Analysis of the situation

An excerpt from my presentation today on the introduction and first chapter of A Theology of Liberation:

Gutiérrez identifies “theology as wisdom” and “theology as rational knowledge” as two classical functions of theology. The former relates theology to the spiritual life, charting out the ideas and patterns for a developing communion with God. Theology was, in many ways, a monastic task, with practice and thought interacting without division. This changed around the fourteenth century, when as Gutiérrez notes, “a rift appears between theologians and masters of the spiritual life.” In the twelfth century a transition began that led theology to de-emphasize the spiritual life and began to strongly emphasize the life of the mind. Both aspects of theology are necessary for a holistic understanding. Yet, the division of these two functions has led to various “deformations” throughout history, requiring the need to salvage theology from wrong turns and distorted priorities.

Gutiérrez thus moves to define the theological task as “critical reflection on praxis.” He lays out seven reasons why the “existential and active aspects of the Christian life have recently been stressed in a different way.” He begins by noting that charity “has been fruitfully rediscovered as the center of the Christian life”, writing that it is the “foundation of the praxis of Christians, of their active presence in history.” Second, he sees a significant evolution of Christian spirituality. “This process… culminates today in the studies on the religious value of the profane and in the spirituality of the activity of the Christian in the world.” Third, there is “a greater sensitivity to the anthropological aspects of revelation.” This means theology is not only supernatural and God-oriented. Rather, included in God’s revelation is a revelation about how we are to interact and emphasize our fellow humanity. We are to love God and our neighbor in fulfillment of God’s call upon us. This includes more focus on the particular problems of human interaction and ways in which the Gospel calls us each to live with each other and for each other.

Living with and for each other is an aspect of community, and so a fifth reason for new stress on praxis is a developing understanding of the life of the church as a locus theologicus. This is a theology that relates to service as led by the Spirit. Beyond the limits of the church, there can be, with this, a “theology of the signs of the times” in which broad pastoral activity, commitment and service become key theological aspects for all Christians. The role of theologians “will be to afford greater clarity regarding this commitment by means of intellectual analysis.” From this, Gutiérrez adds as his sixth reason what can now be seen as a more controversial contribution to the overall theological approach. “To these factors can be added the influence of Marxist thought, focusing on praxis and geared to the transformation of the world.” It is in confrontation with what some then saw as a pinnacle of philosophical thought that theology is pushed to reflect on “the transformation of this world and human action in history.”

Finally, there has been a rediscovery of eschatology. This is not a limited perspective on end times or a focus on dismissing the present for hoped for future rewards. Rather, there is “an opening to the future” in which “we orient and open ourselves to the gift which gives history this transcendent meaning: the full and definitive encounter with the Lord and with other humans.” This full encounter insists not only on having the right set of beliefs about God, but also the right set of actions with the God who is not waiting for a future event but is already working within this world, for this world. This right set of actions is termed “orthopraxis”. Gutiérrez writes, “the intention is to recognize the work and importance of concrete behavior, of deeds, of action, of praxis in the Christian life.”

With all of this, liberation theology according to Gutiérrez is taking up “the classic question of the relation between faith and human existence, between faith and social reality, between faith and political action, or in other words, between the Kingdom of God and the building up of the world.” Though traditional, these questions have also become tangential to many of our contemporary concerns, offering often vague or incomplete statements in lieu of what might be more difficult, and controversial, attempts to bring practical clarity to what are more substantive problems than previous understood. For Gutiérrez, the “task of contemporary theology is to elucidate the current state of these problems, drawing with sharper lines the terms in which they are expressed.” Orthopraxis calls for confrontation with unjust realities, and to respond effectively such realities must be discerned for what they are and why they exist.

One key aspect to this development is humanity’s own growth of self-awareness. As Gutiérrez puts it, “the social praxis of contemporary humankind has begun to reach maturity.” This maturity brings with it heightened awareness of social inequalities, injustices, and oppressive political structures that are no longer understood as inevitable but rather can be transformed, leading to a new liberation for the oppressed. In their maturity, people have embraced a universality of the political sphere and seek concrete answers to longstanding issues. This pursuit of concrete answers in the political realm has led to an “increasing radicalization of social praxis.” Deep problems have deep causes, and these deep causes are not easily pushed aside or susceptible to quick reforms. Rather, these deep causes are now seen as requiring confrontation in order to replace one vision of society, where there are oppressed and oppressors, with another in which holistic justice is a priority. Social praxis, then, is not about moral duties or particularly intra-Church actions, but is more fully an expression of living the life God has called Christians to live within this world and for this world in the pursuit of God’s priorities, which include justice, love, and hope for all. At issue, for Gutiérrez, is the central question of “What does it mean to be a Christian?” The answers for this can no longer be formed in vague, ethereal generalities, but rather have to confront the more pressing answers for what it means to be Christian within the conflicts this present world presents. These answers insist on both a realistic appraisal of these contexts as well as a humble awareness of the answers others throughout the historic Christian community have given.

Read the whole thing!

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