Well the missionary man
He’s got God on his side.
He’s got the saints and apostles
Backin’ up from behind.
Black eyed looks from those Bible books.
He’s a man with a mission
Got a serious mind.
There was a woman in the jungle
And a monkey on a tree.
The missionary man he was followin’ me.
He said “stop what you’re doing.”
“Get down upon your knees.”
“I’ve got a message for you that you better believe.”
The Eurythmics, The Missionary Man
Today I want to talk about fundamental worldviews. Once more, inspiration from Vine Deloria has got me thinking. In the original forward to God Is Red, written by George E Tinker, you will find the statement that: “The books singular achievement, for instance, was its systematic and consistent analysis of the distinction between spatiality and temporality as culturally discreet ways of being in the world.”
Upon reading that, I was rather excited as I have written before about this very distinction:
Modern culture thinks of time and space as discreet elements. Yet, nearly 100 years ago, Einstein stepped forward and questioned that assumption. He could provide no physical evidence, no experimental proofs, only mathematics. The math was compelling, so the theory was tentatively accepted and in time, technology caught up enough to test the theory. And of course, he has been shown to be correct: space-time is a single, curved multi-dimensional ‘object.’
Yeah, so what? you ask. Einstein did not ‘discover’ curved space through mathematics. He intuitively envisioned it and then sought out the mathematics to test and prove it. He did this even though he was quite vested in the linear, dualist model of reality. In fact, later in life the philosophical potentialities of his theories caused him significant consternation…
…However, I would suggest that the foundations of relativity would be obvious to anyone living within a monist world view: This place NOW is a different place than this place yesterday. (Of course, our language cannot express this because we describe space and time as different things.) But when space and time are unified, you change several basic assumptions: everything becomes transitory, the environment around you is in constant change, there is no stasis. Likewise, people, animals, plants are integral to that changing environment. Any change within the system becomes an obvious and dramatic change in the whole. And it becomes totally inconceivable to try to recreate something that existed previously. Not only was it another time, but it was also another place: a place-time that can never exist again.(link)
Since writing that, I have found greater understanding of time-space thanks to Abrams discussion of the sensual experience of time that lies as the foundation of our understanding. Abrams suggests that, in the world, time is a function of space. That beyond that hill is the future, beneath our feet lies the past. Upon first reading this I scoffed rather vociferously, but as so often happened reading Abrams, as I read his extended discussion of this idea I realized that he was absolutely on the mark. I highly recommend reading Abrams, even if you must skip some of the high brow western philosophies he expounds upon.
With all of this in mind, I was disappointed in Vine’s characterization of the difference between Christian and Native approach to time and space. He suggests that Christians place a great emphasis on time: that history, and especially history as truth is critical to Christian, and therefore Western culture’s validity. The bible has to be not only true, but The Truth. History as progress, and therefore the story of the rise of mankind. Even when the only history told is that of the descendants (intellectually, if not genetically) of one people. So far I am with him.
But then he goes on to suggest that time is irrelevant to Native peoples: that the importance for natives is space. Or more aptly put, Place. Here is where the story occurred. When, exactly, is irrelevant. And even then, it is the events of the story that matter more than the players.
Of course, overtly he is correct. But from a philosophical understanding level, I believe he is missing a critical component. He quotes Curly, a Crow Indian Chief of the early twentieth century:
The soil you see is not ordinary soil – it is the dust of the blood, the flesh, and the bones of our ancestors. We fought and bled and died to keep other Indians from taking it, and we fought and bled and died helping the whites.
You will have to dig down through the surface before you can find nature’s earth, as the upper portion is Crow.
The land as it is, is my blood and my dead; it is consecrated; and I do not want to give up any part of it.(p 146)
As suggested by Abrams, the soil beneath our feet is the past. For the Native American, that makes their land, their place, also their history. When the land is taken away from the people, the people taken away from the land, then history, temporality, is lost. To then say that time does not matter, is to miss the forest for the trees.
Amongst the Australian Aborigines, creation is seen as an ongoing act. In retelling the stories of a place, they are participating in this ongoing creation, making it real. Without their participation, perhaps creation would end. In a similar way, I believe all native peoples reconnect with the land with every story, with every ceremony, death and birth. By retelling the stories, and by participating in the now they are constantly recreating and reinforcing the relationships that define them as a people. Their relationships with other peoples, and their relationships with the more-than-human world, their relationship with the earth itself.