Gender, ethnicity, and lived religion: challenges to contextual and liberation theologies

My long-term interest in and interaction with liberation theology and feminist theology has primarily focused on some theoretical and practical limitations in Latin American liberation theology from the perspective of feminist theology, and vice versa.1 Latin American feminist theology is not as known as it should be, either by feminist theologians from the Global North or by liberation theologians and feminist scholars from other fields in Latin America. At the same time, it is important to tell the narrative of feminist theology as a global, ecumenical, and interfaith movement.2

Since my early critique of the lack of sexual ethical thinking and practice in Latin American liberation theology, the situation has somewhat changed. While early Latin American feminist liberation theology did not engage with sexual ethics - especially Catholic sexual ethics - younger scholars have indeed taken up the challenge.3

Another research interest of mine has been the creation of more dialogue between feminist theology and gender studies in other fields. The problem of much of feminist theorising, in Latin America and elsewhere, has been a superficial and often non-existent interaction with and lack of knowledge of gender studies of religion, including feminist theology. In fact, feminist theology has been a ground-breaking field within gender studies in engaging with women and feminist thought of the Global South.4

Thus, the development and contemporary situation of global feminist theology looks somewhat different when analysed internally as a theological endeavour, on the one hand, and when analysed in relation to the broader development of gender theorising, on the other hand. This interdisciplinary challenge is still at the heart of any coherent understanding of liberation theology, globally and in all its forms, which includes feminist theologies and, to some extent, contextual theologies.

In this chapter, I will continue from my earlier research by asking what the pressing challenges of liberation and contextual theologies are today. I rely on my earlier research, aiming to discuss it in the context of this book. My aim is primarily theoretical. By that, I do not mean a juxtaposition of theory and practice. Rather, I ask what some contemporary theoretical developments in the study of religion and other fields relevant to liberation

Gender, ethnicity, and lived religion 57 theologies would mean for the development of a liberation (contextual) theology, which does not have women, indigenous people, and other groups at the margins of critical theological thought. Obviously, this means also clarifying the relationship between liberation theologies, contextual theologies, and feminist theologies. For example, is gender a “context”? How are gender issues related to “culture”? How much has the expansion of subjects in liberation and contextual theologies really affected them - or has it? One possibility for thinking about these questions is the perspective of lived religion, which has become a major theoretical way of thinking about what is meant by “religion” and, especially, how to understand it from the perspective of marginalised and subjugated groups of people.

To sustain my more theoretical perspectives I will offer empirical examples from my own research on the meaning of the Virgin Mary for women in two different cultural and religious contexts (Costa Rica and Finland; Catholicism and Orthodoxy), on the one hand, and my ethnographic work among the Finnish Skolt Sami, on the other hand. These two empirical works are related: my interest in both has been to expand the notions of the meaning of religious traditions for people (women, and ethnic and racial minorities) who have not been considered as theological subjects in their own right even in most liberation and contextual theologies. Further, research on indigenous people and their religious traditions, including various branches of Christianity, has usually not been linked to theological issues or theology as a discipline - possibly with the exception of missiology and mission studies, but certainly in the case of liberation, contextual, and feminist theologies. Finally, in order for any theology to be “global”, it is important to draw from different cultural contexts, from both the Global South and the Global North. Neither is monolithic, or culturally or religiously singular, and in both, it is women who struggle to be recognised as subjects, including theologically.

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