Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Making Him real
Once upon a time, a Native Christian, a Lakota, I think, came to the college where I teach and participated in a chapel worship with his smudge pot and an eagle feather. He was from one of the South Dakota reservations, and his pattern of worship wasn't, well, traditional. It was, of course, very "traditional" in his world; but since he may well have been the only Native person in the chapel that morning, what he did, wafting smoke out to north, west, south, and east, seemed utterly foreign and. . .okay. . .strange. Let's face it, things like that just weren't done in the B. J. Haan chapel.
Some sharp constituent, visiting with his high-school age kid, was offended and outraged and let the administation know that what he'd seen was downright, dirty syncretism.
Syncretism, saith the mighty Wikipedia, is "the combining of different beliefs, often while melding various schools of thought." It has this feature--it can and does bring people together; but it also is highly capable of making heresy hunters zing like geiger counters, as did this eagle feather/smudge pot Native American prayer ritual. ZIIIIIINNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGG.
I'll admit it--Roman Catholics are vastly more accomplished syncretists than Calvinists. On just about every reservation today, if you want to find some fascinating morphing of religious character, visit the local Catholic church. As we did, recently, at Marty, South Dakota, the heart of the Yankton Sioux Reservation, where, for the first time, I wandered through the gorgeous chapel. Step in the door, and you know you're in Native America. Look for yourself.
But even more interesting, at least to me, were the stations of the cross, a feature of just about every Roman Catholic church I've ever been in. This one features God blessing his son. Neither look particularly Jewish.
I'll admit it. Seeing Christ as a Dakota warrior or his father as an elder is a little disconcerting. Is that syncretism and therefore heresy?
I'll leave the argument to others because I'm busy now, preparing for another year--my last--as a Christian teacher in a Christian college. And while one won't find the stations of the cross anywhere close to the B. J. Haan chapel here at this Calvinist college where I teach, it does seem to me that my mission here, as a prof, is, in part, to offer my students, through literature and writing, a means by which to make God and his world their very own, to see the grand narrative as very real, to outfit the deity in colors and fabrics and character that they see familiarly. I don't want them to slip Jesus's feet in wooden shoes or drape him with an American flag--some of them do that quite well already, quite frankly--but I want them to own him as Lord, and the only way to do that fully is to use what they know to bring them into familiarity. How can they be intimate with something they don't recognize? Wasn't Christ's taking on flesh the ultimate, blessed syncretism?
I'll leave it to others to argue--I've got to teach. It just seems to me that at the very heart of faith, finally we're all some manner of syncretists.
Maybe that's heresy. So be it.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:53 AM