A wise and sensitive co-worker once approached me with a troubled look. She wondered why Indigenous elders who were so wise, tolerant and compassionate talked about Jesus so much, used his name so often. It was clear that, in her context, hearing the name of Jesus often indicated a different kind of experience, often masking a lack of wisdom, tolerance and compassion. We talked for a while and I said, “Is it possible that these elders have a deeper experience of Jesus than you have seen up until now—that the name of Jesus means something more than you have come to know?”
She was surprised, maybe shocked, but as a self-reflective and sensitive person, she was able to think and feel herself to a new place. I had to, as well, for the dominant culture teaches all of us that Indigenous culture is primitive and in need of a radical update. It is quite common to hear non-Indigenous Christians worry about the simplicity of Indigenous faith, that they are fundamentalists. And when non-Indigenous Christian people praise Indigenous faith, it is usually because it is thought of as a more basic expression of faith. It is envied as a less complicated approach to God.
Yes, the elders do seem to have a more basic faith orientation, but I have learned that, compared to the average non‑Indigenous person, it is far from simple.
When I lived with Navajo elders, I learned that the elders liked to express the intersection of their worldview, Christian faith and encounter with modern life in the “simple” language of enthusiastic Christianity. Though this sounded to outsiders like basic Christianity, even fundamentalism, it was, by comparison to the average person’s spiritual experience, complex, sophisticated and surprisingly helpful to the struggles of life.
I would sit for hours with elders and translators discussing matters like the nature of God, prayer, and our encounter with the divine. To these things the elders, who had little or no formal schooling, brought a fresh, well-thought-out and deeply compassionate understanding of the spiritual mysteries of the universe. I would bring others: theologians or other non-Indigenous Christians—often skeptical at first—who would be in awe of a wisdom shaped by a lifetime process of thought that began with the way a mother introduced children to the rest of life. In these things, every moment was steeped in questions of the life of the spirit.
As they translated these spiritual matters into a way of speaking that interacted with the new world that colonization had thrust upon them, the elders would use the language of Christianity. For the elders, this language of Jesus is a helpful and perhaps essential way to speak of the deeper realities of life, in a way that involves both the Old World and the New World together. I realize that this is very hard for some non-Indigenous Christians to understand. I beg us to realize that this is because, at least in part, we have lost touch with some of our own wellsprings.
In the elders, the simple praises of Jesus were not the cover-up of a shortage of faith understanding. They were the overflowing of a depth of faith that began with an Indigenous lifetime filled with spiritual instruction and then received special power in a living encounter with the reality that was summed up and announced in that new name.