The Americas' First Theologies

Early Sources of Post-Contact Indigenous Religion

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Editor(s): 
Garry Sparks
Translator(s): 
Garry Sparks
AAR Religion in Translation
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2017.
     344 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190678302.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This fascinating book is a time machine of sorts. It takes us back to the 16th century, right after post-Columbian (or post-Hispanic) “contact.” The “discovery” of the Americas and the brutal conquests of indigenous peoples notwithstanding, the genuine desire on the part of Christian (Catholic) missionaries to bring the gospel to those colonized peoples was presumably inspired by noble aims, whether misdirected or not. Thanks to the translator, Garry Sparks, what The Americas’ First Theologies does is to transport us to a time and place when the very first efforts to communicate across linguistic, cultural, and religious divides presented a formidable challenge, both interculturally and theologically.

And so it is remarkable how the relatively obscure Dominican friar, Domingo De Vico (martyred in 1555 CE), took it upon himself to master the Ki’che’ Maya language—having “apparently mastered its eloquence” as well (10)—in order to communicate with the native people of what is now Guatemala (the “Highland Maya”). Chapter 1 presents Friar Vico’s “Theology ‘for’ or ‘of’ the Indians” (i.e., Vico’s theological treatise), which is the either/or translation of the Latin title, Theologia Indorum (1553 and 1554), of which a few exemplary sections—“selected because many appear to be among the more influential” (9)—are translated by Sparks.

Vico’s Theologia Indorum was written in Ki’che’ Maya and thus is the very first formal Christian theology produced in the Americas. The Theologia Indorum is also the longest text in any Amerindian language. More than that, as Sparks notes: “No single text has ever been copied for such a length of time—often by indigenous scribes—into so many indigenous languages [that] were in so many different indigenous communities” (8).

Sparks notes that the Theologia Indorum “both speaks to and draws from the Highland Maya” (25). Vico drew from “Maya ceremonial rhetoric and formal poetic speech” and judiciously appropriated “aspects of the indigenous Maya religion and worldview, engaging in a “strategic affirmation” of key elements of Maya religion (25). Sparks notes that the Theologia Indorum is “a direct Christian reply to the Maya and their cosmogonic narratives found in later contemporaneous texts like the famous Popul Wuj” (33).

The Popol Wuj (also known as the Popol Vuh, or “Book of the Council”) is referred to by some (such as Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes) as the “Bible of the ancient Maya.” Rediscovered in the 1850s, the Popol Wuj “is the oldest and most complete collection of epics and creation stories written by any native American group in either North or South America” (204).

What is remarkable is that the Popol Wuj itself is a direct reply to Christianity, as is illustrated by the brief translation, also by Sparks, of its opening: “This is the beginning of the ancient word / here in this place called Ki’che’ / … We shall write about this now / amid the language of God, / in Christendom now” (210).

What came as a complete surprise to the present reviewer is the claim of intertextuality between the Theologia Indorum and the Popol Wuj, and vice versa. In other words, these two texts were engaged in a contemporaneous dialectic. Sparks states that “the Popul Wuj seems to use the first volume of the Theologia Indorum [1553] as a foil against which to reassert a distinctively pre-Hispanic Maya worldview” (209).

For instance, part 1, chapter 1 of the Theologia Indorum refers to “everything formed by God,” followed by lists of various sea creatures (e.g., fish, crabs, crocodiles, whales, dolphins) along with land animals and birds (e.g., “a dog,” hen, rabbit, lion, jaguar, falcon, condor, boa constrictor, a “snake of ‘sorrow’,” a rattlesnake, and a “‘cliff’ snake”) (54–55). In a footnote, Sparks explains that “These lists … echo the lists of creatures found in the cosmogonic section of the Popol Wuj” (55, n. 15). Then Sparks translates the parallel passage directly from the Popol Wuj itself, followed by a transliteration of the original Maya text. Such mastery of the relevant source languages is impressive.

In Part 1, chapter 25, Vico gives a list of ancient Maya worthies, most of whom are either major or minor legendary characters in the Popol Wuj. But two or three of these names are “not only absent in the Popol Wuj altogether but also seem to have slipped away from modern K’iche’ oral tradition.” This evidence leads Sparks to conclude: “Vico thus appears to have had access to an earlier version of the Popol Wuj” (105, n. 15). This observation alone inspires confidence in the depth of friar Vico’s first-hand knowledge of the Highland Maya vernaculars and local culture.

Also of interest is how Vico equates the Maya supreme deity, the “Framer and Former,” with the Catholic Díos: “Only Framer / and Former spoken of by your fathers and grandfathers of lore, / then there is also God / the great Lord.” On this bold theological claim, Sparks comments: “While Vico’s interpretive move of arguing that the Catholic Díos and Ki’che’ Tz’aqol, B’itol [paired names for the Maya creator God] both refer to the same God is notably unique among Christian clergy and theologians, especially at the time,…the explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca made the same claim years earlier with respect to the beliefs of the indigenous people northeast of the Gulf of California in present-day Sinaloa” (115, n. 36). This is an unpretentious, yet admirable display of scholarship.

Sparks’s translation of friar Vico’s Theologia Indorum is set in free verse form, thereby visually highlighting the native idioms and images in as true-to-form a way as is possible in translation. The “introduction” and explanatory footnotes are illuminating. Although Sparks does not comment on the degree to which friar Vico may have transformed Christian teachings in the process of transposing them intelligibly into native K’iche’ religious idioms, one gets the sense that Vico has subtly recast Christian teachings in fresh and surprising ways. Sparks hints at this transformation in remarking: “The extent to which Vico’s theology is ‘orthodox’ or whether he was disingenuous in his representation of Maya religiosity…is nearly beside the point, except to the extent in considering not just that but also how and why…[Vico] did so” (290, emphasis in original).

The Americas’ First Theologies is a landmark sourcebook in documenting the earliest period of interreligious encounter in the Americas. Although not an interfaith dialogue, the fact that two religious traditions are in conversation is a social phenomenon worth reflecting upon. Sparks and his colleagues have produced a text that not only is of historical and cultural interest, but a work that may have significant implications today as well. Use of The Americas’ First Theologies in classroom settings may trigger some thought-provoking discussions. Recommended for university libraries, and commended as a prospective textbook for indigenous studies, religious studies, anthropology, comparative literature, and/or linguistics courses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Buck is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Garry Sparks is assistant professor of religion studies at George Mason University. He focuses on anthropological (socio-cultural and linguistic) and ethnohistorical understandings of theological production in the Americas, particularly among indigenous peoples. His areas include histories of Christian thought, theories of religion and culture, Native American religions, and religion in Latin America. He specifically attends to the periods of first contact between Iberian mendicant missionaries and indigenous Mesoamericans as well as current religious movements like liberation theologies, "Indian" theology (teología india), Latin American Protestantisms, and the revitalization of indigenous traditionalism (such as Maya Spirituality or kojb'al).

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