Teaching Native American religion the last six years has led me deep into worlds and cultures and faiths and mysteries that I never suspected even existed.
We should, at least from time to time, stand in simple, silent, wonder before the profound depths and truths of religious myth and sacred story, others' as well as our own. We should stand humbly before the realities of worlds and cultures and faiths and mysteries about which we know infinitely little -- and often care to know infinitely less lest they challenge our assumptions and half-baked certainties.
The world -- the cosmos, the living universe -- of the Native Americans can be our gospel here; our alternative, yet sibling, Good News.
When the white European world collided with the world of the Native Americans, it wasn't "The Clash of the Titans." It's more like the Borg trying to assimilate the intrepid heroes of the Starship Enterprise.
Yet that analogy is very imperfect. The Borg and the Enterprise crew at least partially understand one another: they share an appreciation of power. But for Native Americans, white Europeans were an alien life form far more science-fictiony than the Borg. For two centuries, Native Americans could not understand the European obsession with land -- until virtually all of their good earth was gone.
For the original inhabitants of this continent, the earth was a sacred gift from the Creator; everything came from our Mother, and everything returned to her bosom. The earth could never be owned or possessed. The coveting of land led, as we know, to the decimation of both Indian and buffalo, and tragedy that continues today for many Native Americans.
Perhaps even worse, Europeans also possessed God. Or so they thought. As the scholar Diana Eck points out, for Native Americans, "the ownership of God was as unimaginable as the ownership of nature." But then she makes this chilling connection: "The ownership of God takes but a little more audacity than the ownership of nature."
For example, because the Europeans owned God, they knew without a doubt that the Indians' religion was devil worship; thus whites would change the name of a lake from "Spirit Lake" to "Devil's Lake."
We need always to remember that the biblical term for the obsessive possessiveness of anything, whether natural or supernatural, is "idolatry."
Since the European settlers (invaders) of America thought they owned God, they believed it was their divine right to "sell" this God to the Indians.
But there was a huge problem. Because of the Indians' understanding of, and deep relationship with, the spiritual, they could not remotely understand what the whites were saying about sin and the suffering atonement of Christ.
The European understanding of God as a Lord or King who from his throne dispenses mercy and exacts justice turns God not only into a being, something separate and distant from us, but it Frankensteins God into a scowling, vindictive and capricious tyrant.
To appease this sceptered sovereign, said both Puritan and Roman Catholic theology at the time of the conquest, his son had to be a substituting sacrifice for our sins. But for the Native Americans, in addition to the problem of sin, three things about this substitutionary atonement were incomprehensible:
How could God have only one son, when we are all sons and daughters of the Creator?
How could a father possibly kill his own son?
For Native Americans, everything is a gift of the Creator. How could such a sacrifice take place only once, long ago? All we "own," they say, is ourselves. So the only thing we can sacrifice is ourselves, for others.
When a young Indian man or woman goes alone on a three-day vision quest as a rite of passage into adulthood, she or he may carry in a gourd cut pieces of a relative's skin as a reminder both of the community and of the community's sacrifice. In other words, for Native Americans, "salvation" is never only personal and private, it's always communal.
So we have two realities: the European Christian and the Native American. The Native American reality reminds us that our reality, even a Christian reality, is not the only one. There are other voices, other rooms.
My own recent journey, both academic and spiritual, has led me to these beliefs:
What matters most is "original blessing," not original sin;
What matters is what we do rather than what we believe;
Faith is communal as well as individual;
Love, not judgment, says who we are;
Salvation is more about healing and wholeness than it is rescue, especially salvage from eternal damnation;
God loves all of humanity.
Finally, as Jesus often shows, compassion comes first, before anything else.
-- Tim Vivian is vicar of Grace Episcopal Church and professor of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield.