Theology Musings #3: Humanity's Role in Creation According to Indigenous Theology
A much delayed happy 2024 folks! I hope you’ve all had a wonderful January, and start to the new year! After an enjoyable and much needed three week Christmas break, I’m back at it, having just finished my third week of my second semester of Theology/Psychotherapy Grad school. And gosh, do I have some interesting courses this term!
The list is as follows: Intro to Theology, Intro to Christian Public Worship, Psychotherapeutic Theories of Spiritual Care, Homiletics (Preaching), Eros & Spirituality, and Gospel Choir (which is a continued course from last term).
Last week in Theology class, we were asked to read a book titled Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine by Randy S. Woodley, and I have to say, it was a really great read that I learned a lot from, particularly off the back of learning global Christian history from a Western perspective last term. After reading the text, we were asked to reflect on a number of questions with regards to what we read, so the following reflection will be my personal answers to those questions.
As such, I need to emphasize that I am by no means an expert on this topic in ANY way, but I do hope it may serve as an introduction to Indigenous spiritual perspectives in comparison to Western spiritual perspectives. Part of my goal with these musings is to share what I am learning in theology school with you while I am learning it. Not as an expert, but as a student. This is my first scholastic reading on the subject, and the following exercise is meant to capture my understanding of Woodley’s text and reflect on it. I hope I will do the text justice. If you’re interested in learning more about Indigenous Theology, Woodley’s book is an easy read and very easy to get your hands on. I read it on Kindle.
Q&A based on the Perspectives shared in Woodley’s Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview
Q: To what extent are "doctrines" a helpful or unhelpful way to approach theology? What are the alternatives/complements to this Western approach?
The idea of Christian doctrine is a total construct of Western thought. Historically, doctrine’s were useful in terms of identifying and defining what the community that called themselves “Christians” believed. In the first century, and the centuries that followed, society was collectivist rather than individual, so identifying these universal beliefs were important for people. However, even in the second, third and fourth centuries there were issues with trying to create a universalized Christian doctrine. People that did not agree with the beliefs in the major doctrines were deemed ‘heretics’ and expelled from the church. Marcion (widely associated with Gnosticism) and Arius are two major characters from the Early Church that exhibit this, both of whom were considered heretics and kicked out of the church, because their views did not coincide with mainstream doctrine.
Today I think many of us recognize that binary thinking just doesn’t work anymore (arguably, it never worked.) People have such different beliefs in theology, philosophy and spirituality. Society in the West is culturally diverse, with such a range of lived experience. Trying to get all ‘followers of Christ’ to agree on a specific doctrine of belief is not only unhelpful, it’s impossible.
Perhaps this is why so many followers of Christ don’t call themselves ‘Christian’. Perhaps some of you reading this fall into this category (or non-category). You don’t fit into a box. You believe there are many ascended masters, and multiple spiritual pathways that lead one towards union with the divine. I agree! I am a follower of Christ. By all means, Jesus is my guy. But Buddha is also an ascended master that I highly respect and have learned a lot from. So is Krishna.
So with all of this in mind, does doctrine play any helpful role today? Perhaps from the perspective of the church, but I think a minor one.
An alternative to the Western doctrine approach is the Indigenous approach. Interestingly, Woodley, the writer of Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview, although bestowed the title of ‘theologian’, thinks of himself more as a follower of Christ than as a Christian. This is due to a number of reasons, including the fact that doctrine and agreement of beliefs just isn’t that important or relevant for Indigenous peoples (at least in Woodley’s experience). According to the author, it’s stories that are important. Land is important. Lived experience is important. Balance and harmony are important.
Q: The Nicene Creed begins with the doctrine of God, and focuses on the nature of Christ. What is the starting point for Indigenous theologies, according to Woodley? How does that starting point affect the "web" of ideas?
In case you haven’t heard of the Nicene Creed, its essentially the doctrine of belief the Early Church put together spearheaded by the Emperor Constantine, not long after Christianity was legalized and became the chosen religion of the emperor. The Nicene Creed outlines the mainstream beliefs of the church at that time, the most important and controversial piece being if God created Jesus (the camp that represented this argument would shout things in the street like “there was when he was not!”) or if Jesus WAS God, and therefore was of the same substance as God and had always existed. The Nicene creed in the end chose to go with same substance, and kicked everyone out of the church who didn’t agree with this stance. Later this part of the creed was amended to similar substance to stop any further divisions over this issue.
So anyway, while Western theology historically began with doctrine (and argued over all the wordings of such), Indigenous theology is not so concerned with doctrine or belief. Indigenous theology begins with the land. According to Woodley, from an Indigenous perspective, humans are not separate from the land. The Western worldview maintains that we are individual souls, and historically theologians thought humans were the only ones TO have souls! The Indigenous perspective emphasizes indigenous peoples as extensions and caretakers of the land, and recognizes that there is soul/spirit in ALL living things (animals, plants, nature, etc), and that ALL of creation is equally important.
Q: List features of the "Western worldview" in comparison with Indigenous theologies
Western Spiritual Worldview = Individual and compartmentalized. Truth is ascertained through facts, and learning what others have believed. Stories are told to illustrate a point. Beliefs are over-emphasized and very important. Knowledge is universalized.
Indigenous worldview = Collective, holistic and integrated. Balance and harmony are more important than beliefs. Stories are primary. Truth is ascertained by understanding how others have lived. Facts are less important, stories hold truth. Knowledge is localized with the land.
I don’t think it’s a matter of one view being better than the other, but I do personally feel there is A LOT we can learn from the Indigenous spiritual worldview in the West. After all, according to Woodley, Indigenous civilization is one of the most intelligent and ancient systems on the planet. They’ve had a lot of time to figure things out. Thousands of years before the Greek philosophers, Indigenous peoples in North America were already advanced in there democratic ruling systems, agriculture, astrology, medicine, etc. By comparison in terms of age, Western civilization is a baby. We haven’t had as much time to figure things out. We need to listen and learn from the peoples that were on these lands before us. We also need to make reparations, and learn our history as told through the voices of Indigenous peoples. It’s not a pleasant history. I had tears as I was reading Woodley’s summary of North America’s history - from the time of Indigenous Ancient Civilisation was at its peak, to its Colonialist destruction. This, however, is a history that needs to be learned, shared and talked about.
Land Based Exercise: Humanity’s Role in Creation
As part of this assignment, we were asked to complete a spiritual exercise where we take a walk in an area outdoors we are familiar with, and connect with God and the land. The following reflection was written after I completed the exercise.
Q: What was your first encounter with the land?
A: When we moved here, I went for many walks in this neighbourhood to explore the surrounds.
Q: What is your favourite encounter with this land?
A: The second night we spent at our new house, we woke up and spotted a coyote out of our bedroom window in the ravine. I was struck by how wild this land was, and how connected I felt to it. I was reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer at the time and spent time meditating and connecting with the land. I felt the spirits of the land had an unusually strong presence here… or perhaps I was just more open to hearing/feeling them. I even wrote a song about this experience.
Q: What is your scariest or most uncomfortable encounter with this land?
A: When I was walking through High Park last year with my dog (10 minutes from home), we came across a very large and healthy looking coyote strolling along the path directly towards us! There was no one around and I didn’t want my dog to see it or get its attention, so I quickly changed course and went on another path where I could see there was another person walking. I have heard some horror stories about coyotes jumping into people’s backyards and eating their small dogs in my neighbourhood, and although my dog isn’t super small, a pack could definitely take her down. Coyote’s generally steer pretty clear from humans, but I wasn’t about to test that theory.
Post-Exercise: Write 1-2 paragraphs of land-based theology: what the land is teaching you about God and about God’s relationship with Creation.
I went for a walk to and from the lake with my dog. The first thing I noticed was how much life exists without human presence. There were swans and birds congregated in the water, geese grazing, squirrels doing their squirrel thing, trees doing their tree thing. The lake (Lake Ontario) is vast. I imagined it teeming with life deep underwater, even though the lake on this day appeared quite still on the surface. The clouds were grey and ominous. I was struck by how all of life was just existing. It made me feel small, in a good way. I’m part of a vast intricate web of life, an ecosystem that functions in perfect divine harmony.
I was reminded how God loves ALL creation. All creation is held in God’s womb. All of life is interconnected. As humans, when we see ourselves as part of this interconnected web, I think it’s humbling and puts us ‘in our place’, in a good way.
From where I was I could also see the city skyline along the lake, the towering buildings, CN tower, and the buzzing of cars along Lakeshore. From the vantage point where I was standing by the lake, human life seemed to take its rightful place in the web of creation… not too important, but still valuable. The buildings were there in the background, they were a part of the landscape but didn’t overpower it. I think this is how it’s supposed to be; how we’re meant to fit into the fabric of creation. I think when we spend too much time in the concrete center of any city we can forget this. We unconsciously inflate the importance of our human lives and human-made things. We forget that all of creation is a web and we are interdependent. We need the earth, and other species for our survival. But this is a reciprocal relationship. Nature and all of creation thrives also when we actively participate in the web. I learned this when reading Braiding Sweetgrass. As humans we can sometimes think that we are only bad news to the earth… but this is untrue. We can give to the earth too.
I invite you to take a walk in your neighbourhood… and really take the time to contemplate and observe the natural world around you. How is God/Spirit/Divine speaking to you through the land? What is it teaching you?
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