostly written over 1,000 years before the birth of the prophet and Messiah Jesus, and the New Testament which was written after the time of Jesus (also known as Christ, hence Christianity). Core Christian beliefs are based primarily on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as reported in the New Testament, in particular the more authoritative and divinely inspired (canonical) gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.

Old Testament

The Old Testament was, essentially, a historical account of the Israelites, twelve nomadic tribes in the Ancient Near East during the period c. 1,500 to 550 BC. God destroys all but the righteous in a great flood. Abraham is the leader of the Israelites. The Book of Exodus recounts the period of enslavement of these people in Egypt, their escape under the leadership of Moses, the revelations at Sinai, and their wanderings in the wilderness up to the borders of the land of Canaan. The Bible describes Yahweh as the god who delivered the Israelites from Egyptian tyranny and, through a revelation to Moses at Mount Sinai, delivered the Ten Commandments that would serve as a future code of conduct. The Old Testament describes how the Israelites became Gods chosen people and how God on several occasions assured the Israelites that they would eventually have their own territory, the ‘promised land’. The promise is first made to Abraham (Genesis 15:18-21) and then renewed to his descendants. The temple of God built by Solomon is destroyed by Babylonians who take them into captivity but are then defeated themselves by the Persians. For Judaism this is the story of the early prophets and Jesus, though a great prophet, is not recognized as the son of God. For Christians the Old Testament is a story of the ancient prophets who were announcing the coming of the religious teachings of Jesus that now appear in the New Testament.[2]

The New Testament

In the New Testament the tone becomes more relaxed. The Ten Commandments are replaced with an exhortation to love one-another and avoid conflict. It tells the story of the birth of Jesus, baptised by John the Baptist, his ministry in Galilee and his journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover (the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt). Here he is arrested by Roman authorities and crucified, appearing in divine form before his disciples with a promise that he will return. He then returns to heaven.

The disciples continued the Christian mission, the Apostle Paul, who was a Greek-educated orthodox Jew and one-time Roman soldier, preaching widely but being arrested by Roman authorities. A large part of the New Testament consists of fourteen epistles attributed to Paul, although his authorship of seven of the fourteen is questioned by modern scholars. It is the ideas discussed in Paul’s epistles that have had the greatest influence on the West.

Historical context

Historically both the Old and New Testaments were accounts written by oppressed and marginalized people on the fringes of powerful empires, the Old Testament being about nomadic tribes persecuted by the polytheistic Babylon, and the New Testament an account of similar people, now Christians, under persecution from Rome. Creation stories of the period show many similarities, the Old Testament in both literary exegesis and content being similar in many respects to the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish.(see Wikipedia)

Christian creed

Christians believe that Jesus was both divine and human, and the son of God. The Old Testament described how the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, who lived in the Garden of Eden had, against God’s will, been tempted by a serpent to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For this disobedience God expelled the couple from paradise. Because of their disobedience all humanity was now tainted with sin, and had fallen from God’s grace. ‘The Fall’, as it was known, is recorded in both Testaments, the New Testament describing how this unfortunate situation was overcome. God sent his son, Jesus, to Earth in a physical form like other humans to redeem all humanity. This was achieved by the spreading of God’s word through Jesus’s teachings (his ministry), his sacrificial death (he was crucified to save humanity from its sins), and subsequent resurrection (his physical body returned to God in Heaven). This was thus salvation for humanity through a victory of good over evil (the atonement of sins), a return to God’s grace, and a promise of eternal life.

There is also the powerful imagery of the future as presented in the Book of Revelations which discusses Christian doctrine on ’last things’ (eschatology), the day of humanity’s judgment by God (the Last Judgement), the afterlife in Heaven and Hell, and the end of the Earthly world. Scholars debate whether Revelations should be part of the official Christian canon but it has had a colourful influence on history with its mythological imagery involving ranks of angels, two beasts, a dragon, the whore of Babylon (probably a New Testament borrowing of Old Testament imagery but in the context of Rome) as well as accounts of horror and devastation, all as a prelude to a horrendous final grand battle between good and evil (the Apocalypse or Armageddon), a promise of Christ’s Second Coming. It is the source of Millennialism of various kinds but its message is clear enough: that evil will be vanquished and the virtuous rewarded.

God, nature, anthropocentrism, and dominion theology

The environmental movement has made much of the words in Genesis 1:26 which are taken as the locus classicus of Western anthropocentrism. Humans are placed by God at the peak of creation with all other living things subject to human will. Man is on Earth to serve God: the earth is here to serve man. These words in Genesis also emphasise the divide between humanity and nature: humans are very different from everything else.

Lynn White, an historian from the University of California, published in 1967 an article in Science magazine, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’.[3] It damned Christianity by arguing that modern science and technology were Christian products of Western culture and that, since Christianity treats nature as created by God to serve mankind, then Christianity must shoulder considerable responsibility for modern-day environmental problems through God’s unambiguous exhortation in the Book of Genesis to ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’. Here was a divine endorsement of anthropocentric environmental transformation. If there was any moral justification needed for land alienation (settlement, clearance, drainage, and agricultural development) then this was it. Nature, once treated as sacred, could now be used in any way: the once vital relationship between humans and nature had been replaced by the more important relationship between humans and God. In Medieval Europe Thomas Aquinas articulated Christian thought and the ranking of all things according to the Great Chain of Being.

Genesis had overturned the pagan belief that humans were profoundly connected to the land and nature both physically and spiritually. The Christian god had placed humans both separate from and ‘above’ nature. For environmentalists these few words in Genesis must bear the burden of guilt for much of the modern environmental crisis

Influential Australian philosopher and historian of ideas John Passmore, who was often used as a touchstone for environmental ethics in the 1970s, wrote that early modern Europeans blended Christian theology, Stoic philosophy, scientific knowledge, and technological power to sanction amoral exploitation of the natural world.[10]

The spiritual world

Part of the change brought about by Christianity related to the complicated business of ‘souls’. One major role of former spiritual beliefs was to explain what happened to the ‘life-force’ of a person when they died. In many belief systems this life-force (spirit or soul) passed into other objects such as animals, trees or even rocks; sometimes it escaped to become an independent spirit, or it might even pass into another realm altogether, a kind of spirit world – it might even ‘possess’ another person. How were humans to deal with this spirit world? Could they make the spirits angry or happy? For many cultures the problem of communication with the spirit world was resolved by having special interlocutors skilled in this matter: shamen, druids, priests etc. Although the ways of answering these questions may have differed, along with the mythology and associated narratives, these underlying questions about the supernatural world were a universal legacy from earliest humanity and had to be dealt with by the Abrahamic religions which had their own views on which parts of God’s creation had souls and how and where these souls existed.

By the time of the Roman empire polytheism must surely have begun to seem strange as different beliefs from round the world were becoming more widely known. Christianity resolved two major intellectual problems related to all religion, the first being a decision about the number of gods. For Christians of the New Testament there was the glaring example of the Greco-Roman polytheistic pantheon. Greek and Roman gods were similar to humans but existing in a supernatural realm and they were ranked in order of importance and the kind of respect they could command. If humans had spirits – then why not animals, plants, and rocks too? In animistic systems of belief like those of Australia’s Aboriginals – the spirit world included the whole of nature not just humans. But how were humans to differentiate these supernatural beings that included everything from dragons to elves, Olympian God-heroes to water nymphs, angels to ogres, wizards and human spirits. Were the images or monuments erected to gods the Gods themselves, or some kind of representation of the actual God? The situation was clearly taking on an absurd character and there was always the possibility that some of these Gods might not be ‘real’. One approach taken up by the Romans was to simply incorporate the gods of all cultures into a pantheon of thousands. But how should humans show their allegiance to all these gods and how did you know if they were just human imagination?

Christianity and other monotheistic religions cleared away the complexities and confusion resulting from polytheism and animistic beliefs. Monotheism was able to identify the single true God and through a holy book reveal that god’s teachings on the Creation, human conduct, the spiritual world, life after death, and the future of the human race. In general, any other gods were to be regarded as superstition.

The Christian monotheistic vision was focused, not on Earth, but on Heaven – to a spirit world where people’s souls could at last be with the one true God in a final eternal resting place, released from imperfect sinful humanity and the pain and suffering of the earthly life. Only humans had spirits (souls), although there were other spiritual entities like angels and the devil. To facilitate Christian communication with God there was the clergy (priests). For Catholicism it was possible to enter the kingdom of heaven except through the intercession of a priest.

From now on, and possibly for the first time in human history, interaction with nature no longer needed any kind of appeasement, sacrifice, permission or negotiation. Interaction with the land could be restrained only by other people.

Our spiritual separation from nature in the sense described can be viewed with some dismay but it must be remembered that the former spiritual relationship, though both intense and strongly engaging, was by no means idyllic. It was probably based largely on fear. Spirits could be evil. And, at times, getting along with the gods meant human sacrifice.

Settler world

Religious belief permeated all aspects of daily life.

First Fleet

With the First Fleet came the Church of England Chaplain Reverend Richard Johnson (assisted by Samuel Marsden) worked with the Governor, presiding over the community’s births, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, deaths and moral well-being – which included matters of health and education. He was assisted by, and when he left, replaced by the Reverend Samuel Marsden who, being responsible for law and order, became known as the ‘flogging parson’ because of the frequency and severity of the whippings that he ordered.

Aboriginals

Though Christianity and the Evangelical movement tried to alleviate Aboriginal suffering, from the vantage point of the 21st century the early attempts to not only convert but civilise, educate and improve the moral character of Aboriginals by placing them in religious missions appears appallingly arrogant and presumptive. Even though missionaries made contributions to anthropology and many other aspects of white understanding of Aboriginal culture

Agriculture

The hunter-gather spirituality was centred on the natural world. But with monotheism gone were the nature gods and assorted spirits associated with natural objects. They had lost their relevance. Nature had been demystified and stripped of its intrinsic and spiritual significance; it had literally lost its ‘soul’. Only humans had souls and therefore only humans possessed a spiritual reality. In contrast the Ten Commandments had nothing to do with nature, they were about the relationship between God and people, and between people themselves. With urban living it would seem inevitable that the detailed and intimate knowledge of the spirit world in wild nature would decrease in significance even though some of the ancient memories would remained or be transformed, adapted, and passed on. Perhaps the concentration of people in cities at this time, away from wild nature, made this severance from spiritual nature easier.

Monotheism does seem related, in part, to the passing of the hunter-gatherer. As life became settled in agricultural communities there was still a dependence on nature, but not so much its individual objects of trees, mountains, streams, and caves. It was more about floods and seasonal climatic dependencies, and concerns about plagues and diseases. As communities gathered in cities the significance for them of trees and caves and sacred groves would diminish, while the issues of governance and social control would increase in importance.

Christianity & the environment

Though the influence of domination theology seems clear, the connection between it and the day-to-day practice of environmental management is not self-evident. We can be too hasty in assigning environmental abuse to religious causes and, in particular, the words in Genesis. Biblical interpretation can be a matter of selecting appropriate texts. Green Christians point out that the biblical emphasis is on stewardship, not ownership, and that the earth remains the Lord’s (Psalms 24:1) and does not belong to its human inhabitants. Leviticus 25:23 states: ‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.’ Nature is the valued work of God: the loss of a single species is the loss of part of God’s creation

In a study of ‘Empire, Environment and Religion …’ historians Beattie and Stenhouse critically examine religious influence on settler thinking in nineteenth-century New Zealand (see references) and there are obvious parallels for Australia. Settler New Zealanders were about 80% British and Irish Protestants, the rest comprising Roman Catholics, Mormons, Chinese Confucians and freethinkers; about half English, about a quarter Scottish, about a fifth from Ireland.[11]

Improvement

Settlers, it seems, had a God-given duty to improve the land – a belief fuelled in the nineteenth century by the Enlightenment ideas of ‘development’, ‘improvement’, and ‘progress’ that were at the heart of what environmental historians have called ‘ecological imperialism’. Enlightenment, development, improvement, and progress were part of secular Enlightenment optimism but also part of the religious outlook. The idea of progress was later reinforced by an interpretations of Darwin’s idea of evolution as being ‘progressive’ and the extension of the idea of natural selection to society as social evolution. In this scenario it is more secular materialism that is to blame, if blame is to be allocated.

Historian Richard Draydon in his Nature’s Government (2000) which examines the activities of imperial Britain especially as they related to Kew Gardens. Man’s place in nature, he suggests is linked to the Judaeo-Christian myth of the Garden of Eden, the idea of dominion and Christian providentialism (that God’s will is everywhere in the social order and all events. Humans cannot comprehend the full power of God and the reasons for his his actions). ‘Ideas of Providence and Adamic responsibilities and prerogatives were the ideological taproot of the First British Empire and, translated into political economy, they underpinned the Second, and the nation-states which were its successors … agriculture as a way of using nature sanctified by the religion and economic assumptions of the West””.[13]

Settler capitalism

Beattie and Stenhouse outline the remarkable case of atheist George Southwell who settled in Auckland in 1856 and who, in the Auckland Examiner a paper he founded and edited, called for ‘systematic colonisation and the rapid exploitation of the country’s mineral, agricultural, and industrial resources in order to make it [NewZealand] the ‘brightest jewel’ in the ‘British Crown’’. Southwell encouraged the white settlers to take Maori land, if necessary by defying the law. He asserted that progress and prosperity were being obstructed by an alliance of three groups: Maori Christians, missionaries, and humanitarian officials.[4]

Settler behaviour

Beattie and Stenhouse point out that the combination of interrelated ‘dominion theology’, ‘settler capitalism’, and the social momentum of the ideas of ‘development, progress, and improvement’ was a powerful brew that would ensure an uncompromising and ruthless exploitation of New Zealand’s natural resources. Perhaps this was fulfilled in the early 20th century when New Zealand became, effectively, a vast overseas British farm. But was New Zealand influenced by religious thinking or was it simply ‘building an acquisitive, materialistic society in which ‘the promise of profit provided sufficient moral warrant in an atmosphere where human self-interest determined morality and the natural physical order was not seen as deserving respect’?[5]

Beattie and Stenhouse note that the Christian relationship to the natural world was ambiguous. Domination theology was no doubt a mainspring of settler environmental attitudes, many of which in retrospect appear ill-founded, but Christianity also encompassed a respect for God’s Creation which included a duty of care.

Science and religion, even after Darwin, were not played out as opposing forces. Natural theology, the idea that science was revealing the wonder of God’s design in creation was probably, in general terms, the prevailing belief, natures discovered laws being God’s laws of creation. Delight in nature, its beauty and its spiritual richness were often expressed in appreciative Christian terms, by being interpreted as God’s bountiful gift to humanity. It was often clergy who were the naturalists, plant collectors, and nature lovers. Science and religion were quite comfortable together in the nation’s schools, churches, parliament, scientific institutions and local government.

For these reasons Christian ethics were often mobilised in criticism of insensitive development that seemed to be damaging the environment, and summoned in support of conservationist programs and environmental stewardship – even the restoration of nature to its original God-given state of perfection, perhaps a form of religious Utopianism attempting to recreate the peace, harmony and abundance that existed in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.[6] Some settlers even compared their new home as the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was an influential writer of the mid 19th century who could count as a ‘romantic theist’ (though wavering in belief) extoling the connection between nature, art, and literature while encouraging the nature-based Pre-Raphaelites and the virtues of pristine nature, while castigating the depradations of industrial society.

Churches enjoyed harvest festivals, a relic of pagan festivals incorporated in the Christian calendar. Nature was enjoyed and respected by walkers, botanists and other naturalists. In the 1860s there was a fern craze, Pteridomania, following one in England; sermons praised nature and the wonders of the natural world as divine revelation as did the schools, who promoted the emulation of God’s care and compassion and treated environmental abuse as sinful, because it ignored God’s sacred trust. Arbour days (started in Nebraska in 1872) were used to instil a conservation ethic and an appreciation of the outdoors. Caring for animals in God’s creation was a strong theme in animal welfare which was battling cruelty, vivisection, and the trade in coloured feathers.[7]

Beattie and Stenhouse regard W. Travers (1819-1903) as a typical New Zealand example of the mix of values and beliefs that existed in New Zealand’s 19th century. Travers was a practising lawyer and one-time member of the House of Representatives who was interested in exploration and acclimatisation. He collected plants which he sent to Joseph Hooker at Kew – he was ‘an enlightened Protestant … [who] … believed in science and religion, progress and piety, colonisation and conservation’. He deplored the displacing of indigenous species by new exotic introductions while admiring the way that the farmland of the ’vigorous races of Europe’ was replacing the ‘rough clearing and hut of the savage’.[8]

Scotsman Herbert (W.H.) Guthrie-Smith (1862-1940), one of New Zealand’s greatest environmental writers was a farmer who spent decades developing his sheep run Tutira at Hawke’s Bay on the North Island and renowned for the many times reprinted Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station first published in 1921. He was a reformed Calvinist who believed in God’s ultimate power, but his Presbyterian faith also allowed belief in Darwin’s theory of evolution; he regarded humans as part of the natural world (not standing above it with God’s permission to do whatever he liked) and in later life he questioned whether what he had done in his youth was for the better, and praised the ideal of an earthly paradise.

Plants of the bible

The Bible is replete with references to the plants that were growing mostly in Egypt and Palestine at the time of the account. Of course there are difficulties in knowing the true identities of the plants mentioned, let alone the correct interpretation of the original texts. One fine account, plant by plant, is that of the Moldenkes’ Plants of the Bible.[9] One of Linnaeus’s own disciples, Fredric Hasselquist, produced a Flora of the region called Iter Palaestinum.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Today we still live in a religiously divided society. Anti-religious new-atheists, agnostics, and humanists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Grayling (see references) have outlined their alternative to a religious path when religion does not provide sufficient explanations, that the world is unnecessarily bitterly divided by religious conflict, or that faith is blind belief without evidence.

Science has always had little time for metaphysical, spiritual and supernatural beings that lie in some transcendent or ineffable realm beyond minds and physical reality (without evidence and untestable): they are now mostly placed under the category of ‘mind’ rather than being located within a separate spiritual world. However, from at least the eighteenth century Christians have increasingly treated the original biblical fire and brimstone imagery and miraculous events as allegory and metaphor and accept the truths of science while still claiming a spiritual domain, and as such criticism of religions on the grounds of historical and scientific absurdity has lost some of its former weight.

Though times and language have changed the things that divide us have not. It is not difficult to imagine contemporary mythological scenarios for the present day expressed in the tradition of the Book of Revelations. For example there would seem to be some truth in the claim that today oppressed theism has joined forces with ‘polytheistic’ nature lovers against the common enemy atheism as manifest through secular materialist capitalism. The same scenario in different words: monotheistic spiritualists and salvation Christians have combined with apocalyptic environmentalists announcing the Armageddon in a battle with the Babylonian forces of Mammon.

With the influx of different religions into Australia and a growing religious skepticism the primacy of Christianity is decreasing. There is questioning of the use of the public purse for religious purposes, children are being withdrawn from religious instruction, and there is resistance to chaplains in schools.

But the question remains as to the extent of influence of the Biblical narrative on attitudes and ideas throughout Australia’s history and the extent to which its thinking has defined today’s world and in Western secular societies it is easy to forget how central religion was to daily life. Whether you were Catholic or Protestant or some other religious sect determined the way you were perceived and treated in society. Although of diminishing relevance it has remained a part Australian social history to the present day.

Though we can detect some echoes of prehistory and ancient mythology in the folklore that came to Australia from Britain these voices are very faint. And though Christianity’s Book of Genesis spoke of human domination of the natural world the way that the settlers treated the land was probably no different from the way it would have been treated by peoples from other cultures and religions. For many Christians the gospel teachings led to environmental respect and wise stewardship. It is perhaps from the impact of modern technology post 1960s that we begin to seriously question human indifference to their sustaining environment.

However, it is clear that with survival at stake, from the start treatment of the environment and land was almost exclusively a secular matter, in practical terms constrained only by the system of land ownership and its related laws.

There are other voices in the debate about religion and the environment, including eco-feminism and creation spirituality. Eco-feminism maintains that human domination of both women and the earth spring from the same masculine, patriarchal institutions, and that salvation for the earth, women, and ultimately men, can only be achieved by modifying these institutions. Creation spirituality attempts to recover the nature mysticism of some medieval Christians such as Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Mechtild of Madeburg, Hildegard of Bingen, and Francis of Assisi entailing wonder, awe and respect for God’s creation.

Key points

    • Monotheism broke the ancient spiritual connection with nature effectively denying the realm of nature gods and spirits
    • Through dominion theology humanity received divine affirmation of its status as separate from and ‘above’ nature
    • Regardless of domination theology, Christian respect and awe for God’s creation gave them a ‘duty of care, so the conservation ethic of the early days was drawn largely from religious ranks. Many natural historians and plant collectors were clergy

Media gallery

Christians and the Environment: Seven Minute Seminary

Seedbed – 2013 – 6:59

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First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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