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Eco-Justice Notes
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Beauty is Restored
distributed 5/21/10 - ©2010

I know of a church in northern New Mexico which uses a multi-cultural affirmation of faith during the Easter season. Drawing on both traditional Christian expressions and Navajo culture, members of the congregation greet each other with a mix of two joyous statements:

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Beauty is restored again. It is restored indeed.

The second line becomes meaningful when -- and only when -- the community has at least a passing awareness of the Navajo concept of "beauty". With that awareness, though, "beauty" can stretch and enhance our Christian spirituality and theology. Beauty can help us express the joy of resurrection that extends through human communities and all of creation.

(The liturgical phrasing makes me think of the text that often scrolls across the bottom of TV ads for high-performance cars, "Professional driver on a closed course." Don't drive 60 miles per hour on a windy road when other cars are present, and don't try culturally-shaped liturgy without first educating the congregation!)

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Some of you may have encountered a bit of Navajo culture and philosophy through a series of mystery novels written by Tony Hillerman. The stories take place on the Navajo nation, which covers a huge area across the northern part of what US geography calls Arizona and New Mexico. Hillerman's respectful descriptions of Navajo life often touch on beauty as a guiding and grounding principle. The tribal policemen who are the two lead characters -- one a "secular" Navajo, the other deeply tied to religious ceremony and philosophy -- both encounter beauty as a central factor in their detective work.

A recent scholarly article expresses the depth of beauty (hózhó) in that culture.

Hózhó is a word that defines the essence of Navajo or Diné philosophy. It encompasses beauty, order, and harmony, and expresses the idea of striving for balance. Every aspect of Navajo life, secular and spiritual, is related to hózhó. As humans we straddle the border between health and sickness, good and evil, happiness and sadness. We are always trying to gain harmony in life, preserve beauty, and find order again after balance has been disturbed. According to the Navajo worldview, the purpose of life is to achieve balance, in a continual cycle of gaining and retaining harmony.

When "beauty" is understood as harmonious relationships among all parts of creation, and as psychological wholeness, then we can see a recurring expression of Navajo prayer as talking about much more than pretty scenery. "In beauty I walk. With beauty before me I walk. With beauty behind me I walk. With beauty above me I walk. With beauty around me I walk. It has become beauty again."

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The regular readers of Eco-Justice Notes know of my fixation with the Hebrew concept of shalom, the peace-with-justice that encompasses all creation. Every week, Notes ends with the affirmation of Shalom! It is a theme that I often address in my work with churches.

My sense of that biblical concept has been enriched by a wonderful a resonance between the Navajo idea of beauty and the Hebrew idea of shalom. My historical imagination is brought to life by a sense of the way hózhó infuses Navajo culture. I can start to imagine the way shalom might have functioned as a grounding principle in Hebrew life.

I do not want to suggest that the two are identical, for the worldviews and traditions and practices of the two cultures are very different. I certainly do not want to suggest that I have expertise in the astounding complexity of Navajo philosophy and language. (During World War II, Navajo "code talkers" in the US military spoke their native language as a code that was indecipherable by the Japanese. As in any culture, the structure and nuance of a language shapes worldviews. The richness of Navajo thought can't be explored without much study and experience.)

Most of the Christian theology and biblical scholarship that I read is profoundly shaped by European languages and philosophies, by a dualism that divides body/spirit and human/nature. Western religious thought has been influenced by materialism, capitalism and consumerism, and we often read ancient scripture through the lens of more modern thought. That can make us blind to perspectives and realities that may have seemed self-evident to the original community. (For example, a previous Notes, Not Idiots, looks at ways that our divided worldview prevents us from understanding a simple biblical text.)

The glimpses that I have had into Navajo thought -- from time spent near the Navajo lands, through studies of art and culture and anthropology, and even through Hillerman's novels -- have opened my mind and my spirit to a more holistic worldview. Knowing a bit about Navajo life makes it possible for me to see how shalom could have infused the life and thinking of ancient Israel.

Shalom and hózhó are not interchangeable. But they may be much closer together, more in tune with each other, than shalom is with consumerism in a market-oriented world. Hózhó helps to remove my cultural and intellectual blinders. A living culture oriented to beauty-as-harmony that includes the whole created order helps me to recognize and appreciate similar strands within my own Judeo-Christian heritage.

The church in Santa Fe where I worshipped last Sunday delighted me with the liturgical option about "beauty is restored again." That Navajo-inspired language helped me to claim a Christian affirmation that resurrection is not a purely personal and spiritual reality. The good news of Easter is about a wholeness that connects individuals and community, and that brings reconciliation to all of creation.

I give thanks for insights that can refresh and renew our faith. I give thanks for all the cultures and worldviews that affirm the interconnection of the web of life. Beauty is restored again. So be it. Amen.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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