Vine Deloria Jr.’s book God is Red has become a landmark in Native American intellectual circles. Part theology, part philosophy of religion, and part anthropology of Western Christianity, the book articulates fundamental differences in worldview between Native tribal religions and Western American Christianity, and offers critical reflection on Indigenous-Settler relations both past and present. The crux of Deloria’s argument turns upon a fundamental distinction between spatial and temporal ways of thinking. He contends that Native American cultures think primarily in terms of space while time is the primary category for Western Europeans. Additionally, Natives understand the world and the meaning of life in terms of nature in contrast to history, which tends to dominate Western thought. Space and nature are indissociably linked in Native thought and experience. Communities are arranged in a circle and by the four directions (tribal camps opened to different directions, North, South, West, East).
Their sense of time is also determined by spatiality. Time is conceived in the world’s natural cycles, winter and summer, hunting seasons, planting and harvesting cycles, patters of the moon, etc. Time is the repetition of events that occur in nature, and Native communities orient their life around these spatial repetitions. By contrast, Western Europeans orient their life towards the future, towards goals, destiny, and final purpose. The cultivation of land and the development of cities were events in space/nature conceived of in terms of time. Progress, development, colonization, even evangelism are temporal concepts that reflect a linear view of the world, of life. And history, the writing, preserving, and making of history—a chronological account of the world (rather than a cyclical one)—preoccupies and determines much of Amer-European life. History conceives of space/nature in terms of time, while in spatial thinking time/history are oriented by nature.
Deloria argues that Native spatial conceptions and orientation by nature are ways of thinking that Western Christianity would do well to take into serious consideration. American politics are dominated by conservative versus liberal distinctions, but, as Deloria contends, where Native-Settler debates are concerned, neither conservative nor liberal Americans can consider themselves in a favourable position. “The basic philosophical differences between liberals and conservatives are not fundamental […] because both find in the idea of history a thesis by which they can validate their ideas.” Western Christianity, whether conservative or liberal, is dominated by Enlightenment rationalism, the myth of modern superiority, and a darwinian social theory. And history names the epistemological mode in which life is understood and value judgements are made. Because of this, temporal and historical ways of thinking are directly related to colonization and the treacherous events that occurred and continue to occur as a result.
Moreover, because Western Christianity is preoccupied with the future, the eschaton, it conceives of the present as progressing towards or fulfilling the final purpose and destiny of humanity, which is not at all related to this world (nature, creation) but looks unrelentingly beyond it to heaven. Deloria’s critique is that “[w]hile Christianity can project the reality of the after-life—time and eternity—it appears to be incapable of providing any reality to the life in which we are here and now presently engaged—space and the planet Earth.” Because Western Christianity concedes that the white human race is the most civilized and superior to the rest of creation, it also endows itself with the religious responsibility to bring those it colonizes up to par with the cultural particularities presumably inherent to its salvific status. Deloria’s Native theology, in contrast, is non-colonial by nature (double meaning intended). Because identity, the communal life, and meaning, are constituted by the repetition of natural events, there is no conception of superiority or hierarchy in creation. Native peoples therefore do not see their responsibility (read ethics) as moving history forward or making it come out right but as living in harmonious and balanced relation with all of creation, including other tribes and races.
This harmony should not be confused with a liberal tolerance that seeks to dilute differences and dissolve identitarian boundaries. The exclusivity of the tribe was important and was determined by a self-referential function vis à vis the immediate natural world, and especially the land to which the tribe belonged and was responsible. Christian theology, largely influenced by Paul, has managed to subsume realities and issues of ethnicity and race in its proclamation of a new universal identity in Christ. But, “[u]ntil contemporary Christian denominations recognize the human reality of ethnicity, they will continue to blunder into and out of contemporary situations and emerge worse for the experience.” Native tribal communities are exclusive in their identity. But because this identity turns upon their particular relations to the land and nature more generally, in a harmonious interplay, it cannot result in dominance or colonization. It is worth quoting Deloria at length here:
“No imperative to conduct religious warfare or missionary activity exists because it would mean altering the identity of the community by diluting its cultural, political, and social loyalties with the introduction of foreign elements. […] A community that is uncertain about itself must act in self-defense against any outsider to prevent any conceivable threat to its existence, whereas a community that has a stable identity accords to other communities the dignity of the distinct existence that it wishes to receive itself. […] Their faith in the continuity of their nation precluded the destruction of others simply because they had different customs and beliefs. […] The coercive side of community life as we have traditionally seen it in Western democracies is blunted within tribal communities by its correspondence with religious understandings of life. Yet religious wars are avoided because of the recognition that other peoples have special powers and medicines to give them, thus precluding an exclusive franchise being issued to any one group of people.”
What remains unclear in Deloria’s theology is whether or to what extent these identitarian communities are ethnically exclusive. That is, in a world that is increasingly ethnically heterogenous, does a repetitive/spatial identity depend on its ethnic exclusivity, or can we conceive of repetition in ethnically diverse Christian communities as well? Is the posture offered to the ethnic-other always one of hospitality to a stranger who is ultimately just passing through (as Deloria describes Native tribes offering hospitality to those who stumble upon them)? Or, can we compose ethnically and culturally diverse Christian communities? (Or, would such a community result precisely in the loss of culture described in the quote above?) Deloria himself seems to lean towards ethnic exclusivity, especially in his consideration of the Amish as exemplifying Christian community.
I would be more interested in thinking about what gifts (or “special powers and medicines”) Natives and Christians might have to offer each other than reinforcing (ethnically) identitarian yet hospitable communities. Repetition constitutes the indentitarian Native tribes, to be sure, but I would add that repetition also occurs between identitarian communities through the sharing of medicines/gifts and the practice of hospitality. In short, if we take seriously the claim that community identity is constituted by repetition, we must also consider how repeated hospitality might recompose community identities. If we are looking to the cycles of nature to shape our understandings of space and time, and in turn our identity (and I think Deloria makes a compelling case for this), we must also look at how nature decomposes and recomposes itself—the identitarian interplay of the different parts of an ecosystem, if you will. Natural identities change, and I would suggest that such identitarian recomposition is not necessarily a loss but can be a gain, creating spaces for healing, reconciliation, and an opportunity to re-imagine relations.
1. Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary ed. (Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003), 61.
2. Deloria, God is Red, 62-64.
3. Ibid., 61.
4. Ibid., 74.
5. Ibid., 210.
6. Ibid., 210-211. To be sure, Native tribes fought “wars,” but they were emphatically not over religious beliefs or theological truth claims of infidels.
7. Ibid., 201, 215.