Yesterday evening I had a chance to attend a lecture given by Enrique Dussel at U. of Chicago’s Divinity School. What I’ve posted here is a summary, based on my notes, and a few brief reflections.
Dussel was born in Argentina; he studied and earned numerous advanced degrees in Spain, France, and Germany; and he currently lives and works in Mexico. Over the last several decades, Dussel has exposed the limitations of Eurocentric treatments of history, political theory, economic theory, theology, and philosophy by putting these academic discourses into critical dialogue with the cultural imaginaries and concrete struggles of Latin American peoples. In his talk, Dussel followed the same general approach.
His particular question was this: how to characterize the relationship between political theology and political philosophy, particularly in the Latin American context? The talk had three parts: (1) Marx’s refusal of political philosophy; (2) political theology in the history of recent Latin American revolutions; and (3) a critical dialogue, from the perspective of Latin America, with recent European intellectuals who have given leftist political interpretations to aspects of Christian scripture, especially Paul.
In the first part, Dussel argued that, although Marx constructed a comprehensive system of categories to critique the economic system of capitalism, he did not develop any positive political philosophy. Instead, Marx bequeathed to subsequent generations a generally negative account of politics, one constituted primarily by the critique of institutions. Thus Marx provided few conceptual resources for establishing suitable structures of government which would serve the poor after the anticipated revolution. One of the reasons Marx may have failed to produce a positive political philosophy is that he refused, at least explicitly, any engagement with political theology. Taking Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and Hobbes’ Leviathan as examples, Dussel contended that many of the central categories of positive polical philosophy, even in the modern age, are derived from political theology. In short, Marx’s refusal of theology was, in the end, a disavowal of positive politics.
Dussel turned, in the second part, to a quick interpretation of recent revolutions in Latin American history: (1) Cuba in 1959, which retained Soviet, atheistic, atheological orthodoxy; (2) Chile in 1970, in which Christian groups informed by liberation theology were active in the political movement; (3) Nicaragua in 1979, which exhibited a higher degree of involvement of Christians in political leadership roles and a greater indebtedness to liberation theology; and then (4) Chiapas in 1994, (5) Venezuela in 1999, and (6) Bolivia in 2005, which, each in their own way, continued the trend of incorporating aspects of Christian political theology (the Latin American theology of liberation) into the concrete political struggles of the poor. After these revolutions, the challenge has been to move beyond movements of critique and protest in order to build up positive political institutions. Dussel’s argument was that the philosophies which one can elaborate on the basis of these developments cannot be formulated apart from the Christian theological sources which have deeply shaped them.
Drawing on this lightning-fast historical sketch, Dussel began in the third part of his talk to engage the recent works of leftist European intellectuals such as Badiou, Zizek, Taubes, and Agamben, who have retrieved insights for contemporary political philosophy from biblical sources, and especially from Paul. Dussel seemed to endorse this general strategy, although he argued that it needed to be pursued with a greater awareness of the particularity of Latin American political contexts. Dussel insisted upon a political philosophy that would be deeply shaped by the cultural imaginaries of communities on the ground who are actively seeking viable forms of political organization. And yet, like his European interlocutors, Dussel maintained that Paul is useful precisely as a source of political concepts, which would be relevant not only for the institution of the church but also for the properly political institution of the state. Both the church and the state are called to mediate the kingdom of God in history, albeit in different and limited ways which will never be perfect. Nevertheless, the church and the state both suffer from corruption by the sin of the world, so there is a constant need for vigilance and critique from the perspective of those victimized by sin–above all, the poor and marginalized in society.
Romans was a key text in Dussel’s argument. In this letter, Paul constructs a polemic against the law (which includes the law of the Roman empire, the Torah, and the new Christian community) but nevertheless announces a new law constituted by faith. Paul’s polemic against the law corresponds to the critical impulse that has dominated Marxist political thought. The challenge that Dussel and others face is translating the theological concept of faith, which constitutes the new law for Paul, into a language suitable for positive political philosophy after protest and revolution. Dussel interpreted faith as a message, embodied by a community, intended for the poor, and directed against the law that kills (i.e., against political oppression). In other words, faith is the belief that the weak, acting together, can transform history.
On a final note, Dussel broadened his purview to include feminists, people of color, those enduring the effects of colonization, and workers from around the world, who cannot respect the law of the system (the old law) but must believe inand work together to bring about, as much as possible, the transformation demanded by the new law.
Two questions were raised after the lecture. The first pressed Dussel on human frailty: How can one account for Paul’s understanding that the good that we want to do we cannot do? How can one account for the fact that the Canaanites were not liberated? Should not Dussel’s political theology and political philosophy be chastened by a greater awareness that no political regime can avoid succumbing to sin or to its effects? The second question asked Dussel to consider whether his call for a positive politics brought him nearer to the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, insofar as Dussel gives the state a crucial role to play in mediating the kingdom in history. Dussel’s response to both concerns was complex, but the general point seemed to be that there is a constant need to critique the state from the perspective of the poor–that is, the people whom it is meant to serve. An insufficient awareness of sin and an overzealous theological legitimation of the state (the problems corresponding to each question) occur when states become self-enclosed and are not kept in check by the needs and demands of suffering humanity.
The most striking thing about Dussel’s lecture seems to be his translation of Pauline faith into a kind of collective political will of the poor and victimized. I find this move both promising and troubling.
On the one hand, this move is promising insofar as there is perhaps some reason to believe that the state, even the modern state which is separated from the church, can participate in mediating the kingdom. Dussel is seeking a positive political philosophy, something required by modern states that do not want to subordinate themselves explicitly to the church and its theological commitments. Nevertheless, he believes that Christian scriptures have something crucial to contribute to this philosophy. In other words, although Dussel is concerned with developing a philosophy, he does not arbitrarily exclude biblical sources from this endeavor, as would a rigid secularist. Instead of excluding these sources, he translates them into a particular modern, Latin American political context. This sort of translation (in which analogues of scriptural teaching enter the government’s self-understanding) is perhaps the most that one can hope for from a philosophy of the state that is not subsumed by the church and its theology.
On the other hand, Dussel’s translation is also a distortion–by which I mean that it is obviously not a straightfoward reading of Paul, nor is it a reading conformed to the doctrinal developments regarding the new law of faith and grace elaborated by various Christian traditions after Paul. This is not an oversight on Dussel’s part: in this lecture, he was not offering a political theology but a political philosophy constructed in relation to political theology (or at least to its sources). But even though Dussel’s move makes sense at a certain level, it still proves troubling because it changes Paul’s meaning, and changes it in certain vital respects, by putting the emphasis on our collective political action in history as opposed to God’s action for us in Christ which will be manifest definitively at the end of time, even if it is already present in history. Paul’s new law is theocentric and eschatological; Dussel’s philosophical translation is anthropocentric and temporal (as in Kant, the eschaton becomes a postulate).
In a world of diversity, in which political organizations and governments are not only for Christians (even in Latin America) but for all people, of whatever creed, the risks of this sort of translation seem necessary, in order that Christian scriptures can contribute to a broader public discourse. And yet, the awareness that something major is being distorted is also necessary, at least for the church, and this is something which Dussel’s account could have brought out more clearly.
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.
I am reading Roberto Goizueta’s new book Christ Our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation and I hope to post some reflections on it in the near future (particularly on the appropriation of aesthetics within the logic of liberation theology). For now, I want to post two quotes which further illustrate three points I made in my note on the Kingdom-World-Church theses: 1) the de-centering of the Church vis-a-vis a poor; 2) the sacramental role of the crucified people as mediators of the presence of Christ; 3) the methodological aspect of the preferential option for the poor (an aspect emphasized throughout the work and, in my view, affirmed too exclusively in the first passage below: “nothing other than”). As I said in my earlier post, the first supports the idea that mission precedes church within the theses; the second and third seem to be at odds with central affirmations of the theses. The theses are, of course, only theses; by definition they await further exploration and substantiation. Nevertheless, the complexity of liberation theologies must be kept in mind as the affirmations of the preferential option and the ‘church of the poor’ in thesis 11 are developed .
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’ (36).
‘The Spirit of Jesus is in the poor,’ asserts Jon Sobrino, ‘and, with them as his point of departure, he re-creates the entire Church. If this truth is understood in all its depth and in an authentically Trinitarian perspective, it means that the history of God advances indefectibly by way of the poor; that the Spirit of Jesus takes historical flesh in the poor; and that the poor show the direction of history that is in accord with God’s plan.’ In no way does this suggest a ‘parallel church’; rather it specifies the privileged (not exclusive) sociohistorical locus wherein the church is church and discovers what it means to be church…the ecclesiological image of the church of the crucified people posits not a new church but ‘a new mode of being the Church’ (38 – quoting Sobrino’s The True Church and the Poor, 93, 96).
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