A couple months ago I expressed some reservations regarding how liberation theology is appropriated near the end of the Kingdom-World-Church theses posted over at Inhabitatio Dei. A bit later I posted a couple quotes from Roberto Goizueta that reinforced a couple of my points. Last week Halden noted the critiques some have made regarding the theses and their relation to liberation theology (I don’t know if he had mine in mind or not) and provided a lengthy quote from Leonardo Boff in support of the appropriation of liberation theology within the theses.
The quote from Boff illustrates very well the ways in which the authors of the theses rightfully draw upon liberation theology and the ‘church of the poor’ within their work. Contrary to ‘ecclesiocentric’ theologies, Boff, Sobrino, and others de-center the church vis-a-vis the Kingdom of God and the poor. As I mention in my first post, the de-centering of the church in view of the Kingdom is a significant point of agreement. The inclusion of the ‘church of the poor’ within this de-centering further shows the commonality with liberation theologians. These points are important and thus I do not think that the engagement with liberation theology is merely superficial.
Nevertheless, significant divergences seem to remain (and remain unaddressed in Halden’s new post, which simply reinforces the point of agreement I just described and affirmed in my original post). There were two main issues I raised that still remain.
First, it is stated in thesis 11 that the preferential option not only lies at the center of the mission of the church, it is the mission. This needs to be further explored, as the general flow of the theses does not seems to support this claim. I illustrated this in my first post by looking the critical reading of liturgy in the 4th thesis. Many liberation theologians offer critiques of liturgy and ritual in a way that flows directly from the preferential option for the poor . They worry that liturgy can devalue human action in such a way that we become passive before God and pacified before oppression. The critique of liturgy in the 4th thesis does not seem to be shaped in the slightest by the preferential option as the mission of the church; rather the danger of liturgy and the devaluation of God’s action the temptation of (ecclesial) self-aggrandizement.
The second has to do with what is meant by “church of the poor” or the “preferential option.” Although the theses still need to be expanded, I think we can see the authors affirming the preferential option in terms of ethics/solidarity and for our understanding of God (in theses 10 and 11). The further question is whether or not (or how) they understand the preferential option in terms of theological method. This aspect is absolutely essential within Latin American liberation theology (including in Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor, the work cited in thesis 11). This aspect was shown in one of the quotes from Goizueta in my earlier post (“The preferential option for the poor is nothing other than the assertion that the crucified people of history are the privileged mediators of God’s mercy in the church and in the world. The crucified people are the privileged historical mediation of the crucified and risen Christ in the world. When they extend mercy, they embody Christ’s own offer to the apostles after the resurrection: ‘Peace be with you’”). It is also clear in Sobrino’s affirmation of the preferential option as ‘pre-theological’; and even clearer in Juan Luis Segundo: the option for the poor is the hermeneutical key for the Gospel, “the antecedent element required in order to interpret the gospel and keep its letter from killing”; “the epistemological premise for an interpretation of the word of God”; “the human attitude that we adopt, on our own responsibility and at our own risk, toward the Word of God, before reading that Word” (Segundo, “The Option for the Poor” in Signs of the Times, 120, 122, 126). For Goizueta, Segundo, Sobrino, and many others, the preferential option demands not only a different way of being Church (the focus of the theses), but also a very different way of doing theology (not represented in the theses).
A further point related to this which needs to at least be mention (and it is gestured at in Halden’s newest post in his concern about Boff’s notion of ‘mediation’) is the view of the poor as ‘sacraments’ of God. This is shown well in the Goizueta quote above. The way this is often described within liberation theology would seem to go against the apocalyptic, Barthian shape of the theses as a whole, and yet it shapes the methodology of many liberation theologians in a way that I assume would not be acceptable within the theses.
The theses are, of course, theses. They await further development and Halden’s latest post promises us further exploration. As they develop their notions of the preferential option and the church of the poor, I hope they not only continue to draw on the points of agreement mentioned at the beginning, but also focus in on those points where they seem to diverge significantly with essential aspects of Latin American liberation theology.
This post is a few weeks too late (sorry, I’ve been busy with other things!) but I wanted to take a look at the appeal to Jon Sobrino and the affirmation of the preferential option for the poor in the “Kingdom-World-Church” theses over at Inhabitatio Dei (particularly theses 10-11). In my reading, the affirmation of the preferential option and the quotation from Sobrino function in two main ways within the theses. First, the preferential option is affirmed as an ethical/political imperative and essential to what it means to witness to Christ as a church. Second (and I think more important within the aims of the theses), it is further support of the view that mission precedes church. The whole set of theses are set in opposition to “ecclesiocentric” theologies. In the earlier theses we have a generally Barthian de-centering of the church/sacraments/religion vis-a-vis the apocalyptic act of God in Christ. In Sobrino and others, we have a de-centering of sorts but this time vis-a-vis the poor. To be church is to be in the world and to live in kenotic solidarity with the poor. These are significant points of agreement. Nevertheless, I wonder if these two perspectives really fit together as well as the theses make it seem. Let me elaborate.
Thesis 11 concludes with the following: “With the Catholic bishops at Medellin, the church must reaffirm and exercise the ‘preferential option for the poor.’ This ‘preferential option’ is not simply one of many tasks of the church—it lies at the center and heart of its mission. In fact, it is its mission, because this is Christ’s mission.” Saying that the preferential option is at the center and heart of the church’s mission (and is the mission) seems overstated within the general flow of the theses. It seems that the most basic mission of the church in the theses is to witness to the apocalyptic transformation accomplished by God in Christ, which may include the preferential option, but is not identical with it.
Thesis 4 is indicative of the differences here. In this thesis, the danger of liturgy is to see a direct correspondence between our work and divine work, to see it as our (successful) seeking after God. The danger is an idolatrous misconstrual of our place in the event of God’s grace. Liberation theologians also offer very strong critiques of ritual and liturgy (see, for example, Segundo’s The Sacraments Today) but in a different key, and one that flows directly from the preferential option as the mission of the Church. Their central critique is not that liturgy raises our action too high but rather that it devalues human action by ideologically focusing our attention on the reconciling action of God in liturgy and away from the demand to build the Kingdom beyond the liturgy. The relationship between idolatry and ideology is complex and they mutually reinforce one another; I do not want to imply that the emphasis on idolatry in thesis 4 is contrary to a concern with ideology (the discussion of the ‘world’ indicates that the authors would share the concern of liberation theologians that liturgy can offer an ideological sense of security and reconciliation outside of the world). Rather, my initial point is simply that if the preferential option is truly the center of the church’s mission, the critique of the liturgy in thesis 4 would look rather different.
More pointedly, I wonder if the invocation of Sobrino may conceal a deeper substantial disagreement with him about what the preferential option actually means. In particular, there are a number of issue that revolve around the preferential option as a methodological prescription for theology:
- Sobrino affirms the preferential option as pre-theological (see Jesus the Liberator, 33 and Christ the Liberator, 18), as an option made prior to hearing the word of God and as an option which shapes the way in which we hear that word (other passages complexify this but the point remains)
- The poor, the martyrs, the crucified are seen as the proper and necessary place for understanding Jesus and thus to do theology one must get to know the poor
- The poor are the sacrament of God and the presence of Christ among us
I also wonder how the authors react in general to different construals of the relationship between human and divine action in liberation theologians. Sobrino does affirm the kenotic act of Jesus Christ for our salvation but part of this kenosis is that the ongoing presence of Christ in history is dependent upon our action (CL, 165-169). That would seem to be at odds with the theses’ Barthian emphasis on the absolute priority of divine action. Divine gratuity is certainly important in liberation theology (this is particularly clear in Gutiérrez’s On Job and We Drink from Our Own Wells) but I wonder whether the strong emphasis on “building the Kingdom” or a utopian, future oriented vision would be acceptable to the authors of “Kingdom-World-Church”.
I raise these questions as someone who is currently working on bringing together the work of Sobrino and Balthasar. It is clear that many connections are there to be made as there would be between Sobrino and a generally” Barthian” theology. Nevertheless, the more I engage both discourses the more I see their sharp differences. I wonder if use of Sobrino and the affirmation of the preferential option for the poor in thesis 11 indicates real agreement but also passes over perhaps more fundamental disagreement.
I have just begun an intensive reading of liberation theologians and, in particular, Jon Sobrino. From time to time I will post interesting/provocative passages or ideas I find. Here’s one:
In this passage in Jesus the Liberator, Sobrino looks at two “all-embracing” realities which could function as the ultimate, eschatological reality for faith and the governing center for theology: the Kingdom of God and the resurrection. After providing a number of affirmations of how the resurrection could fulfill this role (and the resurrection as an eschatological reality will, of course, be central in Christ the Liberator), he nevertheless concludes:
If Jesus’ resurrection is to function as the ultimate for a theology [of liberation], an immense interpretative effort is clearly needed, which is not necessary if the ultimate is the Kingdom of God. The resurrection of itself possesses great power for expressing the ultimate meaning of history, final utopia, radical hope, but it does not possess so much power for showing how we have to live now in history and guide it toward utopia.
Furthermore, as happens with any symbol of the ultimate one chooses – including that of the Kingdom of God – the resurrection also has its limitations and dangers, not maybe as a pure concept, but in practice. There is no need to be shocked by these words, since anything we human beings touch, however good and holy – prayer, the struggle for justice, the very idea of God – is subject to our limitation and concupiscence. So history shows that a precipitate and one-sided penchant for the resurrection can and usually does encourage an individualism without a people, a hope without praxis, an enthusiasm without a following of Jesus: in short, a transcendence without history, a God without a Kingdom…Liberation theology is particularly sensitive to this danger.
All this has to be understood correctly. Of course I am not saying that Jesus’ resurrection is not a central reality for faith and for theology, and liberation theology in fact gives it the greatest importance and uses it as an expression of the ultimate. Jose Miranda criticizes Marx precisely on the basis of the resurrection, accusing him of not daring to conceive a transformation of reality that goes so far as to include ‘the resurrection of the dead.’ All I am trying to say is that Jesus’ resurrection is not considered as apt a reality as the Kingdom of God for featuring as the ultimate and organizing and ranking the whole of faith and theology. The resurrection will be very much taken into account, but from within something more all-embracing, the Kingdom of God.
Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 124-125