Liberation Theology and Critical Thinking (Third in a Friday Series on Liberation Theology)

With Jesus and Paul having been identified as liberationists, it is now possible to connect them (and their liberation theology) with critical thinking. This entails clarifying the methodology of liberation theology.

For protagonists of LT, theology itself – even direct recollection of Jesus’ words and deeds and the writings of Paul as summarized here over the last two weeks –  is not primary. To be sure, one’s commitment to God might be fundamental for many. However LT begins by recognizing that living a dignified human life represents the truly primary task of human beings. It’s what the human project is about. That is, life is about living not theologizing. And at the end of a day of trying to make ends meet, there remains precious little time for theological reflection. 

Put otherwise, living a dignified human life in today’s world is by no means easy especially for the third world poor who are LT’s main protagonists. Recall the statistics cited earlier about the shockingly uneven resource distribution that characterizes the world of corporate globalization. Those numbers suggest that many forces including economic, social, political and specifically religious structures and ideologies make dignified human life (with the freedom from cold, hunger, disease, and  ignorance implied) nearly impossible for the world’s majority. So theological reflection is not even a second step towards making sense of one’s life. For activists (and protagonists of liberation theology, remember, are committed activists) the second step is social analysis – i.e. attempting to understand the forces (including religion) that make life so hard and unfair.

But even here the term “social analysis” might be misleading. It conjures the unlikely image of peasants exchanging insights about Marx’s labor theory of value or critiques of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Instead among the third world poor, social analysis takes the form of neighbors discussing their daily lives and, e.g. the obstacles preventing municipal authorities from supplying water or electricity to their slum community. Here the practice resembles Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire’s model of popular education. That model assumes that local communities however poor normally have within them the intellectual and moral resources necessary to understand and effectively address their own problems. When this is not the case, such communities can seek help from outside “experts.”

However, following Freire’s model, it doesn’t take long even for those completely lacking formal education to link their immediate problems with “structures” including abstractions such as “capitalism,” “free trade,” “neo-colonialism” and ideological manipulations of patriotism and religion. Nonetheless emphasis is usually on practical immediate responses to problems at hand. 

Theological reflection is a third step (after daily experience and social analysis) in the “hermeneutical circle” of liberation theology. It is what some people of faith do “at the end of the day,” to help them make sense of their experience of life. For communities with a liberationist understanding of the Christian tradition, this reflection often takes place in “biblical circles,” where neighbors meet to reflect on their attempts to follow Jesus of Nazareth. One can get a flavor of such gatherings from Ernesto Cardenal’s Gospel in Solentiname, which records verbatims of such gatherings in Cardenal’s lay monastic community in Solentiname, Nicaragua prior to the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution. Participants discuss readings from the Gospels and connect them directly to their lives. It is at this point that the earlier referenced similarities between the situations of Jesus and his followers in first century colonial Palestine and those of the poor of the 21st century third world are identified, discussed, and scrutinized for the practical and moral guidance they might offer.

A fourth step in LT’s process of critical thinking is planning a course of transformative action or praxis. Participants in the “biblical circle” identify small (and sometimes large) tasks they promise to perform before the circle’s next meeting. Each understands that s/he will have to report to the group on his or her success or failure to complete the assumed task. Without this step (however small) the circle remains a discussion group and not a Christ-like agent for change.

Finally, comes the step of “reinsertion” or return to daily life with its work, burdens, responsibilities, sorrows and joys. But in a sense, everything and everyone has changed following completion of the first four steps in LT’s critical cycle. This is true, since the critical process has served to explain or at least shed light on the factors fundamentally responsible for day-to-day issues such as low wages, high prices, family strife, alcoholism, police brutality, etc.  It is especially true since each participant in the circle has pledged to actually do something specific to make a difference.  

It is LT’s emphasis on understanding systems as well as on transformative action that makes its understanding of critical thinking continuous with the roots of critical thought found in Paul of Tarsus as the founder of critical thinking in the C.E. West.

In fact, systemic critique and insistence on transformative action is what has distinguished the great critical thinkers who might be considered Paul’s offspring – Marx, Freud, and even Nietzsche (though the latter considered himself Paul’s arch-enemy, precisely because of Paul’s paradigm shift favoring those the world considers “weak” and “despised”). The distinguishing characteristic of great critical thinkers is their refusal to accept the parameters of thought defined by “the given” as the categorical limits of perception imposed thereby. Instead, they’ve insisted on subjecting “what is” to judgments inspired by “what is not.”  In Paul’s case (and in Jesus’ too) the kingdom of God represents “what is not.” It stands in judgment over everything that is. In other words, the utopian “Kingdom of God” proclaimed by Jesus, and the “Wisdom of God” invoked by Paul become instruments for exercising “the critique of mythical reason” that has been so absent from the discourse  of the U.S. left

                Mythical reasoning compares a vision of the future like that encapsulated in the Kingdom of God image (“what is not”) with analysis of critical reasoning’s starting point, the actual situation defining the context under analysis (“what is”). A metaphor like the kingdom of God (or for that matter like the “communism” of Marx and Engels) represents a “myth” describing an ideal state impossible to attain. Such utopian image does not represent an actual goal, any more than the North Star represents the destination of navigators. Instead, precisely as an image of the impossible, it represents and indispensable point of reference for uncovering the possible. Without such image, without such utopian or mythic critique, one remains mired in the status quo without hope of escaping the given order’s categorical limits of perception.             

 Next Week: The Imperialization of Christianity

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Liberation Theology and Critical Thinking (Third in a Friday Series on Liberation Theology)”

  1. Silvia Regina would approve! 🙂 Well put, Mike. I love the way you worded the conclusion with the Northern Star analogy.


  2. If Silvia Regina would approve, I’m in good company indeed. Laura, let me know when you and Trevor plan to be in Michigan. We’ll make sure we’re there. Maggie’s baby is due around the 20th of the month.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s