Religion that holds things together

What can mainstream Americans, with our rapid-change culture and economic structure, learn from the Pueblo culture of New Mexico and Arizona? This is one of the questions that will occupy my mind as I bicycle through North America’s most enduring cultures that for a millennium or more have inhabited the high Colorado plateau of New Mexico and Arizona.

My reflections are focused by Ake Hultkrantz’ description of Zuni culture, which he describes as “one of the most interesting aboriginal cultures of North America.” He acknowledges the fame of Zuni art in pottery, silver, and turquoise jewelry, and also notes the lasting achievement in architecture and a “conservatism that has managed to retain both traditional and spiritual culture, and its beautiful ceremonialism.” He then writes:

“Basic to this cultural flowering have been the achievements of horticulture and, since Spanish days, sheepherding. Nowhere else in native North America has the tilling of soil been as intense as among the Pueblo Indians. Not only has this distinctive agricultural practice formed the basis of their economy and sedentary life-style, but it has also been an integral part of their religious beliefs and aesthetic expressions. Their success in keeping out white intruders has enabled them to preserve their ancient traditions intact” (89).

This portrait of a culture in which everything seems interconnected and complete has parallels among the people who have more recently occupied the United States. A similar portrait is sketched by Harvey Jacobs, who described a rural community in the hill country south of Indianapolis during the 1920s and 1930s. As I remember his story (forty years after reading his book), the economic base was small farms occupied by families—father, mother, and children—whose crops and livestock provided much of their food supply and sufficient cash to purchase most of their other necessities. There was a little town nearby, with stores, professionals, churches, and a school. By interurban train, that could go to the city. People understood their place in their society and seemed reasonably content to live according to the community’s norms.

Jacobs tells of a summer when his uncle came back home from his new life in New York City. One day as they sat on the porch, the uncle waved his arm over the panorama of field, forest, and village. He exclaimed that here everything was in balance, though they hardly realized it, and he wondered how long it could be retained in such a wonderfully intact and satisfying form.

Not long! World War II erupted, shattering the simple culture of communities such as the one that had nurtured Jacobs and countless other people, including my own Watkins ancestors in another Indiana village a few miles to the west. The young men went to the war and came back changed in fundamental ways. The G.I. Bill opened up new possibilities. Horse-powered transportation and machinery were replaced by vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Village schools were consolidated, village business died out, and the theological heart of village churches was transformed by modernist theology.

Pueblo culture and the village life described by Jacobs are examples of traditional society, which is the way that most people of the world have lived until recent generations in the West. Everything has its place and religion provides the interpretive structure that explains reality, validates its major elements, and shapes people to live contentedly with its supporting (confining?) systems.

Whereas Pueblo culture has been able to hold things together, partly because the communities have remained closed, American society has broken apart.

People were unwilling to stay in their place. Many found that the central stories of their faith failed to explain the world and their experiences within it. New narratives and rituals with widely differing social systems came into the picture. Rather than being the unifying element, religion became a major source of division between the communities of America.

Now that the old harmony, with simple folk Protestantism as its religious binder, has disappeared, is our nation doomed to a continued process of breaking apart into more and more fissiparous sub-cultures? Or is a new harmony emerging, a harmony greater than the old traditionalism because it draws together entities so greatly different from one another?

If a new American harmony is emerging, how does religion enter in? Will a new kind of inter-faith ecumenism emerge that is supple enough to hold evangelical Christians, traditional Muslims, meditative Buddhists, free-thinking Unitarians, traditional Catholics, and progressive Protestants together? Or will a new pattern for human society emerge, with a philosophical binder rather than one that is religious? Most important, will it teach everyone to realize that personal happiness and social well-being are inextricably inter-twined?

As I bicycle through Pueblo country, this is what I’ll be thinking about.

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