Sacrality is, above, all a category of emplacement.
–Jonathan Z. Smith
A few years I saw a map of Christendom put forth by a Protestant Reformation Society in which the catholic countries were painted black, and the protestant countries in a light color. The black was the Kingdom of the Beast where the children of darkness worship the Virgin Mary. The light colors stood for the true Israel, the lands flowing with milk & honey, which having Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer have no need of the Sun or of the Moon to lighten them.
–Cardinal Manning, On the Blessed Virgin Mary, an uncatalogued manuscript in the Pitts Theology Library of Emory University, folio.
A corner of the map was missing and one of the officials asked how it had come to be damaged. Aggan answered: someone had died who would not easily find his way to heaven, so the owner of the map had cut a piece of it and buried it with the body. With the aid of even a fragment, said Aggan, the dead man would probably find the correct trail….”
Mircea Eliade, who, more than any other scholar, shaped the early formation of religious studies as a discipline, made much of the idea of sacred space and the symbolism of the center, the orienting place from which a people’s sacred cosmos is generated. Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, both anthropologists, have also strongly influenced our understanding of sacred space, particularly with their notion of liminality, the sacred “threshold” zone that marks boundaries between cultural domains. Nevertheless, all three scholars treated sacred space in ways that were largely metaphoric, having little to do with actual geography or the concrete complexities of the environment. Attention to sacred spaces and environments has been slow in coming to religious studies. Because the sacred has sometimes been imagined in the Euroamerican West as transcending space and time, Western religious studies scholars often lapse into the assumption that religion has little to do with the particularities of the environment. However, under the impact of the environmental crisis, critiques by feminist theologians, and the emergence of ritual studies, sacred space is beginning to be taken with a new seriousness and conceptualized with a concreteness previously absent. Among the results is a growing interest in the regional and local roots of religious practice.
My reflections on the problem of mapping religions in North America started when I began to work as an advisor for a documentary film on local religion and drama called “Gathering Up Again: Fiesta in Santa Fe” and to write Symbol and Conquest. The Southwest is southwest only from a point of view located northeast of itself. In New Mexico “south of the border” refers to Mexico. However, the area U. S. citizens designate “the Southwest” is to Mexicans El Norte (“the north”). To residents of British Columbia, Washington state is “south of the border.” Thinking about the relation between geographical regions and nation-focused histories of religion necessitates paying attention to the ways spatial metaphor, or mapping, functions as an ideological underpinning for histories of religion in North America.
On many anthropological and archaeological maps the southwestern United States is a distinct culture area, though one’s definition of the Southwest shifts, depending on the purpose. When considering prehistoric indigenous religions, the Southwest consists of what is now Arizona, New Mexico, the extreme southern portions of Colorado and Utah, and the extreme northern portion of Mexico. If one is referring to the historical period, during which Spanish and Mexicans conquered and settled the Southwest between 1540 and 1821, the Southwestern culture area must include parts of Texas and California because of the strong presence of Hispanic Catholicism in those areas. The Southwest is also a mythic space constructed by the popular Anglo-American imagination. As the imagined home of Indians, conquistadors, and cowboys, and as a mecca for artists, anthropologists, and other tourists from “back” East, it is a stage or arena in which historical characters, mythic forces, and dramatis personae engage in social dramas and historical pageants.
The distinctions among archaeologically, historically, and mythically constructed space may seem absolute to some, but these are only three of the many possible “southwests,” depending upon your purpose and perspective. My aim is make us aware that these are strategies, not facts, and to show how one such mapping strategy has shaped the history of religions in the United States.
But first a word about the mapping the metaphor. The term “map” (Latin: mappe) originally meant “tablecloth” or “napkin.” A mappe mundi, a map of the world, was a flat thing laid out on a table and used to represent features of the earth’s surface. Such a “tablecloth of the world” was, of course, a metaphor in a twofold sense. A map both is and is not a tablecloth; a map both is and is not the world. Maps are so useful and the image of a world-in-a-napkin so compelling that the idea of mapping has undergone numerous metaphoric extensions. Outlines, classificatory schemes, organizational charts, lists, and other graphic devices having nothing whatever to do with geographical features of the earth’s surface are spoken of as “maps.” Even mental representations, mazeways as Anthony Wallace calls them,i have become “maps.”
Maps render ideologies and sacredly help assumptions with graphic clarity, a point made with considerable irony by Cardinal Manning in the second epigraph above. A map reflects journeys completed and suggests explorations yet to come. The point of any map, literal or metaphoric, is to facilitate orientation. Religious people try to orient themselves by mapping the world, the body, ritual space, and so on. Students of religion try to orient themselves by mapping traditions onto geographical domains (Hinduism in India, Judaism in Israel, and so on). Presumably, there is some relation between the maps of religious people and the maps of scholars of religion.
Zen masters are fond of reminding their students that the finger which points out the moon is not the moon, and Jonathan Z. Smith tells his students that the map is not the territory. However true such statements are, they are also half truths. Zen masters do not let their initiates get away with thinking the finger is not the moon, and Smith wants to convince his readers that ritual is fundamentally a matter of placement, for which conceptual maps are determinative. So maps matter. As the third epigraph suggests, for some Native people even a corner of the right map enables the spirits of the dead to find their way home.
Maps–fantastic, mythic, and geographic–dramatize social constructions of, and perspectives on, space and, ultimately, cosmology. Conflicting constructions of space, such as those laid out by Natives, Hispanics, and Anglos in the Southwest determine sacredly envisioned destinies and create centers from which groups engage in critiques of each other’s worlds.
Yi-fu Tuan, a cultural geographer, uses the term “geopiety” to refer to people’s reverent bonding and reciprocity with their terrestrial homes. The term as I use it applies to academic culture as well as folk culture. The geopieties of scholars are evident in the few literal geographies of religion there are, for example, Frank Litell’s The Macmillan Atlas History of Christianity, but geopiety is no less determinative in histories of religion in North America.
Historians’ maps are occasionally explicit. More often they are either metaphoric or implicit. Historiography is the study of the ways history is written and, consequently, of the tacit assumptions of historians. Just as religious people make certain spatial assumptions that ground their rites, sacred histories, and cosmologies, so students of religion in America have treasured points of view and spatial metaphors–geopieties–that ground their historiographies, hence, my hyperbolic label, “holy” historiography. This historiography is holy in the sense that sometimes it is held tacitly and persistently and thus not subject to much conscious, critical scrutiny, and in the sense that its spatial orientations enshrine ultimate values that sometimes contradict explicitly stated ideologies.
Not so long ago the discipline known as “American religious history” or “the history of religions in America” was called “church history.” As church history it was conceived narrowly in terms of the dominant religion, Christianity. Sometimes it was even more narrowly limited to either Protestantism or Catholicism. In either case church history was too often written as if non-ecclesiastical, non-Christian reality did not exist. Now that scholars write “American religious history,” they typically acknowledge the plurality of religious traditions in America. However, even this approach has its blind spots. Many who write such histories do so from the point of view of the east coast and from the point of view of English colonialism and its westward movement.
If one wants to understand the history of religions in the Southwest, there are at least two other major perspectives that must be taken into account. First, there are Native Americans for whom mythic space is sometimes defined by roughly concentric rings, the outermost limit of which is marked by sacred mountains, which are both mythic-ritualistic and geographical. For them the westward movement of Anglo-American history was an invasion, a penetration from the outside in. And second, there are Hispanic Americans for whom destiny moved not only from east to west but also from south to north. So a regional perspective can help correct the over-generalizations of a national one.
A history of religions is typically written from a standpoint that provides its basic orientation. History, like any other form of narrative, always implies a point of view. But an implied point of view is often more revealing than an overtly stated one, because it is usually less subject to an author’s control and manipulation. Claiming that all knowledge is from a “standpoint” is nothing new. Michael Novak popularized the metaphor among religion scholars some years ago in his little “invitation” to religious studies, Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove. For him, however, a standpoint had no fundamental relation to an actual place; it was not a geographical location where one stood viewing the world but a conceptual “position,” which was no more bodily than his standpoint was geographical. As important as it is to understand that “point of view” is a metaphor for “presupposition” or “basic value,” we must not ignore its geographical and historiographical implications even though they may be tacit.
Though the “holy” historiography is breaking up, there are still remnants of it in use, so it is essential to identify its basic assumptions, for example, the assumption of an east-to-west axis. The dominant historiography usually implies a standpoint located in the northeastern United States. That standpoint functions as a perceptual, orienting center. And, typically, the central standpoint is singular, not plural. There is one center.
From this center, destiny, following the frontier hypothesis, rolls westward like a great ball. Historian-narrators–largely White, often Protestant–typically position themselves either alongside or behind this ball, not in front of it.
This east-to-west spatial movement is assumed to coincide with a temporal movement running from the time of the Puritan colonies to that of New Age or new religious movements in California.
Since the great ball of destiny is moving through both space and time, at some point the narrator–not to be left behind what he or she is narrating–shifts points of view from center to circumference. In effect the narrator gains control of both symbolic regions and thus presumes to narrate both mainline religion and its impact on peripheral religion.
Since a metaphoric trick is being played out here, I need to rerun this part of the panorama in slow motion. On the one hand, our historian/narrators see things from the northeast. In their eyes the plains spread out toward the west. California looms large, a kind of golden magnet or target. Pueblos, Navajos, and Hispanic Catholics and others inhabiting the Southwest are somewhere “out there” on the circumference, out there on the desert frontier. The narrator is at the center, the place of a privileged point of view. For a moment it seems that the historian has ceded to those “others” a reservation of sorts. At least they have the hinterland, the periphery.
Then our “holy” history-tellers realize that, as guardians of the center, they are now confined to a single point; the movement of history is leaving them behind. So they shift their spatial point of view. Now, our narrators are at the edge of circle, the circumference. Now they are the container rather than the contained. By reversing the spatial strategy, this sort of narrator becomes a custodian of the all-encompassing circumference, and those “others” become the inhabitants of a small point. Though that point is now in the middle, it is too small to be significant; it may even be defined as nonexistent. The trick then is that our historian lays claim to both narrative standpoints, center and circumference, an act of metaphoric omnipresence.
By leaping back and forth from center to circumference, the narrating historian assumes a bird’s (or god’s) eye view of the whole process. This view from above is conveyed primarily by the rhetorical convention of an omnipresent narrator who is nowhere in particular, everywhere in general. Put in spatial terms, we might call this the assumption of “narratorial generic space.” Like writing in an assumed generic gender–neither that of a man nor that of a woman–writing from anywhere or nowhere really amounts to an unconscious strategy for disguising what some experience as epistemological and rhetorical imperialism. Of course, the contradiction between the narrator’s omnipresence and his or her location in the east seldom becomes explicit and thus subject to critique.
In some versions of the “holy” historiography another spatial metaphor, a size metaphor, is also at work: some traditions are imagined as greater and some as smaller. The “greater” traditions, for example, Christianity, are treated as universal and referred to as “world” religions–I prefer the term “multi-national.” The “smaller” traditions are tribal, local, or regional.
The size metaphor is usually coupled with a deeply rooted directional metaphor. Influence, it is assumed, passes in one direction only: from the big traditions to the little ones. And whatever is local is interpreted as a manifestation of something greater. Local religion is construed as a variation on a theme orchestrated at the national, or some greater, level. Local religion then becomes a “commentary” or “reflection” on national or multinational forms. American religious history is used to account for local religious history, not vice-versa.
One implication of such a mapping of the geography of North American religions is that indigenous religions, for example, are made peripheral; they are off the mainline. They have history–which is to say, exist–only insofar as they are bumped by the great bowling ball of Christian-American destiny as it rolls across the country and down through time. Even in instances where historians choose to recognize that indigenous religions were here first, indigenous histories typically cease to be narrated once the main thread of the narrative is picked up again: first were the Indians, then came the Spaniards, then came the English, and so on. Once the English and Spaniards are on the stage, the Indians disappear from the story.
An architectural example of the way this spatial metaphor works is reflected in the structure of the new Canadian Museum of Civilization. Its bottom floor contains Native exhibits. The second floor displays “folklore” materials, that is, deposits from recent immigrants, for example, the Chinese. And on the third floor is “history,” where the English and French are. Walking into the museum, one enters into a state of nature and ascends through folklore into history. When one gets up to history, Indians are not there. Though the historians at the museum maintain that Indians have history, the proxemics of the museum undermines their claim.
Even when Native people are given primacy of place in histories and museums, the ball of destiny rolls past them as it makes its way into the 20th century. “They” appear spatially static and therefore passive, while “we” appear spatially dynamic and therefore active. “We” are at the center; “they” are on the circumference.
To summarize the key features of the mapping of religions implied by the dominant, or “holy,” historiography:
- a single center or origin,
- located in the northeastern United States;
- a movement of destiny from east to west,
- coupled with a temporal progression from Puritan colonies to West Coast new religions;
- an implied omniscient narrator capable of shuttling between the center and the circumference; and
- a size-as-value metaphor implying that lines of influence run one-way from “great,” “mainline,” or “world” traditions to “local,” “tribal,” or “minority” ones.
Some Histories of Religion in America
Since at least 1968, the date of William Clebsch’s From Sacred to Profane America, there has been a growing effort to achieve what Clebsch called a “polypolitan” view of religions in North America. As opposed to the “holy” historiography, the “polypolitan” historiography aspires to be polycentric and multivocal.
In 1972 Sydney Ahlstrom published his monumental A Religious History of the American People. It became the focus of considerable scholarly discussion about a new historiography that goes beyond not only the church history paradigm but beyond Christian history to a pluralistic history of religions in North America. One reason it became central to religious studies was that the book is both a classic representative and an early critic of the “holy” historiography with its implied geopiety. In one sense Ahlstrom’s work exemplifies the older historiography, and in another, his call for a more pluralistic history of religions in America helped initiate the turn toward a more inclusive historiography that aspires to pay sustained attention to women, Black people, Native people, and religious groups outside the so-called “mainline.”
In 1976, the date of A Nation of Behavers, Martin Marty, pursuing this desire for a more pluralistic, less ethno- and religiocentric historiography, became quite explicit about mapping, our topic. The first chapter, called “Mapping Group Identity and Social Location,” begins with the claim, “This essay in contemporary history provides a new map of religious America….” Among other things, his aim was to put behavior on the religion scholar’s map, so it was no longer overshadowed by thought.
In Marty’s book the map metaphor is supplemented by a second spatial metaphor, that of “perspective,” which has nothing overtly to do with actual spatial location. Marty hopes to find an adequate perspective from which to explore six general religious “zones.” This is a third spatial metaphor–again, having nothing to do with geographic region. Marty sustains the mapping metaphor throughout his book, using it, for example, to criticize Will Herberg’s identification of American religion with Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. He creates a reductionist map was superimposed on the earlier territorial and denominational ones, but soon events would occur, both in religious demography and in the change of the spiritual landscape, that necessitated another map, another layer.”
Marty is obviously aware of the problems presented by the idea of a normative, central, or mainline American religion. He takes up the image of a “mainline,” not just to utilize it, but to identify its limits so he can attend more fully to non-mainline American religions such as ethnic, or “ethno-,” religion. Though Marty thinks his “zones” “account for all forms of social religious attachments and expressions” in North America, he is modest and thus expects other maps to be superimposed on his.
Marty uses the images of map, perspective, zone, and mainline as metaphors. “Map” really amounts to a set of “types,” “movements,” or “phases.” The map metaphor does not spatialize or regionalize his perspective. In fact, he identifies “territorial” maps as a remnant of an older historiography that he wants to leave behind. His analysis has little to do space, locale, or region. As he puts it, these are “’ways’ more than ‘places.’” By severing maps from places, thereby rendering the former entirely conceptual rather than spatial, Marty jeopardizes his own claim to be studying behavior, because behavior happens in specific places.
You might complain that my objection ignores the fact that the map is not the territory; consequently, an erroneous map is not all that significant an error. However true it is that maps are models, not reality, when we internalize them as cosmologies, they determine how we behave as we negotiate our way through a territory. Maps alter perceptions, thereby behavior, thereby the territory itself. The relationship between territory and map is highly interactive and systemic; a change in one requires a change in the other.
Marty’s book is a good, not a bad, example of the newer historiography of religions as it attempts to rectify the abuses of the “holy” historiography. But this new “polypolitan” historiography still clings to remnants of the “holy” historiography insofar as the narrator remains rhetorically omnipresent and his zones, not regionally specific. In my view Marty’s good, pluralistic intentions are compromised by the despatialized, disembodied narratorial strategy. One can only imagine–with a certain perverse delight, I admit–how his book would read if it were not only written in Chicago (if that is where he wrote it) but as if from Chicago.
There is a tendency in religious studies, particularly in theology and philosophy of religion, to ignore the ground religious people walk on, as if the metaphoric “ground” of their being was somehow independent of the actual land underfoot. A reason sometimes given for this platonic tendency to float above the environment is the view that religion is essentially concerned with mythic, ritualistic, or conceptual space, not actual social or geographical–space. Supposedly taking their clue from religious practitioners, students of religion have sometimes narrated the history of religions in a way that implies that the narrator is an omnipresent one located either nowhere in particular or everywhere in general. Aiming to counteract this tendency, philosophical hermeneutics has reminded us that we approaches texts and other religious phenomena from a “horizon,” from a set of presupposed questions and values. But this horizon has seldom been the sort that witnesses sunrises and sunsets. Again, as with “standpoint” and “ground,” these fundamentally spatial notions have been rendered as metaphors without ground. There is nothing wrong with them as metaphors; they are quite useful as such. But it is essential to recollect the geographical and environmental bases of the metaphors and thereby take our actual “locatedness” more seriously than we typically do.
Recently, Catherine Albanese, Sam Gill, Robert Michaelsen, and others have deepened the call for a new approach by insisting on the inclusion of Native religions, not as peripheral objects but as fully historical, fully acting entities. Presently, I know of no serious scholar who denies the need for such inclusivity, though there are few candidates for books in religious studies that have actually achieved it. A major problem that Michaelsen points out is that there is so much data on Native American religions, but there is no compelling perspective. So he proposes one. He calls it “a history of religions done within the framework of res publica, by which he means “the underlying legal framework of the United States.”
My problem is what such a perspective implies geographically. Put metaphorically, this is still a perspective from Washington. The way the metaphor works is insidious, because it militates against Michaelsen’s own explicit ideological stance. For example, he treats the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 as something promulgated by the United States (that is, from Washington), which subsequently has a positive effect at Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, on the Blue Lake controversy. Though I am sure he does not intend to, Michaelsen makes it seem that causes emanate from Washington with effects in Taos. But Taos Pueblos know that Mr. Washington does not move unless someone goes there to push him. I am sure Michaelsen knows this too. But he thinks we should have one perspective, so he wants to find the proper standpoint for it. To the contrary, I am maintaining that a perspective that is either from Washington or from nowhere in particular is a strategy of narratorial omniscience unworthy of a genuinely “polypolitan” historiography. You could put it this way: there is still a latent, mythological “federalism” or “republicanism” in this perspective; it is still a search for overarching oneness and unity. It assumes that “the nation” is the proper unit of consideration. I have no argument against respublica as subject matter, but I do as point of view. Catherine Albanese has criticized this nation-state viewpoint as Puritan (therefore ethnocentric) and called for new ways of organizing space and time. And Vine Deloria has criticized civil religion theory, a kind of respublica approach, for perpetuating a Christian view of history that sets it against geography. We do well to heed their cautions.
So far I have criticized spatial metaphors implicit in national histories of religion from a regional viewpoint, but regional perspectives are not sacrosanct either. Even the idea of a specific, coherent region, in this case, the Southwest, is a construct that exists in tension with a variety of local geopieties. Even within the Southwest there are a great many maps–some literal, some metaphoric, some mythical–and they represent a set of competing, converging, conflicting geopieties. I do not propose here to try to summarize them adequately but merely to identify a few examples of their mapping strategies that have a potential for grounding critiques of the spatial assumptions of the “holy” and the “polypolitan” historiographies. For example, emergence myths are widespread in the Southwest. One finds them among Pueblos, Hopis, Zunis, and Navajos. The drawing at the beginning of the Navajo Curriculum Center’s Navajo History illustrates well enough the sense of primal movement from below to above. It depicts the spiralling emergence of Navajo people from below this present world. Though movement upward seems in some respect inevitable or necessary, it is not “progress” as Westerners imagine upward spiraling to suggest. Failure, quarrelling, and sexual impropriety are among the motors of the emergence movement. Such emergence, or “going up,” myths imply a different set of values from the “going out” metaphors that are at the root of Judaism and Christianity and their secularized, civil-religious offspring.
Another indigenous spatial metaphor is linked to wandering, dispersing, reconverging. Once in this world, so the stories go, emergent people often found themselves wandering, dispersing, engaging in clan formation, and reconverging. In this process certain places, usually mountains, became sacred markers. They marked the ritual extent of a people’s world, though not its actual territorial extent. This was not the territory they owned, but the land with which they bonded in forming their corporate identity. Even though a “going out” motif is essential, so is a “returning home” or “coming in” metaphor. The world is not treated as an infinite horizon calling for boundless exploration.
Among religion scholars one of the best known features of indigenous spatial conceptions is that of the sacred center or middle place. Zunis, for instance, refer to themselves as “people of the middle place.” Though “place” may be grammatically singular, this centered universe is nevertheless polycentric. On the one hand, there is one emergence place; it is the center. On the other, there are many centers, and they are identical with that one. As a diagram and chapter by Alfonso Ortiz illustrates, the Tewa Pueblo spatial universe is roughly concentric but not symmetrical, and there is no simple opposition between center and periphery.
In indigenous worldviews boundaries, however they are conceived, are generally permeable and shifting, or there are no territorial boundaries at all. “As the Navajos saw it, land had no boundaries. The land between the four mountains was a hogan. Navajos lived in it with other peoples and tribes like people living together in a hogan,” argue Beck and Walters. Despite the fact of having a world bounded by mountains both sacred and geographic, Native people often conceive of their circumference as open. The sense of territory as carved up like a jig-saw puzzle, was not native to their traditions. This kind of bounded, territorial sense developed largely when treaties had to be negotiated with foreign governments.
A primary difference between Native geopieties and those of Euroamericans was the experience of being penetrated from without, followed by a diaspora from within. Contemporary Native worldviews now include this “historic” redefinition of their sense of space. The sacred circle has been penetrated. Boundaries have been hardened and defended by law or by gun, and the people have migrated from reservations to cities and back again in extended periods of dispersal and reaggregation.
These are only examples, barely sketched, of the kinds of spatialized rethinking that needs to be taken into account if histories of religion are to be genuinely pluralistic in their treatment of sacred spaces, ranging from the local to the cosmological. It is essential to initiate critical reflection on the issue of sacred environments from perspectives other than our own. If one can criticize the way histories of American religion do violence to the Southwest with its regional pieties, then the very notion of southwesterliness must also be subjected to critique from the point of view of indigenous, local geopieties and from the standpoint of Hispanic historiography, something I have not attempted here.
I conclude by identifying some of the implications that follow if we systematically attend to local and regional geopieties, allowing them to question nationally focused “holy” and “polypolitan” historiographies. We will be prepared to identify implicit standpoints, reflected in spatial metaphors like “map” and “point of view” and to hear the historian/narrator’s voice, which is probably more indicative of ultimate values than the content of a storyteller’s historical or oral narrative. Hearing this positioned voice will makes us more self-aware, recognizing that all historical narratives are positioned and thus mythic. Thus, for example, “Washington” will seem to us no less mythic than the worlds below this one; both are orienting places. Such a recognition can teach us the humility that comes from knowing that maps are plural even within a tradition, not to mention between traditions. A recognized plurality of maps would virtually force scholars to take systematic, theoretical account of the fact that there that are no generic or universal histories–that all histories are ethnohistories. One consequence for the writing of religious history, specifically the story of religions in the Americas, would likely be a decision to narrate it by several authors to insure preservation of the plurality of indigenous, regional, and local voices. Such a plurality of voices would, I believe, challenge the tyranny of chronology and introduce less linear strategies for writing history–strategies in which simultaneity is possible, in which several religions and groups occupy the stage at the same time. With no grand climaxes the “star,” or heroic, conception of the drama of history would doubtless fall (it is crumbling now), as would the more virulent idea of a “mainline” American religion, from which everything else is a deviation, variation, or local realization. If we, in fact, succeed in taking what one cultural geographer calls a “worm’s eye view,” that is, a regional/spatial/land-based view, to supplement the reigning chronological overviews, we will be well on our way to comprehending the implications of the opening epigraph by Jonathan Z. Smith, who comments, “Sacrality is, above, all a category of emplacement.”
Originally published in 1994 as “Sacred Space and the Southwest: Mapping Histories of American Religion” in Environments 22.2: 21 – 28.