I’m working on my second master’s degree this year, this time in cultural studies. As exhausting as I find academia, the opportunity to learn mostly outweighs my various grievances, both at a personal and institutional level (no need to go into the commodification/exploitation of graduate students’ intellectual labor).

I’m researching my usual topics of interest, literature and spirituality. My research paper isn’t fully developed yet, but so far it has something to do with literature, specifically its connection to the environment and the (bio) energies of the imagination. This fall semester, I was fortunate enough to take a course in Indigenous Thought, in order to better understand ecology from an Indigenous perspective.

I think most people with even a superficial knowledge of Indigenous culture would know that the environment figures prominently in Indigenous rituals, knowledge, and ways of life. But I was truly astounded by the degree to which this is true. Everything comes back to the land. Suffice it to say that the environmentalism that white ecologists, conservationists, and climate change activists practice is a mere shadow of a doctrine compared with the worldview of Indigenous people for whom nature is the source of all life and human activity.

This is also true of spirituality. I was not only surprised how thoroughly connected spirituality and ecology are, but also how central the sacred is in Indigenous thinking. And this got me wondering: how many Christian theologians and intellectuals have argued for a return to spirituality in the West? How many have decried the decline of religion in this scientific age? Or the postmodern tendency towards atheism, a fact especially evident in the rise of “the nones”? Or the Enlightenment values that position reason and rationality as superior to faith? Or the emptiness of materialism and consumerism, which tries but fails to fulfill a deeper longing for spiritual connection? 

All of these questions amount to a fundamental critique of secularity. If you’re a person of faith in today’s secular world, these are necessary interrogations that offset the epistemic authority of science, reason, humanism, empiricism, or whatever else gets demonized these days. But where is the acknowledgment that spirituality is a natural part of the human experience because we see confirmation of the sacred’s importance within Indigenous worldviews? Why do (white) Christian thinkers consistently ignore the thought of Indigenous people who have more than enough to say about the real (and necessary) existience of spirituality?

Of course, I ask these questions rhetorically (as with every other example of exclusion of non-Western thinking, systemic racism is to blame). And this is certainly not to reduce Indigenous notions of spirituality and the sacred to objects of evidence to be used in white discussions about how best to recuperate spirituality in our contemporary colonial culture. The issue is, I think, neglecting the thought and culture of Indigenous communities that have answered/have answers to the dilemmas and crises that preoccupy white thinkers. This preoccupation, however, seems predicated on erasure. As Maria Löschigg explains in “Native Knowledge Systems and The Cultural Ecology of Literature,” this issue of excluding Indigenous thought from academic/intellectual discussions is part of a long-standing history of “colonial epistemicide.” She explains this idea specifically with reference to debates and trends in ecological research, but the same seems true for discussions surrounding spirituality: 

While an inclusive conception of land can be seen as a feature which informs indigenous cultures all over the world, it is still important to avoid generalizing notions of Indigenous ecologies of knowledge. Especially in Canada, where the physical environment has occupied a particularly prominent role in literature, the fact that this literature was almost exclusively defined by European notions of land has largely contributed to what refers to as “colonial epistemicide”, i.e. the complete exclusion of Indigenous epistemologies from attitudes to the environment. The exploration and reintegration of specificities of First Nations narratives in Canada into environmental discourses is therefore to be seen as a contribution to countering the monoculture of European definitions of Canada’s bioregions.¹

In the same way that monocultural thinking and colonial epistemicide must be countered in our discussions of ecology, so too must these exclusionary tendencies be challenged in discussions of secularity and spirituality within the Church.

1. Löschigg, Maria. “Native Knowledge Systems and the Cultural Ecology of Literature.”In Green Matters: Ecocultural Functions of Literature 15 (2019): p. 271.

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