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A Native American Theology

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This collaborative work represents a pathbreaking exercise in Native American theology. While observing traditional categories of Christian systematic theology (Creation, Deity, Christology, etc.), each of these is reimagined consistent with Native experience, values, and worldview. At the same time the authors introduce new categories from Native thought-worlds, such as t This collaborative work represents a pathbreaking exercise in Native American theology. While observing traditional categories of Christian systematic theology (Creation, Deity, Christology, etc.), each of these is reimagined consistent with Native experience, values, and worldview. At the same time the authors introduce new categories from Native thought-worlds, such as the Trickster (eraser of boundaries, symbol of ambiguity), and Land. Finally, the authors address issues facing Native Americans today, including racism, poverty, stereotyping, cultural appropriation, and religious freedom.


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This collaborative work represents a pathbreaking exercise in Native American theology. While observing traditional categories of Christian systematic theology (Creation, Deity, Christology, etc.), each of these is reimagined consistent with Native experience, values, and worldview. At the same time the authors introduce new categories from Native thought-worlds, such as t This collaborative work represents a pathbreaking exercise in Native American theology. While observing traditional categories of Christian systematic theology (Creation, Deity, Christology, etc.), each of these is reimagined consistent with Native experience, values, and worldview. At the same time the authors introduce new categories from Native thought-worlds, such as the Trickster (eraser of boundaries, symbol of ambiguity), and Land. Finally, the authors address issues facing Native Americans today, including racism, poverty, stereotyping, cultural appropriation, and religious freedom.

30 review for A Native American Theology

  1. 4 out of 5

    Keegan

    A Native American Theology The three authors seem to have a two fold goal, one of which they do not mention. The goal they mention is to articulate a Native American theology, which comes across as a catalogue of what Native American people believed, thought, felt, in general – their relationship to the world and the spiritual world in particular. Their unstated goal seems to be to expand the umbrella of Christianity (as they see it) to include the Native beliefs they catalogue, even as they poi A Native American Theology The three authors seem to have a two fold goal, one of which they do not mention. The goal they mention is to articulate a Native American theology, which comes across as a catalogue of what Native American people believed, thought, felt, in general – their relationship to the world and the spiritual world in particular. Their unstated goal seems to be to expand the umbrella of Christianity (as they see it) to include the Native beliefs they catalogue, even as they point out, every step of the way, how Native beliefs differ from Christianity. The cataloguing is a useful project. Even trying to fuse the two traditions is interesting. But as far as that goes, I feel like they should just call their creation what it is: something new. Attempting to fit their ideas under the umbrella (and in the categories) of Christianity, seems to privilege Christianity as the more complete structure. Show all the nuances and beauty of a Native Theology – compare but don't force it into the forms of Christianity – and Christianity will expand because it sees the light, not because you have dressed to reflect it. That said, I will simply rehash my favorite points made in the book for this review. They tend to be the patently Native American, which occasionally share similarities with the best interpretations of the best parts of Christianity. “(Native's) whole cultural and social structure was and still is infused with a spirituality that cannot be separated from the rest of the community's life at any point” (12). This reflects a constant personal spirituality and awareness of the spirit in everyone and everything else that is starkly lacking in contemporary American Christianity, where most self-professed Christians act Christlike and feel the spirit at church, but do neither at work, and do much worse at the bar. “Christianity portends teleology. Time, or history is going someplace. There is a goal for human existence...Likewise, individuals are headed someplace, in historical time, whether in career development, faith development, moral development, or ultimate salvation. The teleological sense of time in the Christian sense is the working out of God's plan on earth, and it places human beings in a special status” (13). Indeed, in Western history this belief specifically privileges white people, and justifies the heinous acts – slavery, land theft, etc – they did in the name of their Gods – Christ, progress, capitalism – and absolves them of the need to repay for their ancestors past misconduct, because they view those people as somehow having minorities' best interests in mind. “People are constantly reminded of the presence of deity as they pass by certain rock formations, or rivers, or groves of trees” (14). I would like to add faces, buildings, roads, etc... In a discussion of the importance of ritual in connecting people to nature: “There is no ceremony among any people for clear-cutting an entire forest” (44). God damn right. On how Western people view time and space linearly, while Natives view the world spatial: “Hence the spatial relationship between the community and the sun at solstice or equinox, or the spatial appearance or non-appearance of the moon at full or new moon are more important than calendar dates and Julian months.” Yes. Our point in the universe is so much more important than our point on a calendar. Our proximity to the moon affects the tides, to the sun, the heat – neither are as precisely identified by calendar as they are by awareness of space. Further spatial thinking: “The fundamental symbol of the plains Indian is the circle...There is no way to make the circle hierarchical. Because it has no beginning and no end, all in the circle are of equal value. No relative is valued more than any other. A chief is not valued above the people; nor are humans valued above the animal nations” (47). No beginning, nor middle, nor end. When an elder was asked what version of a myth is true: “All of them” (49). Just like the two differing creation stories in Genesis. Contradictions reveal greater truths. Page 78 has an incredibly interesting discussion of the word logos in relationship to Christ, where the authors say logos is the creative spirit of God, which is what manifest itself in Christ, but the use of the word in several passages indicates that Christ is not the only manifestation of Christ. I would argue that if logos is the creative impulse of God, all tricksters are manifestations of the logos, as both logos and tricksters focus on boarder-crossing, expanding human experiences, and playing games with language. “Iroquois people in upstate New york believed that souls were capable of leaving their bodies and roaming at will. Human souls could enter the bodies of animals, and vice versa. Mutability is the essence of personhood” (89). This stands in stark contrast to the Western ideal of “being true to oneself”. Even the author of that quote, Shakespeare, wrote it for the mouth of an aging, lying blowhard (Polonius). True humanity comes in being able to adapt to situations. The ability to play any necessary role is profound, and a necessary element of creation. That is why Raven can turn into any creature, human, or object he needs to in order to achieve his creative ends. “Power is manifest in the unusual, things that behave in unexpected ways. Where science seeks the generalizable, power resides in difference” (90). God damn right. It is the difference between similar things that are most important – the not-quite-sameness of things that separate good from great, sound from folly, daily from extraordinary. Mysteries have always been what feed our imagination and challenge us to create, to expand, to grow. Science believes it has solved the greatest mysteries of the world, and will eventually solve them all, but it can never tell us why two people fall in love, why two brothers hate each other, why casual acquaintances maintain fierce dialogues. Reason cannot explain these things either, only stories, only experience. “As Black Elk commented, 'You have noticed that truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs, but it is the same face'” (92). “Do I contradict myself? Of course I contradict myself! I am large. I contain multitudes.” -Walt Whitman. This is at the heart of trickster myths. Trickster is a character of moral ambiguity, yet he is the most powerful spirit in the world. Much like the God of the old Testament, but more interesting because he also acts out these contradictions in the flesh, like the God of the new Testament. He fully explicates the randomness of the world, the mysteries of creation and destruction, and a full, complex view of the world. He is the suffering and laughing face at the same time because, like the greatest artists, he expresses them all perfectly. “'The greatest peril of human life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls'” (110). Cherokee trickster: Tseg'sgin' Cheyenne trickster: Veeho (white man) Jesus as trickster: Luke 2: 41-51: Why were you searching for me did you not know that I must be in my father's house? “In the non-canonical Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus, Jesus molds birds out of clay. When Joseph discovers him, he is furious that the boy is making idols. Jesus calls the birds to life and they fly away. For this author, it is a sign of the Messiah who does not yet understand his powers. Yet it is also the action of the Trickster: caught in illicit activity, Jesus destroys the evidence of his transgression” (121) John 2: 1-11: Jesus turns water into wine. “In Matthew's gospel, the Pharisees seek to entrap Jesus. They go to him and ask if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. It was a seemingly classic “no-win” situation. If jesus said to pa taxes to Rome, he would infuriate Jewish nationalists interests. If he condemned the practice, he would be reported to Roman authorities for preaching sedition. But Jesus will not so easily be caught in the trap...He asks them to produce a coin and asks whose image is on it. When they reply, 'Caesar's,' he offers his retort, 'Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and give to God the things that are God's,'” (122). “Trickster is a boundary-crosser, who moves between heaven and earth, leaving and dead, opening up possibilities for humans that would not exist but for his transgression of these limits” (122). Jesus obviously goes back and forth between heaven and earth, he is also said to harrow hell, and his boundary crossing – living with the poor, fighting for the meek, breaking traditional taboos and saying that is fine – opens up many possibilities for the religious. “He came enjoying and proclaiming life...He feasted with his friends and enemies...He was God in his creative powers, and human in his appetites” (125). This exploration of Jesus's trickster elements is great. The problem with Christianity, and the reason Native's did not immediately see him as a trickster in their own tradition, is that most Christians do not see Christ is this morally nuanced way. This is largely because of the letter of Paul, which view the world in black and white terms – the things he condemns were never condemned by Christ – but because of his letters' inclusion in the old testament, and the unimaginative nature of most church's, they were used to condemn everything that did not conform to the dominant culture, and and justify land theft, slavery, and stringent rules. Christ himself did not condemn homosexuals, and he personally stood up for the oppressed, disenfranchised, and groups considered “dirty.” “Hyde concludes, 'It might be argued that the passing of such a seemingly confused figure marks an advance in the spiritual consciousness of the race, a finer tuning of moral judgment; but the opposite could be argued as well – that the erasure of trickster figures, or unthinking confusion of them with the Devil only serves to push the ambiguities of life into the background. We may well hope that our actions carry no moral ambiguity, but pretending that is the case when it isn't does not lead to greater clarity about right and wong; it more likely leads to unconscious cruelty masked by inflated righteousness'” (120). On Land: “The Amer-European view of history is that it records progress and change, whereas Indians valued the repetition of events – the growth of crops, the mating season for animals, the recurrent patterns of rainfall” (131.) While keeping a circular view of history and the world is history (see spatial thinking) Native tradition, especially trickster mythology, also shows that it is incredibly important to note the differences between repetitions. For example, the increasing heat of the world. The not-quite-sameness of things are the best tools for expanding our ways of thinking, our order, and our structure. Inspired thoughts: When we forget the practical truth of our myths, we begin to brake their sacred rules, and corrupt our relationship to the world and others. The Greeks did not expand beyond the surrounding seven hills, because their myths told them to do so would anger the Gods – these Gods could not have been more real, they were the Gods of nature and humanity, which implore humans to live within their means. But eventually these Gods and myths became abstractions and the Greeks formed their empire, abusing other cultures and desecrating the natural world. In The Wasteland, Eliot warns that Christianity has lost touch with the important truths that underly its complex mythology. So true. Most christians have stopped rigorously pursuing the complex wisdom of the contradictions in the old testament and trickster spirit of Christ. They close their mind to these ambiguities and cling to the black and white worldview of Paul and his letters, reinforcing the stringent status quo and alienating the modern poor and disenfranchised – the people a contemporary Jesus or Trickster would fight for. A contemporary Trickster would remind everyone of the complexity of ancient religions and thus reality, would parody the black and white views of Paul in the modern world, would use the wisdom of Raven to find the walls that divide us and tear them down.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Alex Stroshine

    3.5/5. Christianity is under a shroud of suspicion these days, with many in the Western criticizing it for its (supposedly) repressive and outdated morality. Critics often claim Christianity was the handmaiden to the state and its colonialist ambitions. As part of my attempt to give an attentive ear to these criticisms, I have found myself drawn to non-white expressions of Christianity, such as James Cone's "The Cross and the Lynching Tree" and now "A Native American Theology," a collaborative pr 3.5/5. Christianity is under a shroud of suspicion these days, with many in the Western criticizing it for its (supposedly) repressive and outdated morality. Critics often claim Christianity was the handmaiden to the state and its colonialist ambitions. As part of my attempt to give an attentive ear to these criticisms, I have found myself drawn to non-white expressions of Christianity, such as James Cone's "The Cross and the Lynching Tree" and now "A Native American Theology," a collaborative primer on First Nations' vision of Christianity. The book is very informative, with chapters on typical theology topics such as "Christology," "Sin and Ethics," and "Eschatology" as well as on topics more unique to First Nations spirituality, such as "The Trickster" motif (with Jacob and Jesus serving as biblical "trickster" figures) and a chapter on "The Land," a topic that has generated much discussion among ethnic minority groups (last summer I heard Willie James Jennings give a lecture on this). Occasionally they will include information about the spiritual beliefs of people from Central America. Some of the themes brought out by this book were how egalitarian First Nations communities are, how there is a firm belief to the interconnectedness of all things (if an animal is hunted and killed for meat and fur, a prayer is offered as a compensation), and how Jesus as "suffering servant" is compelling for First Nations due to all of the pain and persecution they have experienced since contact. The authors provide a good contrast between First Nations notions of deity and Western Christian notions of deity, stating "The origin stories reveal both the similarities and the distinctions between Christian and American Indian traditions. In the Christian tradition, God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. In Native American traditions, power is immanent in natural forces. In the Christian tradition, God, in the person of Jesus, is concerned with the salvation of individuals. In Native American traditions, deities are teachers and protectors" (p. 93). I had difficulty with some of the points the authors made. Due to their egalitarian beliefs, the idea of "Jesus as Lord" presents challenges for First Nations. The authors discuss the need to translate this concept more appropriately since even the Western concept of lordship is at odds with the original biblical meaning but ultimately we should be reaching back to that original meaning in the first place. The authors discuss how traditional First Nations beliefs can be reconciled or interact with Christianity, particularly how salvation can be attained for their ancestors who lived pre-contact. This is a crucially important question; I myself believe that those who have not had the opportunity to hear the Gospel will be evaluated differently than those who hear and reject the Gospel. However, the authors believe that First Nations' spiritual beliefs are more pregnant with the possibility of offering salvation. They make the strange claim that if the Logos has existed before Jesus then "this also means that we can never be trapped into saying that God has only spoken the good news through Jesus, or that the only way to salvation is through a Euro-western message brought by the colonizer to the conquered" (p. 78). I think that this is a problematic claim on the author's part; it clearly highlights the "scandal of particularity" that some non-Jewish peoples feel towards the concept of God becoming incarnate in a Jewish man some two thousand years ago. But I do not believe that Scripture affords us the possibly to disregard Jesus' exclusive claims about himself in order to appease the fondness some cultures have for their traditional beliefs. Spiritual beliefs are by their nature mysterious but we always need to evaluate whether traditional spiritual beliefs truly honour Jesus or if their practices and praise is offered to another (in making these remarks, I of course acknowledge that Western culture has its own beliefs that run counter to true Christianity; many worship Mammon more than Jesus). The book ends with a chapter on other issues currently faced by First Nations, such as racism and cultural appropriation. The three authors, all from different First Nations peoples, admit that they cannot provide a comprehensive Native American theology but they help outsiders better understand how Christianity can relate to traditional First Nations' beliefs.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    This book, while informative and well written, was slightly disjointed. Each chapter told a distinct piece, but as a whole, the was no unity or connection. Information was very good, though. I enjoyed this one.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Brit Bucklee

    An richly researched and comprehensively laid out contrast and comparison of Native and Christian cultures and attitudes toward religions. Doing some prelim research for a side project and this was very useful.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Spencer

    This book outlines the similarities and differences between Native beliefs and Christian, and in so doing, demonstrates that Native thinking is in many regards complementary to Christian convictions forming ways in which, if they were respected, could have been pathways of talking about Christ with Native people, and even more than that, ways in which western Christians could have been enriched. The book is set up like a mini systematic theology (method, God, Christ, humanity, creation, sin, esc This book outlines the similarities and differences between Native beliefs and Christian, and in so doing, demonstrates that Native thinking is in many regards complementary to Christian convictions forming ways in which, if they were respected, could have been pathways of talking about Christ with Native people, and even more than that, ways in which western Christians could have been enriched. The book is set up like a mini systematic theology (method, God, Christ, humanity, creation, sin, eschatology, etc.), which the authors admit is quite non-native in many ways, but they felt was necessary for an audience that is not used to thinking in native ways (in other words this book was written for westerners to help us appreciate Native thinking, not for natives to appreciate Christian thinking). I can say that this approach was good for me. A number good points stuck out to me. The doctrine of God was really good chapter in that it demonstrated that - while there is no one perspective since North American Native cultures are so vast and diverse - on the whole Natives do not "worship" nature. There is a metaphysical recognition that God is beyond nature. There notions of reciprocity and the virtues of the native spirituality circle (bravery, honesty, humility, and generosity) form touch points where Christians could have dialogued with Natives in appreciation, and in fact, given the highly egalitarian nature of native communities, could have been enriched. What I thought was also interesting were Native views of the afterlife and eschatology. Natives did have eschatological and apocalyptic traditions, as well as notions of a positive and negative afterlife. But what I thought was fascinating was how gentle and inclusive Native views of the afterlife were. I can only imagine the hellfire and brimstone evangelization preaching of some missionaries would have been completely unappealing. Some of the more controversial aspects of the book looks at how the authors think that Christ was in some way pre-incarnate speaking to Natives in figures like the Trickster and the Corn Mother. My immediate impulse was to recoil at such a comparison, but my thinking turned to how Paul used the Mars Hill instance or how Justin Martyr used the Greek Logos to say that God has been working and speaking preparing a way for Christ. The authors also point out that there are strong notions of vicarious suffering in Native cultures due to the notion of one's responsibility for the community, which would have been a valuable way of sharing Christ with natives if missionaries had bothered to listen. The book highlights the importance of land and community for who Natives are, and these things have been deeply damaged and in fact stolen from Natives with Christians leading in the pillage. Some of the stories of how Christians have treated and thought about Natives listed in the book were simply appalling, and hopefully, any western Christian reading this should be convicted that we need to do more to protect and restore Native communities. The message of the Gospel never comes purely as word. It comes with the actions that illustrate what people think it to be. For Natives, it seems clear that they say Christians say Gospel but mean tyranny. The book ends by highlighting the areas Christians need to take to begin to mend the damage: attitudes of racism, stereotyping, refusal of land justice, refusal to help with poverty, and the refusal to respect religious freedom are among the most important issues Christians must improve on.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Paula

    Skimmed it... Pretty sure I'll buy it and read more thoroughly in the future {library checkout}. Seems that it is more geared towards incorporating Native beliefs into Christianity, rather than simply retaining the Native beliefs and conceding that Christianity was forced upon Natives (that or die... gee, which would you choose???). Skimmed it... Pretty sure I'll buy it and read more thoroughly in the future {library checkout}. Seems that it is more geared towards incorporating Native beliefs into Christianity, rather than simply retaining the Native beliefs and conceding that Christianity was forced upon Natives (that or die... gee, which would you choose???).

  7. 4 out of 5

    S

    A surprisingly quick read-- more about opening up questions and topics than providing the answers.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Trey

  9. 4 out of 5

    Terry

  10. 4 out of 5

    J. Nicole

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

  12. 5 out of 5

    Carlo

  13. 4 out of 5

    Richard Fitzgerald

  14. 4 out of 5

    Corky Alexander

  15. 4 out of 5

    Art Brokop

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kristin Black

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Lowery

  18. 5 out of 5

    Holly

  19. 5 out of 5

    Grant Swanson

  20. 5 out of 5

    Gus diZerega

  21. 5 out of 5

    James

  22. 5 out of 5

    Annette Smith

  23. 5 out of 5

    June Narber

  24. 4 out of 5

    Roxanne

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

  26. 5 out of 5

    Eric

  27. 5 out of 5

    Justin

  28. 4 out of 5

    Austin Troyer

  29. 5 out of 5

    Patrick M.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Mildren

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