In 2017, a case before the Canadian Supreme Court pitted the rights of developers against Indigenous religious freedom. The Ktunaxa Nation, which represents four native communities in southeastern British Columbia, argued that the planned construction of a ski resort on a glacier within their traditional territory would violate their right, protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to the free exercise of religion. The planned site for this resort, Qat’muk, known in English as Jumbo Glacier, is held by the Ktunaxa to be the home of the Grizzly Bear Spirit (Kⱡawⱡa Tukⱡuⱡakʔis in the Kutenai alphabet), and they maintained that any disruption to the land would “cause irreparable and irreversible harm to this sacred place and our spiritual connection with it.” For the Ktunaxa, building in this location would alienate their community from its unique relationship to this guiding spirit, and thus also to the living grizzly bears in the area. Ktunaxa religion, its practitioners claimed, entails a requisite stewardship over the land and to the entities, both spiritual and animal, that reside there.
At around the same time, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a group of nuns went to court against the Williams energy company, which was in the process of building the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline. A portion of this pipeline was slated to pass through a cornfield owned by the nuns, who are part of an international order called the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. Initially bewildered by the paperwork and the bureaucracy involved, the nuns missed an opportunity to challenge the appropriation of their land through eminent domain. However, they were later able to mount a legal challenge based on religious freedom, arguing that the construction of the pipeline on their land would flatly contradict Catholic environmental teachings, especially those laid out in Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ and their own order’s formally articulated “land ethic.” The sisters insisted that any use of their land to support a petroleum company would violate their free exercise of religion. From their point of view, mandating the pipeline’s construction would be like forcing a synagogue to give up part of its land to a pork processing plant.
Sadly, both these religious appeals failed to sway the courts, and for basically the same reason. In both cases, the judges’ rulings depended on an understanding of religion that emphasized personal belief over ethical or environmental practice. In the Canadian Supreme court as in Pennsylvania, the assumption was that since development didn’t impair these two communities’ ability to believe whatever they wanted, neither development could be seen as infringing religious liberty. According to the majority in the Canadian ruling, though Canada’s national charter protects the right to hold and manifest religious beliefs, it does not “protect the spiritual focal point of worship.” Similarly, when US District Court judge Jeffrey Schmehl ruled against the nuns, he wrote that they “failed to establish” how the pipeline would “in any way affect their ability to practice their faith and spread their message.” The logic informing these judicial findings is that religion is something that primarily exists in the head and the heart and cannot make any primary claims on the landscape, even when that landscape is under the care of a religious community. This notion is probably quite intuitive to a great many Americans and Canadians, but it reflects a remarkably shallow understanding of religion.
In both cases, the judges’ rulings depended on an understanding of religion that emphasized personal belief over ethical or environmental practice.
Particularly in the American political scene, we are used to discussions about religious freedom centring on divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage rather than on land. In these cases, the conflict is commonly represented as going on between a more progressive secular or irreligious public and a conservative Christian minority trying to use the language of religious freedom to assert its political dominance over other groups. The striking resemblance between the claims of the Ktunaxa Nation and the Pennsylvania nuns, however, not only complicates this political picture but also suggests that there might be some meaningful common ground on which Christians and Indigenous people in North America could come to understand each other better.
In both instances we find a group for whom religion entails not only private belief and personal expressions of worship but also a communal commitment to a way of living and being in relation to the local environment and the non-human world. Importantly, though there are obvious and substantial differences between their theologies, both groups used the language of stewardship to articulate this richer sense of religious commitment to the landscape. At the same time, though, the legal failure of each group shows how Christians and Indigenous people can find themselves in something of a similar conundrum. Both struggle to live out what should be a totalizing vision of human flourishing—one that weaves together a narrative account of the supernatural with a mode of life that includes obligations to others and to the non-human—in a secular world that only dimly understands that vision. Both communities, to put this another way, find themselves guided by a mythos in a society that sees itself as demythologized.
Mythos and Community
“Myth” has strongly negative connotations, and we frequently use the word to describe a widely held but false idea. Even its more positive sense, of an ancient legend or tale, is generally used to indicate a lack of belief or investment. We call the tales related in Ovid’s Metamorphoses “myths” because we don’t believe in them, except perhaps as symbolic representations of psychological truths. But the Greek word mythos, from which our English term derives, has a much wider semantic range. While it can simply mean “word” or “speech,” it also has a secondary sense of “story,” “plot,” or “narrative.” As I want to use the term, however, a mythos is a very particular and powerful kind of story; it is a narrative account of human creation, purpose, and relation to the divine that transcends the mere “facts” of empirical history. A mythos, in this sense, can have a complex and sometimes vexed relationship to the documentable past, but it remains central to the formation of almost any communal identity, whether ethnic, religious, or national.
C.S. Lewis described well what I’m talking about when he wrote that “what flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality.” The story of the exodus and the landing of the Mayflower are both mythic in this way, as are the stories of an ancient purifying flood common to Jewish, Babylonian, and many Indigenous traditions. A mythos is the network of narratives that ground a community and in relation to which it achieves a sense of continuity. These narratives are not static—they can evolve, be retold with different emphases, or challenged—but they cannot be discarded without threatening the communities formed around them.
A mythos, moreover, is not a matter of personal choice or mere private conviction. You can’t pick and choose which stories matter to the communities you belong to, and though you can contest how they are interpreted, you can’t simply disavow the way those stories inform its values and behaviours. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, however, a problem we currently face is that the grounding mythos of modernity insists on precisely the opposite truth. “The project of modernity,” he claims, “is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story.” For Hauerwas, the ironic paradox of this story, this mythos of modernity, is that it is not freely chosen, but received and underwritten and even enforced by the imagined community of the nation. “Americans,” says Hauerwas (though I’d say his analysis is equally true of Canadians), “are unable to acknowledge that they have been fated to be ‘free.’”
There is a sense in which this mythos of the freedom to choose one’s own story is fundamentally secular, as we can see in the Canadian Supreme Court ruling against the Ktunaxa Nation. The court dismissed the legal claim because it could not see how the construction of a ski resort would limit the free choice of belief and religious expression, as if the dwelling of the Grizzly Bear Spirit or Ktunaxa’s obligation to the landscape were simply a matter of choice, just one option out of many. Yet it is also true that a great number of Christians in the United States and Canada live largely within this project of modernity, by and large accepting its assumptions. In fact, as Hauerwas also points out, Christians in our two countries are just as likely to imagine their own lives of faith as underwritten by this supposedly non-mythical mythos of freedom. This is how we end up with Christians who can say, “I believe that Jesus is Lord—but that is just my personal opinion.”
There is a complicated history behind this reality, that so many Christians and secular people can share the same myth of self-creation and choice, one that’s far too complex to do complete justice to here. In short, though, it comes down to the fact that what Hauerwas calls the project of modernity emerged within a European society that thought of itself as Christian. It was in this milieu, when Europeans were looking to respond to the ever-expanding schisms of the Reformation and to quell the violence that resulted from it, that political thinkers invented the idea of “religion” as a distinct category and set it apart as something personal and private, cordoned off from the common political goods of the nation-state. Before that point in time, there wasn’t really a word that could equally describe the beliefs and practices of Christians, pagans, Jews, and Muslims. We see this in the Latin word religio, which can have the sense of a ritual obligation or even “piety,” but never describes a complete system of faith and worship. What we call “religion” was for most of human history simply too fully integrated into a way of life to be conceivable as a generic term. And when Europeans did begin developing this notion in its modern sense, it took some time before “religion” described anything other than varieties of Christianity, which was still largely assumed to be normative. This explains the perplexing fact that John Locke, the famous father of liberalism, concludes his celebrated treatise on religious toleration by denouncing atheists and balking at the idea of a Muslim subject in a Christian kingdom. For Locke, freedom of religion only meant freedom to practice whatever kind of Protestantism you liked.
Over time, while the assumed Christian consensus that first made it possible began to erode, this conception of religion as freely chosen personal belief carried over into the secular legal frameworks of Western nations. This was a positive in that it allowed these countries to overcome some of the prejudices exhibited by Locke, but it also radically truncated what could legally count as religious. This is why, ironically enough, some criticisms of the Canadian Supreme Court ruling against the Ktunaxa Nation accused the judges of unfairly relying on Christian notions of religion, if only in a residual way.
What is interesting about this shift is the way that Christians, precisely because their mythos is no longer simply the water in which our society swims, ought to become more aware of its status as a mythos—that is, as a network of narratives we did not simply choose but that we received. In recognizing how this mythos places ethical obligations on us, even ones that bring us into conflict with “secular” culture, it might also encourage Christians to identify some similarities between ourselves and the other communities, particularly Indigenous ones, who also hold to a mythos that the state struggles to understand.
We might, to provide just one example, find some fruitful parallels between different experiences of tension between religion and the “neutral” claims of science, so often held up as the trump card in political discourse. As Anishinaabe writer Patty Krawec points out, many Indigenous creation stories posit a special relationship to and care for a specific environment:
The Anishinaabe creation story places us in the woodlands north of what is now called Lake Superior. The Hopi, in a land of deep canyons, emerged from a hole in the ground. The Inuit emerged from holes in the ice. Our creation stories situate us in a particular place, with particular relationships.
These stories are not just ancient tales; they have practical consequences. These narratives have been important enough for some Indigenous thinkers that they have questioned scientific theories about prehistoric migrations from Asia. For them, a mythic commitment to the idea that Indigenous people have lived in North America from time immemorial is central to their sense of belonging to the land. Claims to the contrary are eerily reminiscent of older colonial assertions that Indigenous people had no inherent right to that land.
Christians, I’m sure, especially evangelicals, will need little reminding of similar tensions between their own creation stories and the public authority of scientific discourse. Is it possible we might learn something from Indigenous communities on this matter? I certainly think so. Figuring out how to respond to such tensions is no easy task, but it is a necessary one for Indigenous systems of belief as much as it is for Christianity. Realizing that we share this experience of tension might just enable a coming together that goes beyond mere tolerance, that stale form of interaction reflecting the imaginative limits of the project of modernity.
Challenges for Christian-Indigenous Reconciliation
Christianity occupies a paradoxical place in the ideology of Western countries. On the one hand, much of the notionally secular operations of government and law—especially ideas about what counts as religion and what public affordances can be given to it—emerged out of a loosely Christian intellectual tradition. On the other hand, despite its origins, Western secularism has made the beliefs and lived practices of Christianity increasingly marginal to the assumed norms of our public life. Secularism, as Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann puts it, “is a stepchild of Christianity . . . made up of verites chretiennes devenues folies, of Christian truths that went mad.” Hence all the confusion surrounding the question of whether Canada and the United States are Christian countries. If one means that the legal and ethical frameworks that undergird our two nations are more closely bound to Christianity than to any other religious or ethical tradition, then, at least for the moment, the answer could likely still be yes. If one means that Christians are somehow more truly American or Canadian than other citizens, the answer, equally obviously, is no. A vocal but influential minority of Christians have deluded themselves into thinking the second of these claims is true. This has made it easier for our non-religious neighbours to feel that religion, and Christianity in particular, is a threat that ought to be kept out of politics and contained in the realm of personal belief. Often, this means that non-religious North Americans fail to recognize the “Christian” shape of their own commitments, the fact that their secularity and its expectations are actually a kind of mutated Protestantism. If Schmemann is right that the secular mythos is the unruly stepchild of the Christian one, then it is not surprising that misperceptions and animosity abound. Like any rebellious child, this secular stepdaughter understands very well what she has rejected from her religious mother, but she has a hard time recognizing the assumptions she has inherited from her parent (for example, the post-Reformation notion that religion is best understood as a kind of personal belief).
This means, too, that Christians have a vexed relationship with the public claims of Indigenous spirituality and religion. Historically, of course, it was an alliance between some Christian institutions and the state that saw traditional Indigenous religious practices as pernicious superstitions that needed to be rooted out. It was that same alliance that supported a notion of white European Society, supposedly civilized by its Christianity, as having a natural right to remake Indigenous peoples in its own image. In Canada, this took its most expansive form in the residential school system, which separated Indigenous children from their families, communities, languages, and religions, often in appalling conditions, with the express purpose of assimilation. As D.C. Scott, who oversaw the residential school system from 1913 to 1932, unabashedly expressed his goals, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.” Now, however, Christians are no longer assumed to be the de facto representatives of public morality. Ironically, in fact, some forms of fairly mainstream Christian belief are themselves seen as pernicious superstitions that threaten good civic order. White Christians have thus undergone the uncomfortable shift from being the assumed absorbers to experiencing at least some threat of absorption. The good news is that this transformation has provided an opportunity for repentance and graciousness.
The decentring of Christianity in Western culture might jolt Christians into a more gracious approach to Indigenous mythos in its varied forms.
When it comes to repentance, we have a newfound opportunity to repudiate the heretical claim that Christianity is essentially white or European, and to hear with fresh clarity the many voices in our tradition that are neither (a certain Middle Eastern Jew comes to mind, among others). Equally importantly, the decentring of Christianity in Western culture might jolt Christians into a more gracious approach to Indigenous mythos in its varied forms. Such graciousness would entail both the practical task of learning about the practices and narratives that shape the Indigenous communities with whom we cohabit and the more complex political job of acknowledging how those claims might shape our common sense of the public good.
Consider what might have happened if Christians had thrown their political support behind the Ktunaxa Nation, staunchly defending the legal validity of their religious liberty as rightly extending beyond mere private belief. Imagine if the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, or some Canadian equivalent, had drawn public attention to the parallels between their own theological investment in the sacredness of a particular space and those of the Ktunaxa Nation, or even requested intervenor status in the case. It’s hard to say whether Christian support would have ultimately swayed the courts, but it does seem strange that Christian discussions of Christian religious liberty are so sequestered from Indigenous claims to religious freedom. My point here, I hope it’s obvious, is not to suggest that Christian and traditional Indigenous religious understandings are always or easily amenable. Instead, I simply wish to suggest that some solidarity might be possible if Christians recognized how many Indigenous people across North America are also invested in a mythos that the state can only half-recognize. If we saw this, Christians might take a lead in helping to create a future for truth and reconciliation that does not devolve into strictly secular terms, and that helps free Indigenous people from having to “demythologize” their perspectives to have them taken seriously before the law. If Christian defences of religious liberty were more often genuinely taken up for the sake of our neighbours, it would also be harder for the secular public to dismiss Christian appeals to legal religious freedom as little more than special pleading on behalf of a minority that would enforce its beliefs on others.
If we came to understand our neighbour’s mythos better, I’m suggesting, we might reimagine reconciliation as an effort to find common ground across many stories, rather than attempting to swallow all stories into a single secular one (the story that we have no story except the story we choose). Indigenous Christians, in fact, have done a great deal of thinking on this matter already, including writers as diverse as Richard Twiss, Patty Krawec, Randy Woodley, William Baldridge, and Cheryl Bear. Their work is a helpful reminder that Indigenous people don’t have anything like a uniform or predictable relationship to religion or spirituality. It is certainly true that more and more Indigenous people in Canada and the US have been reclaiming traditional spiritual practices and teachings as a core part of their identity, but it is also true that many are assertively Christian, even some of those undertaking that process of reclamation. In Canada, in fact, the 2021 national census found that nearly half of Indigenous people (47 percent) describe themselves as Christian. In the US, a 2020 census conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that six in ten Native Americans identify as belonging to the faith. Indigenous Christian leaders and intellectuals, therefore, should not be thought of as eccentric outliers but as participants in a rich and living tradition, one that has worked hard for many years to find mutual understanding between . These thinkers and writers are also particularly well placed to help to expose where Christians of European descent have allowed prejudice, ignorance, and pride to corrupt our worship and understanding of Christ. Just as the prophets of Israel called out injustice and hypocrisy by pointing back to a clarified vision of the God who brought his people out of slavery, so too can Indigenous Christians help the rest of us see again with fresh eyes the story that created our community, the story of the incarnation and the empty tomb.
These efforts, unfortunately, are hobbled by a growing impulse to define Christianity as little more than a white ethnic marker, divorced from its richer narrative claims. A recent New Yorker article cited one study in which more than a fifth of respondents who wanted the US officially declared a Christian nation also described themselves as “secular.” This is a troubling shift for those of us who look to Scripture, the creeds, and theological tradition for an understanding of our faith, and who would reject the absurd package of xenophobia, corporate exploitation, nationalism, and theological illiteracy that passes for Christianity in so much popular political discourse. Yet the fact that white “Christian” nationalists are more and more obviously divorced from the actual doctrines and practices of Christianity, and less and less interested in actually going to church, provides a modicum of hope. If orthodox Christians can compellingly live out our faith in communities bound by the worship of Jesus Christ rather than the idols of nation or racial identity, not only will the farce of white nationalism’s supposed Christianity become apparent even to our non-Christian neighbours, we will also have new opportunities for brotherhood with those communities that, like us, know themselves to be grounded in a particular mythos. Christians, then, might take a lead in encouraging a more generous reception of Indigenous mythos as our societies struggle toward reconciliation. Such acts of humble recognition will help us comprehend our own story more deeply.