Knowing God in four directions

Image: Anttoniart/ Shutterstock
Published January 6, 2021

Four-directional thinking is quite widespread among Indigenous elders. There are many ways of identifying this pattern of thought and life across the Land. The term “four-directional thinking” is not always used. This is, however, something that you can recognize in elders, even though they might use quite different words to describe it. Based on observations of the sacred way in which God has ordered Creation, it applies the sacred motions of life to the way human beings encounter humanity, Creation, and truth.

The basic idea is that anything we encounter must be seen from a minimum of four directions in order for it to be perceived in anything close to its fullness. All beings—and the motions and forces of their lives—have many sides and levels. We must walk around the truth of what we encounter with humility and respect. The truth of life is pervasive and undeniable, but it can never be owned or captured by human intellect. It can be known in such a way that we would die for it. It can never be known enough that we can kill for it. This is the balance, beauty and harmony of life.

Above all else, the truth of God requires a special measure of humility and reverence. God cannot be surrounded by the words or intellect of human beings. A perception of God’s presence finds us. This is what it means to know God. It is an intimate knowing, but it is not an encounter with the essence of God. God is not known from one direction. Using a four-directional approach, we can discern four ways that God approaches us in promises offered in mercy and love. Held together, they give light to each other and show the good way of living. Experienced together, they heal us.

God is present and perceived in the human heart. If we open our hearts, God promises that he will enter in and have communion with us. We believe, however, that the divine life is already deep within us and our opening reveals something precious that was always there. The Good News that Jesus shared points to this encounter with God in us.

God is present and perceived in human community. God promises the divine presence wherever two or three are gathered in the Name of Jesus. God promises the divine presence in the poor, the sick and the prisoner. The Good News that Jesus shared urges us to encounter him, the living Word of God, in each other.

God is present and perceived in Creation. The intricate beauty and pattern of God’s Creation reveals the glory, wonder and love of the divine presence. This has, in many moments of human history, been hidden by human greed, laziness, waste and ingratitude. The Good News that Jesus shared reveals our encounter with God in every particle and moment of Creation.

God is present and perceived in the future, a future that meets us in Baptism, in Eucharist and in human acts of love, justice and peace. All of these are artifacts of a future that God promises will bring us a new heaven and a new earth. The Good News that Jesus shared, in his teaching and proclamation and in his death and resurrection, point us towards his second coming, carrying the new life that will transform a humanity and Creation that has been defaced by sin.


  • Mark MacDonald

    Mark MacDonald was national Indigenous Anglican bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada from 2007 to 2019, and national Indigenous Anglican archbishop from 2019 to 2022.

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