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“They are not comparable religions.”

April 12, 2013

Prompted by something that came up earlier, I was looking for something Robert K. Thomas wrote about a tendency toward reification driving ideology/mental widgetry. (And some interesting observations about the English language maybe helping drive the reification. This is probably a stronger factor for people who actually think in language, which may well be why some of us have the equivalent of divide by zero errors even trying to work with the widgets. Interesting hypothesis, at any rate, which would also seem to apply to other similarly constructed Indo-European languages.) I don’t remember what piece that was in and haven’t been able to locate it yet, partly because distractibility. But, I did run across another quote that is actually pretty relevant in a way. Besides making some points I would like to expand on, at some point, about the vast variety of things that get thrown under the “religion” umbrella, often with poor understanding.

This particular quote is from a letter to a friend on the general topic of divisiveness, included in a non-academic piece aimed at other Natives, The Prophecy Manuscript – Part 2 (1986). * As usual, I’m not endorsing everything he had to say in that series, but yeah. Thought-provoking. “Thomas, in this volume, makes no attempt at ‘pulling punches’. He is critical of Indian militants, nationalists, bureaucrats, educators and pseudo-religious leaders.”  (I guess dominant US culture is just implied, but he gets pretty scathing there too.) Some bolding added.

Even the whites I knew in those days who were sympathetic had a basic misunderstanding of our religion. They were always asking “What do the Indians believe in? Do you have one God? Do you believe in Heaven?” I didn’t know how to explain to them that these are not the important features of the old Cherokee faith; that if you took a poll of Nighthawks you would find a lot of differences in belief; and that most questions of belief are not considered important enough to talk about much. I could see that they saw all religions basically as different belief systems, outside of the person; that one chose voluntarily as one whole consistent thing; and then pledged allegiance to it. I know that such is true of Christianity to some extent, but I know this is not the case with the original Cherokee religion and most Indian religions I know anything about…We can only choose not to be good Cherokees. Our Law is an earthly religion. It does not focus on beliefs. It is a set of laws which, if followed, place us in harmony with all the universe. It emphasizes good relations with our fellows, ceremonial participation which helps us to love our fellows and enables us to care for this land and so on. It is a set of rules which are calculated to bring about harmony in all our relationships–to each other, to the Earth, as a total people to God, and so on. When these relationships are balanced, harmonious, and reciprocal, then our medicine is strong as a People. Then we are spiritually, mentally, and physically healthy both individually and as a People.

As I understand Christianity, it is a belief system calculated to achieve individual redemption and salvation, and eternal life. They are not comparable religions. It looks to me that at one place they can be compared, they look very much alike. Jesus’ instructions about how to treat one’s fellows and the land look complimentary to our old Law…

In the late forties I ran into something I had never run into before. I found out that there were some Indians as bigoted as many whites are on religious matters. I had met a few Indian ministers around at Indian conferences who seemed like white bigots to me. But I just put that down to the fact that they were educated and had been around whites a lot. But I couldn’t imagine a traditional Indian religious bigot. Most Indian religions teach that you have to respect what spiritual road a man feels he must travel and to give him a lot of room because you have no way of telling what kind of instructions or prohibitions he may have received in a dream, a vision, or the like. More than that, any bad feeling between people works to nullify the aim of our ceremonies and weakens our medicine. Harmony is essential to our religion. Our great teacher, Redbird Smith, said, ‘If you see one of our relatives going to church, don’t bother him about it. It must be that he feels he needs that to  make his faith stronger. He will bring that faith back here to the Fire where he will benefit us all. But don’t bother him and drive him away from us or we will all lose in the process.’

The Nighthawks in Oklahoma would be people whose families hadn’t even nominally converted to Christianity (including his), which may be clear enough from the context. He also talks about the number of people who basically wrapped Jesus around traditional spirituality–without seeing much conflict there, and without feeling a need to (haha!) lord it over their Nighthawk neighbors.

Now, I personally don’t agree with his characterization in terms of “law” and the general monotheistic-sounding slant. I think that talking in terms of monotheism is probably something people picked up later, as Barbara Mann (whose family also didn’t get converted) points out with Northern Iroquoian cousins**. At worst, it looks like more reification.

For that matter, “belief” or “faith” in the way so many people use the terms–as something that can and does override actual observed reality–does not even apply.

Admittedly, those concepts as they are too frequently used and imposed on other people have also left a very bad taste in my mouth. See also “I could see that they saw all religions basically as different belief systems, outside of the person; that one chose voluntarily as one whole consistent thing; and then pledged allegiance to it.” That’s the kind of ideological approach that talk about laws (much less Laws), rules, and deities brings to my mind automatically. It sounds very top-down, rather than a more commonsense “if you treat other people like crap, they’re not going to like you or ever want to help you if you have a problem” set of guidelines for relating to the rest of the world. There is a pretty big difference there.

I have to say that this is another reason I don’t have much use for some versions of atheism, either. Too many people have been taught thoroughly enough from the time they were born to think in terms of whole ideologies “that one chose voluntarily as one whole consistent thing; and then pledged allegiance to it”–and seem to have a hard time seeing that this approach may not be the only possible one, much less very helpful. Not to mention the divisiveness and urge to look down on people who do not subscribe exactly to the chosen ideological package. (Obviously, not everybody does this, which is why I specify “some versions”!)

This may be another case where the author was purposely using terms likely to be familiar to most readers, more metaphorically, but I don’t necessarily get that impression from some of the rest of his work. Maybe he also thought something expressed in terms of “Ancient Law” would be taken more seriously, on a more even footing to what we keep getting told is the One True Set of Ancient Traditions from very different cultures, but versions of which keep getting crammed down everybody else’s throats. I don’t know.

In the end, I’m a bit conflicted, and have to keep reminding myself that this would indeed be part of those differences in understanding and “belief” that don’t even matter much in the scheme of things. It only matters what you do with it.

But, if anything, some of these divisions (and sometimes outright bigotry) he wrote about are, if anything, stronger decades after he wrote this. And that’s both sad, and something to try to keep in mind when dealing with one’s own kneejerk reactions to things.


* Where John Mohawk’s points about “prophecy” apply. No “divine” revelation necessarily required, nor even desired. More terms covering such a variety of actual concepts that they can become very misleading.

** From the transcript to one conference talk video I posted a while back:

One of the biggest problems I have with the God idea, and one of the reasons I really dislike it when traditional people use even the word “Creator”, is that it feeds into and reinforces that missionary mistake that the One Good Mind of consensus is the same thing as the Christian God. It absolutely is not, it is a community of independent spirits.

The whole message of that desert god is, “surrender or die”. And if there’s a Calvinist in the room, it’s “surrender AND die”. [laughs] Mindless obedience to some kind of nonsensical set of rules is the only criterion, the only ticket into that place called Heaven, which is heavily guarded by misanthropic male angels, apparently. And so it really just reinforces a sort of infantilizing dependence on something outside the self for support, which seems to me to be rather dangerous, especially if you’ve got a god parent figure that’s not a very good god parent. In fact, the older I get, the more I think that the whole monotheistic system was invented as just the terrorized fantasy of a seriously damaged child, who is trying to forestall or avoid the next assault, when the only certainty in his life is that the assault is on its way.

There’s more there that’s pretty scathing in a way, but describes some differences in philosophical approaches (and a lot of practical implications) extremely well. “So, if we want to understand anything that economic, that’s social, that’s political, we need to look at the spiritual underpinnings of it,” indeed.

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