Friday, February 18, 2011

Liberation Theology: The Importance of Being Contextual

Every theology has at its focal point some aspect of the life of God. Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection on the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any theology.” Forgive the reductionism, but Evangelical theology could be characterised as a theology born out of the word of God. Reformed theology could be characterised as a theology born out of the sovereignty of God. Pentecostal theology could be characterised as a theology born out of the presence and power of God. Liberation theology could be characterised as a theology born out of the “preferential love of God for the poor”.

The failure of Western Christian spirituality – the failure that the spirituality of Latin America seeks to counteract – is that it has uprooted theology from its context – both the original context in which the theology emerged and the present day context in which the disciple finds themselves. Thus someone can be a Calvinist without any knowledge of the kind of man Calvin was, the kind of culture he lived in, the books he wrote and his reasons for writing them, not to mention a lack of knowledge of the relationship between Calvinism and their own situation today. Dare I say, it’s too easy to become a Calvinist, or a Pentecostal, or a Baptist. Those naming themselves as such should really have to earn it.

When theology is decontextualised, the nature of truth is also misunderstood. Truth, for Western Christians, has become exclusively transcendent and impartial. What is right and fair for one must be right and fair for everyone. We’re taught to seek these universals in our Bible reading like hidden treasures. The goal of reading Scripture is to find the “timeless truth”. But this is a simplistic understanding of truth (and a simplistic understanding of a related reality: justice).

According to Samuel Wells, “The great cry of liberation theology is a cry for theology to take seriously its context.”

The context of Liberation theology poses some serious questions:
In our Latin American context we may well ask ourselves: How can we thank God for the gift of life when the reality around us is one of premature and unjustly inflicted death? How can we express joy at knowing ourselves to be loved by the Father when we see the suffering of our brothers and sisters? How can we sing when the suffering of an entire people chokes the sound in our throats?

For those in Latin America asking these painful questions, “theology is done not to understand the world, but to change it.” Liberation theology thus generates a problem not only for those who are oppressors of the poor and who want to keep things the way they are, but also for those who are oppressors of the real work of theology, of which I am one.

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