The Secularization of Religious Reason in Liberation Theology

This-worldly concerns are by no means confined to conservatively inclined movements, as the history of Latin American Catholic basismo, inspired by the Theology of Liberation, amply testifies. Priests and male and female religious put their lives in danger and some were killed in fighting for social justice, standing in the way of land grabs in Amazonia, and in the civil wars in Salvador and Guatemala. None, such as the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero,[1] have ever been beatified. These people certainly sacrificed themselves for the rest of humanity, but for humanity to be protected in this world.

Liberation Theology orientates Christians towards a Kingdom of social justice in this world, in a vision inspired by a concept of 'structural sin' affixed to social structures, not to individuals. Salvation, in Gutierrez's classic work (Gutierrez 1973), is an intra-historic matter; it transforms history in this world. In this theology care of one's neighbour is something other than a good deed to achieve eternal salvation - the 'neighbour' stands for society as a whole, and to work for social change is to do the work of God; eschatology is not an escape from history but involvement in the political field and in social praxis. Charity is not about pity but about the pursuit of social justice (1973: 278). The argument is not pamphleteering: it is developed in conjunction with close readings of biblical and theological texts. The word salvation is gradually, though not fully, replaced by the word liberation; the Kingdom is not brought down to earth, but the announcement of the Kingdom is one of brotherhood of men as a part of the pursuit of the full communion of all people with God (1973: 309). Liberation Theology sees Christianity as so non-sectarian as to be uninterested in converting those it seeks to save: they would be saved by living in a more just world.

It is often said that Liberation Theology (Teología de la Liberación - TL) is a Marxist politicization of religion and that it took the religious life out of Catholicism. This is unfair and partial, as I explained many years ago (Lehmann 1990, 1996): Gutierrez used a Marxist method in his 1967 book and thereafter studiously avoided it. The word was used to denigrate their ideas by tarring them with the brush of materialism, as well as by accusing the priests and religious among them of disregard for authority. But in many ways TL was a branch of the modernist trend in Christian theology, focusing on the living Jesus and an activist Church, but retaining the idea of doctrine and theology, retaining the separateness of clergy and laity, and retaining the idea of a Church sacrificing itself for the good of others - of society. TL does not focus on the personalized religion which some devotional movements promote, nor on the ritualization of daily life which Opus Dei and the Legionaries seem to promote. For TL popular religion has not always served the interests of the people and its heritage and community dimensions should be made more relevant to their sufferings

and their daily lives: thus in the 1990s in Brazil a group of religious in Rio de Janeiro developed a 'Missa Afro' (a liturgy for the Mass in African style) which incorporated elements aiming to show a recognition of the African heritage of Brazil's black population. So this is a secularization of religious reason, but along quite different lines from the devotional movements which to some extent were encouraged to counter the influence of TL.

The heyday of Liberation Theology coincided with a spurt in the growth, or at least the visibility, of Pentecostalism in Latin America. When that Pentecostalism started out in the early twentieth century, embedded in rural areas and the poorest urban strata, it emphasized self-discipline and respectability, as well as healing and the struggle against the forces of evil. But with the rise of neo-Pentecostalism at the turn of the century, a strong element of self-realization and the therapeutic moves centre stage. The most extreme expression of the self-realization strand, which does stretch most common-sense notions of what can count as religious, is described in a US context by Tania Luhrmann (Luhrmann 2012): this is a religious subculture with barely any institutionalization or any limitations on what can be done in the name of religion, less breathlessly analysed by Altglas than by Luhrmann (Altglas, 2014).

  • [1] Assassinated while saying Mass on 24 March 1980 in San Salvador.
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