Wednesday, June 02, 2010
A REFLECTION ON VINE DELORIA JR.’S "GOD IS RED: A NATIVE VIEW OF RELIGION" -- or, HE RANTED AND I RANTED BACK
GOD IS RED: A NATIVE VIEW OF RELIGION
By The Erudite Redneck
For a seminary class
Anyone could tell just from the sheer amount and tone of the marginalia I jotted while reading God is Red that Vine Deloria Jr. hits me where it hurts time and time again — in the head and in the heart and conscience. He challenges my understanding of the history of Christianity, my understanding of the history of the West, my personal views of what it means to be a Christian, not to mention my own approach to informative and persuasive writing and use of rhetoric. I consume books, and over my adult life I have left rivers of ink in their margins and between their lines, but rarely, if ever, have I reacted so emotionally, and at times viscerally, to learned social commentary. Page after page, there are scrawled angry reactions, exasperated questions, resigned agreement and more than a few profane exclamations. In this paper, I will give more measured responses to Deloria’s challenges, claims and assertions.
At times, the most polemical sections of God is Red reminded me of polemicist extraordinaire Ann Coulter: His points sometimes get lost in the snarling vitriol. Deloria, unlike Coulter, is entitled — but is it the best way to communicate meaningfully for either of them? Deloria’s writing in general reminds me of arguments I’ve had with some atheist acquaintances in the United Kingdom who are devotees of Richard Dawkins, whose 2006 book The God Delusion spawned a “new atheism.” Whatever the qualities of Dawkins’ own argument — that all religious faith is delusion — many of his most vocal disciples are prone to mistake “pop” Christianity for all Christianity, that is, they take the thinking of rank-and-file believers as the deepest theology. Everyday Christians, those not given to deep theological reflection, are easy pickings for militant atheists. While it is entirely fair to challenge people on their assumptions and beliefs, it is a mistake to assume, as Deloria seems to, that the most commonly held thinking comprises the latest thinking or gives any indication of the direction theological thought is headed.
Deloria’s chapter, “Thinking in Time and Space,” presents the nut of his argument that a new earth-friendly religious reality has to come about, even if it means wholesale dismissal of Christianity as a framework for a world view, for the earth and the people on it to survive and for justice to have a chance. In this, Deloria is dead-on right: For traditional Christianity, and Western culture as incubated and informed by traditional Christianity, history has a beginning and an end, irrespective of place — that is, irrespective of the planet, since “human affairs alone are important” (68). For those who historically have regarded the Judeo-Christian God as the author of history, the earth is too often seen as a rest stop for humanity, a place for humanity to consume as much as it can, as it passes through on its cosmic, heavenly journey. Guilty! But Deloria is too quick to dismiss or ignore earnest, nontraditional, post-colonial attempts by some Christians to condemn such attitudes and to emphasize “working toward the Kingdom of God on Earth” rather than joining the historic crowd in “fulfilling its manifest destiny” (68). His condemnation is too broad and too harsh when he writes: “While Christianity can project the reality of the afterlife — 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” (74).
Deloria has thrown the baby Jesus out with the Christian bathwater — he has concentrated almost exclusively on the institution of the church, or churches and denominations, rather than the messages and examples of Christianity’s alleged founder — “alleged” in the minds of Christians who see Christianity as the historic human response to Jesus of Nazareth rather than his personal institutional legacy per se. There is no way to excuse the sins of historical Christianity. Some of us think the wheels started to fall off with Constantine. And there is no way to excuse the persistence of ignorance among modern Christians concerning the evils of Christianity past or present. The chief value of “God is Red” can be found in its direct attack on ignorance and long-cherished ideas resting on ignorance. A major negative, however, is Deloria’s failure to even try to isolate the voice of Jesus from the historic chorus of his followers. I will not fall into the trap, repeatedly pointed out by Deloria, of asserting that the sins of the Christian past were not committed by “true Christians.” No, they certainly were, for the most part (allowing for the usual fakers and freeloaders that make up part of any group or tradition). What to do about them now? Explain them, rather than explaining them away. What to do about their spiritual progeny living amongst us today? Expose them, teach them, admonish them, shine light on them and for them. At the same time try to draw back into Christian folds those whose stomachs could no longer take the hypocrisy, historic and intellectual, so they quit. Those are some of the very reasons some of us are in seminary: to become equipped to preach to the choir, on one hand, and to extend hope and love — and intellectual honesty — to the Jesus-following Diaspora, such as it is, keeping in mind something Deloria, actually, seems to have failed to consider: Narrow is the way, and few there are who find it, hopes of advancing the Kingdom of God on earth, as opposed to preaching more promises of Pie in the Sky in the Sweet Bye-and-Bye, notwithstanding. Deloria’s complaints are valid. But when were the people who make up the church, or churches, ever righteous?
Deloria’s “brief and general sketch of the Christian religion” is missing a couple of adjectives: “hostile” and “skewed.” Of course, it is hostile, but why skewed, if Christianity so obviously clearly invites condemnation for its actions in history? He denigrates the differing genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels, wondering what was the intent if not “accurate genetics” (103)? Of the Gospels generally, he writes: “What we have ... is a curious mixture of historical events, parabolic teachings, and tortured proof texts from various sources in the Jewish writings” 103. At best, he writes, the Gospels “can be said to be the first Christian effort to define the meaning of past events in terms of humankind’s universal history” (103). To insist, rather, that the Gospels are among the first recorded Christian efforts — plural — to define the Jesus experience is no small quibble. Why hold the biblical writers to modern historical and literary standards they, arguably, never intended? Could not have intended? Deloria echoes the fundamentalist-literalists he deplores even more than the liberals who, he sniffs, “pander to the unchurched (55).” Deloria continually reduces Christian thought and experience into a simple stick figure, ignoring the theological variations, arguments and nuanced interpretations within Christianity through the ages. It is difficult to see why, for Deloria does know that winners write the histories, with marginal voices lost, ignored or silenced.
So some of his plain assertions fall flat: “The whole basis for the Christian belief in life after death was the alleged resurrection of Jesus” (104) — not so, if scholars of the Ancient Near East and of Christian origins can be believed (see “Afterlife” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible for a start). “It is now nearly two thousand years since Jesus lived and died, and there has been no return” (104). That a loophole is built into the Christian tradition itself — no one knows the hour or day, the Scriptures remind — is not the fault of Christians living in the present, nor in any of the times and places spawning apocalyptic frenzies among anxious believers, who can only answer for themselves. Westerners must “come to grips with the breadth of human experiences and understand these experiences from a world viewpoint, not simply a Western one” (107), Deloria writes (107). Granted. But then he goes too far: “This shift will necessarily involve downgrading the ancient history of the Near East” (107). “Bull!” it says now in my margin. “Why not upgrade others?” Deloria writes that “the history of the Old Testament must assume a rather minor importance in the whole scheme of development” (107). “No!” my marginalia yells. “Just as major as other histories!” He writes: “This involves, of course, giving up the claim by Christianity of its universal truth and validity” (108). Across the top of the page in my book it now says, “Does it? No — another era of adjustment and reinterpretation!” Deloria goes on: “The experiences of the Hebrews do not really take precedence over the experiences and accomplishments of other people when viewed with an unjaundiced eye” (108). Finally, my marginalia insists: “They take precedence for Xtians! Faithwise!”
It is easy to get defensive while reading “God is Red,” even for a liberal Christian who admits the Sins of Scripture, as John Shelby Spong calls them. Deloria’s passion and understanding of native religions seem clear. But his scholarship leaves me wondering, especially regarding the maverick Immanuel Velikovsky, who I am not qualified to assess and decline to judge, other than to note that academic communities, as human communities, have blind spots. Which is to say: Who can say? However, prophets usually do leave people upset and scratching their heads, and I cannot, based on my own reading and Deloria’s stature in Native American communities, deny that possibility.
My main complaint with "God is Red" isn't that Deloria is "wrong," but that his own vitriol clouds his message so much that even I respond angrily and have a hard time seeing where he is right. The chapter on time versus space as the bases for the different world views, I need to reread calmly. LOL. But, as I say, he, unlike most people who go off half-cocked, is more entitled to his bile.
BTW, on retrospect, the weakest part of my relection is my response to Deloria's claim that the Christian idea of eternal life is based solely on the Resurrection. he is closer to right than I'm comfortable admitting. Scattered hints in the Old Testament suggest that some of the Israelites, the elites who wrote the texts anyway, sort of had maybe sorta kinda an idea of life after death. Here I note that elites, inasmuch as they usually are the wealthy, probably tend to have higher hopes for life after death; I'd think that a lot of the poorest and most destitute and marginalized are just glad to imagine an end to their dreary existence.
--But Deloria is too quick to dismiss or ignore earnest, nontraditional, post-colonial attempts by some Christians to condemn such attitudes and to emphasize “working toward the Kingdom of God on Earth"--
I'd like to think that God put us here for something other than to use up and/or destroy a lot of stuff on our way to find Him in the afterlife. Sometimes Christianity almost comes across as a free pass. As long as you accept Jesus as your savior you don't have to worry about anything else.
While I understand the argument is severely flawed, unfortunately it seems to be commonly accepted.
I'm also firmly onboard with your comment about elites. The afterlife is an opportunity to keep the good times rollin.
Anyway, "religion" is not the same as any form of Christianity, or even monotheism or Abrahamism, and Dawkins and his fellow atheists would do well to stop over-generalizing. As scientists, they are supposed to know better. And as seminarians/theologians, we are supposed to notice things like that and not get sucked into accepting the proposition.
One of your complaints concerning Deloria's work is that it is polemical. The best theology always is. Another complaint is that it comes from a particular point of view, thus skewing the view presented. Since the work, it seems to me, was always intended to be such, and the Indian view of Christian, of Christian missions, would seem to me of necessity to have some hostility (even in one with theological training, such as Deloria).
Finally, Deloria's work was written before the emergence - if it, in fact, is indeed emerging - of "post-colonial" thought. At the time, for example, literature in western Africa that bore that name was known as "negritude", which has come to be seen as complicit in the colonial project, ideologically if not practically. Deloria's work, in many ways, is post-colonial precisely because it challenges all the comfortable assumptions liberals and even radicals have concerning their good will, and the "best angels" of the nature of Christians.
Finally, I cannot endorse the dichotomy between "Church" and "followers of Jesus" as presented here. Where else are you gonna find followers of Jesus? Sadly, we in the Church have to accept that, even at its best (which isn't very good at all), the Church represents who followers of Jesus are in the world.
All that being said, it makes me really really really want to read this book. I have his manifesto, and he is a marvelous writer.
Maybe, but if I did I think I climbed out in the fourth graf. And ...
Re, "Anyway, 'religion' is not the same as any form of Christianity, or even monotheism or Abrahamism ..."
I don't know of any definition of "religion" that cannot be applied to Christianity, as it is generally understood. ???
Interesting. I have a hard time seeing value in polemics. It must be there, but I find it hard to see. I consider it one of the lesser tools of rhetoric. Hmmm ...
Re, "I cannot endorse the dichotomy between 'Church' and 'followers of Jesus' as presented here. Where else are you gonna find followers of Jesus?"
Well, if I suggested such a general dichotomy I didn't mean to, because I agree with you. What I meant to do was jump a little ugly on Deloria, a cutting-edge theologian and thinker, for comparing his views with rank-and-file every-day Christians. It's an unfair setup, because Deloria certainly was no rank-and-file, everyday holder of traditional native ideas.
You seem to be removing the blame from "god" by blaming the god of a corrupt religion for our lack of belief in your god.
Anyway, just passing through, got some time to kill before I do something.
Hope you are well
re, "You seem to be removing the blame from 'god' by blaming the god of a corrupt religion for ..."
Precisely. I do blame the god conjured up by corrupt religion for a lot of things, but not exactly for "(your) lack of belief in ... God." There is no blame to be placed for your lack of belief.
I blame corrupt Christians for most of it, though.
our lack of belief in your god.