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Monday, 17 February 2014

From Here to Eternity: What happens when Geography and Theology get up close and personal

I remember my first volcano – don’t we all? As rites of passage go it’s up there with losing one’s virginity. It was the sultry Pacaya in Guatemala in December 1989; the civil war was still raging which, ironically, made the ascent a much safer expedition than it is today. In any case, the pretty colonial town of Antigua, jam-packed with gringos and Spanish language schools, seemed oblivious to the numerous hijackings, kidnappings and disappearances.
In a sense, and because since embarking on doctoral research it appears I can only speak in metaphors, the journey from geography to theology seems to have resembled that climb up an unremitting slope of ash and cinders: three steps forwards, two steps back. But like most ascents – I was going to say all ascents but that wouldn’t be strictly true – the effort was rewarded with a moment of effervescent enchantment; shaking earth, the acrid scent of sulphur and a red-hot cauldron of bubbling lava so alluring I had to stop myself from jumping in. I got close to the edge, circumnavigated the precipice and looked deep into the abyss; as close as I’ll get to looking straight into the eye of God.
And because this thesis is all about a journey that’s as metaphorical as it is literal, it seems useful to make that analogy: for me geography’s a safe, familiar terrain, even at this elevated level (pun intended); theology less so, explored in its queer, feminist and Latin America topographies. But the two together create una tierra interior desconocida – an unknown hinterland, little visited and rarely travelled: a land of myth and illusion. A traveller writer’s wet dream, assuming that travel writer is male and has set out to ‘conquer’ by shattering the illusions and debunking the myths.
It’s an indistinct trail to follow but it’s not as if we haven’t been here before, in Graham Greene territory: a journey without maps. It’s my preferred modus ambulandi, to wander at liberty and follow any path that aesthetically appeals to me. Even if it means turning back on myself, even if risks getting lost.
Especially if it means getting lost. At this point in the narrative, given its objective, I should really invoke the parable of the lost sheep:
He told them this parable. "Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn't leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!' I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance."
But remember Augustine of Hippo’s words? ‘Lord, make me chaste and continent, but not yet’ (my italics, obviously). Well, we need to be careful about which early theologians accompany us on our trail – this’ll be the same Augustine of Hippo who railed against women and sins of the flesh – but he has a point. What if I don’t want to be found, to be rounded up by some omnipotent, omniscient semi-divine being? What if I’d rather find my own way home? What if I’d rather map out my own path to salvation – whatever that might be – and permit myself to stray from it whenever the mood takes me?
Fortunately, Dr Susannah Cornwall, Advanced Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter directed me to ‘Being Hefted’, a paper written by Dr Louise Lawrence, Senior Lecturer also in the Department of Theology and Religion, also at the University of Exeter – can you see a theme emerging here? All roads lead to Exeter; you might well be a theologian but you’ll need a geographer to get you there.
Dr Lawrence explores the relationship place and faith – a hermeneutics of place – using the analogy of ‘heftedness’ (see, it’s not just me who speaks in metaphor): ‘hefted is actually used of sheep, who have inherited from their forebears a profound sense of place, an inbred, inbuilt and inti­mate knowledge of their land. So much so that hefted flocks can be left to roam free with no restrictions.’ (Lawrence 2007:530). Dr Lawrence’s paper reminds me of a chapter by Kenneth Olwig in the Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst-edited ‘Ways of Walking’ (Ashgate, 2008). Here, Professor Olwig suggests that ‘hunters and gatherers develop a feel for the land that is mediated as much by the feet of the animals they follow as by their own’; sheep are ‘hefted to the land to which they belong and that, by the same token, belongs to them’ (Ingold & Vergunst 2008:11).
You are the land, the land is you. When landscape and religion engage with one another the custom is for the profane to be overwhelmed by the imposing presence of the divine, to bow and scrape before it: ‘Oh Lord, I’m not worthy ...’ and so on. Take Wordsworth’s Prelude, for example: boy steals boat (active, good) and rows out into the lake (active, good). Boy becomes aware of landscape/divine, feels overawed by it (passive, bad) and quickly returns home, humbled and contrite (more passive, more bad). Small wonder Byron dismissed him as ‘Turdsworth’: yes, I know, it’s not big and it’s not clever but it is faintly amusing and I’ve always thought Wordsworth a bit of an over-rated, wishy-washy type.
We might compare this fawning sycophancy with the irreverent, subversive attitude to the divine witnessed in much of Latin American feminist theologies of liberation. Take, for example, Carmen Manuela ‘Nelly’ Del Cid, a Honduran women’s rights activist who turned the tables on this culture of passivity:
'In a workshop for pastoral workers, all peasants, we were discussing why Jesus was killed. Their answer was, 'they killed him for being a big-mouth', for speaking out and denouncing injustice, for saying that God wanted to be called father by everybody. When people realise that this God, this Jesus, is a 'big mouth', they can identify with him more closely because he is not asking them to be passive' (Nelly del Cid in Best & Hussey 1996:23).
A kick-ass theology and a kick-ass geography for kick-ass times? That’s what I’d like to believe but I’ve immediately wandered into a maze of contradictions. There’s the path, laid out before us, neatly mapped and clearly way-marked. If I stand on the Alto de Perdón, just west of Pamplona, I can see the Camino Frances stretching out before me for as far as the eye can see. And as I walk along it I experience the commodification of ‘The Way’; it takes place subtlety and sensitively, so as not to upset the delicate spiritual and personal constitutions of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who pass this way. Am I being hefted or am I just walking where I’m supposed to walk, doing what I’m told, all the while convincing myself that I’m engaged in an act of spiritual sedition?
Only one way to find out ...

Pamela Best & Marigold Hussey – Life out of Death: The Feminine Spirit in El Salvador, CIIR, 1996
Dr Louise Lawrence – Being 'Hefted': Reflections on Place, Stories and Contextual Bible Study, Expository Times, vol. 118, no. 11, 2007, 530-535
Kenneth Olwig – Performing on the Landscape versus Doing Landscape: Perambulatory Practice, Sight and the Sense of Belonging in Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot, Tim Ingold & Jo Lee Vergunst (eds), Ashgate 2008