Manataka™ American Indian Council
Seeking Dialogue, Parallel, and Understanding between Amerindian and Christian Theologies
By David T’soi Gitli Armstrong
See Discussion Response form below
Brothers and Sisters,
Some would read this title and scoff, thinking that this is at best an impossible hope. I am deeply sorry that so many feel that way, and it is exactly why such a thing needs to be attempted.
Let me be very clear in saying that I don’t pretend to believe that I can adequately answer each and every quibble and disagreement between Christian Faith and Amerindian spirituality. I cannot bring reconciliation in every area in which they meet a discord. Here I have only answered those things which I felt the Spirit of God pressing upon my heart to answer and to seek to bring reconciliation in the areas where the Spirit has given me tools to bring it.
In one sense, this is an attempt to explain each to one another. To explain either is intensely difficult: Amerindian spirituality is diverse and highly individualistic, and Christianity is a split between the institutional religion which claims to be authentic and the original Faith of Jesus lived out in relationship with Him. There are misconceptions about both on both sides, essentially, and I am sure there are some whose minds will not change where their opinions are concerned. I respect and honor them the same.
My purpose is also to show that many of the wrongs penned to Christianity and the disagreements that have arisen between Indian peoples and Christians on spirituality find their root in the institutional system of Christianity invented by the Europeans which focuses on dogma and doctrine in theory rather than on relationship with the Person of God in which doctrine is lived out and expressed through a quality of life. By showing this, my intention is to contrast this system with the living faith expressed in the New Testament, which was lived out in the early church, and which has, since the time of the Reformation, been slowly reappearing. The reason for this is that understanding the difference between the man-made system and the community envisioned by the Spirit and written about in the Bible, I believe, will help Amerindian people to be more open to what I have to say here. Such a statement, however, limits the number of Christians who may read this, as the multitudes neither believe nor are cued into the idea that the religion they practice is man-made and is void of biblical or spiritual authority.
This is not an attempt at Proselytism, nor a desire to see people on either side stumble in their pursuit of Creator. Rather, this is an invitation to dialogue. My deep-founded hope is that people of both sides will contribute to this discussion thoughtful and Spirit-borne words which will help us all better understand one another and perhaps grow closer. I repeat: this is intended as the beginning of a discussion. Young men and Grandfathers, young women and Grandmothers, whatever your opinion, whatever your stance, I invite you to speak and I desperately wish to hear what you have to say. Even if we do not agree, and even if we believe differently on some matters, my prayer and hope is that we may still be of one Spirit and one heart, and joined by the unity of who we are in our Creator, and nothing else.
My brothers and sisters, I hope that this blesses your spirit, and my prayer to the Creator, the Great Mystery, our Heavenly Father, the All-Nourishing Mother (El Shaddai,) the God of the Heavens and the Earth, is that the rift be filled.
Part I: Christian Misunderstandings about Indian Spirituality
1. Indians worship the Earth, or at the very least, put far too much emphasis on it.
This attack stems from a very Eurocentric worldview which was inserted into Christianity first by Constantine and later by the barbarian invaders who brought their own mindsets and attitudes towards the world into the faith. European ideologies make no room for respect for the Earth; from Feudalism to the Industrial Revolution, the idea of the Earth as being a sacred thing worthy of respect has been foreign to European thought.
The American Indian has a deep and abiding respect for the Earth, and this connection is a large factor in Amerindian spirituality. Our elders teach us that the Earth is our Mother—not merely in a metaphorical sense, but it in a very real way has provided all of the materials for our bodies (as a true mother does) and has worked meticulously to form us. We are taught that as children of the Earth, we must give her sacred honor as we would our very own mother, taking from her only the things we need and being careful to honor her however we can. We are taught that the heart of the Creator is for the Earth—for its health, benefit, and progress.
Europeans, with their misguided views of worship and lack of understanding concerning their place in the world, mistook our reverence for Mother Earth as a form of Creation worship or what is commonly called “pantheism.” Our Respect for the Earth in no way takes preeminence over our love for the Creator; in everything we are careful to put the Spirit before the Creation.
This line of thought has also given way to the idea that Amerindians practice some form of animism, worshipping nature spirits. This is also a misconception. Nature as a whole—made up of the Rock, Plant, and Animal people in addition to human beings—is looked at as a community which works together to maintain balance and harmony. The traits displayed in some of the members of this community are responded to with awe and, usually, these traits are adopted or reciprocated in the individuals who admire them. For example, an individual may honor the Eagle in a very special way because of a trait they share. (More on this in #3)
This disconnection from the Earth, however, is highly unbiblical. All throughout the Old Testament, the importance of the Earth is shouted from the pages. When Creator finishes the Earth in Genesis 1, He is very pleased with what He has made, and when He makes man, Man’s primary job is to take care of the land in which he has put him. The land which Israel was to inherit is loudly also emphasized, and it is only by living in reverence for Creator and their neighbor (and giving the land peace every seven years from farming, which is a sign of honor) that Israel is permitted to stay in the land. The Bible is in one accord with the teaching of our ancestors that God cares very deeply for the Earth and wishes for us to do the same. In the New Testament, those who destroy the Earth are promised retribution, for it is God’s holy creation (Revelation 11:18). It is safe to infer, then, that the European disconnection from the Earth and lack of deep care for its well-being is not a hallmark of first century Christianity, but a later addition from the Eurocentric worldview.
2. Indians worship their ancestors.
Much like the discrepancy concerning our deep love for our Earth Mother, our reverence for our ancestors is not worship, but rather a respect born out of a connection. The American Indian understands and is taught that his or her ancestors are his or her forerunners on the earth, and that he or she is the embodiment of their legacy. Everything they have worked for, dreamed for, and lived for continues on in the individual. Likewise, it is believed and taught that their experiences and lessons are available to us deep within our person, and that we should seek to model ourselves after their examples (if, of course, they have lived with honor).
European Christians have assumed that ancestor reverence equals the worship of human beings. Such an idea could not be further from the Indian concept of ancestor reverence. We believe that our ancestors lift up prayers and intercessions for us in the Spirit, and that their spirits watch over us while in union with the Creator; in no way, shape, or form do we believe that they are more powerful than the Creator or more able to help us than the Father of all spirits is. If a prayer is lifted up to them, it is known that the plea is not lifted to an earthly man, but to a spirit who is joined as one to the Spirit of the Creator, and that we are appealing to Creator to give us guidance through the individual.
Unfortunately, European Christianity has removed the deeply biblical reverence for our ancestors in an effort to undermine the importance of individual legacy and destiny. (I attribute this to the institutional church’s use of the word ‘father’ for the clergy, pacifying the fathers of the families who were meant to be the guiding voice and passer down of the family legacy). In the Bible, people were known by who their ancestors were, and who their ancestors were often pointed to what they were destined to do. The destiny of Jesus Christ Himself was determined by His ancestry in David, and Jesus honored His ancestor in His life by living in the same way he did as a shepherd (guide, counselor, healer, protector) to His People in His 3 ½ years of ministry. While confidence in ancestry where spiritual status was concerned is discouraged in the New Testament, it is not discouraged to honor one’s ancestry: Paul himself never forgot that he was a “Jew of Jews.” However—and this is in agreement with the Amerindian teaching—one’s physical ancestry in and of itself is not a guarantor of spiritual merit.
3. The Indian concept of Spirit Guides is polytheistic and can in no way be in accordance with the faith of the New Testament.
Once more, the issue here is not with the first century faith preached by Jesus and Paul, but rather an assumption made by the institutional church of the Europeans.
To the American Indian, the concept of a spirit guide can mean different things dependent upon their tribe, personal experience, and relationship to Creator. Ultimately it is clear that the spirit guide is dependent upon two things: Creator’s revelation and the need of the individual. It is clear that one does not choose their spirit guide; rather, the spirit guide chooses the individual. The animal which appears to an individual seeking a guide does so of its own accord and will rather than by the choosing of the seeker. The spirit guide is understood to be a spirit sent by the Creator to assist and lead His children in their spiritual growth. Therefore, it is better understood as a revelation of the Creator himself through the traits and personality of the spirit guide rather than some random animistic entity.
Furthermore, Creator, who is attentive to the needs of his children, will not send a spirit guide to someone who is not seeking one or who is not in need of one. For some tribes, the spirit guide is associated with coming of age, and is a part of their cultural revelation of the Creator; however, even within this context, the nature of and participation in relationship with the spirit guide varies from individual to individual. Ultimately, some need the spirit guide more than others. This in no way makes them weaker or less spiritual than the one who does not need it as much; it merely means that their relationship with Creator is best expressed in this context.
Spirit guides are not as hard for the New Testament to understand. Jesus Christ Himself is considered by the New Testament to be the ultimate version of a spirit guide, being the complete expression of Creator in a human being according to the text. It was not uncommon for the early followers of Jesus to have visions wherein He appeared in the form of different animals and symbols (indeed, the entire Book of Revelation is nothing but such a vision), as well as to speak of him with animal-imagery. The idea of having a connection to the Creator which involves his appearance in or through a personal guide is not disassociated from the New Testament.
4. The so-called ‘Medicine Ways’ are pagan mystical stuff. They in no way reflect the Spirit of Christ.
Actually, there is more mysticism surrounding the idea of Amerindian medicinal practices than there actually are in them.
The Medicine Way is a term used by Amerindians to describe the connection between our medicinal knowledge and our traditional spirituality. It is considered that our relationship to Creator is medicine to our spirits and souls. By extension—and this is the part that is commonly thought of and attacked—the Medicine Way also refers to the interrelationship between the spiritual and the physical as understood, mediated, and maintained by Amerindian practices.
European Christians have never been able to understand this, and much of that stems from their general lack of medicinal knowledge, physically (up until quite recently in human history,) soulishly (mentally,) or spiritually.
To begin with, their attack is mounted from a misunderstanding of the purpose of the Medicine Way. They do not understand that medicine is primarily a SPIRITUAL thing, and secondarily a physical thing. Medicine is understood as anything in either realm which restores balance lost in either realm. In the physical, for example, a certain type of plant can be used as medicine for a certain type of imbalance (called a disease). However, this disease may have a spiritual or a soulish (mental) root, and therefore it is necessary to also treat the spirit and the soul as well.
The Medicine Way is all about the mediation of balance and harmony in whatever realm—spiritual, mental, or physical—that lacks this balance. In European Christianity, the idea of showing the loving care of a doctor to someone who has a spiritual or mental ailment is foreign; rather, threats, guilt trips, and fear tactics must be used (in their minds) to heal this person.
This is totally and completely strange to the Jesus painted to us in the Gospels, who is the “Great Physician come to heal the sick” (paraphrase of Luke 5:31) as well as a far cry from the community which he established to “preach the good news (not bad news or hateful words), to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and proclaim THE LORD’S FAVOR” (Luke 4:18-19). The Indian Medicine Way is in every way more successful at living up to this anointing which was upon Jesus Christ than the institutional European church has been. The intention of both Jesus and the Medicine Way is to ensure spiritual balance which may be expressed in earthly balance. There is no discord.
5. Indian spirituality makes no room for the person of Jesus Christ.
The above argument, as I’ve heard it from not a few, holds several flaws.
The first is the assumption that European Christianity and the institutional church have done a correct or even semi-adequate job of presenting the person of Jesus Christ to the Amerindian people. For heaven’s sakes, look at what they’ve done in his name! Rape, pillage, murder, attempted genocide, terracide (my new coined word for attempted destruction of the Earth)—things which any child can decipher from the Bible are not things that Jesus, Paul, or any of the apostles or early church advocate! In fact, it would violate the Spirit of Christ for any Indian man, woman, or child to develop faith in Jesus based off of the example of European missionaries. I repeat: it would be totally and completely offending to the Spirit of Christ if any Indian were to consider it wise to be followers of Christ based off of the actions of those who have come to them preaching his name. Of course, there have undoubtedly been individuals who have been faithful to express Christ in a clear manner consistent with the records of his life and the word of his Spirit.
The overwhelming majority of Christian missionaries, however, have not been so adequate. Their justification is so long as they preach the good news with mere words, they are vindicated in doing whatever they please, thinking they have assumed lordship over their fellow man and over the earth which God has made. It would do them well to look to the example of Jesus, who Himself was a reluctant preacher and desired instead to serve the multitudes with love and teach His disciples in private, rather than to lavish Himself with costly things as a reward for big sermons (which, consequentially, is a culmination of many Indian virtues, such as Silence, Servitude to one’s people and community, and Poverty).
The second flaw in this argument is one which has been prevalent throughout all these attacks, namely, the idea that Indian spirituality is one specific thing. To author a composite Indian spirituality is a tough job which I am not sure that any one man could do, seeing as there are upwards of thousands of tribes, languages, and cultures in which specific individual and national revelations of Creator were cultivated and celebrated throughout long periods of time. To speak of them all as one thing is the same as saying that all the many thousands of sects of Christianity are all the same thing. At the best, there are underlying themes and teachings that pervade all the different Indian spiritualities which make room for dialogue between nations concerning it (which is rare in and of itself; as Grandfather Lee Standing Bear Moore has said, “Indians don’t discuss religion together. It is like the pine tree telling the oak tree what is good for the pine tree.”)
The third flaw is a direct result of the one mentioned above: namely, the idea that Indian spirituality is static. Spirituality by its very nature cannot remain in one place: if the Spirit of God is truly in a people or a place, things will happen, people will be moved, whether in their hearts or outward. This is because the Spirit of God is activity and vibration, not staleness or coldness. The cultural revelations of God in all of the peoples all over the world were developed because the Spirit of God kept moving, kept dealing with those peoples, kept speaking, and kept bringing them forward. At one point in time, to give an example from a different part of the world, the national relationship of Israel to God was through only the Torah (teaching, law), but over time it came to be defined by the words of the Prophets and the Poets as well.
Lastly, this argument ignores a teaching of the New Testament. To paraphrase what a friend and mentor, Elwin Roach, once told me, Christ will express Himself differently in and through individuals and ethnic groups, and He will speak to, in, and through them where they are. As Rob Bell has said, “All Truth belongs to God.” Wherever Truth is, it is of God, no matter where it is. Acts 17 (a chapter I will reference often) is a magnificent example of this. Therein, the Apostle Paul speaks to the Athenian philosophers, dwelling on the understanding of Creator they possess and connecting it to his own.
The simple point of all this is that the Spirit of God will appear differently through one group than it does through another. We have no reason to believe that the way He appears through Jewish culture will be the exact same way He appears through Indian culture. It is a mistake to say, therefore, that Indian spirituality must make room for Jesus. That creates mixture. Rather, the Spirit of Christ expresses Himself from the heart of Indian spirituality and culture, the same way He expressed Himself from the heart of Jewish and Greek culture in the first century.
Amerindian theology tends to affirm the above truth: namely, that Creator has a unique relationship with each of His creations, and that no people or tribe should have an identical relationship to Creator. Certainly, there may be universal themes, or there may be a pervading understanding of certain things about Creator, but no two peoples should celebrate God in the exact same way, because no two peoples are the exact same, because no two individuals are the exact same. To do so is a violation of the infinitely creative Spirit of God who dwells within us and seeks to express Himself in new and diverse ways. The Bible agrees with this idea, bespeaking of how the “glory and honor of the nations” will be brought into the Holy City, which is a symbol for the community of God’s people (Revelation 21:26). Essentially, God’s vision for humanity is one of a multiethnic, multicultural celebration of our harmony with Him and with each other.
Part II: Indian Misunderstandings about Biblical theology
1. Christianity teaches its followers to subjugate the Earth.
It is here that my earlier differentiation between the Christianity of today and the Christianity of the first century comes in handy.
There are two reasons why one would even have ground to pose this objection. The first is historical, and the second is linguistic.
The evolution of what we call the Christian faith must be addressed to properly answer this very legitimate problem raised by Amerindians. In the fourth century, when the church became the official state religion of the Empire, two things were needed. The first was a way in which to use the religion to control the people, and the second was to morph the religion in a way which satisfied the ideals of the Empire. If Catholicism (the hybrid of Roman paganism and Christianity) was to be the new state religion, then it had to provide justification for Roman supremacy, domination, and subjugation of peoples all around the world.
Two things made this possible. The first was the creation of an ordained and powerful clergy against which the newly formed laity had no power. When religious leaders became state officials, it became hard to voice a second opinion. The second was the translation of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that made up the Old and New Testaments into the Latin Vulgate.
When the Roman Empire fell, and with it literacy as the Dark Ages came into being, the ability to speak and read Latin was, in essence, the only way one could have an inkling of understanding about what was written in the Scriptures. Even then, the Latin Vulgate was and still is a hideously misinformed translation of the original Hebrew and Greek words. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the priests who littered the European nations were intentionally withholding much of what they believed to be the truth to their congregants, they didn’t have very much of the truth to begin with!
As Christianity moved westward into Europe, it also adopted many of the cultural ideals of the peoples to which it was preached, which were for the most part barbarian tribes who practiced religions which were based around war. (As aforementioned, this is a bad thing by the New Testament’s standards, as it envisions the Spirit of Christ moving into a people and expressing Himself through the culture, spirituality and traditions of a people, not the creation of a syncretistic religion). These Nordic religions held in high esteem the ideals of Fighting, Plunder, and Death and despised the ideas of Peacefulness, Gentleness, and Life. These Nordic faiths held no respect for the Earth, which they perceived as a lesser world in comparison to the eight others they believed in. In fact, when Viking raiders first landed in Ireland, and beheld the green landscape and fertile area, they were completely untouched by the beauty of Mother Earth and burned much of it to the ground.
This lack of respect for the Earth was matched in the ideology of Feudalism, which dominated Europe for several hundred years. The idea that land was a commodity to be bought, sold, and worked for profit found its way deep into European ideology and psyche. As Feudalism and the Church were deeply entwined systems, they influenced one another in their thinking and actions as well.
The Reformation did not change very much of this. It theoretically liberated the so-called laity, as it recovered the teaching of the priesthood of all believers, though failing to live it out fully. It did not get rid of any of the things acquired from the pagan beliefs, and if anything only further embraced the “Doctrine of Discovery” theology. Nor did it correctly espouse the meaning of the original words of scripture, but rather made them even more indecipherable by translating them into the mongrel language, English. It also failed to dispose of institutional buildings, and maintained the clergy through the pastoral system. Ultimately, the Whore who sits upon many waters (Catholicism) and her many daughters (the thousands of Protestant religions) bear many similarities to one another, and the composite Christian religion of the Europeans has remained one of subjugation.
On this note, it is necessary to discuss a particular passage of Scripture which troubles many walking the Good Red Road. In Genesis 1:27-28, mankind is told to subdue the Earth by God after having been made in God’s “image.”
This connects to the historical process I outlined earlier, wherein the Bible went through multiple translations into multiple languages. The process went something like this. A long, long time ago, the original manuscripts of the Bible existed. Never all at once together, but they did exist. The oldest ones were copied from memory at first in three different places, until three different canons were achieved and touted. All three of them survived, the most popular being the Babylonian, the second the Masoretic (original Hebrew,) and the third being the Septuagint (written in Greek). The Masoretic evolved a few more times over three hundred years, and the product of them were the manuscripts that Jesus, John the Baptist, the apostles, and Paul would’ve grown up reading and meditating upon.
In the aftermath of Jesus’ time on earth, the four Gospels were composed by the apostles twenty to sixty years after His Death (say the scholars.) Earlier than most of the gospels are the letters of Paul, Peter, and James. They were all written in Koine Greek, which was the common language of the Mediterranean at the time, made so by the Hellenistic legacy of Alexander the Great a few hundred years before.
As time went on, these letters were re-copied again and again so as to make sure they were preserved for future generations of the church in a particular city. Some libraries began to collect the letters for study and speculation. As the church departed from its roots, leaders began to decide upon and change the meaning of some Greek words. For instance, the word “aionios” was changed from “age-during” to “eternal” by Augustine (a man who barely spoke Greek.)
Then we get to the aforementioned stage, where the Hebrew and Greek were translated into Latin, where words have double meanings and can mean multiple things. (For instance, the Latin word for evil, malus, can also mean apple, which is where the common idea that Eve ate an apple came from.) Here, dominated by the Roman Catholic theological mindset, which sought to justify the imperial nature of the State, words took on new meanings and ideas, and as they moved into Europe, the words of scripture snowballed into what we have today.
Words must always be looked at in their original language, and a language can only be understood in the context of its culture and time period. Furthermore, a word from a story can only be understood in the context of its story, and it is no different with scripture, which is written in story format. The Hebrew word here is “kabash,” and does in fact mean “to keep in subjection to.” The Western mindset that has been delivered to us teaches us that this justifies any old thing we wish to do with or to the Earth; this mindset is mistaken.
A quick read of the story will show God’s true intentions in this command. Man’s rule, so to speak, is not the same kind of rule that the Europeans experienced; it is not a rule which exists to serve the one ruling. Rather, Man has been placed in charge in order to maintain balance and harmony. Through the community of man and woman, God intends for man to take care of the beautiful garden he has made (Earth,) not to do whatsoever he wills with it (Genesis 2:15). Furthermore, man is to conduct this rule in relationship with Creator, not independently. Therefore only what Creator wishes—which is for the good of ALL the Creation—constitutes man’s rule. Essentially, man only has authority when Creator commands him to act, and Creator will only do so with the best intentions for Creation.
This matches the idea prevalent in the teachings of Paul, where we are to be in tune with the Spirit and to follow it wherever it leads (Romans 8:14). It is only when we are acting under the Spirit’s guidance that we have authority, and the Spirit will never guide us to do anything which is harmful to His Creation or which does not benefit some member of it.
In short, while European Christianity does in fact teach the subjugation of the Earth, the Bible teaches an authority intended for man directed by, founded in, and in no way outside of the Spirit of God, which is selfless, giving, and intended to benefit and bring harmony to creation.
2. Christianity teaches the idea of Sin, which is foreign to Indian spirituality.
This is yet another instance where the construed and strange ideas of European religion have replaced, written over, and superimposed their own meanings onto the words of scripture.
To be as frank as possible, Sin is perhaps the hardest thing for Amerindian people to connect with. This is in part due to what the concept has become versus how it appears in scripture, in part due to general distrust of Christian theology, and lastly for ideological reasons.
One might explain the opinion of the two theologies this way. Indian spirituality focuses and lives out Genesis 1 and 2, wherein God has made all the world and sees all He has made as good. Everything, according to the Indian way of viewing things, possesses a nature which is inherently good because the Creator who made it is good. The man and woman who Creator made have never left the Garden in which Creator placed them, and they care for it to this day. From there, most who have weighed their opinions in on this matter say, Christian spirituality begins in Genesis 3, where all hell breaks loose.
I say, with full assurance and bold confidence, that the New Testament spirituality views things in a way which does not contradict Indian teaching. Let me explain.
The Fall of Man has become a central doctrine to most Christian religions, and the basis for most of Christian outreach has been centered on a view of man which sees him as sinful, fallen, and ultimately a wretched thing. This became the dominant view of Eurocentric Christianity for two reasons: firstly, because the idea that man was wretched and destined to endure eternal punishment should he not comply with the will of those trying to save him was a convenient means of control; and secondly, because around the time when this became the dominant view proper understanding of what the Bible actually says was nonexistent.
The Bible does introduce the concept of Sin to the reader, but not as it is commonly taught. The Greek word for sin is “harmatia” and carries the idea of missing the mark, of failing, of being in a state of lack or IMBALANCE. (The word “sin,” in fact, was originally an English archery term for anything other than a bull’s eye.) The Bible presents this Imbalance as being sourced in mankind’s failure to live out of Creator’s guiding life within them (Spirit) rather than to live independently out of their own mental, emotional, intellectual, and moral ability (Soul) (Genesis 3).
Such Imbalance is the cause of Death according to the Bible. However, the story does not stop there. Death, by Scripture’s standards, is simply to be unaware and unconscious to God’s moving and dealings or “carnally minded” (Romans 8:6). Therefore, to refuse to live out of Creator’s spirit and to choose, rather, to live out of independent Self-life is the imbalance which the Bible calls “Sin”. This is considered imbalance because humanity was created to live in relationship to Creator, to live out of the relationship that they (man and woman) shared with God. That is the source of and key to balance within the human race: proper relationship to Creator. When that relationship falters, or when it takes second place to something else, is when imbalance arises and our consciousness shifts from God to ourselves (Death.)
This imbalance is communicable between human beings and the world around them, for it is when they stop living in proper relationship to Creator that their ideas of authority and superiority become what the Eurocentric mindset has taught. If mankind no longer feels Creator’s guiding hand to do things and perform tasks, than ultimately their idea of authority (which, spiritually speaking, is the privilege of an individual to move as the Spirit directs she or he) will no longer be rooted in Creator. It will come to be defined as man defines it rather than as God defines it, and as such man will abuse it in its intended purpose.
This is the Bible’s idea of Sin and Death, and Amerindian spirituality, I would argue, does not necessarily disagree with it. Multiple stories (The Origin of Disease and Medicine [Cherokee] and The Keeper of the Ears [many nations]) provide examples where human beings fall out of proper relationship to Creator and Creation and as a result end up falling short of Creator’s intention for them. Our people believe and teach our children that wherever imbalance occurs, it is because of a breach and wrong action by one party within a particular relationship, and that we must do all we can to rectify the situation and repair it. It is the relationships—Creator and human beings, human beings and human beings, and human beings and the rest of creation—that define what is imbalance and what is harmony, as our elders teach us, and as scripture teaches us.
Europeans have taken the idea of Sin and run amok with it, failing to explain it or live with proper knowledge of it. In fact, most people in bondage to Christian religions will justify their wrongdoings with an “I can’t help it” mentality, thinking that this frees them from responsibility. Sin is also a powerful weapon of condemnation for them, especially on those they consider “heathens,” whom they believe to be so enwrapped in Sin that they cannot emerge from it.
To some degree there will most likely be disagreement on this issue between Amerindians and Christians (be they institutional or organic). The Bible does say that Sin is an inherent aspect of the human race, evidenced as human beings tend to live out of their own ideas of good and evil (the Tree of which is in Genesis 1-3) rather than out of God’s life within them (the other tree spoken of therein.) Amerindian theology, on the other hand, most of the time will tend to focus on the inherent goodness of human nature as a part of the creation. (This will be discussed further below.) Ultimately, however, it can be agreed that the idea of Imbalance is caused by man’s living out of himself rather than out of God exists to some degree in both theologies.
3. Christianity says that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. How can we be true to ourselves and our ancestors, knowing that most of them have never even heard that name, and still believe in Jesus? Doesn’t this teaching claim that our own spiritualities are not real? Doesn’t this make Christianity intolerant? Why should Jesus matter, anyway?
This is another of the more difficult aspects of biblical theology to explain and reconcile with Amerindian spirituality and culture, and that is partially because it stems out of the Sin debate that exists between the two.
John 14:6 (the Bible verse commonly touted to support the idea questioned above) is a passage of scripture that I believe is perhaps one of the most misunderstood, not because people fail to grasp its meaning at all, but because commonly the masses tend to take it at face value and convince themselves that they have mined its treasures. It is one of the most misunderstood primarily because few have taken the time to understand it fully and properly.
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It should not pain me to read or write those words, but it does. Not because I fail to appreciate the beauty or the value of them in scripture, but precisely because of the way they have been used by Christian missionaries on the whole: with the intentions of hurting, destroying, and condemning. Therefore, it is necessary to restore a proper understanding of this verse and repair its image.
I am going to begin, then, by saying what John 14:6 does not mean.
verse does not mean that those who have never heard the name of Jesus will not
be saved. It in no way implies that someone who has not heard his name or known
who he was on the earth doesn’t have legitimate claim to the biblical idea of
salvation. Rather, it implies that those who go to God go through Jesus,
knowingly or unknowingly. Essentially the Bible teaches that any means by which
an individual connects to God is facilitated by Jesus, regardless of the
individual’s awareness. (If you disagree with this statement, that is of course
fine. I am merely saying what I believe the Bible to suggest in this verse.)
This is consistent with the idea that we are to “know Christ no longer after the
flesh” but rather, after the Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:16). Our knowledge of
Christ’s earthly, flesh-and-blood body identity is unimportant; it is our
knowledge and interaction with His Spirit (which is the Spirit of God infused
into the dimension of human life) that matters. Therefore, one can know God by
the Spirit of Christ without having ever heard the name “Jesus.”
(Coincidentally, “Jesus” is not actually the name Christ Himself would’ve heard, either. The Greek “Iesou” is an attempt at translating the Hebrew “Yeshua” or “Yahshua,” both shortened forms of “Yahushua” or “Yehoshua,” depending on your belief about Hebraic pronunciation. “Iesou” became the common form because the New Testament was written in Greek in order to reach the world around it, in which Greek was the primary language. Some of the Gospels may have been written in Hebrew to begin with, but it is ultimately the Greek language that the majority of the New Testament was written in. Bearing this in mind, those who say that one must have the name “Jesus” declared to them in order to truly know Christ fail to understand not only the mysteries of the Spirit but also the basics of linguistic transliteration.)
John 14:6 also does not mean that Christians have the market cornered on Truth. In fact, I would argue that the Christian religions, for all the truth they possess, have less truth than many others. What I mean to say here is that the Christian religions that find their root in the institutional system of Europe, for all of their doctrine and all of their attempts at having the right dogmas, fail to accurately lay claim to Truth in both idea and practice.
The truth is, Truth has made its way into every nationality, culture, tradition, and religion in some format, and whilst it is often construed to fit the culture that it is in, it is still discernible. That is why there are many great themes among the world religions and why many cultures, though different in detail, often value the same things: we are all descendants of the same race, and we all possess the same Memory of God, though we transfer it to the next generation with different symbols, metaphors, and language. Rather, John 14:6 should be an encouragement to someone who seeks to share Jesus to look for Truth in every culture, as Paul did in Acts 17. If Jesus truly is the Truth, then He will embody the Truth that is in a culture or a tradition and the only way He can appear to them in a way which speaks to their heart is a way which does just that. Truth is recognizable when one sees it. Therefore the only acceptable way to share Jesus is in a way which respects, honors, and works in and through the culture (provided the culture has stuck to its roots and origins and has not departed from the Memory of God it retains.) Unfortunately, this is something the European church system has been notoriously bad at doing.
John 14:6 also does not mean that those who do not know about Jesus have no spiritual life. Consider, readers who are familiar with scripture, Cleophas and his wife (or whoever you believe his companion to be) walking along the Emmaus road in Luke 24. For those of you who don’t know the story, it begins with two men, followers of Jesus, who are disappointed that He was crucified, believing He would start a political uprising in Jerusalem. Whilst they are muttering to themselves about their failed hopes, a stranger comes up alongside them on the road and joins in the conversation. Secretly, this stranger is the Resurrected Jesus, but they are unawares.
Along the road, Jesus begins pointing out to them through their cultural traditions and writings (this being the Torah, the Prophets, and the Poems) that the events which characterized the last week of His life were completely necessary and were in fact signs of His authentic Christhood. By the time they have reached their destination, Cleophas and his companion invite this stranger into their home to eat with them, and the stranger breaks bread. Upon doing this, they realize who He is, and He vanishes.
Without getting too deep into the meaning of the story, this is what I want to emphasize to any Christian who might be reading this: before Cleophas and his wife knew who the stranger was, they possessed spiritual life. They possessed traditions and Truth within their culture. And they had a connection to God.
My purpose in this exposé on John 14:6 is simply to make it clear that within Indian (and any) culture there is connection to God, knowledge of God, and thus life of God. Therefore, the only conclusion any biblically minded Christian can make is that the Spirit of Jesus Christ is and has been upon the Amerindian peoples. Our peoples may not call Him Jesus; they may know Him by many different names and images. The Cherokee, for example, have a story which addresses a Christ-figure called Jiya Unega, or White Otter (see The Daughter of the Sun).
Ultimately, intolerance has become a brand on Christianity due to the dogmas of the institutional church system. Doctrine, or teaching (which is the literal meaning of the word) should not be feared by those who seek Creator, nor should it be shunned as it is, but no one can be blamed for so doing, as the institutional church has used it as a guillotine to weed out its insubordinates. Institutional churches tend to use doctrinal statements or “statements of faith” as ways to bind the people of God and force them into submission, rather than using teaching in a way to connect spiritual principles and realities to everyday life.
Strangely—or perhaps not so much so—the idea of doctrine as we have it today is absent from the New Testament. Modern doctrines are developed often from scripture, sure, but scripture never presents doctrine in the way the institutional church does today. There are no books of catechism in the Bible, and the reason for that is the Bible, like Amerindian spirituality, finds absolutely no use for any teaching or doctrine which does not a) have a practical life application and b) is not lived out by the one who preaches it. All of the “doctrines” of the Bible are things which were lived out by the communities to which the books of the Old Testament and letters of the New were written. They were not dry, stale, static teachings to those communities, but they have become so as they have become sealed in pen and ink, for as Paul warns us, “the letter administers death” (2 Corinthians 3:7, paraphrase).
This is the precise reason why Amerindians often don’t discuss matters of religion as the Western world does: primarily because anything which cannot be lived or experienced in like manner is not really worth talking about by our traditional standards. We inherit this not only from a deep understanding of the everyday-ness of our spirituality but also from the mere facts of life. Unless it contributes in some way to survival, it often has little value to those trying to survive.
The Person of Jesus is a big stumbling block for many Amerindian people. Alternatively, many others have been completely fascinated with Him and what the Bible says about Him, but have found the European ways of doing things and the European disrespect for indigenous cultural and spirituality to be such an insult that their hatred for Europeans to become associated with Christ. There are some who fall into the category of the combination of both, and others who have not stopped to consider him at all.
The best I feel is to lay out what the Bible says, and give my best attempt at connecting it to Indian theological ideas, about the nature and purpose of the Person of Jesus. Scripture says that Jesus was the incarnation of God’s divine expression of Himself within a human being (John 1:1, 14), the divine expression which gives all men who are born knowledge of God (John 1:4, 9). This divine expression, this vibration, was the same one in which the entire Creation was created (John 1:3). The Bible teaches that this happened so that as a human being the divine expression or Word (indicating sound, resonance, vibration) could reveal the full and complete glory of God to human beings (John 1:14, 18, Colossians 2:9), teaching and living out the grace and truth of relationship with God (John 1:14, 17).
I will not tell the entire Gospel story here; rather, I will say quite simply that there are three comings of Jesus listed in the Bible, contrary to the two commonly touted. The first was his earthly appearance, his appearance as a flesh-and-blood man. The second occurred on the day of Pentecost, where he descended on his students as the Spirit (Acts 2:1-4). This coming is still going on today as the students of Jesus grow in spiritual life. The third coming is considered future and is not, as most evangelicals tout, a triumphant descent from the sky. Rather, it is the unveiling of Creator’s mature children on the earth (Romans 8:18-22).
Ultimately, I will say this and stop here on this subject. The Bible describes the Spirit of Christ as being universal, and talks about His presence everywhere throughout all history. Christians should take a step back and stop thinking of themselves as “having the market cornered” on Jesus; I guarantee that many people who practice indigenous spirituality know him better than a good number of people who practice Christianity. Jesus as the Bible describes Him—God living as a human being—is far too big to fit into any one denominational or religious box. The Spirit of Christ, Creator’s divinity infused into the human dimension, belongs to us all, not to any one specific group. That’s all I have to say.
4. Christianity subjugates women, which is completely opposed to Indian spirituality, which celebrates and honors women.
This one, I promise, demands a much shorter and easier answer.
Subjugation of women entered Christianity upon the dawn of Constantine’s hybrid religion Catholicism, wherein the harshness of the Roman State was infused into a religious system for the first time. In Rome, though women often had more rights than in other places in the Eastern world at that time, they were nevertheless subjected to the male authorities. In almost every way, women were made to feel inferior to men, from politics to social structure to even sexual practices.
It is not as though this were completely new to the world, however. By this time, women had also received second-class status in Jewish society as well as most Greek societies. (The exception to the latter is Sparta, where women were permitted to speak their minds as well as to choose their own mates.) In short, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern culture tended to put more emphasis on the man than on the woman.
Interestingly, though produced through Middle Eastern culture, the Bible presents women in a very high and elevated light. Women are equals to men: the first woman, according to the Bible, was taken out of the man’s rib, and in turn, all men have come forth from the woman (Genesis 2:22, 3:20). Neither has, therefore, any claim over the other.
Furthermore, when Creator speaks of the people in the Bible, he often refers to them collectively as women. Israel is often referred to as a wife of God, and later on, in the New Testament, the church community is referred to as a Woman or Bride (Revelation 21:2). There is a Woman who is the object of God’s affections, who Creator is focused on and wishes to bring forth.
When God first imagined humanity, he imagined the human being as a corporate entity, consisting of a male and a female (Genesis 1:27). They were, and are, as far as Creator is concerned, one person. We are told in the New Testament that in Christ there “is no male or female” (Galatians 3:28).
I bring all this to the table merely to say that biblically speaking women are the equals of men, and that they should, by the Bible’s standards, be treated as such. There is no reason whatsoever to discriminate based off of gender, and the community which Christ created was intended to function without negative recognition of either gender. That the Christian church system of Europe has gone a different route is unfortunate, but nevertheless unsurprising.
On a broader scale, however, this question also addresses the high number of masculine references to God in the Bible, wondering why it is the Heavenly Father and the Son of God rather than their feminine counterparts. The answer to this lies in Middle Eastern culture.
The role of a father in the Semitic cultures has characteristically been that of the authority figure, the one who lays down the law and takes the disciplinarian role in his children’s upbringing in their early years. This is the father-figure image that we have inherited from the Western world and that is burned into Western psyche. Interestingly, though, in Indian culture, it is primarily the Mother who takes a hand in this. Of course, the Father does have a role to fulfill, but the emphasis on reverence and respect for one’s mother is often the driving force behind good behavior. It should be understood, then, that the Bible’s understanding of God primarily as Father has more to do with the culture in which the Bible was written than anything else. That God is a Father, for the first readers of scripture, meant that God is one who is preparing His children to become full-fledged, spiritual adults.
On a side note, the first revelation of God in the Bible after the Edenic incident is actually that of a mother. When God appears to Abraham, he says “I am El Shaddai” (Genesis 17:1). El Shaddai is a very interesting Hebrew title that it would do anyone who wishes to understand the scriptures good to research. Literally, it means “Big Breasted One,” and carries the thought of an all-nourishing mother. The disciplinarian Father aspect of Creator does not become apparent in the scriptures until the exodus.
That Jesus was a man also connects to this argument. Many have questioned why He was not a She, or even if it could be so. I believe that, were Jesus to have been born in Indian society, He very well could’ve been a She. In the culture in which Jesus lived, however, it was important that He be a Son, for two reasons.
The first is the emphasis on the masculine role we have already discussed. The second is an offshoot of it and has to do with maturity. In Middle Eastern culture, one was a boy or merely an offspring until they had been so taught and disciplined by their father to be able to both take over the family trade as well as run his own household. At this point, the young boy was no longer merely the physical continuation of his father’s line, but was truly and in every way the legacy of the father. He was not just a boy; he was now a man, and as such, he was counted a Son, not merely progeny. Thus the idea of Sonship is connected with the ideas of maturity and obedience, of likeness to the parent, not necessarily maleness.
Thus, once again, we find that European Christianity has disconnected from the theology of the Bible, and it is this which has birthed the discrimination which offends Amerindian spirituality.
5. Christianity calls for us to abandon our traditional ways.
This misunderstanding is unfortunately a trophy in the Hall of Doctrinal Fame for most Christians, and I believe the essence of it lies in the homogenization that European culture advocates.
Europeans, even amongst themselves, discriminate based off of differences in culture. To this day, the British, French, Spanish, Dutch—they all have their own opinions and sayings about one another. Certain European nations, like Russia and the now nonexistent Ottoman Empire, have been shunned by most of Europe simply for retaining some of their cultural identity, rather than mixing into the methodical and monotonous traditions of Western Europe.
I attribute this to be a leftover mindset burned into the European psyche from Rome, where the Imperial goal demanded a certain amount of pretended homogenization. Even in conquered regions, it was best to bother the governors with as little of non-Roman culture as possible. This idea, when mixed into the great melting pot of Catholicism, helped produce the very exclusive nature of European culture.
The early church and the theology of the Bible, I am not hesitant to say, support nothing of this one victorious super-culture. The thing about Spirit—especially God’s Spirit—is that it transcends cultures and revitalizes those that it is not already acting as the heart of. God does not wish for indigenous culture to be wiped out—rather, the Creator’s desire is for His Spirit to move upon the cultures which are already in place, to move from within them and without them, and produce expression of spiritual life.
I would argue that to force an Indian to relate to God in a European way is unbiblical and is against the Christ most who advocate this view claim to know. Furthermore, to tell anyone else that they must relate to the Creator in the way in which someone else does is absurd. This does not mean that there is no place for universal truth or the sharing of what one believes it to be—on the contrary, this factor gives it its truest place. Creator’s truth will always come to an individual in a way which will speak to that individual’s heart, and will always bring the very unique relationship and expression that person has with Creator further into its fullest potential. This means different things for different people, and different things for different peoples as well. As I have stated before: on the whole, God will appear differently through different people groups.
There is no need for a Christian who seeks to share Christ to advocate the total eradication of traditional Indian ways (which, by the way, means the eradication of Indian theology as well.) This is how proselytism comes about. Rather, if a Christian wishes to share Christ, he or she should do so first through taking the time to learn about the culture that they are sharing with, to know it intimately so as to recognize where God already is within it. God is everywhere, especially amongst His children, and to assume that the Creator, the best Mother and the best Father of all time and space, would abandon any of them for even a second, even if they were to be unaware of Him (which is rather difficult,) is ludicrous.
Part III: A Brief Recap
Here, in essence, is what I have said in response to these ten misunderstandings/objections from both side.
In response to Christian attacks…
Indians do not worship the Earth. We revere the Earth and treat it with respect because we understand that the Creator commissioned us to do so by placing us upon it. Furthermore, the Earth is the provider of everything we need for living. The Bible itself teaches that mankind was created to care for the Earth, not vice versa. Furthermore, the theme of the importance of the Earth to God is present throughout the scriptures. It is Europeans who have said otherwise.
Indians do not worship our ancestors. We show them respect and honor their memory, knowing that their experiences are available to us to learn from and that their legacy influences our destiny. We know that Creator used them to bring us forth on the earth and therefore we show them proper honor and respect. Our spirituality does not depend upon them anymore than those recorded in the Bible, who similarly respected their ancestors. We do not believe that Creator loves us or rejects us based on who preceded us on this Earth, which also happens to be the teaching of the Bible. Europeans got mixed up about what we were doing, not taking the time to learn but rather jumping to conclusions.
Indians do not worship our Spirit Guides. We consider them to be manifestations of the Creator to us based off of our needs and His desire to bless us, inform us, or mature us. They are images and personalities which the Creator uses to reflect His own and to guide us into higher dimensions of His Spirit. This idea is not foreign to the Bible, which describes the Person of Jesus Christ in exactly these terms. Once more, Europeans cling to ignorance rather than seek to understand and relate.
The Medicine Way is neither pagan babble nor New Age mysticism. It is the fullness of our cultural spirituality. It is a way of thinking that tells us that what is right or wrong in the spiritual eventually manifests itself on the Earth—it teaches us to look for the spiritual root in the problems we face and how to heal them, as well as how to treat physical ailments. The Medicine Way’s ultimate goal is to restore balance where it has been lost, which is, according to Scripture, the goal and desire of God in the work of Jesus Christ. It is the institutional European church and its abundant confusion which thought of the Medicine Way as “pagan babble.”
Indian spirituality does not make room for the person of Jesus Christ, because it does not need to, and because this is not the way to begin with in which Jesus Christ appears within a people. The Spirit of Christ—the God-life of Creator’s spirit infused into the human dimension—has been present and upon our people since before the Europeans arrived. We knew of Jesus, and as I would venture, in the way the Bible presents Him, before ever a white man came along with a book which he pretended to know everything about. The Spirit of Christ fills the whole universe, and just because we did not call him Jesus does not mean we did not know him. It is European exclusivism, not the biblical teaching, that says that Indians must change their ways.
In response to Indian objections…
The Bible does not teach that the Earth should be subjugated according to the European understanding. While it says that man has been given dominion on the Earth, this dominion should be understood in its context, both spiritually and culturally. Spiritually speaking, human beings, by the Bible’s standards, only have authority when they are guided by the Spirit to do something. They may have a purpose or job, but the Spirit’s guidance and presence are the defining marks of that job. Therefore Man’s authority on Earth is intended for selfless service to God’s creation. This service is prompted by the Spirit of God, who, when Man lives in relationship with, keeps man in balance with creation rather than in hierarchical views of himself. In essence, Man has a particular responsibility in regards to the nature he possesses and the power he’s been given.
The Bible does teach the idea of Sin. However, one should understand what that actually means before they reject or confirm it, or, worse yet, apply and preach it. Sin by the Bible’s definition is an action caused by wrong desire which is outside of proper relationship with both the Creator and the Creation. This creates imbalance which leads to death on a spiritual level (unawareness of God through focus on realms other than the spiritual) and physical level. To some degree, Indian spirituality does agree with this idea: all things have been created to live in harmony and right relationship, but man, through acting on wrong desires and pride, has created imbalance and disunity in creation and often creates this by the same method between himself and Creator. This is seen in multiple stories, as well as in the current state of the world in general. While there will most likely be some disagreement between the two theologies on this subject, the ideas of wrong desire and wrong relationship leading to imbalance correlate between the two.
The Bible does teach that the Person of Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the path to the Father. By this it is meant that the Person of Jesus Christ, who the Bible teaches to be the embodiment of the Creator—the ultimate infusion of divine life into the human dimension—is connection to God, the reality of God, and the ultimate expression of Creator’s life. Essentially, all these things are encompassed in the one person, Jesus. However, this teaching does not mean that one must have heard Jesus’ name to be in God’s good graces, or go through the regular rituals taught by the church world. Rather, it means that wherever these things—connection, truth, and life of God—exist, there the Spirit of Jesus is. While Biblical theology does weigh the anchor on Jesus, it does not in any way imply that connection made to God without knowledge of Jesus is not valid. Rather, it teaches a universality of his person which encompasses and includes peoples and cultures beyond those of the Middle East.
The Bible teaches that women are equal and deserving of the same respect given to men. Men and women, according to the Bible, have been created so that neither can look at the one and consider themselves better than the other. Instead, the first woman came out of a man, and likewise all men have come forth from that woman. Human society and culture, later on, changed the truth of this, and forced ideas of male dominance and supremacy on society. While the Bible does display masculine images of God, this does not mean that God does not possess feminine qualities—in fact, one of his most powerful appearances is as a Mother—but rather that the masculine images spoke more directly to the culture in which the Bible was written.
The Bible does not teach that one should abandon their culture, nor that they should give up on the revelation (understanding) of God that they possess, if it is truly from the Creator. Rather, when one participates in relationship with the Spirit of Christ, that relationship will express itself in the context of and through the features of the culture to which that particular person belongs. When Jesus appeared, He did not seek for Jewish culture to be done away with; rather, the Spirit of God through Him opened up truth that spoke to the people in their cultural identity. Thus there is no biblical reason to advocate the eradication of a specific culture.
Part IV: Conclusion
It is worthy to discuss the difference between Religion and Spirituality.
Religion, I have often heard it said, is Man’s attempts to put God in a box. By the very name “religion,” we know that it is a spirit which attempts to bind, control, box-in. Religions are like snowballs rolled down hills. They begin with a human—a human being who sees fit to create something. He takes some snow from the ground into his hand, and then that human being molds it into a ball (his image for this creation). He then rolls it down a hill—lets it go on its own to become what it will. As he does this, it becomes bigger and bigger, takes on new shape, becomes more concrete and solidified and ultimately, at the end of the hill, is a large, threatening mass of snow.
Religions began because man thought that he could control God. There is not one organized religion in the world which does not teach its followers ways of appeasing whatever power they recognize as divine in order to achieve personal goals. There is not one organized religion in the world which does not teach that its rituals somehow secure divine favor. In man’s religions, it is subservience and doing all the right things that make one right with God.
Now, it should be noted, that all religions began with a genuine divine spark. All peoples retain the Memory of God—they all remember that they, as human beings, have an identity in the Great Spirit, that it is from God that they truly come and it is as a spirit-child of God that they truly are. But over time, and over continents, and over cultural changes, and the appearance of individuals, this memory becomes muddled, marred, complicated, upset. It becomes construed into symbols and images and metaphors, and most of the time some of them do not reflect the original truth at all. But to some degree—to whatever degree you believe it is there—one must admit that it is there in all cultures.
Put simply, God initiated relationship, and man made religion. God gave a revelation, and Man stopped right where he was, built a building, exhausted his own understanding of that Word that he received, and told people to flock to it. The Great Spirit never intended for His Children to memorialize His every word, the very same way He did not intend for any of them to forget any of His words. Instead, there was to be continual conversation, day-to-day relationship, in which the Word for every day (the daily bread, so to speak) came from the Creator and nourished His children, maturing them in whatever way Creator saw fit to in that day and season in their lives.
Every time the words that Creator speaks are put into writing, every time they are put into ink, they are entombed. The life that is in the Creator’s words becomes dormant the minute that man’s hands do anything to it. Why? Because it is at that moment that the Spirit leaves the Word. Creator’s Word energized by His Spirit is the substance of all spiritual life—but when man taints this union, even when attempting to preserve it, this life becomes dormant. That is why those reading the Bible often garner nothing from it—because unless Creator sends His Spirit upon the words that are written there to make them alive to the reader, they are nothing more than words on a page.
I love the story of Enoch in the Bible. It is a very short paragraph in the fifth chapter of Genesis. All we are told is this: “When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” Whatever you believe about the meaning of this paragraph, however you choose to see the age of Enoch or what it means by “God took him,” I encourage you to simply acknowledge three things.
The first is that Enoch walked with God. Enoch did not stop at any point along the path Creator made for him in order to memorialize what was said to him at that point in his life; he did not think that it was necessary for him to add anything on to the work Creator was doing in his heart and in his walk. Rather, Enoch simply walked with God—he participated in the daily conversation and relationship that his Creator made him to enjoy.
The second is that Enoch began walking with God after he became a father. He appreciated the parental heart of the Creator—he had an in-depth understanding of how the Great Spirit views humanity, and who he was as a child of the Creator. With this understanding, he walked with his Creator day by day. This is the essence of spirituality.
The third is that, whatever you believe specifically about the ending of this paragraph, you must acknowledge that Enoch was eclipsed by the person of Creator. What I mean by this is that the personality, character, and nature of the Great Spirit so filled Enoch that it transformed him, so that it was not Enoch but the Creator who showed in him. He became a living expression of God on earth. That is what true spirituality does—it brings out God’s nature in us.
Spirituality is at one time a very personal and at the same time a very community based thing. God speaks both to individuals and the larger communities they are a part of, often, when doing the latter, through those individuals. Spirituality is primarily the relationship that we participate in with the Creator, but we are admonished to keep in mind that our participating in relationship with the Great Spirit can affect our brothers and sisters in the community. Furthermore, we are reminded that we can turn to them for guidance and support in our personal relationship with the Creator. Lastly, we fellowship with our community in worshipping the Great Spirit, seeking to come together to bring our Creator praise.
It is in this sense that Spirituality is activity. It is more to do with verbs—relating, praising, participating—than with nouns. Spirituality will never stay in one place. It will always move forward.
With this distinction between static religion and active and vibrant spirituality, I turn your attention to the subject of this article. Amerindian people have been collectively suspicious towards Christian teaching and practice for several hundred years, and rightfully so. The sufferings our peoples have met at the hands of Christian invaders is a horrible stain on human history, and is a grievance to both the Indian peoples as well as the Spirit of Christ. And so with this very bloody history in mind, filled with distrust and malice, I have sought to do a few things in order to bring about a little bit of reconciliation (which, I hesitate not to tell you, is the Creator’s ultimate desire in all things.)
I have sought to impress it upon my brothers and sisters who are Amerindian people that our traditional values, ideas, and teachings, despite being discriminated against by the Eurocentric Western social structure, are not in conflict with biblical theology. I have sought to impress it upon my brothers and sisters who profess Jesus that we should not fail to see Jesus outside of the church world—and in fact I would argue that we should see him primarily outside of man’s church world. Amerindian culture and traditional spirituality, I have here argued, expresses and celebrates the Spirit of Jesus Christ in a way which much of the church world fails to do.
I have also sought to impress it upon those who, like me, find themselves of both camps, that they do not have to choose between being Indian and worshipping Jesus. Rather, to truly follow Jesus is to live out the Indian life, and to live out the Indian life is the epitome of everything Jesus taught.
Finally, I have sought in this article to present the true biblical faith as well as I possibly can, in order to differentiate it from the twisted version of it that has been preached by the European church for centuries. As a by-product of this, I’ve had to talk a great deal more about the Christian side of things than the Indian. Though this was not my intention, it is a necessary part of unwinding the very tangled web of the European Christian religion, seeking to get past it that we may see the original faith of Jesus. The Amerindian side, though even more complex and diverse, has done a much better job of coming together to produce a very coherent and unified sound in many areas of spiritual interest, and thus the need to unravel and differentiate and talk about each specific view there is unnecessary for this article.
In seeking to bring out true biblical theology from European darkness, my goal has also been to connect it to Amerindian thoughts about God, and outline the parallels and overlaps of the two. There are obvious areas where there is disagreement, and where it really will come down to the personal opinion of the individual; but I think, on the whole, the two will find they have much more in common than they think if they will simply look at themselves in a very objective manner.
Both Amerindian teaching and the Bible tell us that there is a Creator who is a Spirit. Both tell us that the Creator made everything in the world as a spiritual creation, and then later revealed it in the physical realm. Both tell us that humanity has a special duty to guard the Earth and take care of it, and that we human beings are capable of both good and evil. Both tell us that there are special relationships that we must be careful to maintain between ourselves, the Creator, and the Creation, and that failure to do so will bring about imbalance and destruction. Both remind us that the world is in the state is it in because of man’s actions, and that man lives in an unnatural way when he is separated from the rest of Creator and Creation. Both teach us that all men, women, and children are God’s offspring and that we should live out an active lifestyle of prayer. Both honor the importance of silence before God, living in a way which shows the Creator our love, and which serves our fellow man and the Earth on which we live.
I in no way pretend to believe that this dissertation will clear up all the misunderstandings or difficulties each side has with the other anymore than I have fooled myself into thinking that this will completely end all arguments that either side has concocted. Indeed, there are far more grievances than I listed here, but my desire was to tackle some of the bigger ones, and shoot down some of the more common obstacles. My genuine hope is that this does answer some misunderstanding, and more than that inspires the discussion and debate that will hopefully bring about a more peaceful respect.
I am a follower of Jesus who was born into the Indian people, and I am an Indian who looks to Jesus as my Chief and as the one who carves out my Path ahead of me. My desire in this article is neither to convert nor to condemn; rather, I have done my best to share some of my understanding of how my relationship with Creator has been enriched by my heritage and mediated by Jesus. My goal is not to proselytize, but to share my own story through my own understanding.
Therefore, I have but a few more things to say.
Firstly, to those who are on the same path as I am, who know that Jesus loves the Indian peoples and who believe that His desire is the preservation of their culture, don’t be discouraged if you are still befuddled on some issues. So am I. As I’ve said—spirituality (our spiritual identity) is always moving and we are always maturing in it.
Secondly, to those who, on the Christian side of things, believe that I have descended into heresy or pluralism. I deny both. Rather, I believe that the Spirit of God goes where it has been given the freedom to be Chief (2 Corinthians 3), and that therein it will express itself in ways unique to that community and those individuals. I believe that the Resurrected, Eternal, Ever-living Spirit of Christ has many names in multiple cultures, and that worshipping him in a way which speaks to your heart is part of worshipping in Spirit. I believe that one does not necessarily have to know the name of Jesus to worship him (John 10:16). In the end of things, we are all pursuing our Creator, and if you truly know Jesus, than you will know that so doing is the mark of a heart which He is bringing further into relationship with God. Jesus belongs to us all; there is not a human heart who the Creator is not drawing further into Himself, and to pretend otherwise is prejudice.
Lastly, to those of the Amerindian side who disagree with what I have here written. We can disagree and still know that we are children of the Creator. We don’t have to all believe the same way to be unified in the knowledge of who we are and who the Great Spirit is. I welcome your voice and your mind on this subject; in fact, it is yours I want to hear the most, for it is you who have challenged me the most to grow in the knowledge of God.
Whatever your opinions and responses, please, bring them to the table.
The Spirit is with you.
The Author of this article seeks dialogue with readers to increase
understanding between American Indian and Christian Theologies.
Please use the form below to respond to the article above.
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David T’soi Gitli (Three Dogs) Armstrong is a 16 year-old student living in the St. Louis area of Missouri. He is also a student and friend of Lee Standing Bear Moore. "We are proud of David Three Dogs because he accepted the challenge to examine religion and spirituality with an open heart and mind. He also challenges the ideas and proposals of his teachers and reconciles differences respectfully and thoughtfully," said Standing Bear. He began writing short stories and fiction at age nine. He now has a passion for poetry. He also writes literature aimed at communicating spiritual truths. His desire is to see unity among all people who genuinely seek the Spirit of God.
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