Despisers of Indigenous Hawaiian Religion
A despiser is one who has deep contempt for something – in this present discussion – that something is Indigenous Hawaiian Religion. Of course, there is a spectrum from utter disrespect to milder disregard in judging Indigenous Hawaiian Religion as having no worth or consequence.
Despiser #1: Why would you want to revive old superstitions?
Kupuna: Labeling another person’s faith and practice as superstition is disrespectful and intellectually lazy. Such a habit of speech is “modern” and goes against Hawaiian values. Practicing values of aloha, ‘ohana, lōkahi, mālama, pono and so much more, is the essence of being Hawaiian. Must I go on to remind you of the value and greatness of the wisdom that our kupuna kept alive for us?
You realize that even children’s stories have a deeper meaning that teaches a lesson. How much more true is for Hawaiian mo‘olelo; for in our Hawaiian language the symbols, the metaphors and the word-play are to be understood in the context and on different levels of meaning. Some of the deeper meanings are huna, waiting for those who are ready to learn and decipher them.
Despiser #2: But everyone knows that Hawaiian religion is dead; and it was cruel anyway, even practicing human sacrifice. Are you going to start blood offerings again?
Kupuna: Your information and assumptions are wrong. The warrior religion of Ku did practice human sacrifice, but the worship of Kane never did. In fact these falsehoods were started by the plantation owners who set up the puppet government that ushered in the U.S. occupation. Persons who can read Hawaiian language materials, like Prof. Ron Williams*, have found that Indigenous Hawaiian faith and practice remained public until approximately the 1920s, and Hawaiians found their spirituality compatible with Christianity. In the 1880s and 90s we were both Christian and Hawaiian at the same time – openly. But by the 1920s all the mechanisms of occupation began to be successful – killing the use of the Hawaiian language, outlawing Hawaiian religion as sorcery, discouraging Hawaiian cultural practices like hula, ridiculing Hawaiian masters of the 90+ traditional disciplines, so that the term kahuna became used as a racist slur. Thus, Hawaiian faith and practice was forced into a huna practice.
Today repeating “plantation propaganda” and remaining ignorant of Hawaiian history and culture only hurts our people. We must remember the illustrious past of the ancient world’s greatest open-ocean sailors. We should look forward to a future shaped by the communal values, discovered on those first voyages, "values of the canoe." If you are Hawaiian, surely you know these values. Being akamai begins the path to being pono.
Despiser #3: But why do Hawaiians always stand against science, progress, and prosperity?
Kupuna: I hope you are only repeating somebody else’s nonsense. If not, you would be without Ha, without understanding the wisdom that Hawaiians have kept alive.
First, the generalization of “always” is a logical fallacy and lacks knowledge of our history.
Second, there is no truth to claiming that Hawaiians are unscientific. What about the “native science” used to navigate the Pacific? Can you pilot a small, double-hulled canoe with 16 paddlers, starting tomorrow, from Oahu to Maui or Kauai without any modern instruments?
And third, the claim of “scientific” hides a long history of the misuse of science which often is “bad science.” Please recall how “scientists” were bought and paid for by the tobacco industry; and currently, political interests of Big Oil deny the scientific facts of man-made climate change. Science is said to be “value-free” in order to find “the facts”. But it is sadly becoming “valueless” in helping us with meaning, beauty, and the values we live by. When scientific achievements are divorced from ethics, they can be extremely dangerous (the use of atomic energy for mass destruction, for instance).
The claim about progress and prosperity is a slogan of the plantation, the profit-hungry exploiter, and those who try to prevent us from taking into consideration other perspectives--like sustainable lifestyles, non-pollution of our land and ocean, economic equality, non-desecration of graveyards and sacred sites, mālama ‘āina, and those values that make us Hawaiian.
Please, answer a question: Would you call the Japanese “unscientific” and “against progress and prosperity” because they would never allow a telescope to be built on Mt. Fuji (Fujiyama), nor allow bulldozing a graveyard calling it “inadvertent” each time it happens (although locals testify that graves are there)? Do you think the Japanese would allow the past to be erased (Japanese language, literature, art, sacred objects, shrines, temples, etc.) in the name of “progress and prosperity”?
Can you be a true Hawaiian if you dishonor Hawaiian culture and its faith and practice with the arguments of those who have attempted cultural genocide?
Please, allow me a short comment about the latest charges that we are an unscientific people concerning our opposition to putting yet another telescope on our most sacred mountain, Mauna Kea. No one has proven that it will be “good” or “necessary” science. It is a centuries old technology that is land-based, when the major advances in astronomy are coming from space probes (Hubble, New Horizons, etc.). Granted, it is an economic boon for a few, but you must argue just how your land-based telescope is scientifically and economically justified in terms of the public rather than the private good. And then, prove that its use is not a violation of laws concerning occupation, title, ecology, pollution, and cultural and religious rights. I think, with more thought instead of empty slogans, you will appreciate our objections just a little more.
Despiser #4: Won’t you admit that you worship false gods and idols?
Kupuna: It is a common mistake to think of others’ god or gods as false and their religious objects as idols. And then, it follows that one’s own God (note the use of the capital letter to privilege this truth claim) is True (another capitalization).
You have asked a wonderful question actually, if you reflect on religious truth claims and study the ideas of great thinkers in world religions about this question.
Amazingly, there is a shocking similarity across the religious traditions: that human ideas about God, Allah, Buddha, the Gods, etc., are inadequate. No religion is the only true one or has all the “Truth”. The great scholar, Huston Smith, summarized it well: a lower order being cannot fully comprehend a higher order being. An ant cannot comprehend a human. We humans cannot comprehend God, the Absolute, Ultimate Reality – but this comprehension symbolizes or represents our ultimate concern. Even the wonderful “divine revelations” of our religions use human languages, which are woefully inadequate for their chosen task. So-called sacred languages like Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit or Chinese fail to be “God’s language.”
And this leads to the next point, as the great Christian theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher said, our understanding of God or the Absolute is our own projection of our highest understanding or image of ourself upon the universe. This is a deeply religious realization, although Freud and Marx took the idea of projection to support their versions of atheism. Stated religiously, there is “God beyond God.” Something beyond our comprehension that is unknowable, just as the ant only vaguely knows the human.
Ironically, religious “atheism” is an advanced form of religious reflection. The great Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, concluded that we must protest against human conceptualization of the unknowable God; he preferred to use the term, “Ultimate Concern.” He said that, since no human conceptualization can be absolutely true, all are idols. Mine, yours! We must live with our best and highest ideals, individually and collectively, as the best wisdom that we can humanly know.
There is a very popular little book by J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small, that simplified and literalized this idea. But Phillips did not quite get it. Yes, our god is too small; but he must realize that his is too.
Mystics of every religious tradition on the planet have been saying this for millennia: that which is beyond human comprehension, draws us toward what is highest and best, yet is unknowable. This is another reason for religious humility about beliefs; it is also a reminder of the truth in the Christian Bible’s Book of James: by their fruits (works) ye shall know them. The way one lives one’s beliefs and values, demonstrates the worth of those values. Right beliefs and values are enough; one must live them to the best of one’s ability.
Lastly, a comment about indigenous religions like Kanenuiakea being “polytheistic”. Every manifestation of Kane, all occurances of the sacred, every pōhaku, is but a symbol of many possible appearances of Ultimate Reality – how some special power, object or experience might point beyond itself, and how it might become a symbol of the sacred. There is a word for this concept in the vocabulary of Kanenuiakea, a word that is so sacred (huna) that we try not to use it, and certainly, not to misuse it. So we worship in the name of Kane – yet it too symbolizes something more (“God beyond God”).
Our problem, like other indigenous worshippers, is that we worship outside. U.S. law privileges “buildings of worship” (churches, temples, synagogues) and the activity in them as “religion.” Just note how Native Americans have suffered as their sacred places are desecrated in full view of the First Amendment. Special natural objects are sacred because they remind us of the divine. This is the religious paradox; but they are not the divine. It is because this paradox that our worship always points beyond what we now know and experience to something more, something higher and better.
Despiser #4 again: But isn’t Kanenuiakea a cult?
Kupuna: If you refer to your religion as a cult or sect, then you are using the terms in their original positive sense, as worship or devotion.
However, the common usage of these terms today isn’t positive. These terms are extremely pejorative and unkind. To use them is not just labeling or name-calling, they also imply that Kanenuiakea is a “false religion” or perhaps even evil. It is the fallacy of “guilt by association.” It associates indigenous faith and practice with a “cult” like the “Manson cult” or a “sect” like the polygamous sects that do not follow the mainstream teachings of their Mother Church (for instance, the controversy in the LDS church) and are considered deviant.
If we are to have an honest dialogue, terms of respect should be used. Mahalo in advance for your understanding.
Despiser #5: Don’t you know that all religions and prayers are divisive, and they violate my rights as an atheist?
Kupuna: I wish you had been listening to the discussion about religious atheism.
Your declaration that you are an atheist contains or entails a belief system and a set of truth claims. I am open to learning about yours in hopes that you are interested in learning about mine. Each of our truth claims should be respected but not privileged.
Please feel free to share your atheistic beliefs and practice, expressing your “right of freedom of speech.” In turn, please adopt a willingness to understand my indigenous faith and practice, Kanenuiakea.
Now, concerning your question about prayer being divisive: the practice of a prayer or a pule is time-honored, having been a custom during our Hawaiian Kingdom and continuing today. Currently it is also practiced in the U.S. Congress and by military chaplains of all faiths who are trained to be sensitive to issues of respect for others.
We humans are usually aggressive, often self-centered concerning our interests, and lacking in civility. A prayer isn’t indispensable nor is it usually believed that the one who prays is talking directly to their God who will grant a miracle of human understanding and cooperation. Yet, prayers often create a moment of reverent centering about the seriousness of the task at hand and remind us to show respect to others. That is a gift, if it happens. Otherwise, if this activity can be divisive, and, if so, should be omitted.
As an atheist, do you have a practice that will inspire us for mutual problem solving, appealing to each of us to live our highest ideals? Perhaps, you might read a well-chosen poem or lead us in a moment of silence. And you might share in the spirit of how a human ritual can be made meaningful and appropriate, each according to their own tradition or path.
Despiser #6: Why don’t you give up using the Hawaiian language as it is now useless and inadequate as a language for the modern world?
Kupuna: This is an old assertion that was used during the attempted cultural genocide, suppressing the use of our language, requiring English names on our birth and death certificates, and transforming Hawaiian religious terms into commercial slogans or racial epitaphs. It sounds like you are wanting to be helpful, but your words contain so much hurt. It is said: “Words can give life; words can kill.” Your question hides a long and sad history.
First, Western colonizers forced their languages on conquered peoples and attempted to eradicate their customs, languages and religions in order for the subjugated to work in their economic system and to hide exploitation, cooptation and collaboration. It is a credit to the earliest Christian missionaries in Hawai‘i that they learned and taught in Hawaiian. And as long as Hawaiian was used, we remained both Christian and loyal to the values and spirituality embedded in our language. What our kupuna found in the Hawaiian Christian Bible was an “economy of gifting” that was like the best of sharing in pre-contact Hawai‘i. This is a huge topic for more discussion. But just read Matthew, Chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount (“the Beatitudes”) and see the shared values. Being Hawaiian and Christian is still possible.
Second, English, as it is used now, is one of the more literalistic languages on the planet – great for commerce (and that is why lawyers hide details in the small print and work to make contracts unintelligible). But there are relatively few poets in English because of this literalism. Linguists have said that you do not fully develop intellectually until you can think in more than one language. Many suggest languages of a different family and type, ones that are more metaphoric than English for that development – Chinese or Hawaiian, for example. Both share the characteristic that a “word” is contextual with something like a “root idea” that changes meaning and even grammatical form as it is used in different places or processes. In Hawaiian, a simple example would be koa/ko‘a/kōā/kō‘ā (remember Hawaiian was oral) which maintains an “essence” somewhat more complex than “protector” as it means coral, fishing ground, warrior, tree, wind, and even an allusion to a shrine that contains coral.
It is a total misunderstanding to argue that contextual/poetic/metaphoric languages are not precise enough for science. Just read Joseph Needham’s multivolume Science and Civilization in China and learn how China was a thousand years ahead of Europe in most fields until contact and “borrowing.”
The attempted eradication of Hawaiian language and of indigenous religious values was necessary for the new type of forced labor or “mortgage slavery” started by the plantations and expanded with the American takeover of Hawai‘i. Using and thinking only in English, privileges ideas that should be examined, alternatives explored, and better solutions found. Words have power to construct illusions and hide inequities and injustice. A minimum would be to learn words in Hawaiian that have been “sloganized” like “freedom”, “progress”, “democracy,” “prosperity,” and then compare these concepts with indigenous values of our kupuna that imply sharing and concern for the common welfare of people and Mother Earth. This would be a worthy discussion toward creating a better and more just future.
And, finally, remember that language carries one’s identity. For some, such as Hungarians, language is everything. It is almost their “ultimate concern,” and they would die to protect it. The Hungarian language reveals their cultural identity. They dream and pray in their mother tongue.
For More Reflections from a Kanenuiakea perspective, see the "Questions" page.
1. Watch “New Research in Hawaiian History: Dr Ron Williams Jr.” on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/98727591, especially from 30 to 35 minutes on the program.