First Nations Studies

Native and Western Cosmologies

by Elmer G. Wiens

The term "totalization," in "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" by Jacques Derrida, can be exploited as a signifier for the desire of Christian religions and native myths to explain everything in their posited universes. Totalization implies a whole, an adding up, an entirety, completeness, and even an absolute. Derrida characterizes both attempts at totalization as "impossible" and "meaningless" (289). On the one hand, Western philosophy's logocentric belief that the world can be explained by words implies the existence of a transcendental signified, conditioning the belief of Western religious cosmology that the entirety of reality consists of God and the Universe God created. Everything can be "explained" with reference to God. On the other hand, in The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss uses the signifier, bricolage (16, 36), to describe how myths are assembled from the rudiments of prior myths and discourses. These elements are combined opportunistically to explain any extant phenomenon. Through myths, primitive science provides an understanding, a "coming-to-know," of everything within the awareness of the senses. Both attempts at totalization can be tracked down to the oral traditions of story telling from which Christian religion and native myths emerged, and to the sacred power of words.

Native myths exhibit a vast range of diversity in their explanations of the origin of the universe and man's station on earth. While the many expressions of faith among Christians also provide a variety of cosmological theories, the written Torah and Bible present a reference discourse. Derrida observes that any collection of native myths has no reference myth (Structure 286). A collection of myths is acentric. Hence, no centred construct can signify any collection's signification; much less the collection's subjective signified. Moreover, it may be possible to find only a few transcribed native myths untainted by Christian theology. Furthermore, Christian cosmology has mutated, however turgidly, with scientific cosmology, while the stock of primary native myths exists statically as historical artefacts. Can generalizations of native and Christian cosmologies gainfully be juxtaposed? Can modern scientific cosmology mediate this juxtaposition?

In Of Grammatology, Derrida notes that writing permits generalizations that signify a "model" whose functioning is explicitly directed by "an ideal" (30). Taking Derrida's cue, one can juxtapose the cosmologies in Native Science by Gregory Cajete and in Creation out of Nothing by Paul Copan and William Craig, to delineate some differences between representations of native and Christian cosmologies. Furthermore, one can look for instances of the model in the cosmologies revealed in recent works by aboriginal writers, such as Dwellings by Linda Hogan and Ceremony by Leslie Silko.

Native pre-Christian cosmology is rooted in the belief that all matter, inanimate and animate, is interdependent and connected through spirit. Human beings are related (Cajete 61), individual to other individual, individual to community, community to community, and human beings to the earth and the cosmos. A collective trajectory of human beings through space-time is the integral over all individual trajectories. Thus, the trajectory of each individual is a derivative of a collective's trajectory, being simultaneously a derivative of the trajectory of all human beings as a collective. Moreover, the earth as a collective of animate beings and inanimate matter is similarly derived through integrals of its components, being simultaneously a derivative as a member of the cosmos as a collective. The fate of human beings and the earth are "intimately intertwined" (Cajete 60) in the universe.

Spirit, the breath of time, connects everything in Native cosmology. Likewise, the four fundamental forces of modern physics, the "strong" and "weak" nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity, bind and separate the universe from the micro of the essentials of atoms to the macro of the stars and galaxies in the four-dimensional space-time continuum of the cosmos. In the creation story of the Maya (Hogan 79-82), with time existing, the days of time "set forth from the east and started walking," orderly unfolding the sky and earth of the universe, finally creating human beings when the thirteenth day moistened the earth and kneaded the mud into a body like ours." Correspondingly, in the creation story of Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, God proceeds orderly day by day, creating with time the heavens and earth on the first day, finally creating man on the sixth day "of the dust of the ground." One can interpret both creation stories as metaphors for scientific theories of cosmogony and evolution, based on the milieu's noesis, lore, and knowledge. While native myths emphasize human beings' interdependence with nature, Christian religions stress man's dominion over nature as decreed by God. Cajete claims Christian cosmology is dysfunctional, leading to a perception of the flora, fauna, and natural resources of earth, and even Indians, in "purely material terms" (53), as things to be exploited. Conversely, the earliest native cosmologies were pantheistic with the "spirit of the universe" (52) immanent in all things of the earth, including human beings. The theme of pantheism pervades Ceremony. Tayo, the son of an Indian mother and a white father, prevails over combat sickness, absolves sin by fusing soul with body, and reintegrates with nature by embracing the pantheism of the Pueblos and the passion of the Indian woman, Ts'eh.

According to Copan and Craig, God alone exists a se, for himself, "self-sufficiently and independently of all things" (173), including time. Moreover, God created the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing, with a "temporal origin" (147). However, if one takes the dimension of time to have the cardinality of the continuum, a temporal beginning and ending for God's created universe is neither excluded nor posited. The Bible starts with "In the beginning God created" not with "In the beginning of time God created," making it compatible with the scientific cosmologies of both the steady state theory and the now foremost Big-Bang theory.

Hogan writes that myths are "a high form of truth" conceived during oral traditions when "an object and its name were not separated" (51). Words are so potent in Ceremony that one witch's story brings on the destruction and ills that Indians have suffered at the hands of Caucasians (134-138). The Bible itself is called the transcribed Word of God. The cosmologies of native science and the early Christian religions were derived by way of a logic that infers links among sensory data, driven by "the thirst for objective knowledge" (Lévi-Strauss 3), to explain everything.

With the advent of modern science based on Cartesian logic, deducing meaning by analyzing the parts of phenomena by way of abstraction and models, scientific cosmologies superseded Christian myths. Scientific cosmologies have empirically refutable predictions and implications, motivating the search and construction of new models. At the present time, the macro theories based on Einstein's theory of general relativity remain unreconciled with the micro theories of quantum mechanics. Cosmological theory remains in a state of flux. Moreover, some physicists, like Stephen Hawking, do not maintain a strict separation between religion and scientific cosmology (Danielson 448-451). With a unified theory that explains everything, Hawking suggests "we would know the mind of God" (Pirani 162), and wonders about the need for a Creator.

Works Cited and Consulted

Cajete, Gregory. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe: Clear Light, 2000.

Cobley, Paul and Litza Jansz. Introducing Semiotics. Cambridge: Icon, 1999.

Copan, Paul and William L. Craig. Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2004.

Danielson, Richard Dennis. The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking. Cambridge: Helix, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

- - -. "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1978: 278-293.

Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

Holy Bible: King James Version. Camden, N.J.: Thomas Nelson, 1972.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld, 1966.

Pirani, Felix and Christine Roche. Introducing the Universe. Cambridge: Icon, 1999.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penquin, 1977.

Wiseman, Boris and Judy Groves. Introducing Lévi-Strauss. Cambridge: Icon, 1997.

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