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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Ask The Matriarch: God and names for God

Newbie pastor has a question about beliefs required for baptism and how the names we use for God can be understood.


I am a newbie pastor and I am in need of some guidance. I am a United Methodist pastor recently (July 1) appointed to my first charge.

There is a gentleman that has been coming to the church for almost two months now and is interested in being baptized and becoming a member! Which I am excited about. However, I have been meeting with him weekly and I have come upon a question. He is Native American, part of the Lenape tribe and he questioned me about Jesus Christ being the only way, which I understand not everyone believes, but I do. He believes in God, but he also believes in the Creator, according to Native American ways - which I am not extremely familiar with. How do I reconcile this and answer him in Truth and in a loving way? I take this as one of my greatest responsibilities in ministry - to him and to the church that I serve. I'm wondering if anyone else has come upon this situation and what advise they might be able to offer.

Our panel of matriarchs offers these responses:

earthchick writes:
First, how exciting that he wants to be baptized! And good for you for meeting with him every week. Regarding his question about Jesus being the only way, I'm not clear on whether he is simply asking you a theological question, or if he (or you) feel like something is staked on this answer in terms of his readiness for baptism. If this question is about readiness for baptism, I would say that he does not need to share your beliefs in order for the baptism to proceed. Whether or not Jesus is the only way, this man has decided that Jesus is the way for him, and that he wants to follow Jesus. If he is ready to submit himself to the way of Jesus, then I'm not sure how the issue of whether salvation can be found elsewhere is relevant. If, however, he is simply seeking theological instruction from you, you can talk with him about how you see the unique and exclusive role of Jesus in salvation. You ask how do you reconcile his views with your view of the truth - I don't think it's up to you to reconcile them. You can present what your understanding is, and allow him to make his own decision and reconciliation.

From Singing Owl, some experience and some suggestions for reading:
My chaplain husband has had many conversations with Native Americans in the prison where he works. We also have several Indian friends (Indian is not usually considered “incorrect” by Native Americans) and so these thoughts are a sort of conglomeration of my thoughts and his in a conversation I had with him when I received this week’s question to the matriarchs.

Native American belief, like many other religious and spiritual systems, is not simple and not always the same. Different tribes (and different individuals within those tribes) may engage in practices that are closer to Pagan than most Christians would find comfortable. At other times and locations, many tribe members are largely Christian. Others keep certain aspects of Native spirituality such as respect for elders and ancestors who have passed on (and may pray to them similar to praying to a saint) and reject others. Some retain animism to a marked degree; others do not. The issue is complicated by the fact that a great many Native Americans see the traditional religious practices as more cultural than not. They may not want to abandon practices like sweat lodges or pipe ceremonies for that reason. I also know some who have incorporated traditional practices into their Christian faith. For example, we know one Methodist Native American man who uses the sweat lodge to meditate and pray, but he does not pray to “the grandfathers” (the rocks) or a pantheon of spirits. He repents of sin, meditates on scripture, and chants songs!

It would probably be helpful to ask why he wants to join the church (or course), but focusing on what Jesus offers him that he wants. The church may be a good place to find friends, to become involved in charitable works etc. But the cross on the wall is a reminder that the church si a group of like-minded “believers”—called out ones who are followers of Jesus Christ. Why does he want to be a Christ follower? What will the church give him that native religion may not? Does he believe Jesus is one among many spirit guides? Does he believe Jesus is divine?

A few gentle but specific questions will likely lead to a lot of interesting conversation, and help both of you decide what is the appropriate course of action.

Here is a link to a good and thoughtful article by Daniel B. Clendenin.

Clendenin is author of “Many Gods, Many Lords: Christianity Encounters World Religions.” A Presbyterian, he is familiar to some of the Rev Gals and Pals through his excellent webzine “Every Day With Jesus.” The article does not specifically address Native American belief, but he does talk about some of the issues involved with “Jesus is the only way” conversations and his thoughts are helpful for anyone wanting to be inclusive while remaining solidly Christian.

Long time rector writes:
With baptism, I often err on the side of openness. I deeply trust the Holy Spirit in this. It is not up to us to create litmus tests of belief, it is up to the one being baptized to be freed to live fully into the vows he/she makes at baptism. That said, I would be interested in engaging in ongoing conversation with this man, exploring where there is common ground for the integrating of who he has been/ who he is now with who God is calling him to be. The things of his life that point him to new life in Christ, those should be celebrated. If there are things in his life that need to be loosed in order to enter into this new life, then he must be the one to choose and claim those things.

As an aside. I would ask him if there is anything he would recommend you read or experience so you could have a deeper understanding of where he is coming from.

I sent the question on to a Native American (Dakota) friend who responds:
This is an interesting question. Speaking for myself as a person who is a Christian Native American, I do not distinguish between "God" and "the Creator"--in my mind they are the very same. The sensibility that Christianity (or Jesus) is "the only way" insists that older revelations within other cultural contexts are either no longer valid or were never valid in the first place. This is indeed contrary to most Native American theology that insists that all of reality is of God ("wakan" in Dakota: one meaning is "mysterious") and, therefore, contradictions, paradoxes and things which are not understood are also of God. Therefore, while God has given one group an understanding of life, God has presented other understandings for other groups which are not to be disparaged or replaced by one's own understanding. Western Christian eschatology seems to infer that God's nature will be made clear to human beings at death or at the end of the ages. However, most Native theology emphasizes God as unknowable or mysterious and, therefore, one can only respond to God as understood through one's culture and in the case of traditional Native American cultures, one must be at peace with the small knowledge of God's revelation to the people. Because of this, the experience of elders is greatly valued. Ultimately, then, good and evil are much more closely related and the meaning of specific incidents are within the nature of God (mysterious).

Now to the more practical response: I would suggest that the pastor certainly invite the Native American individual to be part of the community. However, while it would be fine to state one's own personal belief regarding Jesus as the "only way," to insist that the newcomer also have this as a tenet will limit both the pastor's and the newcomer's experience of experience God more fully in each other. In Native American church communities, Jesus is often referred to as "our older brother." In traditional Native American spiritual ceremonies, God is called "our grandfather" or "our father" and the earth (the creation), which is seen as the physical side of God's spiritual being (often symbolized by the sky), is called "our mother." While these are seen as individual natures, they are all of one being. Even the sun, stars, rocks, rivers, and thoughts are of that one being. For many Native Americans the relationship between oneself and others is of the divine. It is more important than individuality, i.e., you are only defined as a person within the relationships you have with others. So, being in relationship with Jesus (or God the grandfather or mother the earth), is more important to Native Americans than knowing the specifics of that person's individuality. Being open to learning from others with other experiences of God does not mean that we have to give up our core beliefs, but perhaps welcomes us to the transformative experience of making relationship (the Dakota would call that "creating life").

Wise layperson sees it from the side of a seeker asking the question and hopes newbie pastor will walk softly on this journey with the person:
"How do I reconcile this and answer him in Truth and in a loving way?" raises a big red flag for me. There is a big difference between being a living witness of the Good News and letting people be drawn to your light and using your authority as a priest to tell people that there is only One Right Way.

Lots of good ideas and approaches as usual from our matriarchs - since newbie pastor is Methodist, I would suggest resources in the UMC national office of Native American Ministries.

What say ye?


  1. A thought from a seminarian who is working her way through the "great spiritual classics" - there is a long standing tradition in Christianity not just of the God that can be known, described, and named, but also of the God that is mysterious and unknowable. (See, for example, the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, among others.) This is something that might be very helpful to keep in mind - there is plenty of room in Christianity for mystery and uncertainty. In fact, the great mystics of the tradition considered the unknown a key part of the Christian journey!

  2. I was going to respond in much the same way as Sophia...thanks, Sophia!

    Also -- with the disclaimer that I'm frankly not well versed in whatever differences there may be between United Methodist and Lutheran sacramental theologies -- for those of us who identify as part of the broad catholic Christian tradition, Holy Baptism is something that God does for us; a means by which God "comes down" and claims us as God's own. The grace agent, if you will, in all of this is God; not our thinking the right enough things about God to somehow earn the right to be baptized.

    As another RevGal put it, I put great trust in the Holy Spirit's work in this regard to use whatever spiritual scaffolding this individual already has through his own culture's belief system as an arrow pointing to Christ. Recall Paul's sermon at the Acropolis based on the shrine to the "Unknown God" (which, here in the Upper Midwest, sounds much like the Gitchee Manitou of our First Peoples.) Framing Christ as the One who makes a largely unknowable God knowable and accessible to us, One who understands the human condition as God With Us...perhaps a talking point in your continuing conversations with this person.

  3. Last week I attended Native American Healing Service hosted by this group of UMC Native Americans. Scroll down to the director's contact info. She may be a good resource.

  4. As a UMC, I would also suggest this office and in particular Ray Buckley. He has answered these types of questions before -- better yet, he's helped the pastor to ask the correct types of questions of the parishioner.

  5. Lutheran Chick, that was so well said! Just a comment for whatever it's worth. Every Native American I know who is a Protestant Christian is United Methodist. You Methodists go!

  6. I cannot thank each of you enough for your wise counsel. It is always my intention that God works through feeble me, and that He is ultimately glorified and that people are led to Him, never me.

    I am so grateful for all of your excellent and thoughtful responses.

    Blessings abound to you and yours.
    ~ aka newbie pastor

  7. Something was amiss with the link to Clendennan's article. Here it is

  8. Wow, what a great "Ask the matriarch"! I am like the unnamed rector. I want to put myself in the presence of the Holy Spirit with regards to the sacrament of baptism. Something is going on in the heart of the person in asking for baptism. He is responding to some kind of prodding that only the HS can do.

    My tradition requires baptismal instruction, but his willingness to come weekly says that there is a thirst that may not be clearly articulated. I am pleased to hear the words of the Lakota colleague that explains the more of the meanings of First nation people. It helps me to understand the seekers orientation.

    I would want someone to honestly share what my understanding of MY faith is, if I were seeking baptism, not the theological perameters that Scripture enunciate. Be real with him, Sistah Angela. I think he will find the way of Christ in the truth of your faith.


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