Theology of Land
Cedar of Lebanon growing in the Maronite
Protected Environment of Qadisha Valley,
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.
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
2.0 Sacred Land and Religious-owned Land
2.1 Sacred Land
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.
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
3.2 On Religious-owned land with a commercial
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:
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
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
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.
* 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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
b. Why does the physical earth exist within
the teachings, stories and traditions of your faith?
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
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;
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
5.2.4 Spreading the ideas
a. What is the best way of communicating
the theology of land as widely as possible within your
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
7.0 An Invitation
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
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.
for more details of ARC/UN 7 Year Plan and the Use of