The Four Vision Quests of Jesus

The Four Vision Quests of Jesus

by Steven Charleston


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"A unique look at Christian biblical interpretation and theology from the perspective of Native American tradition, this book focuses on four specific experiences of Jesus as portrayed in the synoptic gospels. It examines each story as a “vision quest,” a universal spiritual phenomenon, but one of particular importance within North American indigenous communities.

Jesus’ experience in the wilderness is the first quest. It speaks to a foundational Native American value: the need to enter into the “we” rather than the “I.” The Transfiguration is the second quest, describing the Native theology of transcendent spirituality that impacts reality and shapes mission. Gethsemane is the third quest. It embodies the Native tradition of the holy men or women, who find their freedom through discipline and concerns for justice, compassion, and human dignity. Golgotha is the final quest. It represents the Native sacrament of sacrifice (e.g., the Sun Dance). The chapter on Golgotha is a discussion of kinship, balance, and harmony: all primary to Native tradition and integral to Christian thought."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819231734
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 100,156
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston currently serves as visiting professor of Native American traditions at the Saint Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University. From 1999-2008, he served as resident and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Holder of numerous degrees and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, he is recognized as an authority on Native merican spirituality and as a leading proponent for ecology, justice, and spiritual renewal in the church in both the United States and Canada. He has written multiple books and been called “one of the best preachers in the Episcopal Church.” He lives in Oklahoma City.

Read an Excerpt

The Four Vision Quests of Jesus

By Steven Charleston

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2015 Steven Charleston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-3174-1



On a cold autumn morning in 1973 I went out onto the roof of the apartment building where I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was student housing at the seminary I attended. It was an old brick building, four or five stories high, sitting in the midst of Harvard University. I walked out onto the flat roof and looked up at the gray New England sky. Dark clouds drifted by. The city was quiet, just waking up for the start of another day.

I took a small box of cornmeal that I had bought at the local grocery store, opened it, and slowly poured it out into a circle around me. I stood in this circle and began to pray. I turned to acknowledge the four sacred directions, calling on the spirit of each one to surround me. I prayed to the Creator above me and the Earth below me to hold me in a spiritual equilibrium. I spread my arms and asked my ancestors to hear me and come to support me in any way they could. I called on the name of Jesus.

I did all of these things because I was deeply troubled. I was a young, twenty-something Native American attending a Christian seminary to become a priest. I had chosen to do so because I felt I was called by God to a religious vocation. I believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and I wanted to follow him. But now I was having doubts.

My doubts came from a book by Vine Deloria, Jr. called God Is Red. Deloria, a Native American author from South Dakota, took the position that Christianity was not the religion for Native American people. Later in life, I met Vine and we became friends. I even knew his father, a very well respected Episcopal priest and Lakota elder who served the church in South Dakota. But in these early years, when his book had just come out, I only knew Vine Deloria by the words he wrote and those words shook my world.

Vine told a familiar, but painful story. He wrote about Christianity coming to the Americas as part of the colonial expansion of Europeans. He described the abuses of the Christian missionaries against the indigenous people of this hemisphere. He deconstructed many of the basic theological positions of Christianity, such as the doctrine of original sin, and argued that Native American traditional religion was far more humane and rational. He described Christianity as a deeply flawed religion. In Vine's estimation, Christianity had been largely responsible for the destruction of Native culture. It was a tool of Western imperialism. It was a sham religion forced onto Native people by a cynical and callous colonial system. In the end, he created a spiritual crossroads for Native people: choose Christianity and adopt the religion of the oppressor or choose Native tradition and stand with the oppressed.

As a much older, and hopefully wiser, person today I can look back and see that the crossroads that Vine created was artificial. It is predicated on the assumption that everything he wrote about Christianity in the Native American context was accurate, but at the time, as a young Native person just starting theological training, it was real enough to take me out onto the roof at dawn. I had never faced this dilemma before. I was raised in a Native American family from rural Oklahoma. Like Vine, I came from a family with a history of ordained service in the Christian church. My great-grandfather and my grandfather had both been ordained pastors in the Presbyterian Church.

That Christian tradition developed among my people, the Choctaw Nation, in the early 1800s. The Choctaw community had invited Presbyterian missionaries to come to our nation, which in that period of American history comprised what is now Mississippi and parts of Alabama and Louisiana. These missionaries were not imposed upon us, but came in response to our invitation. The Choctaw Nation was a large, well organized sovereign nation that had a long history with Europeans. We had known the Spanish, the French, and the English before interacting with the white people who called themselves Americans. In fact, we had been allies of the United States, fighting alongside American soldiers in the War of 1812.

As a confident and intellectually curious people, we wanted to learn more about the religious practices of the Europeans, by whatever name they called themselves. After considering the different denominations we began to ask Christian pastors to come into the Choctaw Nation, not only to share their religious views, but also to help us in establishing an educational system to continue our investigations into Western culture and technology. Because so much of Christian theology resonated with our own religious traditions, we quickly adopted Protestantism and began building churches. The Bible was translated into Choctaw; hymns were written in Choctaw; Choctaws began leading Christian worship services. The origins of our Christian heritage, therefore, did not follow the pattern Vine described. We were not forced to accept Jesus at the point of a gun, but evolved into a Christian nation as an expression of our own culture. Missionaries were not the problem for me as a Choctaw. It was, however, Vine's analysis of what happened to Native American nations, Christian or otherwise, that began to unravel my faith.

In the 1830s the Choctaw people were the first of many Native American nations to be forced to take the Trail of Tears. Bullied and cheated by the American government, we were forced out of our homeland and made to take the long walk from the southern United States to Oklahoma, the sanctuary for displaced Native nations. Thousands of our people died. The white Americans we thought of as allies betrayed us. Even though we were Christians, other Christians turned to look the other way as we were despoiled. Like vultures, they swooped in to take our land.

The Trail of Tears is a bitter legacy, one shared by many Native nations whose homelands were east of the Mississippi. And yet, as a Choctaw, I had been raised to believe that our Christian faith was part of this experience. On the long walk into exile, I had been told that our Christian faith sustained us. It spoke to us about survival through an Exodus and about God's love for the dispossessed. Like the African slaves who took our place on the land in the American South, we found Christianity to be the one thing to which we could cling when the times we endured were so harsh.

When I encountered God is Red the memories of the Trail of Tears came back to haunt me. It planted a seed of doubt. Had my ancestors made a mistake? Had they accepted a false religion and paid the price? The story that Vine Deloria told was not something I could dismiss. In fact, it was not something I wanted to dismiss because I was so acutely aware of what had been done to my own people. The Trail of Tears is an historical memory no Choctaw will ever forget. The loss of land, culture, language, and freedom: these are the facts of life for any Native American community. Therefore, Vine's argument spoke to a truth I already knew. It was as if John the Baptist had appeared before me, calling me to wake up and smell the coffee, repent from my devotion to the conqueror's faith, and return to the ancient heritage of a pre-colonial Native America.

The impact his writing had on me as a young man may seem hard for people to understand who did not live through the 1960s and early 1970s; these years were a hinge of history when Civil Rights and liberation movements were at high tide. The anti-war struggles against the Vietnam War had reshaped American society. Women's rights and feminism were gaining momentum. The LGBT community was emerging. And in the midst of this era of turmoil and transition, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was making headlines as it demonstrated for Native sovereignty and treaty rights.

AIM was founded in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It began as a local community organizing effort among the many urban Native communities in the Twin Cities, but it grew quickly to national prominence. I remember standing out in the snow in those years listening to one of AIM's founders, Dennis Banks, call on all of us who were Native American to unite to reclaim our heritage. In 1971, I supported AIM's "Trail of Broken Treaties" demonstration in Washington, DC; in 1973 I supported the stand-off at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Both were pivotal confrontations between Native American activists and the Federal government. In 1978 I took part in the "Longest Walk," a demonstration that began on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, and carried the sacred pipe across the United States to the Washington Monument. I walked on the culmination of this journey with tribal elders; I stood in the July heat with thousands of other Native people when we reached the Capitol to uphold Native sovereignty.

In more ways than one, I had not only talked the talk of Native rights, but quite literally walked the walk. Therefore, the confusion I felt had nothing to do with a lack of political awareness, social consciousness, or historical knowledge. I was not confused about which "side" I was on. I was not uncertain about my own radicalism, or about my solidarity with all those who shared my political convictions as a Native American. I felt "Indian" all the way through on the core concerns of my generation. My problem was strictly spiritual. My fear was that I did not have a firm center in the one place where it counted most: in my religion. In my faith.

As any Native elder will tell you, everything grows from the spirit. The political, social, and economic parts of our lives are inextricably interwoven with our spiritual being. None of my commitments to any of the causes of Native American identity, no matter how sincere, could be genuine if it did not arise from a deep spiritual source. If I was conflicted in my faith as a Native American, I was lost. Unless and until I could resolve my religious identity, the rest would only be shouting into the wind.

So I created a personal ritual. I took what I understood about how to pray in a traditional Native way, adapted that to my circumstances, and began to practice an intimate form of prayer. For more days than I can now remember, I went out at dawn on a rooftop as if it were my own high and lonely place. I drew a circle of cornmeal around me. I stood alone beneath brightening skies or rainy weather, determined to find out if Vine Deloria was right, determined to discover if God was different than what I had been raised to believe.

I did this as a lament, a confession of my own spiritual confusion. I did it because I took my spiritual self seriously. I went seeking some answers to my dilemma, searching for the right path to follow to religious integrity. In short, standing up there on the windswept roof, in the least likely place as the least likely seeker, I began a vision quest.

But was it "a vision quest"? Does what I describe from my own experience qualify as such? How do we define a vision quest? How do we understand it?

In 1890, the same year as the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee (see Chapter Four), James George Frazer published his landmark book, The Golden Bough. Frazer, a Scottish anthropologist, pioneered the study of comparative religion and myth as a scientific project. He collated and contrasted religious stories, identifying common themes. In so doing, he set in motion generations of European and American scholarship. He was followed in his research by figures such as Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Claude Levi-Strauss, and perhaps most notably, Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Among the lines of research all four followed was the question of how human beings search for and obtain spiritual knowledge. These academics sought to trace the origin and nature of the "quest" in human mythology. They studied thousands of stories through scores of cultures. Their conclusions vary, but there is a thread that runs through much of their analysis. A hint of that thread is contained in the title to Campbell's book: the quest made by a heroic figure.

Unpacking the combined academic legacy of anthropologists and psychologists like Jung and Campbell is more than I will attempt to do here, but I will highlight that notion of the quest as being heroic because I believe it opens a door into the difference from the "vision quest" as it is understood by European and Native American cultures.

From the European tradition, we may think of the medieval knight, the Arthurian hero, setting out to seek the Holy Grail. This romantic image speaks to a spiritual psyche of long standing in the West. The story of the valiant spiritual seeker, facing danger and temptation, searching for an elusive prize is a powerful spiritual metaphor for European-based cultures. It is certainly one that is shared by other world communities, but it is a hallmark of Western story-telling.

The Grail legends are classic examples of this understanding. They have long roots in the tribal cultures that created European civilization and their popularity in the many variations on the King Arthur saga indicate how strongly the myth of the hero is present in this shared history. I also suggest that they blend into European interpretations of Christianity. The "hero" narrative associated with a "quest" borrows from the Bible. Galahad and Jesus have similar attributes and associations.

The hero must be pure in heart. The hero must face temptations. The hero must discover what no one else can find. In the religious context of the Europeans, the quest becomes more and more the territory of the special person. Not just anyone can decide to go looking for the Holy Grail. Not just anyone can perform a true vision quest. Only people like Jesus or Galahad may be "good enough" to take this epic journey.

I highlight this tendency in Western spirituality not as a definitive statement about the European experience in myth, but as a point of comparison to Native American concepts of a "quest." Like Europeans, Native communities could interpret the quest as a specialized endeavor. Some nations understood it as a shamanic quest, although not with the same emphasis on the nobility of such a person. However, far more Native nations understood the quest to be something almost every person could pursue.

This is significant because it changes the way we think about a "quest." To capture the Native American understanding of a vision quest, it is necessary to let go of some of the European interpretations attached to that term. Even more importantly, unless we can separate Galahad and Jesus in our minds, we may miss the Native perspective on who Jesus was, what he experienced, and what he taught as a Native messiah.

To understand the Native American concept of a sacred quest, we can pick up where the Western scholars have left off: from Gilgamesh to Frodo, the quest is the process, defined by every culture, by which human beings search for the holy. The object of that search may be God, or wisdom, or a Holy Grail. Each religious tradition sets the destination for those who believe, and each tradition creates a roadmap for how to get there. Some quests require physical endurance, some require mental concentration. Some can last for days, some for a lifetime. The definitions are as varied as the destinations.

As the ancient idea of the quest spread around the world different communities developed their own understanding of not only how the quest should be undertaken, but who could attempt it. In some cultures the quest increasingly became the realm of religious specialists and the type of person who practiced the vision quest narrowed: sha-mans, mystics, saints, knights of valor. In Native America, however, the door remained much more open. Prior to 1492, the vision quest was a threshold accessible to millions of Native people.

While there are variations on the theme of a quest in the many different traditions of Native America, there are some basic elements that are constant and appear over and over again.

First, there is a time of preparation. The quest is intentional. It is a planned movement toward the sacred. Therefore, the person must be ready for this journey. There is always a spiritual prelude to the quest, a time of prayer and purification. These acts cleanse the person both physically and mentally, making him or her ready to come into the presence of the holy in a respectful way.


Excerpted from The Four Vision Quests of Jesus by Steven Charleston. Copyright © 2015 Steven Charleston. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1 The Quest,
CHAPTER 2 The Vision,
CHAPTER 3 The Voice,
CHAPTER 4 The Messiah,
CHAPTER 5 The Clown,
CHAPTER 6 The Wilderness,
CHAPTER 7 The Mountain,
CHAPTER 8 The Garden,
CHAPTER 9 The Cross,

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