carry-woodThe Swedish theologian, Krister Stendahl, famously spoke of “Holy Envy” as that virtue of remaining open to aspects we find in religious traditions other than our own in order to admire them and incorporate into our own tradition. For quite some time, I have been envious of the Zen element of striving for and finding bliss in work and being – simply being.

A well-known Zen story depicts a disciple asking the master, “What is enlightenment?” to which the master responds, “I chop wood. I carry water. What joy! What bliss!”  There is bliss to be found in work, in rigor, and in exhausting the body in the routine tasks that fill our lives; the bliss is to be found in simply being.

The world’s religious traditions offer no shortage of spiritual practices. Spirituality, as I understand the term, refers to the lived religious experience of a particular person in the world. This can entail a great number of diverse practices (e.g., stillness, mediation, prayer, devotion, contemplation, fasting, etc.). With this broad understanding of the term, we can place ourselves in a position to be envious of many spiritual practices other than those provided by our own traditions (and in a manner that hopefully does not scandalize our own tradition). The Zen element of finding bliss, or enlightenment (satori), by engaging the world without attachment and seemingly turning the mind off can teach the non-Buddhist (in my case, the person striving to live in the way of Jesus as a Christian) a thing or two.

This spirituality of work reminds the Christian that her tradition affirms the goodness of the world and all things therein. The Ignatian tradition teaches that God is to be found in all things, but this can be lost in the broader Christian tradition. Christianity is sometimes perceived as overemphasizing the finding of God in the non-corporal while shunning the raw earthiness of the body and world.

Go chop wood, go carry water. Stop looking so hard for the transcendent. It does not need to be tortured out of experience or out of the world, but rather (as Zen helps us to see) God is there in the simple mundane everyday-ness of our bodily lives.

Most mornings I have the privilege of running along the Mississippi river which separates parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I find this time to be one of the most spiritual parts of my day, not because of the beauty of the river and its banks (although that certainly doesn’t hurt) but rather because of the practice of taxing my body (my spirituality of work). This task could be achieved by any strenuous exercise or work regardless of location. I find that running (work) turns off the mind by turning on the body. It centers me, attunes me, places me into the rhythm of the world, and as a result my mind is better able to accomplish the tasks that lie ahead. There is a certain addiction in this. If I miss a morning run or go some time without physical exercise, my mind, I find, in not as sharp. I envy this emphasis we find in Zen to immerse in the world (but with some detachment) in order to see the world. By engaging the world and the body through work, we might be able to stop and see the world in an ordinary way yet without craving and attachment. As the “Flower Sermon” teaches, simply see the flower for what it is, no more and no less.

I had a memorable experience of this when I was once sitting still at 30,000 feet on an Alaska Airlines flight high over the Tongass National Forest[1] in Southeast Alaska. I recall looking down on the vast forest and enjoying it immensely, even though I wasn’t “in” the forest.  Like the disciple in the Flower Sermon, I enjoyed the forest for what it was. I remember thinking there is “nothing” down there, by which I meant “no people.” Even though I had spent countless days living and moving about in the Tongass, it was when I was high above and removed from it that I appreciated it without attachment. Obstacles were removed. I had no desire to go down there and explore (like I usually did), but took joyful bliss in simply seeing it there for what it is: pure powerful forest, sea, mountains, and animals. There it was. I experienced momentary bliss in simply recognizing its presence in all its ordinariness.

photo courtesy of

this was originally published on on August 5, 2013 here:

Posted by: hansgustafson | April 17, 2013

Review of “The Essential Keith Ward”


Wm. Curtis Holtzen and Roberto Sirvent have done a great service for those searching for a succinct compilation of theologian-philosopher Keith Ward’s voluminous work. In By Faith and Reason: The Essential Keith Ward, we now have a text which display the depth and breadth of Ward’s momentous thinking.  According to Ward, “taken as a whole, the readings constitute an argument that it is possible to make a firm commitment to Christian revelation while defending to the full the free use of philosophical and critical reasoning” (12-13).  Holtzen and Sirvent have appropriately arranged the compilation into five parts, each of which offer relevant texts pertaining to 1) faith and reason, 2) concept of God, 3) science and religion, 4) the Bible and its interpretation, and 5) interfaith dialogue and disagreement.

Part one on “Faith and Reason” opens with an original piece by Ward written for this text alone.  It narrates Ward’s personal journey from an atheistic philosopher to a believing theologian and argues that “reason is, or should be, the friend of faith” (13).  The second essay showcases the basic assumptions to be kept in mind when engaging in “serious, sympathetic yet crucial, study of religion” (24).

Part two reflects on Ward’s “Concept of God” through five chapters drawn from Ward’s corpus of writing.  Most evident is his robust challenge to the classical Christian concept of God.  In the first chapter of the section, Ward takes up key issues pertaining to God such as: omnipotence, evil, omniscience, creativity, freedom, God as person and personal, relationality, and the Trinity.  This is followed by a reflection on what God as principle might add to cosmological explanation.  In short, Ward argues that just “as modern science sprang from the context of Christian belief, so now it seems to be leading back to its roots, the apprehension of the physical cosmos as the visible expression of the mind of God” (64).  Then Ward takes up the question as whether God is a person, in which he suggests that the idea of a personal God in the West does not contrast greatly (as is popularly thought) with the “alleged ‘Eastern’ idea of ultimate reality as an impersonal reality which is fundamentally monistic in character” (65).  Rather he contends that Western personal theism is a result of an overstressing of a “much too anthropomorphic” (73) vision of God at the expense of  neglecting that “great part of the Christian tradition” which calls for a God that is a “self-existent absolute reality of supreme conscious and bliss” that is “wholly beyond description” (73).  Ward concludes that “God may be properly manifested in a person; that he may be truly thought of as a person; and that he may be related to as a person in prayer.  Yet God is as far beyond being a person as the infinite is beyond the infinite” (72).  The following chapter deals with “Cosmos and Kenosis.” Here Ward advocates for a Christian vision of creation as a “kenotic and pleromal process,” in which creation commences out of kenosis by moving towards its telos, or consummation, in theosis.  In short, this entails a “cosmic movement from divine self-emptying to creaturely fulfillment in God which is the sacred history of the cosmos” (88).  This entails a concept of God which God both permits, and shares in, the pain of creation and creatures.  The final chapter of this section deals with “Creation and the Trinity.”  By employing a method of comparative theology by learning from other religious traditions (via Heschel, Barth, Iqbal, and Aurobindo), Ward produces a Hegelian doctrine of God as a Trinitarian being from a Christian perspective.

Part three turns to “Science and Religion” and opens with an essay on “Believing in Miracles.”  Against Hume, Ward argues not that miracles occur, but rather “they could occur, be reliably reported, and be justifiably believed” (130).  The next chapter, “Christianity and Evolution: A Case Study,” defends “the view that the scientific vision of cosmic evolution forces a coherent and interconnected set of changes on traditional Christina beliefs” (133).  This should not threaten, repudiate, nor scandalize Christian “canonical and authorities beliefs” (147); rather, it ought to serve as constructive development for the ongoing disclosure of God in a creatively emergent cosmos.  “The Soul and the Brain” defends the existence of the soul vis-à-vis cybernetics and neurophysiology.  In short, “it is essential to see that the soul is both a spiritual and embodied reality,” and “though it is truly material, there is a very real sense in which the soul looks beyond the material world for its proper fulfillment” (160) in the supreme realty (i.e., God).  “The Open Future” closes part three by demonstrating that an indeterminate probabilistic universe with an open future is consistent with both quantum physics and a basic religious view of reality as spiritual.

Part four focuses on “The Bible and its Interpretation.”  The first two essays reflect on Ward’s understanding of “Biblical Inspiration” and the necessity of “Breaking out of Literalism.”  Here the reader encounters fruitful and reasonable approaches to scripture within the context of a twenty-first century scientific worldview and experience.  The two most common obstacles to discerning truth in scripture remain approaching scripture literally and as inerrant.  The third essay, “Morality and the Bible,” defends against the charge that religious morality is dangerous, but is rather “widely considered to be a valuable resource for moral thinking in the modern world” (222).  The final essay in this part, “By Faith Alone,” demonstrates that Protestantism, by its very nature, ought to be considered inherently liberal “in the classical sense of allowing, and even encouraging, diversity of interpretation, the right of dissent, and personal freedom of belief” (235).  In other words, people are not saved by confessing absolutely correct doctrines since God saves those with faith and faith does not require theoretical certainty.

Part five closes out the volume with its focus on “Inter-Faith Dialogue and Disagreement.”  The first essay, “The Study of Truth and Dialogue in Religion” approaches this contemporarily important theme from a philosophical angle.  In essence, Ward examines the nature of relation between philosophy and Religious Studies in so far as they strive for meaning and truth.  He surveys the basic options available to a philosophy or theology of world religions (i.e., exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism) as well as offering three approaches to “the question of whether religious assertions do refer to observable maters of fact or not” (241).  There are 1) Non-Cognitivist Accounts of Belief (R.B. Braithwaite and Don Cupitt); 2) Religions as Forms of Life (Ian Ramsey and D.Z. Phillips); and 3) Realism in Religion (Richard Swinburne and John Hick).  Above all, Ward stresses the necessity for both self-criticism and dialogue.  He concludes that “Religious Studies is good for philosophy, since it keeps alive the questions of ultimate meaning and value which are its lifeblood.  Philosophy is good for Religious Studies, since it keeps alive the question of truth and justification which preserve religion from complacent dogmatism” (248).

In “Truth and the Diversity of Religions,” Ward takes John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis to task.  Ward deems Hick’s proposal for “hard pluralism” invalid, incoherent, and philosophically unacceptable.  Its claim that all religious traditions are equally valid paths to salvation and equally authentic modes of experience of a Real (which is completely unknowable) is incoherent because if the Real is completely unknowable, then it simply cannot be known whether all experiences of it are equally valid nor if all paths to it are equally valid.  Instead, Ward argues for a “soft pluralism” which advocates that a) although God is beyond human comprehension, God is disclosed through many religious traditions; b) many traditions strive to overcome selfish desire as an appropriate response to God; and c) no traditions hold complete truth about God, but all hold “revisable and corrigible beliefs, and that we should look to other traditions to complement, correct or reshape our own” (257).  Ward also touches on a “revisionist pluralism” which is compatible with “soft” but not “hard” pluralism.  He concludes that although religious believers do not have to suppose that most are excluded from salvation, they do have to commit to the assertion that “most people are mistaken in their beliefs about the ultimate nature of God” (259).  This assertion, though “sad,” provides one humility vis-à-vis his or her own tradition, and perhaps a greater openness and appreciation for traditions other than their own.

In “Theology as a Comparative Discipline,” Ward advocates for a method of theology, though not mutually exclusive to so-called “confessional theology,” that “moves away from seeing theology as an exclusively Christian discipline,” (261), and  instead engages the plurality of traditions as a rich resource for reflection, criticism, and learning about one’s own tradition.  Further, “scholars of any religious persuasion or none may engage in questions of comparative theology, [which is] the analysis of the concepts of God and of revelation” (268).  Grounded in the reality of pluralism, comparative theology as a discipline must be self-critical, pluralistic, and open-ended.  That is, it must know and critically engage its own roots, engage other religious traditions’ concepts, and be open to revising beliefs and positions when necessary.

In the final essay of the book, “Religion and the Possibility of a Global Ethics,” Ward asks “if there is such a thing as a global ethics” (274) and whether religion can contribute to such a quest.  He suggests that there are at least some universal moral truths, each of which he treats under the principles of benevolence, liberty, truthfulness, and justice.  Under the broad religious perspectives of Semitic and Indian religious traditions, Ward demonstrates that despite sharing the same basic moral principles various religious traditions approach them differently due to different conceptions of the supreme.  Ward then examines how three religious attitudes appropriate these principles in their approaches.  These attitudes are the “renouncing tradition” (monastic approaches), “divine law traditions” (e.g., Judaism and Islam), and “devotional traditions.”  Though religions clearly differ in many ways, where most religions in the contemporary world can find common ground is that they all “promulgate ways of overcoming egoism and attachment and achieving knowledge of, or union with, a being or state that embodies the highest possible degree of reality and value” (291).  Overall, Ward concludes that both religion and humanist ethics need one another.  Religion needs humanist ethics to prevent the misinterpretation of religious rules that lead to oppression of basic human needs, and humanist ethics needs religion “to give its moral principles a strongly motivating moral goal and a real hope of its realization” (296).

Overall this text does a magnificent job of introducing the reader to the breadth and importance of Ward’s work.  I suspect this volume can be used as a reference text since each chapter and part can stand on its own.  Many of the chapters, especially those in part four on Biblical interpretation, are written in a clear and accessible manner appropriate for most undergraduate audiences.  The editors were wise in their decision to include an exhaustive bibliography of Ward’s books and articles to allow readers to go deeper into Ward’s work.  I will be recommending many of these parts (and often the whole book) to colleagues and friends for many years to come!

Keith WARD.  By Faith and Reason: The Essential Keith Ward.  Wm. Curtiss Holtzen and Roberto Sirvent, editors. London, England: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2012. Pp.309. £25.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-232-52898-5.

Variations of this review will soon be published on and

photo courtesy of Darton, Longmann, and Todd

Posted by: hansgustafson | April 1, 2013

Pope Francis’ Ignatian Tradition and Interfaith Relations

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013_(cropped)On Friday, I am giving a paper in San Diego at the Renaissance Society of America’s annual conference.  The title of my paper is Sacramental Caution and Finding God in All Things: Sacramentality and Spirituality in Luther and Loyola.  

More interestingly, in Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, the heart of its sensual spirituality climaxes for the retreatant in the final contemplation of finding God in all things.

Consider how God dwells in creatures; in the elements, giving them existence; in the plants, giving them life; in the animals, giving them sensation; in human beings, giving them intelligence … consider God labors and works for [you] in all the creatures on the face of the earth; … he is working in the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, cattle, and all the rest – giving them their existence, conserving them, concurring with their vegetative and sensitive activities, and so forth. … Consider how all good things and gifts descend from above.[1]

This passage, and many similar to it throughout the Exercises, provides the foundation for the Ignatian principle of ‘finding God in all things.’ Ignatius’ worldview is thoroughly Thomistic in the sense that all things, people included, strive to realize their telos of serving and moving towards God. Thus God is to be found in all things in so far as they reveal, and assist with the movement towards, this telos.

Though Ignatius may not have had a contemporary panentheistic cosmology in mind, his spirituality affirmed a pansacramental cosmology that allows for the manifestation of God in all things.  However, to be sure, Ignatian spirituality does not reduce God to merely the sum total of the World. Rather, it stresses God’s otherness and beyond-ness of the world. [2]

It is precisely through this affirmation that God is beyond the world that paradoxically allows for God to be found in the world (through all things). The Jesuit Karl Rahner explains, “God is more than [our images and concepts of God, whether natural or supernatural]. And as the one who is more than the world, God has broken into human existence and has burst apart this world and what theology calls, ‘nature.’”[3]

God is simultaneously in nature and beyond nature.[4] This why Ignatian spirituality calls for an initial “flight from the world” in order to come back to the world and to find God in all things in a sensual manner, as portrayed in the Exercises. So sacramentality and sacramental language assist in bridging this spirituality of Ignatius with an Ignatian theological understanding of God as both in and beyond the world. As Rahner puts it, God remains the ‘mystery’ that is ‘infinitely knowable;’ that is, God is knowable only to a certain extent, thus one might find God sacramentally in all things (the sacramental principle), yet God simultaneously remains infinitely beyond all things.

If Roman Catholics take seriously the Ignatian tradition practiced by Pope Francis, and its principle and God is to be found in all things, then what might this mean for interfaith relations and interreligious learning?

photo courtesy of Casa Rosada at WikiMedia

     [1] ibid., Week 4, “Contemplation to Attain Love,” 235-237 (Gnass 177).

     [2] Philip Sheldrake notes that, “in Ignatius’ sense of the ‘liberality’ of God, God dwells in all things and all creatures exist in God. … All that exists, exists only in God. … He is not reflecting about the ontology of created things but about how humans may perceive and relate to them.”  [Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998)141]

     [3] Rahner, “The Mysticism of Loving All Things in the World according to Ignatius,” 148.

     [4] Thus in Ignatius we find a clear rejection of pantheism and a tendency towards pansacramentality.  It would be anachronistic to suggest that Ignatius was a explicit panentheist since he did not use this term nor did he delve into its metaphysics.  At best, one might make the argument that he has an implicit panentheist in similar way that Aquinas was, but I do not find that tenable nor necessary at this point.

Posted by: hansgustafson | March 21, 2013

Suffering and God

My mother passed less than four months ago.  My father just passed on Monday.  Elizabeth A. Dreyer says that “Words are not perfect … even the best words about suffering always remain inadequate.”  With that said, I’ve rewritten a Psalm 22 to reflect my fathers last days.  In addition, I published a book review on God and Suffering for  Below I have provided both my revision of Pslam 22 and the book review.

Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of the community. In you our world has trusted; we trusted, and you have delivered them. To you they cried, and were apparently saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I feel like an awful person, a sub-human; not human even; scorned by others, and despised by others for what I have done in the world and left behind.  I’ve made mistakes but I’ve also loved many too.  There are those who see me and mock me behind my back; they shake their heads; Yet it was you who took me from the womb of my mother; you kept me safe on by my parents’ side. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many troubles encircle me, they are strong and surround me; they open wide their sharp-tooth filled mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within me; my mouth is dried up like sand, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. My hands and feet have shriveled; my bones are sticking out. Vultures surround me at all hours. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. But you, God, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul, my life, from the power of the vultures! Save me from the mouth of the lion! I will tell of your name to my family; in the midst of my friends I will praise you: You who fear God, praise him! All of you, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you! For God did not despise nor abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. From you comes my praise in this great community; my vows I will pay before those who fear God. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek God shall praise the God. May your hearts live forever!  May we celebrate the life and living we have now and what’s to come! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to God; For dominion belongs to God, and God rules over all. To God, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down, including Ethel, Doris and loved ones before us; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, including Spenser, Meg, Harriet, and Luke … and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn (which hopefully includes more grandchildren to come), saying that he has done it. Suffering and death does not, and will not, have the last word.

Review of Richard W. Miller, editor.  Suffering and the Christian Life. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013. Pp. 152. $22.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-013-5.

978-1-62698-013-6As the title suggests, Richard W. Miller has brought together a collection of scholars (representing Boston College, Creighton University, and Fairfield University) to reflect on suffering and the Christian life from a Catholic perspective.  The first three essays (Daniel J. Harrington, M. Dennis Hamm, and Susan A. Calef) draw on scripture (both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament) as a resource for examining suffering.  The final three essays (Richard W. Miller, Michael J. Himes, and Elizabeth A. Dreyer) shift beyond scripture to theological, doctrinal, and experiential approaches to suffering.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., opens the volume with his chapter on “Old Testament Approaches to Suffering.” It commences with the astute recognition that taking suffering, as universal human experience, “as a starting point for theology makes us face a genuine human problem and challenges us to relate theology to experience and experience to theology” (3).  After drawing on five approaches to suffering from the Hebrew Bible, which he believes without which “we cannot understand Jesus or the New Testament,” (3) Harrington engages in a “close reading of Psalm 22” (10).  The five approaches include lament psalms (from those who suffer), the law of retribution (with attention to both variations and criticisms), suffering as mystery (exhibited in the life of Job), redemptive suffering (in the Servant Songs and Suffering Servant of Isaiah), and the apocalyptic solution (which challenges the divine attribute of perfect omnipotence and instead defers it till the last judgment).  The second half of the essay engages Psalm 22, which “throughout the centuries … has encouraged suffering persons to ask the hard theological questions, to express their pain, to connect with the community of suffering persons, and to find hope in the midst of their suffering.  Suffering does not have the last word.  In my view Psalm 22 expresses well the greatest contribution of the Old Testament to our topic of suffering in Christian life and experience” (17-18).

M. Dennis Hamm, S.J., follows Harrington with his chapter, “The Sharing of His Sufferings: The Social Cost of Following Jesus,” in which he makes clear that the New Testament writers were “not interested in the classic philosophical problem of pain,” but rather were more interested in “apostolic suffering” (19).  This refers to the suffering endured as a consequence of following God’s given mission.  It is exemplified in shaming, humiliation, shunning, rejection, and vilification experienced by Jesus first, and then by his followers.  The suffering endured by his followers is pronounced in Paul’s letter to the Philippians which emphasizes Jesus self-emptying (kenosis) and the shared suffering of the community of his followers together in solidarity.  Hamm reminds us that “this New Testament understanding of suffering may also keep us from too easily identifying every private injury as an occasion of carrying our cross” (43).  In this regard, Hamm admits, “the thesis of this study … may come as a disappointment for those seeking in scripture solace for their experience of those other sufferings that fill our lives and challenge our faith – sufferings like sickness, financial loss, accidents, and natural disasters” (44).

Susan A. Calef’s chapter titled “Taking Up the Cross” examines a Markan understanding of suffering and discipleship.  She claims that “no discussion on suffering in Christian life and thought … would be complete without attention to the experience and practice of Jesus, which provides the pattern or ‘way’ of our discipleship” (50).  Like Hamm, she makes a distinction between general human suffering and messianic suffering, the latter of which serves a model for “apostolic suffering.”  However, the two are not unrelated.  Calef shows, by reflecting on the hemorrhaging woman and Jesus in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, that the discipleship of caring for those experiencing suffering “can expect that their allegiance to God’s reign will bring them their own ‘cup’ to drink” (68).  Also with Hamm, Calef make clear that Mark’s Gospel does not attempt to explain, or bring meaning to, human suffering .  Rather it “narrates the promise of its relief with God’s in-breaking reign” (68).  Thus any attempt to justify, glorify, or valorize suffering for its own sake, or for the sake of Jesus, falls dangerously flat.  This interpretation is, and has been, dangerous for women and other marginalized groups since it can lead to the encouragement of passively “bearing one’s cross” as an appropriate response to general human suffering.  Calef ends by drawing attention to Jesus’ cry on the cross, not as a justification for suffering, but rather as ultimately a cry for the presence of, and relationship to, God as a way through suffering.

Richard W. Miller’s essay, “The Divine Purpose and Human Suffering,” marks the transition from scriptural reflection on suffering to doctrinal and theological reflection on suffering.  I suppose no volume on suffering in the Christian tradition is complete without at least some attempt to wrestle with the problem of evil, suffering and theodicy.  Miller’s essay satisfies this condition.  Relying heavily on Aquinas, Rahner, and W. Norris Clarke, the essay argues that “one cannot know why God permitted suffering in a particular instance or conversely whether God intervened … in other instances to prevent suffering” (106).  Further, Miller argues that God cannot create free persons who act rightly by their own nature at all times, nor can God create free persons and then immediately raise them to a vision of God in which they would affirm and embrace God as their own proper end.  In other words, human persons must exist “outside of the beatific vision in the order of grace” (106).  For God to achieve God’s purpose of creatures sharing in God’s self, persons (as spirits) must exist outside the vision where they have free choice, since their free decisions are the mechanism by which they actualize their potential personhood (i.e., freedom is required to be a person).  This freedom entails suffering to various degrees, but unlike evil not all suffering is destructive.  Rather, suffering can be constructive.  For instance, the experience of separation from, and the absence of, God (outside the vision) can be understood as a form of suffering reminiscent of Augustinian restlessness which only draws the person towards her end in God.

Michael J. Himes’ essay, “The Suffering of Christ,” though the shortest in the volume, cuts straight to the heart of suffering both for persons and Christ.  By reflecting on the humanity of Christ, Himes draws out the necessary implications for what it means to be human made in the image and likeness of God.  He begins with the fundamental assertion that “the essence of suffering is a sense of things being out of control” (113) and realizing that we are utterly dependent.  The humanity of Jesus brings meaning to our seemingly meaningless experience of suffering.  In particular, Himes reflects on the stories of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane and the story of the raising of Lazarus to draw out what it means to suffer for humans.  These stories demonstrate that, in his humanity, “Jesus really suffers with us, but the suffering is not only pain, not only the physical horror of crucifixion.  It is the anguish of not seeing where we are going … of losing ourselves” (119).  This leads to the question of how Jesus’ suffering saves humanity.  Himes rejects both satisfaction and penal theories of atonement and suggests instead a theory which promotes Jesus as a sacramental reveler of “how things have always been.  He does not tell us what to do; he shows us what human existence is.  By living our humanity as he has lived his humanity we are saved” (120).  We are people who struggle, like Jacob, with God.  Instead of passively resigning ourselves to the plight of suffering as way of “taking up our crosses,” we ought to struggle with the reality of suffering in light of the mystery (that is God) and God’s fundamental nature to will God’s self as self-gift (agape).

Elizabeth A. Dreyer closes out the volume with her essay “Suffering in Christian Life and Experience,” which examines suffering from a spiritual perspective; that is, she focuses on the lived religious experience of suffering from a Christian perspective.  Her essay functions, perhaps by design, as a one long drawn-out form of weeping.  Under the theme of “types of suffering,” Dryer covers Kinds and Causes of Suffering, The Immediacy of Suffering, The Depth of Suffering, and Possible Responses to Suffering.  In addition to providing several useful typologies under these headings, she raises the futility of reason, logic, and words vis-à-vis suffering.  “Any discussion of suffering must exist concretely ‘on the ground’ and in our guts as well as in our ideas and words about it.  Reason and logic do not suffice. … Words are not perfect.  They can be way off the mark, and even the best of words about suffering always remain inadequate” (133).   The second half of the chapter turns to theological themes and the problem of suffering.  In particular, Dreyer emphasizes suffering as an evil in and of itself.  In approaching theodicy, she brings in considerations from process theology and Judaism which heretofore were greatly missing in this volume.  These considerations provide grounds to consider God being profoundly affected by human suffering and thus serve as an impetus to reconsider God’s impassibility (something that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel might refer to as the divine pathos of God).  Further, Dreyer reflects on the obligation to alleviate suffering, speaking out against unjust suffering and its consequences, the loss and grief involved with true suffering, the power of prayer and ritual in its attempt to bring meaning to suffering, and the necessity of hope which comes through promise of Christ’s suffering with us.

Despite some of the heavy content in this volume, the writers provide an accessible text for both scholars of theology as well as non-theological specialists.  Even Richard W. Miller’s rather theo-philosophical language-laden essay is written in a clear manner that is appropriate for mid-level undergraduate students.  This short volume provides a content-rich examination of suffering in its few pages making it well suited for undergraduates, seminarians, and reading groups alike.

This review was first published on here on March 18, 2013.

Posted by: hansgustafson | February 25, 2013

Do We Worship the Same God? Part II: Jewish and Muslim Voices

This is part two of a two-part review of Miroslav Volf’s new edited volume, Do We Worship the Same God? 

Miroslav Volf has done a great service in bringing together a thoughtful group of renowned thinkers around the question of whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. Each essay offers a penetrating analysis from the authors’ respective faith traditions. They show how the question is not as simple as it may seem on the surface and, more importantly, provide the practical implications for interfaith discourse for how one approaches and answers the question. The volume showcases three Christian voices, two Jewish voices, and one Muslim voice. Here I review the Jewish and Muslim voices.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein offers the first of two Jewish approaches to the question (the other by Peter Ochs). First, he wrestles with the problem of Avoda Zara (foreign worship) by drawing on Maimonides and Rabbenu Tam, and suggests “one possible aligning of [their] positions would be that if Shituf, [‘the worship of another being alongside God’], is not Avoda Zara, then indeed Jews and Christians do worship the same God, even if Christians understand God differently. If so, Shituf refers to the means of approaching the same God” (57). Second, he suggests that instead of focusing on theological criteria to determine whether or not Christianity is Avoda Zara, the two modes of story and ritual provide a more fruitful approach to this question. “Recognizing a common God through story is best achieved by appeal to the initial foundations of the story,” (66) and Rabbi Yakov Emden rejects Christianity as Avoda Zara on the grounds that Jesus was a Jewish teacher and therefore “Christianity fulfills the obligations of the Noachide commandments, [and thus] the same-God issue does not even arise; it is [to be] taken for granted” (67). Third, Goshen-Gottstein explores the common bridge between traditions as either ethical or spiritual. To do so, he draws on Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri’s “broad Jewish theology of contemporary religions,” (69) which a) declares Avoda Zara to be a thing of the past and thus does not apply to contemporary religions, and b) promotes orthopraxis over orthodoxy as the standard criterion by which a religion can be measured to be approaching the same God or not. Goshen-Gottstein adds that seeking traces of God’s presence via spirituality provides the most promise for this discussion. He writes, “the path I would personally give greatest weight to is the path that recognizes God not through doctrine, but through the signs of God’s presence in the lives of the faithful” (74).

Reza Shah-Kazemi provides the only Muslim perspective in a lengthy (yet substantive) essay composed of three parts. In the first part, he examines the Qur’an in light of Christian Trinitarian claims. In short, he concludes that the nature of theological discourse makes it inevitable that disagreements will result when the question about the nature of God is pressed. He writes, “we can assert that what unites Muslims and Christians – belief in one God and not several gods – is infinitely more significant than what divides them, namely, their respective conceptions of the precise nature, the attributes, and the actions of that God” (103). Thus, a move “beyond theology” is urged. The second part sets out to do just this and embarks on a metaphysical discussion centered on the Qur’anic claim that the God of Muslims and Christians (and Jews) is the same vis-à-vis the Muslim repudiation of the Trinity. Drawing on two mystics from Christianity and Islam, Meister Eckhart and Ibn al-Arabī respectfully, the section appeals to “spiritual intuition” and argues for subverting the subjective variegated concepts of the Object of faith (God) to the metaphysical Object of belief as such. Shah-Kazemi argues, “that it is through understanding this process of radical deconstruction at the conceptual level, grasped as the prelude to an ‘unthinkable’ spiritual ‘reconstruction’ at the transcendent level, that the oneness of God believed in by Christians and Muslims stands out most clearly” (118). In the third and final part, the discussion turns to the practicality of engaging in interfaith dialogue in the contemporary world. In particular, it approaches this move on behalf of Christians and Muslims to claim the worship of the same God by distinguishing between the spiritual essence of the transcendent (about which they can agree) and theological concepts of God (about which they will respectfully disagree).

Peter Ochs closes out the volume with a thoughtful approach by offering an eight-fold response to the question. He begins with a prayerful response which suggests his yearning that indeed “we worship the same God.” His theopolitical response states, “I believe it is God’s will that at this time in our histories we in the Abrahamic traditions declare that we worship the same God, albeit by way of mutually exclusive practices of worship” (149). His eschatological response includes a crucial point which echoes throughout the essay, namely, “we cannot fully articulate, in our self-conscious means of knowing, how we have and do indeed live in [God’s] Presence. We are known by that Presence rather than being individual agents who know that Presence” (150). The rabbinic response offers the most content in its discussion of the multiple warrants for affirming or denying that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and that Christians worship the same God as Jews. Ochs further affirms his skepticism that the question can be adequately answered on the basis of doctrine. He writes, “My skepticism reflects my assumption that the God to whom we worship is known only as He knows us, as participants in worshiping community, so that reflecting on doctrines enables us to see more clearly how He knows us but not necessarily how He knows others” (156). His scriptural response establishes that strong narrative warrants exist for many positions, including “speaking of the Abrahamic religions as sharing a narrative frame for characterizing God’s identity”, “for distinguishing different spheres of God’s self-identity as known in these different traditions”,  and “for identifying different and at times seemingly mutually exclusive subcommunities within these traditions” (156).  Thus, the Jewish philosophic response calls for distinguishing between the plain sense (peshat) and the interpreted sense (derash) of the narrative text. However, ultimately, Ochs states, “if a Christian or a Jew wants to discuss whether ‘a Muslim, Christian, or a Jew’ does or does not worship the same God, the ‘Muslim, Christian, or Jewish’ interlocutors will first have to enter into significant relations, one with the other with the other” (161). Hence, what follows is a Scriptural Reasoning (SR) response which advocates for SR which nurtures “the depth of interpersonal and thus intertraditional relations appropriate to hearing and seeing meaningful aspects of the relations that trace each participant’s ‘knowledge’ of the one to whom he or she prays” (162). In closing, Ochs offers a “prayerful unity of response” which summarizes many of the assumptions that underlie all eight responses. Most notable for practical interfaith discourse is his insistence to not “make judgments about other’s worship until [he has] extended contact with them … until I enter into relationship with them and see how they eat, sleep, and pray, I would not be able to comment on the object and nature of their worship” (163).

The book review in its entirety was posted on and on Feb. 7, 2013.  

Photo courtesy of Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Posted by: hansgustafson | February 23, 2013

Do We Worship the Same God? Part I: Christian Voices

This is part one of a two-part review of Miroslav Volf’s new edited volume, Do We Worship the Same God? 

Miroslav Volf has done a great service in bringing together a thoughtful group of renowned thinkers around the question of whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. Each essay offers a penetrating analysis from the authors’ respective faith traditions. They show how the question is not as simple as it may seem on the surface and, more importantly, provide the practical implications for interfaith discourse for how one approaches and answers the question. The volume showcases three Christian voices, two Jewish voices, and one Muslim voice. Here I review the Christian voices.

Cristoph Schwöbel opens the volume with an essay approaching the question by emphasizing perspective, tolerance, and criteria. He begins with an in-depth examination of Nostra Aetate and determines it uses the criterion of Christ who is “‘the way, the truth, and the life’ in whom people find fullness of religious life and in whom God has reconciled the world with himself” (3). Hence, regarding the religions of Islam and Christianity it is quite clear that they worship the same, one, and only, God, yet differently. Further, Schwöbel argues that Nostra Aetate, since it is grounded in a theological anthropology, “states that Christians and Muslims worship the one and only God because there is only one God who is the origin and goal of the whole humankind” (6). However, ultimately it is “only Christians and Muslims [who] can decide from their different respective perspectives of faith” about whether they worship the same God (8). He gives the example of Luther who concludes that even though Muslims may worship the same God as Christians, they do so in wrong relationship and thus “they abide in eternal wrath and damnation” (Luther, Large Catechism). Despite Luther’s harsh conclusion, Schwöbel urges tolerance and openness in encountering the religious other; that is, interreligious dialogue should no longer be about consensus (theological or otherwise), but rather about “gaining better understanding of our differences” (16). Further, Schwöbel concludes that “from the Christian perspective it seems we have to say that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have the same God” (17).

Denys Turner follows with an examination of the name of God in the Christian and Muslim traditions. In particular, Turner examines the Christian claim that “God is three in one” and the Muslim claim that “God is one” and asks whether they disagree about God since what one affirms the other denies. In so doing, Turner rejects John Hick’s solution to the problem of divine sameness, whether it is his reliance on Kantian apophaticism or a misinterpretation of Eckhart. Turner concludes that the answer to the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is ultimately only achievable at the beatific vision and/or in paradise. “Christians do not and cannot claim to know how there could be three persons in one God. But then, the oneness of God is no less beyond our understanding too. And it is just for that reason that it seems impossible to come up with any knockdown way of establishing the identity of the Christian and Muslim Gods” (34). On the other hand, Turner issues a challenge to the faithful in both traditions to provide a way of showing that Malaysian Christians and Muslims, both of whom call upon “Allah,” are not calling on the same God. Turner concludes, “if I am right it cannot be done at all” (34).

Amy Plantinga Pauw rounds out the Christian perspectives with her essay which argues for the same God on the grounds of God as creator of all. She demonstrates well how intra-faith relations can serve as a model for interfaith relations. For instance, she recognizes that it is certainly the case that Christians differ greatly in their understandings of God, but this usually does not entail the belief that they are worshiping different Gods. She writes, “Though we are members of the same religious tradition, Tim LaHaye and I have gone down markedly different exegetical and theological paths, and as a result I often find his portrayals of God puzzling or offensive. But this difficulty does not make me inclined to doubt that Tim LaHaye and I worship the same God” (41). Borrowing from Michael Walzer’s reference of “thick” and “thin” moralities, Pauw applies this to theology arguing that religions ought not yield their robust particularities for the sake of a “thin” convergent consensus theory of God. Rather, they ought to appeal to their thick theological particularities for grounds to reach out towards a thin agreement among religions. She writes, “In this essay I have attempted to support thin theological agreement across traditions by appeal to thicker theological grounds that emerge from within a particular tradition” (47). In her view, this is “both more respectful of genuine theological difference and more reflective of their particular historical trajectories” (47).

The book review was posted on and on on Feb. 17, 2013  

Photo courtesy of Eerdmans Publishing Co.

stepping stonesIn Stepping Stones to Other ReligionsDermot Lane offers an entry into interreligious engagement for Christians (particularly Roman Catholics) in the twenty-first century. It serves as a commendable introduction to the topic and makes the basic argument for why the Catholic faith mandates engaging other traditions in a respectful way while striving for mutual learning. The text is rigorously organized, yet does not delve into any one particular theme in too great of detail.

The main thrust of the work surfaces in his review of the current context of interreligious dialogue (i.e., twenty-first century pluralized, globalized, and postmodern world), a brief history of the Catholic Church’s official positions and responses to other religions over the years, and a constructive proposal of a Christian theology of the Spirit for interreligious dialogue. Lane also devotes a chapter to a brief, yet effective, overview of Rahner’s contribution to interreligious dialogue (e.g., experience of God, grace and nature, Christology, anonymous Christianity, etc.), which serves as the foundation upon which he proposes his own theology going forward.

In chapter one, after articulating the promises and perils of both modernity and postmodernity, Lane argues that in the world of the twenty-first century, “the task facing theology … is one that requires not a return to pre-modern forms of faith, or a naïve embrace of either modernity or post-modernity; instead, it necessitates a rescuing of modernity in the light of some of the critiques from post-modernity” (46-47).

In chapter two, Lane strives to accomplish the two-fold task of examining “the teaching of the Catholic Church on other religions at the Second Vatican Council and the theological challenges it poses for the self-understanding of Christianity today” (63). This chapter, and the book as a whole, deservedly devotes special attention to Nostra Aetate.  One of the most profound perils of wisdom gleaned from this chapter is Lane’s challenge to Catholics: “If we are to take seriously the thesis that Vatican II was ‘a theological event,’ then it seems we must reformulate our theologies of the Spirit, of Revelation and of Christ so that Christians can encounter the richness of other religious traditions” (89).

Chapter three ambitiously sets out to “summarizes the debate about the relationship of Christianity to other religions in the twentieth century, to critique the three-fold typology surrounding the debate in the twentieth century, to propose some guidelines on the dynamics of dialogue, to outline the importance of maintaining a dialectical relationship between the particularity and universality of Christian faith, and to report briefly on observations by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the work of [Jacques] Dupuis and the US bishops on a book by [Peter] Phan” (98).

Chapter four gives an accessible overview of “Rahner’s contribution to inter-religious dialogue,” and in particular “how Rahner relates Christ to the religious other” (133). Lane employs Rahner’s robust theological vision as a point of departure for his own pneumatology in the ensuing chapters.

In chapters five, six, and seven, Lane offers the most constructive contribution of the book to interreligious engagement. In chapter five he suggest that pneumatology is perhaps the most appropriate point of departure for a Christian theology of other religions. In particular, he focuses on the contributions of Bernard Lonergan and Frederick Crowe. Most constructively, Lane prescribes the re-sarcramentalizing of spirit talk; that is, he advocates for putting “spirit back into matter and … [thus] begin to overcome the dualism between body and soul, the dichotomy between spirit and matter, and the divorce between flesh and the subject because subject and spirit and soul exist only as embodied and enfleshed and incarnated” (191).

In chapter six, Lane tackles the constructive task of developing a Christian pneumatology of revelation grounded on Dei Verbum andthe role of the imagination which sacramentally facilitates the invocation of “the play of all the senses as well as the dynamic capacity of the human spirit to receive what lies beyond the merely empirical view of life … imagination provides an opening, perhaps a sacred space or what others call ‘a God-shaped hole,’ within the human spirit for the reception of God’s gracious self-communication in history” (216).

Chapter seven offers the pinnacle of Lane’s proposal in its development of a Christian theology of the Holy Spirit.  Based on both Judaism and Christianity, his pneumatology is sketched out in the shape of a Spirit-Christology, which moves towards a Spirit-centered ecclesiology. He concludes the chapter by reviewing its implications for interreligious dialogue. Though not explicitly stated, beneath the contours of Lane’s vision lurks the panentheistic understanding of the whole creation as “enspirited by God” (240, quoting Jay McDaniel), which I agree offers a conducive entry point into interreligious conversation.

Lane might be proposing, if I may be so bold to coin a new term, pan-en-pnuemism (all is in the Spirit and the Spirit is in all). In short, Lane is “proposing to put pneumatology at the centre of theology, and move from there to a Spirit Christology, and from a Spirit Christology via Pentecost to the construction of a full-fledged spirit ecclesiology” (260).

The seventh and final chapter narrows in scope to review the history of Jewish-Christian relations, and in particular the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish community. In so doing, Lane argues for a recovery of the Jewishness of Jesus as a necessary prerequisite for properly understanding the Christian tradition, proposes common concerns and goals of the two traditions (e.g., responses to understating God in light of human suffering), and lingering obstacles for Jewish-Christian relations (e.g., the Church’s use of the term “mission” in the context of its relationship to the Jewish Community).

Those seeking a radical breakthrough beyond Rahner’s Christian theology of religions (i.e., “anonymous Christianity”) may be disappointed. Lane does indeed appear more charitable to other religions and reasonably calls for a move to the Spirit in the doing of Christian theology of religions. Lane’s theological vision rests on the understanding of the biblical God instituting a covenant with creation “established through the agency of the Spirit of God ‘brooding’ over creation” (294).

The Spirit then brings about the covenant of God with Israel while remaining active in the person of Jesus who established a new covenant with Christians. Lane understands these not as three distinct actions of God [1) creation, 2) covenant with Israel, 3) covenant with Christians], but rather as “one single saving action which is manifest universally in the gift of creation, offered in particular in God’s historical covenant with Israel on Sinai with Moses and concentrated personally in the life of Jesus which culminates on Calvary” (294).

In this manner, God’s covenant with both Jews and Christians remains in place and one does not replace the other. The task moving forward for Lane and his fellow Christian cohorts is to apply this Spirit-centric Christian theology of religions to the other religions beyond Judaism.

Dermot A. Lane. Stepping Stones To Other Religions: A Christian Theology of Inter-Religious DialogueMaryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011. Pp. 328. $40.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-991-8.

This review was first published here on Catholic Books Review on Jan. 9, 2013 and on on Jan. 11, 2013.

Image courtesy of Orbis Books.

If this is, as various Christians claim, a world in which the reign of the divine is both now and not yet, and the presence and purpose of God is somehow “realized” here and now, then ought we not also take just as seriously the absence of God?  Hell, if there is such a thing, is most certainly just as realized in the here and now as well, if not more so than its contrary.

In short, we experience the pain, absurdity, and suffering of a realized hell every day.  I did not think I’d ever live to see a day in which the world would experience a realized hell on par with the grotesque examples of evil dreamed up by Dostoevsky and placed in the fictional mouth of Ivan Karmazov (but sadly the world is and has been full of these instances).  Ivan recounts story after story of the absurd violence exhibited by rebels, which only humans are capable of:

“People speak sometimes about the ‘animal cruelty’ of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to animals, no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.  A tiger simply gnaws and tears, that is all he can do.  It would never occur to him to nail people by their ears overnight, even if he were able to do it. These rebels, among other things, have also taken a delight in torturing children, starting with cutting them out of their mother’s wombs with a dagger, and ending with tossing nursing infants up in the air and catching them on their bayonets before their mother’s eyes.  The main delight comes from doing it before their mothers’ eyes. … Imagine a nursing infant in the arms of its trembling mothers, surrounded by rebels.  They’ve thought up an amusing trick: they fondle the baby, they laugh to make it laugh, and they succeed – the baby laughs.  At that moment a rebel aims a pistol at it, four inches from its face.  The baby laughs gleefully, reaches out its little hands to grab the pistol, and suddenly the artist pulls the trigger right in its face and shatters its little head … artistic, isn’t it? … I think that if the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”[1]

Setting aside Ivan’s gloomy anthropology and ultimate rejection of the divine (after which he eventually contracts “brainfever”), there remains wisdom in his insistence on the reality of realized damnation in the here and now.  Where is your God in this grotesque suffering?  Where is God in the Connecticut school massacre?

Of being imprisoned at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, in Night, recounts:

The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp.  The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour.  ‘Where is God?  Where is he?’ someone asked behind me.  As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where is God now?’  And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is he?  He is here.  He is hanging there on the gallows …’[2]

Where is God?  If this world is a realized presence and absence of the divine, then perhaps God is right there suffering alongside those schoolchildren and is equally outraged and downtrodden by the absurdity of it all.

     [1] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 238-239; I changed “Turk” and “Turks” to “rebel” and “rebels” respectively

     [2] Elie Wiesel, Night. (New York: Avon Books, 1969), 75; quoted by Moltmann, 274.

Article first published at on 12/15/2012

Nicholas Black Elk (1866-1950), the Oglala Lakota visionary and son of Crazy Horse’s cousin, has been the subject of both debate and inspiration. Inspiration comes from his alleged appropriation of his Lakota tradition via Catholicism, his commitment to interreligious dialogue, and courageous pursuit for religious truth. Debate continues to churn around both the sincerity and circumstances of his alleged “conversion.” I will not dwell on the latter. Instead, I will respect his right to label himself a committed Catholic and Lakota holy man. I focus here on the convergence of the Christian and the Lakota traditions in the life of Black Elk.

Black Elk reports that he had set out with “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show in order to examine the “white man’s ways [to determine whether they] were better [than the Lakota ways].”[1]  Though unimpressed with most customs, he was impressed with their faith: “I know the white man’s customs well.  One custom is very good.  Whoever believes in God will find good ways…Of the white man’s many customs, only his faith…I wanted to understand.”[2]

After his “conversion” in 1904, Black Elk sought to understand the faith of the Wasichu.[3]  The late Franciscan Sr. Marie Therese Archambault, a Hunkpapa Lakota thinker, speculates that “perhaps his gift of immense spiritual sensitivity opened a way for him to recognize the wakan (the sacred) when it was manifested within another, very different socio-religious context.”[4]

Black Elk is often portrayed as a natural interfaith learner open to new paths and new ways present in other traditions.  Even John Niehardt’s controversial Black Elk Speaks reflects this. Upon joining the Wild West Show, Black Elk reflects, “They told us this show would go across the big water to strange lands, and I thought I ought to go, because I might learn some secret of the Wasichu that would help my people somehow.”[5]

Phillip Arnold suggests that Native Christians, such as Rigoberta Menchú and Black Elk, “consistently express a sense of religion that is indigenous in spite of its being Catholic. Their sense of the sacred was/is actively opposed to an understanding of religion as abstract, transcendent, or Utopian.”[6]

By “Utopian,” he is referring to the Christianity of the white European American immigrants who were “placeless,”[7]and distinct from the “indigenous Christianity” of the inculturated natives who were connected to the materiality of the land and place.[8]  Although Arnold is right to point out that Natives have contributed “creative religious innovations”[9] to Christianity, it is not the case that the inclinations to relate religion to land, place, and materiality were absent to Christianity prior to Native encounter.

Rather, this aspect of sacramentally relating to material, place, and land may have been repressed in the type of Christianity that was impressed upon the Natives and still endures in many places today.  Arnold is insightful in his recognition that these innovations “can help non-Natives to critically re-evaluate the material dimensions of American religious life.”[10]

This is the case when combined with the retrieval of the sacramental tradition in Christianity. These Native innovations can assist the Christian in retrieving this aspect of her faith while broadening the understanding of sacramentality at work in traditions other than her own.

Although Black Elk appeared to be, by all accounts, extraordinarily open to spiritual experience, it is likely that the inherent openness of the two traditions for finding the sacred in all things also contributed to his syncretic spirituality. Without this openness, compatibility, and complementarity decreases. The openness of Black Elk and his Lakota heritage combined with the retrieval of the sacramentality of the Ignatian principle of “finding God in all things” as stressed by the Jesuits he encountered, perhaps created the fertile conditions for his multiple religious belonging.

Appropriation through the symbolic frameworks of traditions can allow for the possibility of becoming open to inculturation, syncretism, and multiple religious belonging, without scandal. This path might entail appropriating the Christian faith to accommodate the symbolic framework of another.

For instance, this is evident in Black Elk’s hermeneutical exploration of his childhood vision in light of the Christian tradition and message. This can be understood as a complex form of inculturation, a process in which “the Christian faith has been reformulated in philosophical categories belonging to non-Western traditions.”[11]

Some speculate that Black Elk understood the sun dance and sacred pipe to be Lakota expressions of the Christian gospel message, which would not necessarily entail multiple religious belonging, but is rather the incluturation of the Christian message into the Lakota culture. For instance, Michael Steltenkamp documents an excerpt from a letter written by Joseph Epes Brown to Father Gall which attempts to articulate a “Metaphysics of the Pipe.”

Brown writes, “to smoke the Pipe is the same as taking the Holy Christian communion.  The form of the pipe is the same as the Xian Cathedral, & it too represents the Universe, with God at the Center.” Steltenkamp concludes that “given Brown’s understanding, and given Black Elk’s innate tendency to see sacred connectedness everywhere, the two men no doubt helped one another find parallels where others might not” [12]

Ultimately this would still be a case in which the Christian religion is framed by the Lakota culture. It is not clear that Black Elk understood it this way, but rather he may have understood the two traditions as authentically different yet compatible and complementary. Here Clyde Holler’s suggestion is valuable, “it is important to note that Black Elk’s commitment to Christ-ianity does not necessarily imply any lessening of his commitment to traditional Lakota religion. This is clearly the understanding of conversion assumed by the missionaries, but it was not necessarily that of the Indians themselves.”[13]

This article was previously published at on 11/3/2012

[1] Raymond DeMallie, The Sixth Grandfather (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 245.

[2] ibid., 8.

[3] wasicu [wah shi chu], stranger, white person (Archambault, 10, see note 4).

[4] Marie Therese Archambault, O.S.F, A Retreat with Black Elk: Living in the Sacred Hoop (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1998), 26.

[5] John Niehardt, Black Elk Speaks, Chapter 19

[6] Philip P. Arnold, “Black Elk and Book Culture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67, no. 1 (1999): 107.

[7] ibid., 88.

[8] ibid., 87.

[9] ibid., 108.

[10] ibid.

[11] Catherine Cornille, “Introduction” in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity, Catherine Cornille, Ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 5.

[12] (sic) Joseph Epes Brown, Letter to Father Gall, November 12, Scourmont Abbey, France, 1947 in Steltenkamp, Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic, 225.

[13] Clyde Holler, “Black Elk’s Relationship to Christianity,” American Indian Quarterly 8, no. 1 (winter 1984): 39.

Pike Island

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Dakota-U.S. war which resulted in the execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato (MN) on December 26,1862.

It remains the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. It resulted in the interment of over 1600 Dakota (mostly women, children, and elderly men) at a concentration camp on Pike Island, which lies at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Many of those held eventually died due to disease, hunger, and poor living conditions.

I have a seasonal ritual of trying to remember events and practices of the places that I call home. This includes revisiting places that I consider personally sacred, since they hosted memorable and formative events of my past (e.g., a particular lake, childhood neighborhood, where I met my wife, etc.). This revisiting constitutes spiritual experience. Included are the powerful (and terrifying) places that are connected to pain and suffering, both personal and historical.

Recently I visited a few of the naturally beautiful places (such as Pike Island) along the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in the heart of Minneapolis/St. Paul. I drive over these rivers twice a day on my way to work, and usually without much thought about the place beyond its natural beauty – which (re)presents the divine in a unique yet ordinary way.

My experience can be very different from that of others, especially the local Native peoples. After listening to the stories of others (which here includes those of the Native communities), their memories become grafted into my own. They tell stories about this place (which remains at the center of their creation stories), and how they hear the cries of their passed ancestors who were marched into the concentration camp.

These stories, which from their mouths are new to my ears, contribute to my experience of this place going forward. To be sure, the place remains no less sacred nor is it somehow spiritually depraved.  However, now my experience of this place includes the very real pain which remains spiritually present from the historical past.

The Dakota word Minnesota intends something like “smokey water,” or “cloudy water,” or “milky water.” It does not mean “sky-blue waters” as perhaps Hamm’s Brewery has suggested. Experiencing and reflecting on the pains and joys of a given place serves as my attempt at articulating a “cloudy or muddy water spirituality.” It is not always pretty; it is often messy and muddied.

Taking seriously the glorious and terrifying presence of God in all things can often be painful, but no less sacred nor spiritual.  In recognizing the past in the present, and by grafting the stories of others into our own, we encounter, in particular places, both the divine and the people that have tread there now and before.

This pansacramental spirituality of striving to find the reality of the divine in all things need not be an overly romantic view. Rather, it serves as an attempt (albeit it often naïve and inadequate) to foster an everyday practice that takes seriously the diverse presence of the sacred in the mundane (profane).

This includes the downright troubling, the reality of pain and suffering in the world, and God’s presence therein. The goal of this spiritual practice (which I am admittedly not very good at) is the daily recognition of being present in places of encounter, while remaining equally aware of their histories (both painful and promising).

Variations of this article were first published as Everyday Spirituality: Cloudy Water on Theoblogy on 7/31/2012, on on 10/1/2012, and in the Jay Phillips Center Jan 2013 Newsletter.

Image courtesy of

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