“Creating theology means collaborating so that God becomes more real in history and for the poor.” We discuss the subject with Fr. Jon Sobrino, 74, a Spanish Jesuit theologian and a naturalised citizen of San Salvador. He is one of the main exponents of liberation theology.
What does it mean to create theology beginning with the reality of Latin America or the Caribbean?
Theology is act two. First we have reality and, in theology, the absolute reality. With his usual insight, Monsignor Pedro Casaldáliga, referring to the absolute, said, “everything is relative except God and hunger.” God is absolute and the poor are co-absolute! Creating theology, then, consists in collaborating, at the level of thought, so that God becomes more real in history and the poor – and hunger – cease to be such a dramatic reality. We recall what Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, a theologian who worked in El Salvador and was killed by the military in 1989, meant by intelligere reality. He explained this in three steps.
The first consists in grasping reality – in other words understanding it. In 2006, Monsignor Casaldáliga remarked, “Today there are more riches in the world but there is also more injustice. Two and a half billion people survive on less than two Euros a day and 25,000 die of hunger every day, according to FAO. Desertification is a threat to the lives of 1.2 billion people in about 100 countries. Emigrants are denied help and even the ground under their feet. The USA has built a 1,500 km long wall to keep out Latin America. Europe erects ever more barriers against Africa… All this, besides being wicked, is planned.”
The second step is caring for reality. It’s not just a question of growth in personal awareness, however good and necessary this may be, but of making reality grow in a certain direction – salvation, compassion, mercy, and love. Theology is, firstly, intellectus amoris.
The third step is taking responsibility for reality, especially the burdensome reality of the poor. They are the anawin of Sacred Scripture, those who stoop or whose backs are bent under the weight of a reality that could be fatal. Male and female theologians in Latin America grasped reality and were persecuted. Some to martyrdom. This happens when creating theology becomes an ethical stance.
We usually add a fourth step: allowing ourselves to be carried by reality. This happens – it is a grace – when theologians become an integral part of the poor whom they serve theologically. They allow themselves to be carried by the poor and receive their gratitude. Creating theology is, therefore, “a heavy light burden,” as Karl Rahner used to say, referring to the Gospel’s burden.
How can we speak of God beginning with the suffering of the excluded and those on the margins of society?
Theologies do not grow, last, or fall into disuse as formal systems of thought uncontaminated by reality. Liberation theology has strongly affirmed that, in the Exodus, God “freed the slaves” while, in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus “freed the prisoners.”
This affirmation has guided thinking for the past 40 years – it deserves to be analysed. This was the case at the onset, but less so today. For some time, liberation theology has been unfashionable. I do not think it is right to blame theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan-Luis Segundo, Leonardo Off, Ignacio Ellacuría, or bishops such as Hélder Camara, Enrique Angelelli, or Oscar Romero. We should rather thank all of them if, during the past 40 years, the stimuli of liberation theology have been kept alive and extended to new fields such as theology, religion, and Mother Earth.
Doubtless, there have been limits, errors, and exaggerations. There have certainly been anti-intellectual reductions favouring praxis, prejudice towards writings such as those of Segundo or Ellacuría, traces of demagogy towards different trains of scientific thinking, as well as ignorance of or arrogance towards criticism. My view is that no other theological impulse has emerged that is so human, fecund, evangelical, or Latin American as that which began 40 years ago.
How do you see these years of liberation theology? Why has it been criticised so much, even persecuted?
Today’s quality of liberation theology is inferior to that of the past. It is not easy to repeat a generation of founders, even if new high-quality men and women theologians have emerged. Something similar is happening in other theological schools, traditions, and movements. Barth, Rahner, de Lubac, von Balthasar, and Bultmann have few equals among their heirs.
The answer to the second question does not require either sophisticated study or special discernment before God. Whether from ill will or ignorance, liberation theology was seen as a threat. To capitalism, first of all. Hence the reactions of Rockefeller in 1969 and of Reagan’s advisers in 1980. Then to national security – see the military’s reactions in the eighties. It was out of ignorance that the Church too feared it. It feared losing power. In the Church, there were also those who didn’t want to recognise the truth with which theologians replied to criticism.
What is the theological and anthropological meaning of the expression “liberation,” from a Latin American viewpoint? Where does this theological perspective stand in the present social and ecclesiastical context?
“Liberation” was an improvement on “development” – the western world’s proposal to defeat poverty. In ecclesiastical fields, it indicated salvation, like in Exodus and St Luke. It is important to remember that the concept was rediscovered in Latin America – a backward and underdeveloped continent oppressed and enslaved by the First World. Churches in Latin America were not oppressed, yet they were heavily dependent on their European counterparts.
The term meant oppression and repression, the unjust and cruel deprivation of life – something that is still continuing. The concept was easily extended to theology. It denoted liberation from a condition lacking human dignity, from racial oppression, from religious despotism etc. We must also bear in mind that liberation theology, unlike other theologies (or ideologies), gives priority to “people,” rather than individuals. To “transcendence” rather than positivism, as Ellacuría noted. Despite a return en masse to spiritualistic individualism, liberation theology introduced the religious dimension into the secular world. It gave it its rightful place in the social reality, something we cannot easily ignore. Lastly, I believe that liberation theology tries to explain the meaning of faith in an unjust world, to give a cleaner image of God, unstained by the filth of divinities that condemn the poor to death. (M.C.)