A group of nuns with Aboriginal students, Port Harrison, Quebec, circa 1890. H. J. Woodside. Library and Archives Canada, PA-123707/

Glen Argan: Theology and Indigenous spirituality finding common ground

  • May 25, 2018

Indian residential schools were established by Canada’s federal government, but Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, bought into the plan with enthusiasm.

When the churches assumed the task of running residential schools in the 19th century, no one in the settler culture saw them with the same eyes that we possess today. Now the schools are the preeminent example of white barbarism; then, they were presumed to bring both worldly and other-worldly salvation to uncivilized Indigenous people who would be taught to march in lockstep with modern progress.

The churches saw their shouldering of the mantel of responsibility for the schools to be altruistic — they were saving Indian children from eternal perdition and preparing them to be successful in settler society. Less understood, both then and now, is how thoroughly the churches were imbued with bad theology that dammed the communication channels with Indigenous people.

Catholics had come to believe in a God who was one sort of being and created reality another. God was, in fact, an omnipotent thing who devised rules, issued judgments and dominated creation.

For Indigenous people, however, the line separating God from nature was porous. Indeed, the Great Spirit was not only the Creator, but was also in creation. Divinity existed, at least some times, in animals, trees and rocks. God was present in the four directions and the four seasons. Lesser spirits, both good and bad, were abundant.

Indigenous spirituality was not primitive; it was a theology of a close relationship among God, humanity and nature. The notion of humans dominating nature was foreign.

From the Catholic perspective, Indigenous spirituality was idolatry, superstition and even devil worship. The Church had conquered nature religions in other times and places; now, it would do so again.

Canada’s residential schools were the perfect vehicle for disabusing First Nations children of the beliefs of their superstitious parents and ancestors. It would be difficult, but if education and coercion were used, children would come to know that Christianity would lead them not only to eternal life, but even to prosperity in this world.

The result was a disaster. It may take the proverbial seven generations to undo the harm of residential schools. 

Today, however, many Indigenous people are breaking through to a new integration of their traditional spirituality with modernity. Elders are speaking ancient wisdom in a new context.

Meanwhile, Catholic theology has shifted. The Scriptures, for example, are no longer scoured to discover doctrine and moral laws. They are understood as an amalgam of various literary forms — story, poetry, prayers of praise and thanksgiving, and teachings for specific communities — through which God is revealed. Imagination plays as great a role as reason in transmitting revelation.

And what is one to make of biblical statements such as this proclamation from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans? “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). 

Such declarations point to God’s presence permeating all creation. Grace is active, not only in human hearts and relations, but in creation which “longs” and “groans inwardly.” This begins to approach an Indigenous understanding of creation.

Further, the crucial point of Christianity is not doctrine, but a person — Jesus Christ. Christ is the source of life for those who believe in Him, but also, it would seem, for material reality which early modern science assumed was inert. No other world religion believes in the divinity of Christ. But until recently, Christianity also ignored the notion that Christ redeemed not only humanity, but also inanimate matter.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called for reconciliation between churches and Indigenous people. Reconciliation calls forth more than Church apologies, a papal visit and Indigenous acceptance of those apologies. It also requires a dialogue which looks to the future, a dialogue at which each side offers its gifts to the other.

The opportunity for such dialogue is riper now than at any time since European contact. The churches have the foundation for receiving the gifts of First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Indigenous people are confident in the value of their traditional ways. A new partnership waits to be formed.

(Argan lives in Edmonton and is the interim editor of Living with Christ.)

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