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The Future of Liberation Theology (Redux)

A little while back, R. O. Flyer wrote a post called “Thoughts on the Future of Liberation Theology” (see here). In this post, he highlights how experience plays a crucial role in many liberation theologies, and how the experience of the poor in particular functions as “the central criterion of adjudicating between good and bad theologies”. This, then leads Flyer to assert that liberation theology is fundamentally reactive because of the way in which it prioritises praxis over theoria.
Further, Flyer finds this emphasis upon experience to be problematical as appeals to experience are all too often made by others as well — notably those liberal theologies that have been disciplined by the logic of capitalism. However, noting that all of us are shaped by our own particular experiences and inextricably entwined in our own particular histories, Flyer asserts that the crux of the problem is this: “the specific move made by much of liberation theology… that sees experience… as more fundamental than revelation.”
Thus, based upon this understanding of the nature of liberation theology’s experiential methodology, Flyer concludes that liberation theology might well be a doomed enterprise.
So what are we to make of all this? On the one hand, I’m somewhat perplexed by what Flyer is trying to do. I’m not sure exactly how he is relating ‘liberation theology’ to ‘liberal theology’ and ‘the logic of capitalism.’ He seems to be saying that each somehow uses ‘experience’ as a primary methodological category, but he doesn’t talk much about how each party uses experience — and they certainly do use it in different ways (which leads liberation theologians and liberal theologians to often be at odds with each other).
On the other hand, it is worth revisiting the role of experience in doing theology. First of all, I find it odd that Flyer creates such a sharp distinction, perhaps even an opposition, between ‘experience’ and ‘revelation’. Flyer seems to be contrasting these things in the way in which Barth contrasts ‘natural theology’ with revelation-based theology, but this is an entirely wrong way of approaching this topic. When liberation theologians talk about the priority of praxis, they are talking about prioritising the experience of the revelation of God in particular historical realities. In this regard, the liberation theologians are actually very close to Barth’s own method. Barth writes out of his experience of being met by the living God in that God’s revelatory action, and the liberation theologians simply complement and add flesh to this approach by arguing that God tends to come out to meet us in God’s revelatory action, in certain places and people.
Secondly, I believe that the theologies of the New Testament writers are just as deeply experience-based (and therefore just as ‘reactive’) as liberation theology. That is to say, the understanding of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, in the Gospels and elsewhere, is entirely dependent upon the experience of encountering the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus. All NT Christology is reacting to this experience. Similarly, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God, without requiring them to undergo circumcision or follow Jewish food laws, is entirely dependent upon the experience of Gentiles manifesting the Spirit apart from these things. Paul’s ecclesiology is deeply rooted in experience, and is thus also fundamentally reactive.
In fact, when we get down to it, all Christian theology can be described as reactive because all we are doing in our theology, and in our Christian living, is responding to God’s gracious initiative. This is not to say that our reactions can’t also be creative — they can be — but it is sufficient to show how an ideologically loaded label (because, you know, it’s bad or unimaginative to be ‘reactive’ these days!) is actually much more neutral in this context than we might first imagine.
So, where does this leave us in terms of how we analyse liberation theology? Essentially here: we are incapable of properly analysing and criticising liberation theology unless we first enter into the experiences to which it calls us. Thus, despite the intellectual discussion that has ebbed and flowed over the years, liberation theology remains (in the West) a largely untested thesis. My suspicion is that things (in the West) will remain this way. Liberation theology is ‘doomed’, not because of a faulty methodology, but because it takes following Jesus (who was also doomed) more seriously than most other theological movements.

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  1. Thanks for the thorough response. I really appreciate everyone’s comments. Of course, in a way I’m speaking from “within,” insofar as I share the concerns of liberationists. At the same time, I fully recognize that I speak from “without” insofar as I don’t really share the experience of the poor at all.
    Perhaps I’ve been too careless. I really didn’t intend to criticize liberation theology as such. Although I tried to qualify my post as tentative, perhaps I spoke to boldly and carelessly. Any truly critical account must treat the issue more concretely. That is to say, particular theologians must be addressed, for liberation theology, as we all know quite well, is extremely diverse.
    I hope to respond to you more fully, and hopefully clarify what I was beginning to sketch out, in a future post.
    I should say my “thoughts” do not really stem from my reading of Gutierrez or Sobrino, but more from my experience at the Consultation at the AAR on the future of liberation theology. In the Consultation many of the panelists seemed quite willing to dispense with distinctively Christian theological convictions altogether–for the sake of some abstract “liberation.” In fact most of them were quite open about this. My impression was that the church didn’t really seem to matter all that much in their accounts.
    As a side note, one of the best comments on the panel was from the native american theologian, George Tinker, who basically rejected the whole notion of “liberation” altogether. In Tinker’s view, “liberation” language was fundamentally a symbol of white oppression of indigenous people. It wasn’t vocabulary he wanted to use.
    I should also say that I regret using the word, experience as a way to describe a particular methodology. It is such a hopelessly useless descriptor.
    At the most basic level, I’m trying to grapple with the fundamental methodological differences between Barth or even Yoder and “liberation theologians,” especially the younger generation of self-proclaimed liberationists. Clearly the differences between Yoder and liberation theologians exist, and I think the differences are more than just formal ones.
    So, I’m not really trying to critique liberation theology so much as to think through these differences. How do we assess these?
    In terms of the connection between “liberal theology” and “liberation theology” I realize this has to be fleshed out more concretely. I recognize the concerns are very different, and of course, liberationists are critical of liberal theology. But to say that contemporary liberation theology and liberal theology share nothing in common seems rather odd to me.
    Tell me if you can solve this one. I’ve always wondered why liberation theology seems to flourish in liberal Protestant universities, like Union and United Theological Seminary. Personally, I’ve always been stumped by this. Perhaps I’m alone in this.

  2. So, where does this leave us in terms of how we analyse liberation theology? Essentially here: we are incapable of properly analysing and criticising liberation theology unless we first enter into the experiences to which it calls us. Thus, despite the intellectual discussion that has ebbed and flowed over the years, liberation theology remains (in the West) a largely untested thesis. My suspicion is that things (in the West) will remain this way. Liberation theology is ‘doomed’, not because of a faulty methodology, but because it takes following Jesus (who was also doomed) more seriously than most other theological movements.
    Dan, why the cynical conclusion? If liberation does “take following Jesus more seriously than most other theological movements” then I would expect that Christ’s body will eventually catch on. The church has failed a lot throughout history but if Jesus set up an institution, I wouldn’t expect that it should be, in-the-end, a complete failure. If Christ’s body usually doesn’t take him very seriously, then I wonder what this says about Jesus?

  3. Stephen:
    I read your post, but I’m unconvinced for a number of reasons too lengthy to develop in detail However, regarding what you say about liberation theology specifically, I would suggest that you’ve made two errors that are commonly made by those who engage in a cursory reading on this subject:
    (1) you miss the way in which the preferential option exercised by liberation theology affirms the universality of the Way of Jesus — most liberation theologians are not saying that God is only for a certain constituency; rather they are saying that each of us is confronted by the Way of Jesus in different ways depending on whether or not we are counted amongst the poor and oppressed or the wealthy and privileged.
    (2) You suggest that the language of ‘making nonpersons persons’ is patronising, but it need not be so. Again, most liberation theologians are not saying that such people are actually nonpersons; rather, they are saying that such people are treated as nonpersons by others, especially society more broadly. It is this form of social judgment that liberation theologians are reacting against (and not any sort of ontological status of the poor).
    I’m not suggesting that the Church, or that which Christ has established and continues to sustain, is ‘in-the-end, a complete failure’. When I speak of being ‘doomed’ in my final paragraph, I’m talking about being doomed to humility, rejection, and marginality — not to complete and utter failure. Really, I’m drawing on the idea that the people of God are always going to exist as a remnant… not just in the world, but also in the Church.
    Thanks for getting back to me on this so soon! I appreciate your response and look forward to hearing more from you. I do think that you have some valid concerns… especially regarding contemporary American self-styled liberationists.
    Also, I got the impression — particular from your comments in your last post — that you were actually for a lot of what liberation theology has to say, so I didn’t mean to paint you with a broad anti-liberation theology brush!
    To be honest, I haven’t spent much time reading these contemporary American libertionists, for precisely the reasons you mention! (Moltmann, by the way, responds to this development in liberation theology in his book Experiences in Theology, which has an excellent chapter on this topic.) The contemporary liberation theologians I’ve been reading are all international — notably the ongoing writings of Jon Sobrino, and the excellent stuff being produced by Naim Ateek. Thus, given that most of my readings in liberation theology have been focused on the earlier writings that came out of Latin America twenty or thirty years ago — although some good stuff was made in America then too — Herzog and the early Wallis (not to be confused with anything Wallis has written recently!), not to mention the Canadian Catholic, Gregory Baum.
    This leads me to two tentative conclusions:
    (1) Maybe you are responding to contemporary problematical developments in American liberation theology, and I’m responding to you by going back to the source; and
    (2) Maybe contemporary developments in American liberation theology actually prove what I said about liberation theology being mostly untested. When American liberation theology is taken over by privileged Academics, then it’s no wonder that it loses its edge and becomes about the various items on the contemporary Liberal agenda.
    Tinker’s comment seems to affirm this understanding. Sadly, liberation theology that is taken over by the privileged, often becomes little more than a top-down form of development or aid, fraught with power disparities and other problems — precisely the sort of action the original liberation theologians condemned!

  4. In response to (1), Yes, I am responding to contemporary developments in American liberation theology that I think are problematic. This I take to be the “future” of liberation theology. Perhaps I’m wrong on this score; I hope that I am. I read Moltmann’s book you mention a while back, but I don’t remember his critiques of recent trends in liberation theology. I’ll have to go back and take a look at that.
    (2) Yes, American liberation theology I think has been taken over by privileged academics. In fact, someone recently informed me that Rieger drives a brand new Lexus. 🙂 Actually, I’ve read some of Rieger’s stuff and it isn’t too bad. I don’t mean to be hard on him; but you get my point.