Worldviews in Collision

Deloria once identified Immanuel Velikovsky, the pioneer of planetary catastrophism, as one of the most significant intellectual influences he had encountered. Velikovsky was a Russian-born scholar whose 1950 book Worlds in Collision provoked an explosive controversy within the scientific establishment. Arguing that ancient texts and oral traditions contain information about actual–if seemingly fantastic–events, his best-selling book proposed a new narrative for the planetary past based on historical readings of mythic accounts. Velikovsky published several more popular studies of global cataclysm including Ages in Chaos and Earth in Upheaval, but he achieved very little acceptance among American scientists until the seventies, when NASA space probes began confirming some of his hypotheses about the formation of planets.

Deloria has referred to Velikovsky’s ideas in a number of writings, including two articles written for scholarly journals devoted to Velikovskian studies. His first exploration of Velikovsky’s approach appeared in God Is Red, where he extends the method of mythic correlation to a consideration of the origin of religions. Religious traditions are not delusional or imaginative curiosities, Deloria argues, but originate in actual historical events that sometimes assume catastrophic proportions on a global scale. God Is Red is best known for Deloria’s useful distinction between chronological/historical and spatial/geographical worldviews, which he constructs as broad generalizations about how Western people and tribal people think. He juxtaposes these generic systems in order to get at the roots of contemporary power relations, and the book as a whole constitutes a formidable critique of colonial ideology. It is commonly misread as an exercise in essentialist identity politics, however, perhaps because it seemingly documents a cultural binary corresponding to the political binary that characterizes relations between tribal nations and the federal government. In uncovering the philosophical and cultural basis for colonial conflict through the analysis of worldviews, Deloria’s intentions are more ambitious than merely exposing American Christianity’s original sins. He is after a unified theory of religion grounded in collective human experiences of specific natural environments.

Deloria provides a concise overview of the religious situation, raising many of the issues addressed more fully in God Is Red, in the first essay in this section. “Religion and the Modern American Indian” was originally published in the monthly journal Current History for an issue on tribal affairs. Highlighting the difference between propositions and experiences as bases for religious commitment, and between salvation history and sacred land as rubrics for religious identity, Deloria surveys contemporary tribal communities to illustrate his points. This technique of comparative analysis accompanied by generalized description reflects Deloria’s reformist strategy, pursuing social change through cross-cultural education and persuasion. Admitting the difficulty of predicting future developments in times of rapid change, he concludes that “perhaps the only certainty is that Indians will continue to understand the conflict between Indians and the rest of society at its deepest level as a religious confrontation.”

In the next two essays, Deloria identifies some important differences between idealized tribal and Western worldviews. “Native American Spirituality” was the title essay in a thematic issue of Gamaliel, a quarterly publication of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a Catholic pacifist group in Washington, D.C. Contrasting rationality with reflection, Deloria describes the latter as “a way of life, the consistent direction and substance of individual existence, . . . a matter of extended consistency in behavior.” It is a “special art” that “requires maturity of personality, certainty of identity, and feelings of equality with the other life forms of the world,” the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Emphasizing the importance of kinship relations encompassing the land and all other living things, Deloria depicts how respect and reciprocity can produce an interlocking circle of relationships more coherent and durable than linear cause-and-effect reasoning. The spirituality that emerges from such a context is an experience-based set of values and behaviors rather than an assortment of abstract propositions. Deloria expands on this work in “Civilization and Isolation,” which appeared as a feature article in The North American Review, a humanities journal based at the University of Northern Iowa. Returning to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s idea of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” Deloria here critiques Western intellectual provinciality by contrasting isolation with relatedness. The deconstruction and interpretation characteristic of a scientific worldview can produce an abundance of fragmented knowledge, but only the perception and synthesis practiced out of an experiential worldview can comprehend the fullness of life as “a complex matrix of entities, emotions, revelations, and cooperative enterprises.” Tribal oral traditions may very well bear important information about the history of the Americas. Deloria foresees a new era of intellectual maturity as he poses “the fundamental question underlying the scope of human knowledge: is truth divisible into categories or is it synthetic, incorporating all aspects of experience and understanding?”

The last essay in this section was presented at a consultation on “Creation and Culture” sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation. In “Christianity and Indigenous Religion: Friends or Enemies?” Deloria explicitly addresses differences in religious worldviews by engaging in an extended critique of Christianity. He qualifies his remarks in pointing out that abstract representations of religious traditions are always selective and subjective; discourse is qualitatively distinct from experience. His argument is organized around four key points on which generalized Christian and tribal religious worldviews differ: the nature of the universe, the nature of human experience, the nature of religion, and attitudes toward life. Deloria identifies a number of theological differences in these areas, all of which proceed from the “concept of creation” religious communities ascribe to. “Tribal peoples do not hold a doctrine of creation intellectually; they may tell their stories of origins but their idea of creation is a feeling of kinship with the world. Christians, on the other hand, have reasonably precise doctrines about creation but seem to have no feeling that they are a part of the world.” Our religious narratives of the planetary past may very well determine whether we have a planetary future.