Thinking Spatiality: Nature, Repetition, Identity

moon phasesVine 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.[1]  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.[2]

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.”[3]  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.”[4]  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.”[5]  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.[6]

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.[7]

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.

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6 comments on “Thinking Spatiality: Nature, Repetition, Identity

  1. Sue says:

    Yes, Time distinguished from space, sequentialized into his-story, intellectualized into units of hours, minuttes, and seconds, and further abstracted into money, loses all of its psycho-biological significance and grounding in the living-breathng world.
    The source of this misunderstanding is to be found in the orthodox Christian doctrine of creation having occurred at a specific point in time (the beginning), the presumed uniqueness of the event of Christ, and the hoped for Second Coming in which his-story is fulfilled (the end).
    From the Christ-event to the Second Coming, in the Christian view, all human activity takes place in unrepeatable units, redemption being possible only by relation to the unique Christ-event.
    This doctrine is absolutist and terrifyingly single-mined. It breaks from the traditional view, common to most world cultures, that time is cyclic and that the meaning of human existence is related to certain recurring cosmic and astrological paterns.
    It is also deeply anti-ecological in its assertion of a significance for human beings separate from that of nature.

    History is a dream/nightmare – the dream of reason. As long as man believes in this dream and seeks to acquire an historical identity, he remains unconscious of the fact that he is a bridge between the cosmic realms of heaven and oo earth. Within the dream man’s hopes will always focus on a either a future utopia or in the case of Christians, the Second Coming. But in fact human life progressively becomes a kakatopia, a psychotechnological intensification of hell on earth.
    But the only escape from this fatal cycle is to wake up from the dream/nightmare and realize our cosmic, mythic, and fundamentally timeless identity.
    In that fateful year of 1939 when all hell broke loose on earth James Joyce published Finnegan’s Wake the theme of which was how history is a nightmare from which he (Joyce) and humankind altogether urgently needs to awaken.

    Surprisingly, or perhaps not, all of our philosophy, theology and literature keeps us tightly trapped within the nightmare – our mind-forged manacles.

    • Kampen says:

      Thank you for your comments, Sue. I think you are spot on in identifying Christian orthodoxy (esp. the doctrine of creation) as central to the difference between Native and Amer-european thought. I will be presenting a paper at a conference in a couple of weeks dealing precisely with this, arguing how Christian orthodoxy is epistemologically violent, particularly vis a vis Native theology. Watch for the abstract soon.

  2. Paul.G says:

    I come from a Nigerian background ( from the Mwaghavul tribe) , and some of what you have said here about Aboriginal theology , overlaps with Mwaghavul religious thought. Here is a book you may like to read: http://www.amazon.com/Towards-Mwaghavul-History-Exploration-ebook/dp/B005L2HPJ6

    • Kampen says:

      Tinker acknowledges that Native understandings of time and space are similar not only to most tribal cultures but are also much more conceptually available or accessible in many non-european cultures.
      Thanks for the book suggestion.

  3. Lexi says:

    This is really belated. I only just noticed this post. I’m intrigued because I was at a conference earlier in the week, in which the keynote speaker said something very similar, and then overlaid this distinction onto Heidegger’s ontological strife between earth and world (I found this part a little more disconcerting exactly for reasons of ontological violence). What I’m really interested in though, is that Deloria’s dichotomy between linear Christianity and cyclical, Native theology does seem a little simplistic. It ignores a lot of actual theological thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Przywara, and von Balthasar who point out the significance of repetition in orthodox Christianity. Admittedly this has often been covered over and historically Christianity has been associated with the linear. However, I don’t think that it must be consigned to this fate in the future. There are certainly linear elements that cannot be ignored, but this does not necessarily exclude circular movements as well. Focusing on the linear movements of Christianity to the exclusion of its cyclical movements, it seems to me, simply consigns orthodox Christianity to an inevitably violent trajectory. For my part, I would rather consider whether there might not be something of the repetitive, perhaps through listening to those other theologies that have been more attentive to it, in orthodox Christianity before abandoning it, But perhaps this is what you mean by hospitality.

    • Zac says:

      I’m with Lexi on this one. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a piece from David Bentley Hart’s “Beauty of the Infinite” in this regard. And of course, for Hart, BOTI was quite influenced by von Balthasar:

      “The eschaton shows that eternity, for creatures, is futurity and that existence is “repetition,” and so shows time to be a fabric of glory, and so makes its surface shine. Time indeed is emancipated, not only from the myth of anamnesis, the recollection of immutable forms by eternal selves, nor only from the myth of the history of Geist, which abandons transient selves to oblivion in pursuit of its “spiritual” logic, but also from the equally static myth of Heracleitean flux, which imprisons time in the perpetual recurrence of the univocal “event”: as the eschatological interruption of the kingdom is not of this world, and so constitutes an affirmation of being that also judges, it opens being up to the analogical, to the possibility of creative gestures of reconciliation within the world, to a power of discrimination strong enough to distinguish between death camps and hospices without loosening its embrace of creation’s goodness. From the more secure vantage of a conventional metaphysics, eschatological faith is an insane act of speculative expenditure, one that casts aside all the hard-won profits of history’s turmoils and tragedies at the prompting of an impossible hope: rather than the consummation of history’s grand detour for the purpose of reappropriating truth and presence, rather than telos, or synthesis, or reabsorption into the One, the eschatological vindication of creation is, once again, creation. The kingdom gives what is always given, in every moment; the gift remains simply the gift it always was.” p. 397-398

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