Rev Rex A E Hunt, MSc(Hons)
Spirit of Life Unitarian Fellowship
Kirribilli NSW


The capacity of the natural world to inspire a religious response from humans
has long been recognised.

In several essays, philosopher and naturalist Jerome Stone has said
that taking nature to heart does not leave a person with any fewer spiritual benefits
than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions.

In a frequently used quotation his language becomes direct:
"If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred, surely we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognised as sacred… What we need is to realise that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship… but is rather the acknowledgement of the awesome, of the overriding and overwhelming."

As you would have recalled by now from some of my books and previous Addresses,
an umbrella title given to this philosophy of life is called Religious Naturalism (RN).
        A philosophy which has helped shape my life
        and spirituality for many years.

As the name suggests there are two characteristics to religious naturalism.

A Religious orientation that includes spiritual responses,
which can include feelings of appreciation, gratitude, humility, reverence, and joy,
        at the wonder of being alive.

And Naturalist views, where the scientific understanding of nature
serves as the starting point, and its religious potential is then explored.
        A central story is the Epic of Evolution.

In summary: religious naturalism is a quest for wisdom from wherever it may come…
        from the symbols, myths and rituals of the world’s diverse religious traditions,
        from literature and the arts, from the intricate splendours of indigenous knowledge
                  to the mind-bending ways of the modern sciences.

So following Stone’s thinking then, a definition of nature would be:
"everything that is, this entire universe, without reference to a transcendent deity, soul, realm of spirits, or heaven… [and including] the human world of culture and history."

There is no ‘outside revelation’.

So for me and other religious naturalists of my acquaintance,
a naturalist’s view of life sees a world of impressive order,
        with massive power and scope, infinite space and time,
        and intricate actions and interrelation.

More than two centuries ago, the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757–1827)
wrote four of the most often quoted lines in English literature…

They are the opening lines of his 1803 poem Auguries of Innocence:To see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour…

As many a naturalist and biologist has claimed, with Blake,
        to indeed see a world in a grain of sand,
        to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—
                  that is the essence of science as a quest… for understanding one’s deepest nature.

So with this in mind, and with help from learned friends,
I offer a more humble ‘peer’ around the face of the earth…
        the Australian landscape earth.


Ancient and Dry Landscape
We live on the third piece of debris from the Sun.
A tiny world of rock and metal with a thin veneer of organic matter on the surface,
        a tiny fraction of which we happen to constitute.

Part of that debris is Australia - an ancient and distinctive land,
with animals and plant life that are quite remarkable in their own right.

Theologian Gerard Moore reflects:
"It is a land unlike any other, weathered to an unimaginable flatness with a consequent vastness of sky, space and light. A corollary is that the land is virtually unbounded; artificial boundaries are soon rendered inconsequential."

Although most people would consider the Australian continent
to be one solid landmass, geologist now tell us
        it is actually more like a giant jigsaw puzzle of at least three former continents
        that has been put together over many millions of years.

Ancient, yes! With a huge, prehuman memory.
And with an outback where nature reigns supreme!
        Unspoiled beauty. Space, and freedom.

Except of course for open-cut mining and former nuclear weapon sites.

But it is also shrouded in mystery and presence
especially as experienced by Indigenous/First Peoples of Australia.

For Australia’s First Peoples landscape was a ritual, mythic, ceremonial landscape.
“[F]or tens of millennia before the name Australia was applied to the country there was a clan-by-clan, ceremonial-group by ceremonial-group map of the country”.

The Walpiri people of Central Australia have a special word for ‘earth’.
They call it jukurrpa, Dreaming. It is said the Dreaming
“binds people, flora, fauna and natural phenomena into one enormous inter-functioning world… At particular ceremonial sites [they] re-enacted he journey and acts of creation of a particular hero ancestor, and by doing that they sustained the earth.”.

Up until a few years ago, when popular conversations began to focus in
on the Australian landscape—notably the outback, those able to recall
        their primary school education may well have remembered some words
        from another poet, Dorothea Mackellar (1885–1968).

At least the second verse of her poem, My Country:
I love a sunburnt country / A land of sweeping plains / Of ragged mountain ranges / Of drought and flooding rains…

Australia is this. Dry.
The First Fleet arrived
‘in the midst of one of the most significant El Nino events in recorded history’.

But Australia is also more than this.
More than a collection of deserts rimmed by a narrow coastal strip.
        It may have a dry heart
        But it also has a green soul.


Green Landscape
For the first 20 years of colonisation both artists and botanists were wrestling with the landscape.
In both letters and sketches many were unable, initially,
        to appreciate the beauty and diverse range of environments of the Australian bush.

Contradictory responses abounded. ‘very romantic, beautifully formed by nature…’.  ‘the worst country in the world…’.
The early colonists saw either beauty or usefulness.

But by the late 1850s there was what can only be called a significant change.
Of primary fascination in Victoria, for instance, was the Dandenongs,
especially the gullies of tree ferns and the huge mountain ash.

Likewise Mount Wellington in Tasmania, the Blue Mountains in NSW,
and the wildflowers in WA, became centres of botanical exploration and research.
        And appreciation.

Initially interest in tree ferns was on their height rather than their beauty.
(Many were as much as twenty feet high.)

On a visit to Hobart in 1839 Charles Darwin remarked:
"In some of the dampest ravines, tree-ferns flourished in an extraordinary manner… The foliage of these trees, forming so many most elegant parasols, created a gloomy shade, like that of the first hour of night."

Others described their encounters with tree-ferns as
an ‘enchanted valley… exquisitely beautiful’…

The pursuit of scientific knowledge and aesthetic appreciation went hand-and-hand.
"The wonder of giant eucalypts, elegant tree ferns, and the smaller, dainty fern varieties, involved science and sentiment coming together and contributing to an Australian imaginative framework.æ

Such search for wonder, a cultivated interest in nature, and
the ability to describe and present a scene’s noteworthiness,
        provided a way of observing the ‘green’ landscape of Australia
        in all its variety.


Ecological Beauty and Wonder
What we do now, or don’t do now,
is going to have enormous consequences for the future.
        Especially around climate change which demands that we live differently.

The ecological system in which we surely ‘live and move and have our being’
—or call it nature and history—is the ground that nourishes and sustains us.

We are members of the great universe community.
We are not on the outside looking in: we are within the universe, awakening to the universe.
We participate in its life.
We are listening to Earth tell its story…

The beauty of nature is a fundamental aspect
of the human relationship with the wider natural world.

When we walk along a sandy beach or trek into a desert,
survey the beauty of mountains, a tree fern gully, a summer sunset,
or experience a Birdsville luminous night sky - minus the city light pollution,
        the awe and wonder we experience is
        nature awakening us to the heights and depths of reality
                  which we have neglected.

So to my umbrella end note…
I offer again the thoughts of one who has been a mentor to me over many years…
"Have you ever communed in the first person with this total wealth of living life about you? Have you ever stood with awe and wonder before the unbounded totality of all reality—this ongoing process we call the universe, feeling your own intimacy with all its life, thrilling with the realization of the magnitude of that relationship, relating you to all the world’s life, past, present and future? If you have, you have experienced first-hand religion."

Religion is born out of a sense of wonder and awe.
We will recover our sense of wonder and our sense of sacred
        only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves.
                  The landscape.
                  The sky above, the earth below.
                  The grasses, the flowers, the forests, the fauna.

Each with its own distinctive way fills our mind,
our imagination, our emotional appreciation.

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