Why, as Catholics, do we praise C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, or Chesterton for their opposition to the post-enlightenment ‘disenchantment’ of the world, while at the same time taking a dour, puritanical approach to Indigenous traditions?
“There are ancient limitations from which fairy-stories offer a sort of escape, and old ambitions and desires (touching the very roots of fantasy) to which they offer a kind of satisfaction and consolation. Some are pardonable weaknesses or curiosities: such as the desire to visit, free as a fish, the deep sea; or the longing for the noiseless, gracious, economical flight of a bird, that longing which the aeroplane cheats, except in rare moments, seen high and by wind and distance noiseless, turning in the sun: that is, precisely when imagined and not used. There are profounder wishes: such as the desire to converse with other living things. On this desire, as ancient as the Fall, is largely founded the talking of beasts and creatures in fairy-tales, and especially the magical understanding of their proper speech. This is the root, and not the “confusion” attributed to the minds of men of the unrecorded past, an alleged “absence of the sense of separation of ourselves from beasts.” A vivid sense of that separation is very ancient; but also a sense that it was a severance: a strange fate and a guilt lies on us. Other creatures are like other realms with which Man has broken off relations, and sees now only from the outside at a distance, being at war with them, or on the terms of an uneasy armistice.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”.
Indigenous spirituality—though this term is something of a misnomer, as its many forms, such as the animistic shamanism of the Sámi and the organised pantheon of the Nahua, are often vastly different from one another and equally indigenous all the same—holds as one of its few common points that all life on Earth is part of the same existence, and the actions of a few can impact the many. Tolkien speaks in his essay of a sense of sundering, as if mankind is severed from some ancient kinship with the beasts and the trees. For many indigenous peoples, this sundering never happened. Humanity is not above the natural world, but is instead a distinct part of it; there is no divide. Legends and oral histories that tell of animals taking human form, or imitating human voices for their own ends, are common across both North and South America. The Cherokee people have stories of deer women who take human husbands, and Amazonian folklore places the pink river dolphin in a similar position as the Irish selkie, warning that mysterious beautiful people who appear out of nowhere at festivals or parties might be animals in disguise. Unlike European fairy-stories, which seem to yearn for something that was lost to time, indigenous perceptions hold that this something never ended.
Despite this seeming kinship, there is a perception among many Catholics—particularly those opposed to the nascent “indigenous Catholicism” that is being acknowledged at last by Pope Francis in his efforts to reach out to Native people—that European fairy-stories and folklore are harmless while indigenous fairy-stories and folklore are dangerous and idolatrous. Quite often, a Tradition-minded Western Catholic who takes a steady diet of writers like Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton looks at an event like the October 2019 indigenous prayer service in the Vatican Gardens and sees, not something along the same lines as the veneration of a sacred well in medieval Ireland or the decoration of a Christmas tree today, but a “superstitious” or even “demonic” practice that cannot possibly have an authentically Catholic spiritual significance.
This double standard is, for most people, probably motivated by a simple gap in understanding between the widely popular Tolkienian or Lewisian “aesthetic” and the (to Westerners) much less familiar world of indigenous art and literature. However, when the double standard is (so to speak) doubled down upon and made a basis for one’s entire understanding of indigenous spirituality, it all too easily takes on the ugly face of racial prejudice. What, after all, does a Christmas tree have to do with the Catholic faith that the tree planted in the Vatican gardens last year does not? What problem is there with an Andean pachamama that there isn’t with Francis of Assisi’s sora nostra matre terra? One could argue that the problem is that in many indigenous spiritualities, the Catholic significance of something like this exists side-by-side in an uneasy tension with a pagan significance. Still, the same could be said of any number of things in the medieval European world for which Tolkien and his Tradition-minded early-twentieth-century cohort pined.
Adding to this tension and compounding the misunderstanding, unfortunately, is the spectre of colonialism. Unlike other nations and places with rich pagan traditions who adopted Catholicism, indigenous peoples and tribes were never given an opportunity to Christianise at their own pace, or to engage with the Church and the faith in ways that gave voice to their unique cultural experiences. Old folklore was never given new context that placed their culture’s heroes or supernatural beings in explicitly Christian roles. We also have very few indigenous saints whose stories reflect the values of the peoples they came from while also maintaining distinct Catholic identity. Contrast Ireland, where the Irishness, as it were, of many saints is just as important as their faith, and yet stressing the pagan antecedents of St. Brigid of Kildare is generally considered among Catholics to be in poor taste.
In keeping with Pope Francis’s maxim that “time is greater than space,” a Catholic interested in thinking alongside our pontiff might see the issues surrounding indigenous spirituality as having more to do with when these cultures were evangelised than with what they were like beforehand. In many cases this “when,” as we have said, points us to the violent Spanish conquest of the Americas, whose consequences the Church in the New World is still living with today. In other cases, such as in much of Africa, this “when” points us to very recent events and to cultures in which Christianity is still quite newly established. In both of these situations, the Gospel finds itself in a situation in which the pagan past, to mangle a Faulkner quote, is not really past. Treating this situation as the fault, morally, of the people of these cultures is another prejudiced attitude, one that again is never applied to cultures that have been Christian for longer.
Indigenous peoples, to the extent that they are receptive to Christianity, are receptive not thanks to but in spite of “older” Christian societies and the extreme (and often ongoing) maltreatment that indigenous cultures have received at their hands. In a way, Catholics should count ourselves lucky that people like the Amazonian Christians who came in for so much odium on the eve of the Synod on the Amazon have been willing to Christianise at all. While no spirituality should be completely above criticism, the heightened level of suspicion applied to indigenous and non-European ways of looking at God, humanity, and creation is unjust and ought to be avoided by the faithful.
Meredith Dawson is a Catholic convert living in the Midwestern United States. She is a Cherokee Native American and an independent Tolkien scholar.
Nathan Turowsky went to elementary school in Vermont, high school in New Jersey, and college in Massachusetts, where he now lives. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in social services.
With thanks to Where Peter Is and Meredith Dawson and Nathan Turowsky, where this article originally appeared.