I came across an intriguing short paper recently which got me thinking again about a topic that I wrote about a year ago. I was intrigued, at the time, by how ecosystem services dovetailed with the ideas of ecosystem health that preoccupy my working day and suggested, provocatively, that there may be some instances where stakeholders might not thank ecologists for the high quality ecosystems that we want to achieve (see “More about ecosystem services” and “Ecosystem services … again”). There is a class of ecosystem services called “cultural services”, which includes uses such as education, amenity and, intriguingly, spirituality. I have been searching, subsequently, for good examples of rivers and lakes providing “spiritual” ecosystem services and here, at last, is one hiding right under my nose.
The paper describes use of the Jordan River for baptism, and the problems caused by the ongoing regional conflicts along with environmental degradation. The river is the de facto border between Israel and Jordan and has been heavily militarised since 1967, with access to the river limited to just three locations, one each in Israel, the Occupied Territories (West Bank) and Jordan. Problems are compounded by the extensive use of the Jordan and tributaries as a source of water for this semi-arid region, and by discharges of semi-treated sewage into the river from Israel. This has reduced the flow to a muddy trickle, about one tenth of its natural quantity. This, combined with the pollution, hardly makes the river a desirable place in which to be totally immersed. Whether the river was ever crystal clear is open to debate: in 2 Kings chapter 5 we read of Naaman, a general from the eighth century BC, objecting to being told to bathe in the Jordan to cure himself of leprosy.
The River Jordan at Bethany, Jordan (the church of John the Baptist on the left hand side) with, on the right, the baptism site at Qasr al Yehud in the Occupied Territories (West Bank), seen from the Al Maghtas baptism site in Jordan (photos: Heather Kelly)
Reading this article reminded me of one of the stranger instances in my professional life when a local clergyman asked for my advice on a location for an outdoor baptism in the Durham area. I suggested a couple of locations where the river was accessible from the bank and not too deep, whilst being deep enough for a kneeling person to be dunked. I also suggested, from my knowledge of the river, a careful search of the river bed in advance in case there was broken glass, and recommended that the initiate kept his or her mouth closed to ensure that they did not swallow too many bacteria. I was not being consulted on the theology of baptism, else I might have queried whether a purely symbolic act needed all this fuss and bother. And, indeed, we might ask what a baptism candidate gains from being dunked in the Jordan that would not have been achieved using a font full of chlorinated water. Such issues are for another blogger on another day.
Performing puja in the River Ganges from the ghats at Varanasi, October 1984.
Indeed making catty comments about other people’s attitudes to sacraments whilst writing about the Israel-Jordan border has a deep irony of its own. Would that people historically had shown a little more tolerance to other people’s spirituality, the world would be a far more peaceful place. My intention, when I started writing this piece, was to highlight how rivers can play a role in people’s spiritual life. We don’t need to understand or accept the beliefs of those people, just to recognise that some places – rivers, sometimes – can hold great spiritual significance and that we, as guardians of those rivers, need to respect this.
I was also reminded of my own visit to the holy city of Varanasi in India, thirty years ago, when I watched Hindus using a different (but equally polluted) river as part of their observances. It was difficult for me, as a westerner, to understand the significance of the river to Hindus yet all around me there were people who clearly saw this river as integral to their worship. The problem, as with so much in this modern world, lies in not understanding what others regard as important. Some questions, it seems, cannot be answered by scientific rationalism alone.