Deloria on the historical validity of a religion

“The test of the extent to which a religion has a claim to historical validity, therefore, should at least partially involve its identification of the specific location and lands where the religious event that created the community took place. And that religion should stand by the historical nature of the event; it should never back off and disclaim everything while becoming furious with other peoples for not believing its claim. If the present interpretation of religious history that is accepted by many Christian theologians is maintained, we are left with a religion devoid of any significance in either time or space. History becomes a series of glorified legends that teach ethical lessons and it becomes a demoniac thing to believe that the world operates one way for religious purposes and an entirely different way for secular purposes.”

–Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 122.

A ringing indictment of mainline Protestants and others who would discount the historicity of, among other things, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.


Deloria on nontemporal theological categories

“In almost every instance in which other religions were considered as invalid, it was because the categories of explanation on which they were judged to be false, were those derived primarily from temporal considerations of how the world ought to be. If the categories are turned around and the Christian religion is judged by nontemporal categories, the story becomes somewhat different. In most cases Christianity either has no answer or an extremely inadequate answer to the problems that arise. The difference is notable. 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.”

–Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 75

I’ve said a couple posts back that Deloria’s analysis of American Christianity suffers from its generic character of sweeping everyone into either mainline liberal Protestant camps or into what he terms the “fundamentalist religious right”. This is reflected here. It is not at all clear to me that all Christians have such an overwhelming focus on the afterlife so as to prevent their ascribing any meaning to life in the present. (He may be right about various wings of evangelicalism, but certainly not about the Protestant mainline).

In reading his analysis, I wonder how he would react to Anabaptism or to other Christian movements which prominently emphasize their distinct social practices as central to their practice of Christian faith. These movements seem to be better able to stand up against some of his critique.

Deloria on today’s religious situation

“The religious situation today eloquently reflects the American psyche – we create our own reality and we are absolutely free to do so. This condition, however, suggests that there is no reality and that we live in a completely intellectual world where the free choice of the individual determines the values and emotional content of experiences. We are at ground zero religiously with little possibility of a revelation to enable us to move on.”

– Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 58-59

Deloria on the religious right

“An increasing number of Americans have become members of the religious right, the fundamentalists. As mainline churches lose members rapidly through their constant efforts to pander to the unchurched and make themselves relevant, mindless fundamentalism makes amazing strides, even among the educated people in society.

When the fundamentalists seized on abortion as an issue, they found the key to political power. Thus was created the irony of modern American life. The fundamentalists could care less about human life after birth. They unquestioningly accept American military ventures around the world and cry for more blood with each invasion or carpetbombing of small countries. They steadfastly support the death penalty and see nothing wrong with its one-sided application to racial minorities…Yet on the abortion issue they wax eloquent about the sanctity of human life as if their salvation depends on it.

Thus, through nearly two decades while American Indians were rediscovering the integrity of their traditional religious, the rest of American Society has torn itself and its religious traditions apart, substituting patriotism and hedonism for old values and behaviors.”

– Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 57

The trouble with this analysis is the assumption that these inconsistencies occur only within the Religious Right (though this may have been closer to the case in 1994 than in 2012). Americans believe in life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for all people, except if you happen to be Pakistani and show up at a “terrorist’s” funeral, for one example.

“God is Red” excerpt

I’m reading Vine Deloria Jr.’s God is Red: A Native View of Religion this weekend. I’m working on some questions about whether Native American spirituality and the Christian tradition are in any way compatible, and if so, how. Deloria’s book is biting, funny, sarcastic, and equally critical of both what he terms the fundamentalist religious right and the “tired” mainline Protestant denominations. I find him a bit generic and overly sweeping when he talks about the Christian tradition, but the one-liners are definitely enough to make the book enjoyable, even if I disagree with some of what he says about what Christians believe. (Like a lot of others, his vision of Christian theology has been overly shaped by the 70s and 80s evangelical movement, in which Culture Wars politics dominated properly theological concerns. They still dominate properly theological concerns in some quarters.) Over the next few days, I’ll be posting some passages from God is Red with brief comment.

On the meaning of the Civil Rights movement and why Indians rarely joined it:

What happened in the 1960s and 1970s is that, in all probability, the logic of Western culture and the meaning of the Christian worldview that supported the institutions of Western culture were outrun by the events of the time. The brotherhood of man may be a noble ideal, but can it be achieved in any society that is not homogeneous? Probably not, we discovered. At a certain point in the struggle for realization, it became apparent that the goals of the Civil Rights movement could not be achieved because people did not subscribe to them and because the goals were, after all, abstract projections of an ideal world, not descriptions of a real world.

The collapse of the Civil Rights movement, the concern with Vietnam and the war, the escape to drugs, the rise of power movements, and the return to Mother Earth can all be understood as desperate efforts of groups of people to flee abstract articulations of belief and superficial values and find authenticity wherever it could be found.”

– Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 52-53

Stanley Hauerwas: “You Never Marry the Right Person”

Stanley Hauerwas

"Stanley the Manley"

I’m not typically one to like much from Relevant magazine, but Tim Keller has a nice article  here about marriage and Christians that includes this infamous – and spot on – paragraph from Stanley Hauerwas.

“Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”

Reading Barth Backwards, IV/4: The Goal of Baptism

Like the Matthias Gruenewald portrait of John the Baptist of which he was so fond, for Barth the act of water baptism can only point away from itself, towards the twisted body of the Crucified. Like John the Baptist standing and pointing at Jesus in the Isenheim Altarpiece, baptism’s goal rests not in its elemental washing of a person with water, nor in the characteristics or virtues of those participating in it, but rather in its ability to both witness to the reality of Jesus as well as its ability to follow him in his submission to John’s baptism.

“What John and those baptized by him in the Jordan had in view was the future in which John proclaimed to be directly imminent, the coming kingdom, the coming judgment, the coming grace of God in the form of the remission of sins, the ‘mightier’ than John who was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit. The demanded conversion, and baptism in the Jordan as its concrete form, had reference to this future. There could be no question of any presenting or materializing of this coming One either openly or secretly immanent in, or brought about by, the human action of the Baptist and those baptized by him. What was preached was not the bringing or representing of this coming One, but conversion towards him” (69-70).

In my experience, one pitfall of both paedobaptists as well as those who practice adult baptism is a decoupling of baptism from conversion, albeit in two different ways. For adult baptizing groups, conversion is something which happens in the heart in a moment in time in which one decides to follow after the way of Jesus. To be sure, for many of these folks, their conversion experience already contains what Barth terms the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” so necessary for one to participate in the life of the Kingdom of God. But water baptism, which Barth terms a necessary first step in following Jesus in a life of discipleship, is often seen as a secondary, unnecessary, and relatively unimportant step in one’s life of discipleship. For these folks, baptism can turn into a ritual which only detracts from a heart relationship with God. I have seen both relatively young children (e.g. 6-8 years old) baptized with minimal preparation or faith formation by adult baptisting groups, just as I have had students training for vocational ministry at the Pentecostal college in which I teach who were not baptized because no one had ever told them that baptism was an important step in their discipleship.

For paedobaptists, conversion gets decoupled from baptism in a different direction. Since many people in infant-baptizing communities are themselves baptized as infants, there is no possibility for conscious conversion prior to baptism. In many instances, this infant baptism is undertaken with either a non-existent or very weak confirmation curriculum while the infant baptized are in junior high or high school. At its worst, this sort of confirmation essentially consists of memorization of certain facts or doctrines with little practical connection, and concludes with a “graduation from church”.

Suffice it to say that Barth had neither of these in mind here.