Academic Approaches to Lakota Faith

The following essay examines the theology of Lame Deer, a Lakota Medicine Man, by utilizing the writings of renown anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, and theologians to imagine how they might interpret Lame Deer's beliefs.

Views of a Vision

“If we look at the human spirit from a special point of view, it presents itself to us as religious. What is this view?” - Paul Tillich (from “The Theology of Culture”)

When John (Fire) Lame Deer was a boy of sixteen, being initiated into manhood in Sioux tradition, he sat alone in a pit on a hilltop, awaiting a vision. Trembling in anticipation of what would be revealed to him, he never doubted whether the vision would come. “When [the vision quest] was all over,” he says, “I would no longer be a boy, but a man. I would have had my vision. I would be given a man’s name.” Although he doesn’t know exactly what to expect, he believes that profound wisdom will be revealed to him and show him his place in the world.

Obscure tribal religions like Lame Deer’s, mysterious cults, even churches with billions of followers; all attest to mankind’s faith in the existence of forces that exert influence over ordinary lives. Throughout time and across the continents, this faith has manifested itself in an incredibly broad range of doctrines and rites, all expressing the belief in a mysterious presence with the power to transform. And yet most believers find it difficult to answer basic questions about this power. What is it? Where does it come from? How exactly does it affect its transformation? Scholars, scientists and theologians throughout the past century and beyond have contributed innovative, sometimes revolutionary, theories in response to these questions. In making a study of man, and attempting to unlock the riddle of his faith, they attempt to explain the enigma of religion. How do some of these theorists view religion, particularly in regards to Lame Deer’s vision quest?


Lame Deer’s belief in the manifestation of the sacred is what gives life and power to religious man, according to Romanian historian Mircea Eliade in his book “The Sacred and the Profane” (first published in 1959). In a universe of chaos, a religious man like Lame Deer finds orientation and a sense of center by reaching out toward the sacred, by striving to glimpse the “micro-macrocosmic correspondences” taking place between his relative world and absolute reality – moments when the immediate reality of the relative world are “transmuted into a supernatural reality.” As Eliade says, any manifestation of the supernatural is “of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world.” The “supernatural” and its “wholly different” reality are significant subjects to many of the other theorists examined below.

In citing the beliefs and rituals of numerous “archaic societies,” Eliade creates a surface impression of “religious man” as a creature of the primordial past; he allows for the notion that modern man considers himself living in a desacralized world. But the author also introduces and regularly reinforces the idea that no human being lives completely outside the sacred. “A profane existence is never found in the pure state,” Eliade asserts, citing examples in respect to time and space. “Even for the most frankly nonreligious man,” Eliade continues, “all these places [i.e., privileged places such as a man’s birthplace or the scenes of his first love] … are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe.”

The tendency to treat at least some small aspect of life as sacred stems from humanity’s need for meaning and a sense of order among chaos. The need is universal; only the degree varies. Whereas a nonreligious man views rare aspects of his life as “above” the others, religious man sees the genuinely sacred everywhere. He draws parallels between all things, hearing the wind in a person’s sigh, seeing the sun and moon in a pair of eyes, or in mimicking the creation of the universe in sexual union, thereby revealing a presumption of universal unity. Often, the transcendent power of these homologies becomes distilled into, and associated with, specific (and therefore special) places or times: the New Year becomes a time of renewal, a doorway becomes the threshold to a spiritual frontier, a mountaintop becomes a conduit to God. These are the manifestations of the sacred (hierophanies), and rituals associated with them that can facilitate change in a man’s life. By believing in an absolute reality that transcends (and manifests itself in) the world, religious man attains a deeply meaningful existence.

Lame Deer is the quintessential example of Eliade’s religious man. In chapter six of his book, the Sioux medicine man talks of the homologies and hierophanies that populate his world. “We see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life.” For him, most ordinary things take on extraordinary significance. Just the process of making soup puts him in touch with the clouds and sky, the sun, animals and the breath of life. As Lame Deer explains it, the manifestation of the sacred creates a world of wonder.


During his vision quest, Lame Deer describes a belief in “something within us that controls us, something like a second person almost.” He calls this spirit “nagi” and likens it to what men of some other races might call the “soul.” The nagi is what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim would argue is the individualized workings of society. In his book, “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” (first published in 1912), Durkheim declares that virtually all religious feelings – even the belief in God – originate from society.

Durkheim contends that all religions, archaic or modern, “fulfill the same needs, play the same roles and proceed from the same causes.” But in analyzing “primitive religions” like Lame Deer’s, Durkheim sought to understand the omnipresent origins that religious thought and practice are built upon, and thereby understand modern faith. Like Eliade, Durkheim’s theories do not signify the existence of a “God.” Both men agree that religion’s purpose is to maintain “the normal course of life,” providing distinctions between the sacred and the profane. These distinctions break up the homogeneity of reality, lending a sense of supreme importance to certain places, times and things. Both Eliade and Durkheim see religion as a power that exerts itself on the individual, but they differ on the derivation of this power. Eliade finds the cause to be a deeply ingrained instinct within the individual that drives him to connect with his past and establish some order in the chaotic universe. Durkheim credits society, an entity with an identity separate from that of the individuals that comprise it.

“Sui Generis” is the term Durkheim uses to describe society, speaking of characteristics that are not found entirely within a single individual, the most important of which is the engenderment of morality. Durkheim strongly maintains that virtually every human impression of responsibility and wrongdoing is a product of our involvement in society. From the earliest stages of man (and mankind’s self-consciousness), this social influence has produced a feeling of an external force that desires to censure and guide. Over the millennia, mankind has come to identify this external guidance system as “God.” Rewards and punishment are seen as the results of adhering to or diverging from this system, assigning it a supernatural power, now viewed as existing within a person as well as without. This power is often distilled into special places, times and things in the world, giving them their sacred status. Sometimes, a sacred item (often an animal or plant) becomes a symbol of societal kinship and can even be an object of worship, a phenomenon Durkheim calls “totemic principle,” and explores in depth.

Like every man, Lame Deer is deeply influenced by his society. As a child, he was always “surrounded by grandparents, uncles, cousins, relatives of all kinds,” who sang to him and told him stories. Prior to his vision quest, four medicine men prepared him with an act of purification – a sweat bath that tested his courage and endurance. Even when alone in his vision pit, he is surrounded by his society. The peace pipe is “an open Bible” that reminds him of his forefathers. Countless medicine men in his family have had their initiation visions in the same pit, and Lame Deer feels their presence right through the earth. His grandmother is his strongest influence, her hand-made blanket with a star emblem wrapped around him, and a rattle in his hand that contains 40 pieces of flesh she had cut from her own arm. “How could I be afraid with so many people – living and dead – helping me?”

Lame Deer’s vision comes in the form of a bird – in its overwhelming presence, he grasps the pipe and rattle to allay his fears. He prays to the grandfather spirit, and in that moment, feels that he has changed from a boy into a man. The bird voices declare Lame Deer’s destiny and role in his community: he will be a medicine man; they claim him as one of the “fowl people, the winged ones, the eagles and the owls.” These will be the vision masters who guide him throughout his life. This apparition changes into his grandfather, who bestows a man’s name on the quivering visionary. To Lame Deer, surrounded by and ultimately filled with sacred energy, his experience in the vision pit is an illumination not just of a supernatural presence, but of natural life.


Lame Deer hoped for illumination that would not only expand his understanding of natural life, but would impart to him the power of a medicine man. He knew that this highly-prized power was not something he could discover on his own – this kind of wisdom must come in the form of profound revelation. “You cannot learn to be a medicine man like a white man going to medical school,” he writes. “An old holy man can teach you about herbs and the right ways to perform a ceremony … [b]ut by themselves these things mean nothing. Without the vision and the power this learning will do no good.”

This exemplifies what the famed Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud describes in his book “The Future of an Illusion” (first published in 1927) as the psychological significance of religious ideas: providing insight into external and internal reality that a man cannot discover on his own. Freud enumerates these ideas: that the soul undergoes a process of perfection and is the object of concern of a “benevolent Providence” watching over us; that death is the beginning of a new kind of existence with a higher purpose; that moral laws of man are upheld by God. But Freud counters these ideas by charging that they are entirely illusory – mankind attempting to fulfill the deepest of wishes.

These wishes not only include an escape from the specter of death, but a protection from indomitably superior forces of nature that leave man feeling powerless and afraid. Like Eliade, Freud believes that religion lends a sense of order to the chaotic natural universe. Primitive man struggles to free himself from his fear and helplessness by humanizing nature, associating its fierceness with human emotions that can more easily be understood. Man personifies nature in an effort to influence and control its cruelty, vainly attempting to elude death.

Another act of personification, according to Freud, is man’s invention of a protector from hostile forces, known as God. Where Eliade might see God as man himself, transcending the profane, Freud sees a father figure, protecting man from the forces of nature. Freud says that the idea of a protector is instilled in infancy, when a child identifies first his mother, and then his father as a bulwark shielding him from danger. As the child grows and begins to individuate, he realizes that his father is as susceptible to the forces of nature as anyone else, and that both father and child will be forever vulnerable. Another protector is needed, and found in the formless idea of “God,” the benevolent Providence that can conquer nature.

God’s power over nature lends Him dominion over every aspect of life, including morality. Here is where Freud builds upon the premise of Emile Durkheim, by recognizing that civilization contributes significantly to religious feeling and ethics. An echo of Durkheim’s sui generis society is found in Freud’s comments that the wishful illusions of religion are “…a social phenomenon; the pathology of the individual does not supply us with a fully valid counterpart.” From civilization, man derives his conscience – what Freud terms the “super-ego” and calls “the vehicle of civilization.” From the conscience stems the frustrating consequences of privations imposed through societal (and sometimes internalized) prohibitions against fulfilling certain instincts.

In applying a psychoanalytic approach to religion, Freud undoubtedly felt compelled to treat what he saw as a universal neurosis. Religion, according to Freud, is a neurotic stage in civilization’s psychological growth that mankind will eventually abandon. The way to a cure is to omit God from our thinking of morality, and admit a purely human origin.

A Freudian psychoanalysis of Lame Deer would likely produce a diagnosis of neurosis. Lame Deer, very much at the mercy of the forces of nature, like all Sioux Indians, is attempting to get a handle on the chaos of life. His morality derives from his civilization; his belief in a benevolent Providence is an instinctive effort to be protected from fear.

Freud states repeatedly that civilization and religion serve to defend man against the chaotic forces of nature that render him helpless and afraid. But Lame Deer seems to have written a direct response to Freud. As he sees it, “that terrible arrogance of the white man, making himself something more than God, more than nature,” is the cause of suffering. Instead of trying to overcome nature and escape death, Lame Deer suggests we strive to become one with nature and experience love for all that has been placed on earth. “You are just a human being, afraid, weeping under that blanket, but there is a great space within you to be filled with that love. All of nature can fit in there.” From Lame Deer’s perspective of life and the world, when we are one with nature, there is no chaos to fear, no force to be protected from, nothing to cure.


What Freud would call “illusion,” the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung calls a “healing religious experience” – a term much more sympathetic to Lame Deer’s perspective. In his book “Psychology and Religion” (first published in 1938), Jung analyzes religion’s role in the psychology of his patients, an examination that could easily apply to Lame Deer and his vision quest. Religion, as Jung sees it, gives powerful voice to a deeply interior force that is constantly struggling to emerge and be heard.

The experience of religious power is what Rudolph Otto (see below) calls the “numinous” and Jung describes as “the influence of an invisible presence causing a peculiar alteration of consciousness.” This experience can have wide-ranging impact, from subtly changing an individual’s outlook on life, to profoundly altering entire civilizations. Encountering the numinosum makes religious followers of men who practice rituals to reproduce the original experience. As Jung says, “A great many ritualistic performances are carried out for the sole purpose of producing at will the effect of the numinosum by certain devices of a magic nature, such as invocation, incantation, sacrifice, meditation and other yoga practices, self-inflicted tortures of various descriptions and so forth.” It’s as if Jung were speaking directly of Lame Deer’s purification ritual and experience in the vision pit.

Jung and Lame Deer both put strong emphasis on dreams and visions, without making distinctions between them. At the pinnacle of Lame Deer’s experience in the pit, he says, “I was asleep, yet wide awake.” Jung says, “A dream or a vision is just what it ought to be,” seeing both as “a visual impression.” This impression is an undervalued psychoanalytic tool, the key to the source of neurosis; or as Jung calls it, “the voice of the unknown.”

For Lame Deer, of course, the vision is the key to true wisdom. In it, he describes an overwhelming presence that takes on the form of a bird and begins talking to him. Disembodied voices both human and bird-like speak to him of his destiny. These ethereal voices and the wisdom they impart correspond with Jung’s study to a remarkable degree. One major component of his dream analysis is the appearance of the “anima,” a manifestation of a man’s recessive “female side” (and “animus” as the equivalent manifestation of a woman’s male minority). Jung calls this frequent dream figure the personification of the unconscious, often representing repressed emotional needs. Although this dream image is often in the form of a person, Jung cites that it is also commonly replaced by “a voice coming apparently from nowhere.” The voice pronounces authoritative declarations of “astonishing common sense and truth,” usually coming toward the end of the dream, “the final and absolutely valid summing up of a long unconscious deliberation and weighing of arguments.” These pronouncements are often of a religious nature. In fact, Jung says, the dreamer is inclined to employ religion itself as a substitute for the anima, for the unconscious mind “concealed below the threshold.”

The superior insight voiced by the anima comes from “a psyche more complete than consciousness,” Jung contends, terming the source as “intuition” and pointing out that this kind of knowledge always comes from outside the conscious mind. This indicates to Jung that a man’s conscious mind is only one side of his complete personality. Like the psyche, religion, he says, “contains both sides,” the conscious and unconscious.

Jung also gives great importance to the symbolism of numbers in dreams, especially the number four. According to him, even the Holy Trinity is actually a “quarternity” (four-sided, or square) symbol that generally omits the fourth aspect, which he identifies variously as the devil, the “female element” or as the aggregate God of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This last reference unites the three aspects of the Holy Trinity into a fourth aspect that encircles the others, thereby making the circle a uniquely powerful symbol. These symbols appear repeatedly in the dreams of his patients, even those who are virtually ignorant of the religious significance, suggesting that certain ideas exist within man innately.

As if to prove the validity of Jung’s assertion, Lame Deer’s tribal religion values the exact same numerological symbology. “We see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life,” Lame Deer writes. Of these symbols, he says, “Four is the number that is most waken, most sacred.” Four represents the elements of earth, air, fire and water that make up the universe, the four quarters of the earth and the four virtues the Sioux believe a man should posses. Most compellingly, Lame Deer says, “Four, the sacred number, also stands for the four winds, whose symbol is the cross.”

He carries the reference to a four-sided figure further, demonstrating the unified circle’s superiority. “The white man’s symbol is the square,” he says. “With us [the Sioux tribe] the circle stands for the togetherness of the people who sit with one another around the campfire, relatives and friends united in peace while the pipe passes from hand to hand.” To Lame Deer, focus on the Holy Trinity might only serve to divert man from the more important ultimate unity that the Trinity leads to.

Although Lame Deer would not agree that religious feeling springs entirely from an internal source, he would probably respect Jung’s ultimate assessment that religious experience has value, and can bring about reconciliation with self and the world – peace. In words that could easily be attributed to either the famed psychiatrist or the medicine man, Jung sums up his beliefs: “No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses the great treasure of a thing that has provided him with a source of life, meaning and beauty and that has given new splendor to the world and to mankind.”


“The spirit is everywhere,” Lame Deer declares. And yet, it is a special manifestation of sacred reality that he is waiting for in the vision pit. He knows it can come from anywhere, in the form of an animal or plant, in the sound of the wind or water, or in the smoke of his peace pipe. “That smoke from the peace pipe, it goes straight up into the spirit world. But this is a two-way thing. Power flows down to us through that smoke.” The power flows through the pipe right into a man’s body, an experience that “makes your hair stand up.” Such experience exemplifies the moment when man has glimpsed what Lame Deer calls the spirit world, or what is arguably termed the “supernatural.”

Two diametrically opposed views of the supernatural are presented by the American philosopher John Dewey, and the German theologian Rudolf Otto. Both men might agree to some extent with Eliade that religious experience provides man with a sense of orientation – although Otto would certainly argue that orientation is an effect of religion and not its raison d’ĂȘtre. And both men believe the experience connects man to a unique source of power. But it is in labeling this power “supernatural” that Dewey and Otto disagree.

Rudolph Otto, in his book “The Idea of the Holy” (first published in 1917), embraces the term “supernatural,” pointing out that rational attributions consistently fail to completely and exhaustively capture the essence of God. To get at this essence, he asserts, man must access – through experience more than thought – the “non-rational” (the supernatural). Although attempts to describe this experience in rational terms also fail to fully encapsulate it, Otto opts to use the name “holy*,” and additionally coins the term “numinous,” a unique category of value that could perhaps be described as “radiating divine power.” Although the experience can be triggered by an encounter with virtually anything (such as the smoke from Lame Deer’s peace pipe), the numinous is ultimately a state of mind that is absolutely unique and irreducible.

Otto describes this experience as an “absolute overpoweringness” that infuses man with an “awful majesty” (mysterium tremendum) which, he asserts, is entirely supernatural. The subject of this experience is humbled by the sense of an external presence (what Otto calls the “wholly other”), as well as his own “nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.” Naturally, in comparison to this absolute, sacred divinity, man becomes acutely aware of his own relative profaneness, and strives to transcend it, to become worthy. According to Otto, the atonement he seeks is often found in a growing disclosure of the numen itself, a process that can affect profound changes in a man’s life. Thus, religious experience is the cause of transformation.

For Thomas Dewey, this last idea is completely reversed. In his book “A Common Faith” (first published in 1934), Dewey states that what makes an experience “religious” is the effect produced, “the better adjustments in life and its conditions, not the manner and cause of its production.” If these better, deeper and enduring adjustments in life are what define an experience as religious, then, Dewey contends, any experience can be “religious,” a word that is better used to express an attitude which categorizes the experience.

Dewey also disagrees with Otto when it comes to recognizing this experience as “supernatural.” He writes that “the character assigned this [absolute] reality is so different,” from the reality of the relative world, that people “inevitably bring it into alliance with the supernatural.” Dewey views this alliance as the greatest limitation to religion, alienating people who have grown accustomed to scientific understanding. He urges that religion be liberated from the confines of the supernatural. This can only be done by changing man’s idea of what religion is. If no beliefs or practices are universally found in all religions, as Dewey contends, then “there is no such thing as religion in the singular.” We must recognize a multitude of religions.

The idea of God should also be exchanged for an ideal of God that unites these many religions, and the only reasonable approach to that ideal is scientific. "There is but one sure road of access to truth” Dewey writes, “the road of patient, cooperative inquiry operating by means of observation, experiment, record and controlled reflection.” The exploratory methods of science can free man’s understanding of religion from the supernatural, dramatically opening his access to God.

Dewey would undoubtedly view Lame Deer as one whose beliefs have hardly been touched by scientific developments, the type of person he labels a “fundamentalist.” For Lame Deer, his approach to religion may not be scientific, but it does involve intelligent evaluation. “Being a medicine man,” he says, is “a way of looking at and understanding this earth, a sense of what it is all about.” He believes in using his intellect to elicit greater understanding, yet his definition of intelligence is more tied to instinct, seeing man as a natural receptor for supernatural power. Men of scientific intellect “don’t use their brains and they have forgotten the secret knowledge of their bodies, their senses, or their dreams. They don’t use the knowledge the spirit has put into every one of them.”

What Dewey terms a “fundamentalist,” Rudolph Otto might call a “mystic,” a man in touch with what Otto has labeled the “wholly other” supernatural majesty. And yet Lame Deer does not see the spirit as exclusively external, but as a force that dwells in and flows among all things. “From all living beings, something flows into [the holy man] all the time, and something flows from him.” Despite their differences, Lame Deer would certainly agree with Otto’s belief that the essential nature of the numinous is something that cannot be ‘taught’, it must be ‘awakened’ from the spirit.

* Mircea Eliade, using Otto’s work as his foundation, prefers the term “sacred.”


The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, born six centuries before Christ, is credited with writing the “Tao Te Ching,” a text that has singularly motivated the religious movement known as Taoism. In seeking to understand this great man and his philosophy, perhaps it is best to be guided by the ‘awakened’ spirit of Lame Deer. Were the Sioux medicine man brought to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and led to the 20th-century work known as the “Noguchi Water Stone,” it is not difficult to imagine his reaction.

Nestled among a sort of riverbed of rocks, the Water Stone seems like nothing very much at first. It is a squat, blocky sculpture, no more than waist-high, black and monolithic, yet it is not rectangular or square – odd angles here and there indicate that pieces have splintered off somewhere, as if it were a meteorite that had crashed through the roof. At its top, a perfectly circular well issues water from deep inside, and the water pools, smooth as a plane of glass, creating the illusion that it is not moving. Yet Lame Deer makes out rivulets trickling down the sides, and can hear a loud splashing sound as water flows into the river rocks and disappears. He recognizes immediately that this fountain confidently teems with symbolism.

“Inyan – the rocks – are holy,” Lame Deer says. Indeed, in this stone and water, just as with all elements of the universe, his soul discerns the whispers of eternal wisdom.

Now Lame Deer is told that this fountain embodies an ancient faith called “Tao,” or “The Way,” taught by Lao Tzu, a man who is long deceased. Lame Deer does not see this as an obstacle. He can employ a special kind of “remembering” to contact those medicine men who have gone before him, “to recall, to travel back into the past, to hold communion with the spirits, to receive a message from them … to hear their voices once again.” The ancient voice speaks, revealing first a poem, then its lessons:

The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
While naming is the origin of the myriad things.
Therefore, always desireless, you see the mystery
Ever desiring, you see the manifestations.
These two are the same –
When they appear they are named differently.
This sameness is the mystery,
Mystery within mystery;
The door to all marvels.

-Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching,” Chapter One

As with life, “The Way” (also called the “Tao”) is infinite and eternal, always changing and unobjectifiable; therefore, it cannot be followed or named. How can one follow what is everywhere? How can one name what is forever changing? Although the Tao cannot be named, it gives birth to all that is named.

“Heaven and earth” exemplify the duality of all things. “Heaven” indicates that element of the universe that is masculine (active); “Earth” is the feminine (passive) element. The Tao suggests a wheel of opposing universal elements spinning in harmony. Everything is infinitely linked to its essential opposite, in the way that dawn is linked to dusk; the opposites transforming into each other, in the way that night becomes day.

Desire is the beginning of egocentrism, of seeing the world as apart from the self. Overcoming subject/object thinking begins to change a person’s morality, among other things, and can liberate him, not only from desire, but from all forms of suffering – even the fear of death.
With the lessons of Lao Tzu’s poem revealed, Lame Deer can now contemplate the Water Stone and understand it in Taoist terms. He notices its numerous dichotomies. It is a synthesis of nature’s creation and man’s invention, the ancient and modern, the outside-brought-inside.

Some of its surfaces are smooth while others are coarse; irregular angles are countered by a perfect circle. The fountain’s apparent motionlessness is belied by a sound of great activity. All these oppositions echo Lao Tzu’s wheel of infinite and eternal oppositions, known as yin-yang.
The Taoist idea of power is conveyed by the water flowing over stone, a direct representation of a verse from another chapter of the Tao Te Ching: “The gentle and soft overcomes the hard and aggressive.” Just as seemingly powerless water can erode mountains into canyons, a sensitive and vulnerable awareness can enlighten a person in ways that power and glory will not. This is nothing new to Lame Deer.

The Water Stone evokes another idea of Lao Tzu’s: the “uncarved block.” The fountain can easily be interpreted in this way, appearing as if had not been shaped by human hands and were still in its original state. Because the uncarved block has not yet been fashioned into something in particular, it is still unlimited. If this were a human being, it would be a person who had transcended sorrow-filled attachments and was living in the world with a sort of “knowing innocence,” a person with no fear of death.

And finally, this art work also serves as an example of “wu wei,” the Tao concept of “no extra action.” The water doesn’t jet up and splatter down, like a person struggling against the natural flow of life. The fountain accepts and fulfills its role in the universe almost imperceptibly, delivering water without apparent effort, suggesting a person who lives in harmony with the Tao.

Having heard Lao Tzu’s voice and contemplated his message, we will continue our study and rejoin Lame Deer later. For now, his bond with the ancient Chinese medicine man of the past resonates within him. The fountain flows in peace and bliss.


“Theoretical isolation” of faith is the basis of German-American theologian Paul Tillich’s book “The Dynamics of Faith” (first published in 1957). The unconditional quality that lies at the heart of faith is experienced in the passion, anxiety, despair and ecstasy of living. But, Tillich says, it is only through theoretical analyzation that faith can be isolated and understood clearly for what it is. One by one, Tillich dissects the myriad approaches to religion examined above and contends that each approach, each isolation of faith, illuminates the existence of faith as “ultimate concern” – a movement toward actualizing the meaning of life.

In his dissection of the historical and anthropological approach to faith, Tillich echoes Eliade repeatedly, beginning by defining the sacred as “what is apart from the ordinary realm of things and experiences.” Tillich agrees with Eliade’s claim that certain places and activities become imbued with a sacred status that brings man into closer contact with what is otherwise remote. The sanctuary, for example, houses the holy, which “transcends this realm.” The symbology of sanctuaries and other sacred elements are man’s attempt to adequately express the transcendent experience.

Tillich then diverges from Eliade’s position ascribing the origin of this experience to a fundamental need for orientation and order in the chaotic universe. It is a mistake, Tillich contends, “… to derive faith from something that is not faith but is most frequently fear. The presupposition of this method is that fear or something else from which faith is derived is more original and basic than faith.” In response, Eliade is conciliatory, but resolute in his point: “The sacred reveals absolute reality,” he says, “And at the same time makes orientation possible.”

Tillich often concurs to some degree with the premise supporting a theorist’s concept, as he does with Emile Durkheim’s sociological approach, especially regarding symbolism. Durkheim’s lengthy appraisal of what he calls “totemic principle” is echoed largely in Tillich’s work, which states that “this whole realm of sacred objects is a treasure of symbols,” and affirms that “holy things are not holy in themselves, but they point beyond themselves to the source of all holiness, that which is ultimate concern.”

For Tillich, ultimate concern is the litmus test of any approach to religion. In examining a theory to see if its arguments reach ultimate concern, he often finds that it stops short. Regarding Durkheim’s theory, Tillich sees society not as the ultimate foundation for morality, but as an inferior substitute. “Without an ultimate concern as its basis,” he writes, “every system of morals degenerates into a method of adjustment to social demands, whether they are ultimately justified or not.” Yet, when Durkheim asserts that “religion is an eminently social thing,” Tillich responds in agreement. “The act of faith,” Tillich says, “like every act in man’s spiritual life, is dependent on language and therefore on community.”

One of lengthiest examinations in Tillich’s work is of the psychological approach to faith. In generic comments that could apply to either Freud or Jung, Tillich recognizes a relationship between faith and psychology: “The first and decisive polarity in analytic psychology is that between the so-called unconscious and the conscious. Faith as an act of the total personality is not imaginable without the participation of the unconscious elements in the personality structure.” He then goes on to present his own idea of faith’s relationship to neurosis. “But, on the other hand, faith is a conscious act and the unconscious elements participate in the creation of faith only if they are taken into the personal center which transcends each of them. If this does not happen, if unconscious forces determine the mental status without a centered act, faith does not occur, and compulsions take its place.” Contrary to Freud’s position, Tillich finds that faith, properly centered within a personality, can prevent neurosis.

Tillich often takes particular exception with Freud’s work. “The concept of the superego is quite ambiguous,” Tillich writes, “The symbols of faith are considered to be expressions of the superego or … an expression of the father image which gives content to the superego.” But Tillich portrays the father-figure concept as deficient: “Real faith, even if it uses the father image for its expression, transforms this image into a principle of truth and justice to be defended even against the ‘father’.” In fact, Tillich asserts, none of Freud’s work can stand up against faith. “The naturalistic elements which Freud carried from the nineteenth into the twentieth century, his basic Puritanism with respect to love, his pessimism about culture, and his reduction of religion to ideological projection are all expressions of faith and not the result of scientific analysis.” Freud’s possible response – a discourse against unfounded belief – was written prior to Tillich’s work distinguishing between belief and faith. Freud seems unaware of any distinction.

As a theologian, it could be expected that Tillich would find himself more in agreement with Rudolph Otto. Tillich acknowledged Otto’s influence and refers to his work often, even utilizing the same lexicon – for example, in his preference for the word “holy.” Tillich builds upon Otto’s conception of mysterium tremendum, and especially of the “holy,” when presenting his primary idea. “The awareness of the holy is awareness of the presence of the divine, namely of the content of our ultimate concern.” For Tillich, Otto and Eliade, the holy is man’s link to another realm, what all three men refer to as something “wholly other.”

Tillich finally discovers ultimate concern when examining the philosophical approach to religion of Thomas Dewey and Lao Tzu. Philosophy, he says, tries to find the universal categories in which being is experienced, and therefore contains a “point of identify” with religion. “In both cases, ultimate reality is sought and expressed – conceptually in philosophy, symbolically in religion.” But Tillich’s opinions vary in response to Dewey’s scientific perspective and Lao Tzu’s existential view.

For Dewey, as for Freud, Tillich attempts to clarify an important difference between belief and faith. “Almost all the struggles between faith and knowledge are rooted in the wrong understanding of faith as a type of knowledge.” According to Tillich, faith is not about believing that something is true; it is about being ultimately concerned – a condition that cannot exist without doubt. In this way, faith and science are quite similar. “A scientist who would say that a scientific theory is beyond doubt would at that moment cease to be scientific,” Tillich points out. Yet, in direct opposition to Dewey, Tillich avows that “science has no right and no power to interfere with faith and faith has no power to interfere with science. One dimension of meaning is not able to interfere with another dimension.”

The philosophy of Lao Tzu resonates more harmoniously with Tillich. In describing the holy as “both divine and demonic,” Tillich evokes the Taoist concept of yin-yang, saying that “with the reduction of the demonic possibility the holy itself becomes transformed in its meaning.” He grasps that subject/object thinking affects faith, and that overcoming such thoughts can bring a person closer to “the experience of the ultimate, the unconditional.” In order to reach this ultimate presence, man “must transcend the division of existence, even the deepest and most universal of all divisions, that between subject and object.” To reach the ultimate, Tillich says, man must overcome this division in himself.

In Lame Deer’s personality, Tillich would likely perceive facets of all the theories examined here and in his book, because at heart Lame Deer is a philosopher. According to Tillich, philosophical truth underlies every approach to religion, and in every one of them, faith is required. “Faith precedes all attempts to derive it from something else, because these attempts are themselves based on faith,” is Tillich’s summary statement.

Ultimately, no matter what theories these historians, sociologists, psychiatrists, philosophers or theologians put forth, someone invariably comes along to challenge or refute it. No theory ever becomes the ultimate truth, because no theory is beyond doubt. The mystery of religion remains, and Lame Deer would be the first to point out that this, in the end, is a good thing. “Man cannot live without mystery,” he says wisely, “He has a great need of it.”


Dewey, John, A Common Faith (Yale University Press, 1960).

Durkheim, Emile, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane (1959).

Erdoes, Richard and John (Fire) Lame Deer, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions: The Life of a Sioux Medicine Man (Simon & Schuster, 1972).

Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion (W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition, 1989).

Jung, Carl Gustav, Psychology and Religion (Yale University Press, 1960).

Lao Tzu, translated by Muller, Charles, Tao Te Ching (Barnes & Noble Books, 2005).

Otto, Rudolph, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press, 1958).

Tillich, Paul, Dynamics of Faith (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001); Theology of Culture (Oxford University Press, 1964).

No comments:

Post a Comment