Extract – Liberation Theology and a new view of man

July 11, 2018
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source Joseph Laishley

As Gutierrez puts it:

Theology as critical reflection on historical praxis is a liberating theology…it does not stop with reflection on the world, but rather tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed.

The second and main part of this study concerns the central ideas which make up the content of the theology of liberation. The focal point here is the claim to be contributing towards the making of a new man: It is important to keep in mind that beyond – or rather, through – the struggle against misery, injustice, and exploitation, the goal is the creation of a new man. Vatican II has declared,

‘We are witnesses of the birth of a new humanism, one in which man is defined first of all by his responsibility towards his brothers and towards history’ (Gaudium et Spes, 55).

This aspiration to create a new man is the deepest motivation in the struggle which many have undertaken in Latin America.  And if it be remarked that it is rather strange that a theology should be about man in the first instance, this is precisely the ‘copernican revolution’ which has been taking place in theology over a century and a half: the approach to God through man. To quote Barth again (although perhaps a little unfairly in this context), “Man is the measure of all things, since God became man’.

And the whole of this section concerns the balance between overcoming an exaggerated dualism in the relationship of the gift of God (as grace) to our humanness, and maintaining a proper duality in their concrete union. The form this section takes is based on the outline of a second group of methods: first, to look at the interpretative framework used by liberation theology to make sense of the experience of twentieth century mankind (this is principally a sociological and only secondarily a philosophical tool) ; and then to examine how liberation theology uses this tool to interpret christian sources. This will entail taking up some of the notions already mentioned (e.g., the theology of grace) and exploring them and their consequences further.

The modern Framework: the Centrality of Man

It was Kant who likened his system of philosophy to a copernican revolution, in that it called attention to the creative role of the human mind in the acquisition and ordering of knowledge, and jettisoned a view of the mind’s role as merely passive. To the creativity of mind, Hegel contributed a further insight into process: the process or history of mind dialectically reaching its full potentiality. Beyond this point, we have seen already how Marx accepted the notion of the dialectical process, but rejected the idealism of Hegel for a socio-political interpretation of history. And as with all those who lived in the aftermath of the French Revolution, ultimate freedom figured prominently as the goal of history.

Many seminal ideas from other sources, like darwinian evolution and freudian psychoanalysis of the unconscious, have helped to create the frameworks of modern thinking. But the creativity of man in society, within the process of history and an evolution towards freedom, marred by the contrary factors caused by the alienation of man from his world : these, for our purposes, are the main ideas which have permeated the fibres of the modern mind. Liberation theology is deeply imbued with these concepts and develops its interpretative framework accordingly. Here, we can both recapitulate and expand.

Starting from the situation of oppression, the initial driving conviction was that it is not possible to be a Christian in the latin-american situation without striving, with the oppressed, to become free and build a just and fully human society. Hence theology itself could not begin with the traditional model of a philosophically based understanding of the meaning of the status quo with subsequent ‘pastoral’ applications.

It was the anguish of the circumstances which produced the further insight that, in fact, there never could be an abstract analysis detached from the dehumanizing situation. The ‘idealist’ philosophical model had to give way to a scientific model of observation, collation, hypothesis and testing, all in the interest of liberative, humanizing change. This took the form of the application of the model of the social sciences, especially the marxist sociological analysis of class struggle for liberation. But it is appropriate at this point to underline that this model rests on the ultimate philosophical foundation that process (becoming) is the fundamental mode of created being, and thought is a form of being/becoming, which serves the overall development of man, society and history.

Liberation theology does, however, have a second philosophical string to its interpretative bow; this is, broadly speaking, the ‘existentialist’ strand of philosophy which has been of such service in european and north-american theology. By this is meant, not the restricted, individualistic approach Of some existentialist writers, but the broader analysis of man-in-his-world, based on phenomenology.

Because it is based on phenomenology, and reflects on the implications of observed behaviour, it can provide a philosophical backing to sociology. Its principal value has been in directing attention to whole aspects of reality, especially of man, which a former ‘essentialist’ and static philosophy was not equipped to consider. In particular, of course, the existential stress has drawn attention to the historical aspect of man, and to the fact that persons are not simply members of a class without remainder, but are irreducibly unique. Nor is a third string of reflection excluded, the metaphysical, if this too is understood, not as descriptive of additional, real being, but as a clarification of the ultimate implications of existence. Not all liberation theologians would accept an ultimate, metaphysical base, but discussion of the role of metaphysics must wait for the final, evaluative part. is Such, then, is the tool for the interpretation of the christian sources, which in turn must deepen and direct the interpretative tool.


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