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Good Letters

I intermittently check in with an online social media group interested in the reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It will seem a fringe concern to some, but I’m rarely in the peak of the bell curve when it comes to such things. The group page offers a mixed bag of links to incisive essays, hopeful stories, news, and questions or statements of varying quality, some of which evince more ignorance or animus than curiosity. When these provoke nasty responsesa result that may coincide with the original poster’s intentthey are soon closed to further comment. There’s no need for me to repeat them here. The offenders are often adult converts from one or another of the myriad Christian denominations whose words suggest the zeal of a new true believer.

One needn’t be a convert to act like a prig, though there’s something special in the neophyte’s fervor. Some new converts are delightful, almost giddy at finding their ecclesial home. Others, convinced they’ve at last found the One True Way, have too much certainty and neither the patience nor humility to converse in good faith with those who, to the degree they see things differently, must therefore be wrong. There is, depending on your point of view, a great deal or precious little dividing Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but there’s more than enough common ground for civil conversation in search of mutual understanding. It’s strange that adherents of twin ancient traditions, both claiming to be catholic (from kata holon, “according to the whole”) and orthodox (from ortho doxa, meaning “right praise,” not “right teaching,” which would be ortho didascalia or “right belief,” ortho pistis), should be so priggishly fixated on which side keeps all the right ideas in their heads. Their us vs. the world approach reminds me of a close relative who, upon his conversion to a fundamentalist version of American Protestantism, warned my mother that if she died still Catholic, she was damned to hell forever. His position on the state of my mother’s soul softened somewhat before her death, though he still seems burdened with a surfeit of certainties.  

Not that this problem is limited to Christians. I’ve spoken with too many rich white American Buddhists who habitually contrast some idealized and esoteric version of Tibetan or Zen practice with what they remember from their third-grade catechism class to believe that. Nor are excesses of the convert’s zeal limited to that sphere of life modernity calls “religion.” As the joke goes, “An atheist, crossfitter, and vegan walked into a bar, and I only know this is because they all told me within thirty seconds after entering.” And when it comes to politics, one could chronicle the swerving political trajectories of some of history’s celebrated firebrands and extremists under a title borrowed from the Grateful Dead: “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.”

I got to thinking about this recently while reading God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, by the late Vine Deloria, Jr., first published in 1972, at the height of the Red Power movement’s public activism. An enrolled member of the Standing Rock (Lakota) Sioux Nation, Deloria was the son and grandson of Episcopal clergymen. He earned a master’s degree degree from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and, some years later, a JD from the University of Colorado Law School. In between, he served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and became a leading advocate for Native sovereignty and tradition over against Euro-American political, religious, and intellectual institutions, all of which he now saw as inherently oppressive and incompatible with Indian identity. He taught at several universities, including the University of Arizona, where he established the first master’s degree program in American Indian Studies in the United States. His most popular books, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, God Is Red, and Red Earth, White Lies, aren’t scholarly works, however, but extended rants against American historiography, Christianity, and scientific archaeology, respectively.

Rants have their place. Much depends on how they’re done. The good news here is that Deloria’s writing is anything but dull. I can only imagine how thrilling it must have been for young, politically aware Native college students to read so fresh and sympathetic a voice in the wake of the Alcatraz Island occupation and the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee. The bad news is that most readers used to judging an argument by its coherence and supporting evidence will close these books, finished or not, disappointed. Assertions and claims are made without evidence or source. Footnotes are, at best, highly selective. Contradicting opinions are dismissed with the ad hominem ferocity of a Donald Trump tweet. When scientific opinion is against him, Deloria goes with pseudoscientific speculation from the likes of Immanuel Velikovsky and champions of ancient astronauts. Like Bill Maher’s movie, Religulous, Deloria’s critique of Christianity contrasts egregiously misdirected religious fervor with an idealized portrait of his preferred belief system, which for Deloria is indigenous oral tradition.

What makes this so unfortunate is that Deloria has important insights to share, such as contrasting the western mind’s focus on time, progress, and the written word with a Native concern for space, the land, and oral inheritance. Reading these passages is like finding small bits of fine chocolate in a badly made cake. Those who’ve already written off Christianity as a grim fairy tale or the sciences as a white liberal establishment conspiracy won’t mind, but Deloria doesn’t even try persuade those who have something to learn. Compared with Willie James Jennings’s magnum opus, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, a sustained and scholarly critique of western Christianity’s blindness to a people’s link to the land, God Is Red is written to confirm the opinions of the already convinced, not transform those open to a new, perhaps more faithful vision.

Why, then, bother reading Deloria at all? I can think of two reasons. First, North American Christians, especially those or European origin, have earned the ire Deloria directs their way. Though I needn’t rehearse the historical details here, the soldier, the missionary, and the trader formed the wedge of so-called progress, behind which came millions of settlers, hungry for land. To the white man looking west, those Indians who didn’t get out of the way would have to be eliminated or civilized. The latter ideally meant becoming an independent, private property-owning Protestant, though Catholic was close enough. The US and Canada actively suppressed Native spiritual practices, with the avid support and cooperation of missionary organizations. Those missionaries who bothered to learn Native ways were typically looking for a platform to start the conversion process. The pervasive Anglo-American belief was – and for some people still isthat, to the degree the Indian differs in practice and belief, he’s wrong. In his rant, Deloria returns the favor. It’s not how I would start a conversation, but I get where he’s coming from.

Second, Native and European habits of thought are as different as their respective languagesone reason government and church-sponsored Indian boarding schools forbade children from speaking anything but English. Native traditions rarely concern themselves with theology, which in modern parlance has come to mean talking about God. What matters is how one acts, prays, and stands in relation to others. Much the same could be said for manyperhaps mostChristians in the first millennium or so after Christ, when orthodoxy still meant “right praise” in liturgy, private prayer, and action. As the fourth century desert monastic, Evagrius Ponticus, wrote, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. If you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

In any case, though Deloria doesn’t meet my culturally derived standards for a worthy argument, I can’t speak for other traditions and ways of thinking. Believing as I do that all persons partake of God’s image, I know that somewhere in Deloria’s rant lies a truth I need to wrestle with. Moreover, finding the courage to change one’s mind in a radical and profound wayas Deloria did about his family’s Christian heritagerequires something compelling and attractive in the tradition one now claims. Humans are drawn to beauty, and though I may question another’s aesthetic judgement, I’m uncomfortable doubting the desire.    

Which brings me back to the dark side of the convert’s zeal or, for that matter, the culture warrior’s intransigence. Living in the world has, over time, a way of changing people’s hearts as well as their minds. Hearts sick of hurting may close in on themselves and grow hard. Hearts kept open to experience lose their rough edges. As Flannery O’Connor, a lifelong Catholic who was never squishy about doctrine, wrote, “conviction without experience makes for harshness.” Learning to stand at the intersection of conviction and compassion might look like what the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, called “biblical humanism:” maintaining a prophetic ethical witness while honoring the dignity in all people, even those with whom you vehemently disagree. Maybe all that’s needed is a strong dose of humility regarding what we know and how we know it. Such examples are in short supply these days, when name calling and public shaming pass for political discourse, but that’s no excuse not to try. What would happen if I acquired the habit of listening to the other—even the ranter, the bigot, and the prig— with the necessary compassion to acknowledge that person’s adversities and brokenness, unique to them yet so similar to mine? What would it take to tell someone not only where I think they’re wrong but also what part of their truth I need to hear? What would I have to change in me in order to love my enemies? What, in short, must I do to follow the Christ I say I believe in?       

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Written by: Brian Volck

Brian Volck is a pediatrician who received his undergraduate degree in English Literature and his MD from Washington University in St. Louis and his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in various periodicals and journals, including DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and Image. He provides clinical care in Maryland and on the Navajo Nation and is working on a book on the Navajo, history, and health.

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