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Theology, the university, and the poor

December 11, 2010 2 comments

I recently read the commencement address given by Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ in June 1982 at Santa Clara University.  (Ellacuria would be killed in El Salvador just over seven years later, in November 1989, at the very university about which he speaks in this address, Universidad Centroamericana.)  The talk is available here: http://www.scu.edu/jesuits/ellacuria.html.  Ellacuria’s words have made me reflect again on a topic which has emerged many times on this blog: namely, the preferential option for the poor.  In particular, I want to ask, What role does the university play in realizing this option?  And how does our theology relate to this task of the university? 

Ellacuria may provide some guidance:             

A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence–excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the universitv should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate. 

What strikes me about this passage is that the realization of the option for the poor at the university is not limited to a sector of it, such as a Center for Social Concerns, as we have at Notre Dame (http://socialconcerns.nd.edu/), or some analogous institution.  Ellacuria certainly does not deny the value of this sort of center–which, at Notre Dame, does serve the poor in concrete ways that are worthy of support.  But this vital part of the university is not his focus.  The things he calls for involve the university’s work as a whole.  The intellectual presence of the university should have a positive outcome for the poor.  Its academic excellence should provide the means to analyze the complex social realities of a world in which the majority of humankind lives in poverty.  The science and the skills that the university develops and teaches should be used for those who have no access to them.  The collective voice which the university has–of numerous students, faculty, staff, and administrators, whose voices are heard throughout campus–should give voice to those who have none (which means, above all, listening to them, and bringing their concerns out into the open).

Theology, as both an academic and a Christian pursuit, must have an important role to play here.  But what exactly is it?  It cannot be to reliquish its intellectual rigor in order to be an advocate for the poor.  Rather, as Ellacuria suggests, it must put its intellectual rigor in service of the poor.  Nor can it be to forsake faithful reflection on the gospel in order to make way for a secular ideology.  That is far from Ellacuria’s mind.  Ultimately, for Ellacuria, theology’s role at the university is this: to understand more deeply how to confront the realities of a sinful and suffering world in an authentically Christ-centered way.  

Much more really needs to be said on this topic.  But for now, perhaps you and I can take some time to meditate on the concluding words of Ellacuria’s address, in light of our own contexts (wherever we are):    

And how do you help us [the poor]? That is not for me to say. Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your academic responsibility and in your personal responsibility.

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“Jewishness” in Ellacuria and Balthasar

January 18, 2010 4 comments

Both Ellacuria and Balthasar develop their Christologies not primarily with respect to the nature of Christ but rather with attention to his identity as constituted through his living-out of a particular historical practice or mission.  And yet, whereas Ellacuria thinks of this mission in predominantly prophetic terms, for Balthasar it is fundamentally doxological and trinitarian.  Ellacuria’s Christ has a mission which challenges the socio-religious order of wealth and oppression which shapes first-century Palestine.  His practice is political–but not in a way that involves a zealot-style appropriation of the state-military apparatus but rather in a way that brings concrete healing  to those in need and a message of divine denunciation to the worldly power and greed which has victimized them.  For Balthasar, by contrast, Christ’s mission is characterized as a sending of the Son from the Father, in which his perfect filial obedience overcomes the depths of sin and reveals the glory of God.

Note where the Jews are in these accounts.  For Ellacuria, they represent religious leadership which is content with the status quo (of wealth and poverty), unmindful of the prophetic call, and thereby implicated in imperial violence.  For Balthasar, they symbolize a “horizontal” or this-worldly perspective which doesn’t grasp that Christ offers a mode of participation in a triune life, free from sin and guilt, which takes place in a transcendent, “vertical”, dimension.  In short, Ellacuria pictures Christ as speaking out against a “Balthasarian Judaism” (religious elitist indifference to poverty), and Balthasar thinks of the Son as surpassing an “Ellacurian Judaism” (horizontal, historical preoccupation).

Neither, however, seems particularly concerned with contemporary Jews or Judaism.  This seems much more problematic in Balthasar’s mid-twentieth century German context than it does for Ellacuria in El Salvador.  However, in reading them, I cannot help but think that we should be more careful about using Judaism as a polemical terrain for intra-Christian debates.  The question is: how to avoid this without abstracting Christology from its historical context?  If this context is relevant now (as both theologians contend), how is it possible to articulate this relevance without casting Jewishness as a figure for what must be combatted theologically?  This is a live issue, since the debate between Ellacuria and Balthasar–many decades later–is not over.