The Physics of Spirit

The Indigenous Continuity of Science and Religion

Authored by: Brian Yazzie Burkhart

The Routledge Companion to Religion and Science

Print publication date:  October  2011
Online publication date:  March  2012

Print ISBN: 9780415492447
eBook ISBN: 9780203803516
Adobe ISBN: 9781136634178


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One of the first questions that students of Native American religion ask is, “who are the Native American gods and how many of them are there?”. They are often quite surprised to hear that the English term “god” does not really apply to the manner in which Native traditions approach the divine mystery. Although there is great variety in the details of Native Spirituality, many key characteristics seem to be common. One of these is that the agents of creation are not often cast as human-like, but as diyin (Navajo) or wakan (Lakota), as power, energy, and movement. Lakota medicine man John Fire Lame Deer describes it this way: the Great Spirit “is not like a human being. [ … ] He is a power. That power could be in a cup of coffee” (Fire and Erdoes 1972: 265–66). This power of divinity is inherently creative and not restricted to divine acts, but is continuous with common creative events, even of ordinary human creativity. Tewa philosopher and scholar of Native science Gregory Cajete points out that “[c]reativity in all forms is part of the greater flow of creativity in nature” (Cajete 2000: 15). Human creativity is an expression of the exact process and energy that is expressed in the divine creation. Creativity, power, energy, transformation, and movement are closer approximations of a Native sense of the divine than the ordinary English words: God, holy, sacred, and divine being. These few highlights of Native religion and science underscore the possibility of viewing science and religion as one whole from an indigenous perspective. In Western thought, by contrast, science and religion have often been understood as independent domains of understanding and awareness – many times seen as in intractable conflict.

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