‘All Our Relations’: Christianity and the ‘Community of Creation’

So far in this series, I’ve explored the possibility of using shalom, peace, as a guiding metaphor for Christian theology and life, and how this would frame ‘faith’ as a peace-making lifestyle. I showed how these ideas are both profoundly biblical and also resonate with common Indigenous ideas about right living, and so could provide useful common ground in our attempts to promote reconciliation. Before exploring specific ways of living out this faithful, or peace-making, lifestyle in the rest of the series, today I’d like to think more on a possible area of essential difference between Christian and Indigenous spiritualities, namely the way we understand the nature of creation and humanity’s role within it. Even if it turns out that this is an essential difference between these two sets of worldviews, difference is not necessarily a bad thing. Part of understanding one another, however, means understanding differences and where the boundaries are. And that’s what I’d like to do today.

Creation in Indigenous Perspective

One of the things about Indigenous worldviews that stands out to Western minds is their understanding that all things are alive, interconnected, and interrelated. This is no minor belief, but seems to ground everything else; Carol Anne Hilton concludes that it “forms a central operating point, or a core ethic, for the management of self, community, resources, and relationships and serves as a framework for intergenerational decision-making.”* And so it’s worth looking at in greater detail.

This belief is summarized well by Blackfoot scholar Leroy Little Bear: “If everything has spirit everything is capable of relating. In the native view all of creation is inter-related” (quoted in Hilton). Each aspect of this quote is worth looking at more closely.

First, ‘everything has spirit.’ This means that everything in the natural world is alive and animate, including not just animals, but also rivers, trees, rocks, and so on. Among the Muskogean peoples whose traditional territories were in and around the southern Appalachians, this animacy principle was understood as something akin to ‘mind’ (Deloria 2006). And among the Omaha people of the American Plains, “life manifests itself in two ways: First, by causing to move …; second, by causing permanency of structure and form, as in the rock … This invisible life was also conceived of as being similar to the will power of which man is conscious within himself” (Deloria 2006). This life, or spirit, is in some sense, divine, ‘Wakonda’ — to put it in contemporary language, we might say ‘the divine spark’ is in everything. Among the Omaha’s Siouan cousins the Osage, it was said:

Sometimes the Osage speak of a tree, a rock, or a prominent hill as Wakonda, but when asked if his people had great numbers of Wakondas he would reply, ‘Not so; there is but one God and His presence is in all things and everywhere. We say a tree is Wakonda because in it also Wakonda resides. (LaFlesche’s Osage Dictionary, quoted in Kidwell, Noley & Tinker)

These ideas have two significant consequences that are relevant for the purposes of this post. First, this is a panentheistic worldview, the belief that God is in some way present in all things. The rock is not ‘God’, but the rock carries something of God within it and therefore we must respect it and can learn from it as a bearer of the divine. And second, many, if not all, Indigenous cultures understand that everything in creation is not only alive, but also intelligent and, therefore personal. As Kidwell, Noley and Tinker put it, “all of the created world … is just as alive and sentient as human beings are.”

This is a nice segue to the second part of Little Bear’s quote: ‘everything is capable of relating.’ If everything is alive and intelligent, then everything exists in relationship with everything else. For example, in Nuu-chah-nulth (part of the Northwest Coast cultural region), the word for a ‘person’ is quu?as, but this term is not limited to human persons, but extends to any life form. Umeek (E. Richard Atleo), a Nuu-chah-nuulth knowledge-keeper, describes his people’s way of life as a negotiated agreement born from the need “to find some way to live with these other quu?as who were recognized as life forms, as living beings who were originally part of one language and community” (Atleo 2012, 36). Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes a similar sensibility in her Anishinaabe traditions from the Great Lakes region:

My nation is not just composed of Nishnabeg [Indigenous people]. It is a series of radiating relationships with plant nations, animal nations, insects, bodies of water, air, soil, and spiritual beings in addition to the Indigenous nations with whom we share parts of our territory. (2017, 58).

This brings us to the third part of Leroy Little Bear’s assessment, that not only do humans exist in relationship to the world around us, but we are in fact related to everything in it. This idea is summarized by the famous (and often misappropriated) Lakota expression and prayer, Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ, ‘for all our relations.’ Jenny Leading Cloud defines this Lakota sensibility as follows: “The buffalo and the coyote are our brothers; the birds, our cousins. Even the tiniest ant, even a louse, even the smallest flower you can find—they are all relatives” (quoted in Kelly-Gangi). Potawatomi writer Katilin Curtice describes a similar idea with the succinct phrase, “the bloodline of God is connected to everything.” And Haudenosaunee faithkeeper Oren Lyons puts it even more pointedly, “What you [White] people call your natural resources our people call our relatives” (quoted in Hilton).

All of this means that in Indigenous worldviews, humanity is not understood to be above or in authority over the rest of creation, but one small part of it. While some of the perspectives I came across do allow for some stewarding or harmony-keeping vocation for humanity within this (e.g, Woodley), many do not even go that far, insisting that humans really are just one sentient being among many and are in fact the least of all the sentients because we are the only ones who are prone to forgetting our responsibilities to the rest.

Instead of being in control over the world around us, our job is to live in relationship to it, and to learn the wisdom of the land and all of its peoples. This idea of the Earth as teacher recurred time and time again in my readings preparing for this series. James Tully, for example, notes that “The Anishinaabe concept of education (akinoomaage) … literally means the lessons we learn from looking to the earth.” And Randy Woodley writes: “Living out shalom means … learning from creation as object lessons for understanding God’s shalom provision.” (Woodley 2012). Jane Haladay likewise notes that in the Okanagan (Salish) tradition, “Not to learn [the earth’s] language is to die” (quoted in Hilton).

What we have here is a worldview that understands the nature of life on Earth as being fundamentally relational, and goodness or perfection is not seen as being in things or persons but in the quality of the relationships between them. Humanity is not outside of these networks, but simply one part of them among myriad others.

There can be no doubt that such a worldview runs directly counter to much of Western thought. Even the ‘best’ aspects of Western culture, things like democracy and human rights, privilege humanity as ‘the measure of all things.’ And at its worst, the Western perspective that objectifies the non-human world, leads us to the exploitative practices that have got the world into the environmental, social, and economic crises we’re in. And so, the Indigenous perspectives described here represent a strong challenge to the West. The question before us in the rest of this post, however, is to what degree they also represent a challenge to Christianity.

So, as Christians, what do our Scriptures and traditions have to say about all this?

Creation in Christian Perspectives

I think it’s safe to say at the outset that it would be very challenging to reach the conclusions of Indigenous worldviews solely from within Christianity’s own resources. But at the same time, it might be surprising just how close we can come. Much of the way Christians have interacted with the non-human creation over the centuries — particularly in the West — has been governed by a distorted understanding of the command to exercise “dominion” over the earth. Today I’d like to affirm that this was not the only direction Christians could have taken with this, and indeed, it is far from a universal teaching of our tradition.

Starting with the creation stories in Genesis, we have God calling forth all creation — Sun, Moon, Earth, land, waters, and all of the plant and animal life within them — through the utterance of the Word (1.3, cf. John 1.3-4); and all life is made alive with the breath of God (1.30, cf. 2.7). In some strands of the Christian tradition, particularly in the East, this creative ‘Word’, which is associated with divine Wisdom, was understood to have left something of itself in all the world’s creatures: If Christ was the divine Logos, then all creatures were logoi, ‘words’ of God, embodiments of divine Wisdom and rationality. Likewise, the Eastern Christian tradition’s most basic prayer invoking the Holy Spirit, prayed multiple times a day most of the year, refers to the Spirit as “everywhere present and filling all things.” So here we have at least half of the ancient Christian thought world with a panentheistic worldview that understands all things as carrying within them something of the divine Word, Wisdom, and Spirit. (For two Indigenous perspectives likewise noting the similarity between Indigenous worldviews and the Logos tradition, see Deloria 2006 and Kidwell, Noley and Tinker.)

If in fact something of the Logos is to be found in everything in creation, that means we can learn something of God from everything around us. Woodley (2022) has provided a helpful list of examples of this idea from within our Scriptures:

Job 12:7–10, where Job says, Just ask the animals, and they will teach you. Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you. Let the fish in the sea speak to you. … God loves everything in creation (John 3:16). In the stories we find God counting the clouds (Job 38:37), releasing the rain (5:10), directing the snow (37:6; 38:22), knowing when a sparrow falls (Matt. 10:29), knowing where a donkey is tied (21:2), knowing where the fish will swim (John 21:6), adorning the lilies of the field (Matt. 6:29–30), and comparing the ostrich and the stork (Job 39:13).

If we add in the fact that the Law includes provisions for animal and plant life, and that the prophetic traditions insist that salvation is for the whole created order, including the waters and the animals (an idea that was taken up by Paul (”all creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor” (Romans 8.22)), we have here a very high view of non-human creation.

We can go even further though. In the original created order, humanity is tasked with looking after and getting to know, and naming the other residents of the Garden: This is to say, humanity’s vocation is understood here to be in relationship with the rest of creation. And, Genesis 2.4 describes this relationship as a kinship relationship: “This is the genealogy [Heb. toledoth, ‘genealogy, a man and his descendants’] of the sky and the land.” (This normally gets translated into English as ‘account’ or ‘record,’ but it’s the same word used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures for family relationships; the translation has less to do with what the word meant than it does the preconceptions of translators.)

The point here is that, using only Christianity’s own resources, we can draw a compelling vision of an interconnected, kin-related, Wisdom-laden and Spirit-filled, “community of creation” (Woodley 2012) that humanity is to tend to rather than rule over. Such a perspective stops short of some of the conclusions of the Indigenous worldviews discussed in the previous section — primarily in the notion of non-human creatures being persons — but it comes surprisingly close. And, if we are open not only to learning from other traditional worldviews, but also, increasingly, to scientific findings that are seeing intelligence and possibly sentience in a variety of lifeforms, there is nothing within our tradition to prevent us from going even there. If we wanted to do this — and there would likely be advantages and disadvantages to doing so — it would require some reassessment of some ancient Christian understandings of humanity and its vocation, but not a wholesale one.

Conclusions and Further Questions

This post has sought to understand the extent to which the West’s ‘objective’ understanding of the world, which sees humanity as separate from and to a certain degree above it, is an inherent part of traditional, biblical Christianity. I have shown that to some extent any sharing between the two is accidental, and that one can make a compelling argument from Christianity’s own ancient resources for a worldview that far more closely resembles that of Indigenous perspectives on creation than those that have governed Western politics and economics for hundreds of years.

Of course, just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. But, considering, according to Jesus, the criterion by which Christians should judge truth is the quality of the fruit an idea bears in the world (Matthew 7.17), it’s worth a very careful look. Which way of looking at the world will bear better fruit? Which way better promotes the whole and healthy relationships our Scriptures call Shalom? Which perspective better fosters a sense of showing up for one another in faith?

Seeing the sorry state of affairs the domination worldview has created in our world, for me, it’s pretty clear that we need a better story — or rather, we need to tell our own story better than we have. And so, I am convinced that leaning into the relational, kin-based, Word-and-Spirit-honouring narrative of Creation that is found in our Scriptures and our ancient tradition as Christians, is the far better — more faithful — approach.

In the next post in the series, I’ll turn to the first of many related ways we can live out faithful relationships in the world and thereby promote God’s peace: Gratitude.

 

* See the Bibliography for the series for more details on this and all cited works.

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