The religions of the world all consist of stories that reveal deep meanings, ideas about the natural world and how to live, and ceremonies that connect us to the Holy and to one another. Despite profound differences in ideas and practices, the underlying patterns of religions are similar. Truth comes in two forms: practical-factual and spiritual-imaginative. Religion and an economic-political way of life are intertwined.
Since it is hard to see this structural pattern in one’s own religion, we can gain perspective by looking at religions other than our own. My occasional reading about the Zuni people, as I prepared for a bicycle tour through their ancestral land, has helped me understand my own Christian faith better than I had before. The following notes, based on A Zuni Atlas by T. J. Ferguson and E. Richard Hart, are examples. They illustrate that symbolic and scientific-historical meanings can co-exist in constructive ways. They also show that religious understandings can help people learn to live harmoniously in the natural world.
“The essentially symbolic nature of the origin and migration accounts is recognized by many Zuni elders who know and explain the origin talks. After providing a list of the places referenced in his origin account, one Zuni religious leader commented, ‘These are the places that are mentioned and places that are discussed as a trail, but it is a religious idea, or religious trail that is recited in the prayer and not an actual path of people walking on the trail.’ Another religious leader in a similar circumstance remarked, ‘The trail or the road is one of…symbolic nature. The place names along the symbolic trail are the ones we have been talking about, the actual road is not the same as the symbolic road.’” (21)
The Zuni story is that they struggled through a succession of wombs in the underworld, finally emerging from the fourth womb deep within a canyon along the Colorado River. They still had to wander to find their home, stopping along the way, building villages, and staying for a while. They were “in search of the middle place, the center of the world, the mid-most spot among all of the great oceans and lands, the spot in the middle of all the heavens of the universe, a spot destined to be their home.” During their journey, the Zunis split into groups that went in different directions, founding several communities. Near the end of the journey, a water spider identified the middle place for them. He “spread his legs out until he reached the four oceans in the east, west, south, and north, and also touched the zenith and the nadir. When he had thus spread out to find the six cardinal directions, his heart was over the long-sought middle place, and it was here that the Zunis settled for the final time. The Zunis had finally ended their quest for the middle place, but all of the spots they visited during the long journey remain sacred to the people.” (23)
Zunis were adept at floodwater irrigation. Their practice was to keep a two-year supply of food on hand in case of drought or insect infestation. They stored corn is rodent proof storage rooms and they dried fruit to keep after the season was over. “It was the diversified agriculture of the Zunis more than anything else, that allowed them to develop a sedentary society with a rich culture. Within this culture water was sacred, and agricultural lands were zealously guarded, from the most distant flood-water fields to the waffle gardens along the Zuni River.” (39)
Hunting was always a sacred activity, with prayers, offerings, and ceremonies to accompany each task…In practice, the Zunis traditionally conserved the wildlife in their territory, harvesting only what was necessary for their survival and religious well-being.” (43)
“The Zunis respected and cared for the plants, treating them as living beings and even speaking to them, and praying and making offerings for them. At every level of their collective consciousness the Zuni people were aware of their interaction with the land around them. By gathering plants from every corner of the region that they occupied, the Zuni people were able to fill their larders and storage bins with an abundant array of foods, medicines, ceremonial materials, basketry materials, and toiletries. In the hundreds of years during which the Zunis occupied their traditional territory before 1880, there is no evidence that their gathering practices in any way depleted any of their resources. The Zunis had developed a way of life that would sustain them indefinitely in their territory, using the resources from every biotic community within that territory in ways that sustained the resources as well. ”
We can’t all become Zunis, but they have much to teach the rest of us about the way that a religious way of life can make everything better.
Notes based on A Zuni Atlas, by T. J. Ferguson and E. Richard Hart (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985).