Anti-Colonial Decolonized Universal History (Part 2)

What if I told you that virtually everything you’ve been taught about European and American history is false? What if I said that far from leading human development in the fields of science, industry, culture, philosophy, and religion, Europeans and their American cousins have on a world scale been marginal and unoriginal?

What if you were told instead that African, Arab, Persian, Chinese, and indigenous peoples across the planet have demonstrated superior intelligence, more scientific originality, greater technological proficiency, and deeper spirituality than their western counterparts?

Well, believe it or not, those are the conclusions of critical thinkers in the Global South. As I pointed out in a recent posting, the latter are reconceptualizing and debunking Euro-Centric colonized history. In the process, they put Europeans and American “achievements” in their proper place as minor, derivative and ultimately destructive.

I’m referring to critical thinking specialists like Franz Hinkelammert of Costa Rica, Enrique Dussel of Argentina, and Ramon Grosfoguel of Puerto Rico. [The first (age, 91) is a colleague of mine; the second (age, 87) was my teacher in Brazil in 1984]. The work of all three centralize liberation theology.  

Together with other Global South philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and theologians, they are inviting the rest of us to understand that the history we’ve been taught is narrow and misleading. It falsely presents as “universal” the historical experiences of nations and cultures that globally are of marginal importance at best. At worst, they are larcenous and plagiarist.

According to the thinkers I’m referencing, Eurocentric history has become universalized only because of its imposition on richer more original cultures through the militarized processes of imperial colonialism. All of us are its victims.

Euro-centric Fake History

For instance, westerners are taught that philosophy surfaced for the first time in “ancient” Greece six centuries before the dawn of the Common Era. It was only then that ideas of universal good, justice, and democracy came to be thought about in systematic ways.

None of that is true according to the thinkers referenced here. Philosophy and concern for universal values emerged not in Greece, but in the more ancient centers of learning located in Egypt, among African Bantu peoples, in ancient Babylon (modern Iraq), and eventually in China, India, as well as among Native Peoples in Abya Yala (the Americas). (The latter, by the way, were all immigrants from Asia. They brought with them their essentially Asian values.)

Take, for instance, the concept of justice. It was enshrined in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE). The latter defined justice as caring for widows, orphans, the poor, and immigrants. That is, justice centralized not one’s own spouse, but that of others; not one’s own child, but the abandoned children of others; not members of the royal household, but those without material resources; not one’s own people, but foreign residents. That understanding of the good was adopted a thousand years later by, for instance, the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, including the Jewish prophet Yeshua of Nazareth.

Anti-Colonial History

To counter western misconceptions, critical thinkers from the Global South paint a new anti-colonial and decolonized picture of humankind’s origins. It recognizes the African beginnings of homo sapiens (300,00 years ago) and its eastward movement from Africa with its Bantu and Egyptian cultures to the ancient cities of Babylon (modern Iraq) to Arabia, India, China, across the Bering Straits to Turtle Island and then southward all the way to Tierra del Fuego. To this ancient human migration, Europe and the Mediterranean cultures were comparative latecomers and quite marginal until about 140 years ago.

This of course runs counter to Eurocentric narratives like that of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) who found the roots of human culture in the Mediterranean, in 5th century (BCE) Athens while denigrating Far Eastern cultures like China’s as infantile, prescientific, and morally deficient. In fact, however, the Mediterranean was nothing more than the center of a marginal (and comparatively inferior) culture. 

By way of contrast, critical historians like Dussel point out that:

  • Egyptian philosophers anticipated the analysis, theories, and insights of Aristotle and Plato 3000 years before the latter’s’ celebrated writings.
  • Ancient Babylon (modern Iraq) represents one of the world’s oldest settlements. Bagdad is perhaps the most sacred city in world history – much more important than Rome, London, or Berlin. (It and its historical relics were absolutely destroyed by 21st century barbarians and iconoclasts led by George W. Bush. According to Dussel, that destruction was a worse tragedy than would have been the levelling of all three European cities just mentioned.)
  • The “West” owes a huge debt of gratitude to Islamic science which was not inhibited by Roman Catholicism’s fundamentalism and anti-science dogma. As a result, during Christianity’s “dark ages,” Islam experienced a Golden Age that spread learning across Eurasia from the Atlantic to the Pacific and up into the Philippines. It’s no accident, for instance, that Europeans ended up using Arabic numbers. They were invented by Arabs in Bagdad, not in Paris. Moreover, Copernicus “discovered” what Islamic astronomers had known for 600 years. And the Pythagorean theorem was not invented by Pythagoras in Greece, but by Syrian scholars 1000 years earlier.
  • The Chinese had their own versions of the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution long before Europe’s. In fact, the Renaissance began in China. Already by 1463 Chinese scholars began translating Plato from Greek to Latin. Geniuses like Leonardo DaVinci depended heavily upon and even merely copied the insights already elaborated in Chinese tomes.
  • Chinese scholars had invented paper in the 6th century CE, the printing press in the 8th century, and paper money in the 9th. (The printing press wasn’t “invented” in Europe until 1436.)
  • Already in 1434, a delegate from China appeared in the court of Eugenio IV in Florence with books presenting profound treatises on astronomy, agricultural tools, and military weapons.
  • Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe was completely dependent on China for fine textiles such a silk. Kings and queens ate and drank from Chinese porcelain (“China”).
  • In 1870, China produced more steel than England and the United States combined. Chinese engineers traveled to Sheffield to teach industrialists there how to make steel.

Western Distortions

The West’s so-called Enlightenment specifically targeted the insights just cited as backward and belonging to “Dark Ages.” Enlightenment thinking sought a completely new beginning divorced from a “superstitious” past.

By the same token, it rejected Hammurabi’s Code as the product of an era superstitiously thought to be governed by gods and goddesses through their priests, temples, and cathedrals. All of that was eventually rejected as unenlightened.

Ironically, however, ancient religious ideas were merely swapped for more destructive modern ones. The gods of the Dark Ages were replaced by a new God called “Market” – a true fetish in the sense of “an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.”

Far from decreeing concern for widows and orphans, the poor and strangers, a fetishized Market demanded their rejection as unworthy and disposable. The Market god’s idea of justice continues to demand self-centeredness. Its “invisible hand” gives everyone their due even if it means their (deserved) destruction and that of the natural environment required to support life itself. The outworkings of market are final, infallible, and therefore beyond question.

According to Global South critical thinkers, it is that god and that theology that are responsible for modern “inquisitions,” wars, nuclear brinksmanship, mass extinctions, and environmental omnicide.


All of this means that:

  • American “exceptionalism” and its older European counterpart are true largely in the negative sense that both Europe and “America” were long excepted (absent) from the antecedent intellectual, industrial, and spiritual achievements of superior and more original cultures.        
  • The “history” we’ve been taught is filled with lies and omissions. It is ideological in the sense that it has been fabricated to support economic, political, and social structures responsible for transferring knowledge and wealth from universal history’s most productive peoples who are not white Europeans. Rather, they are Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, Muslim Arabs, and the indigenous descendants of Asian migrants in Abya Yala.
  • Western insistence on “intellectual property” is disingenuous. For centuries, Europeans have appropriated (mostly without attribution) ideas and productive processes that have originated in much older cultures now accused of “stealing” what originated with them. In fact, ALL of the great “European” inventions of the 18th and 19th centuries (including the steam engine) were anticipated elsewhere.
  • In all of this, religion (far from irrelevant and transcended by secularism) has been and continues to be central. To begin with, the claim that God exclusively revealed himself (sic) to Europeans through institutions such as the Catholic Church (and later by Reformation national churches) delegitimized more ancient and more deeply spiritual traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Beyond that, capitalism with its fetishized Market God has been responsible for far more barbaric deaths than the much-maligned War Deity of the Old Testament.
  • The Chinese People’s Republic is no upstart. It’s “miracle” is no miracle. Instead, current developments represent a 6000-year-old cultural, industrial, and mercantile leader reassuming its accustomed place of world leadership.
  • Haitian filmmaker, Raoul Peck’s summary of European history’s three basic points is correct. He described them as (1) “Civilization” (i.e., white supremacy), (2) colonialism, and (3) extermination.

Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and the Teachings of the Hunchback, Paul of Tarsus


This is my 4th blog entry connected with a course I’ve been taking in New York City for the past 7 weeks. The course is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.” It’s taught by the great critical theory scholar, Stanley Aronowitz and has been a great joy for me. I love the subject; my classmates are very smart, and Stanley is . . . well, Stanley. He’s provocative, delightfully quirky, and extremely sharp even after the stroke that (at his age of 85) has confined him to a wheelchair. It’s a great privilege studying with him. As you can see from my previous blogs here, here, here, and here, the course readings from Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin have been challenging. The ones analyzed below are equally so. This week, my responses are to Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, and to a brief essay from Walter Benjamin called “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”


Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and the Teachings of the Hunchback Paul of Tarsus

What is the basis of critical thinking? Is it rationality? Is it logic? No, it’s theology.

That, at least, is the implied argument of the critical theorists, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. For them, the foundation of critical thought is what economist and liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert (the convener Costa Rica’s Critical Thinking Group) terms “the critique of mythic reason.” That is, the foundation of critical thought for Marcuse and Benjamin is myth involving interaction between human beings and the divine or ineffable transcendent. Marcuse’s preferred mythology is Greek. Benjamin suggests that his derives from the Judeo-Christian tradition in general and from St. Paul in particular.

The purpose of what follows is to summarize and offer some brief commentary on the relevant arguments of both Marcuse and Benjamin. To do so, this essay will first of all place Marcuse’s use of mythology within the context of his more general argument as outlined in his Eros and Civilization. Marcuse’s thought will then be compared with that of Walter Benjamin as expressed in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” with each Benjamin’s highly poetic 18 theses “translated” into more straight-forward prose. The essay will conclude by arguing that Benjamin’s theological approach is more effective than Marcuse’s in terms of critical theory. It will add, however, that Benjamin’s use of the Judeo-Christian tradition stops short of the depth achieved by Hinkelammert’s commentary informed by the theology of liberation – and in particular by Hinkelammert’s analysis of the writings of Paul of Tarsus whose thought he identifies as the root of what has come to be known as critical theory.

Eros and Civilization

Herbert Marcuse’s seminal Eros and Civilization attempts to elaborate the critical implications of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory (245). In doing so, it builds on the model of repression so brilliantly explained by Freud in his own Civilization and its Discontents. Marcuse connects Freud’s theory of the inevitable conflict between civilization and its laws on the one hand, and the fundamental human drive for complete happiness on the other.

With Freud, Marcuse identifies that drive with the Greek word Eros understood on his view, as much more expansive than mere sexual love (205). In doing so, Marcuse acknowledges the term’s mythological roots. Even more, Christian theologians might find theological overtones in his use of Eros which arguably makes the drive for complete happiness equivalent to “God” as described by the author of the Christian Testament’s First Letter of John which identifies God with love itself (I JN 4:7-21).

In the process of stating his argument, Marcuse critically reviews the stages of human development shared by all human beings from birth, through early family life, education, employment, marriage, later family life, and death.

Marcuse notes that throughout those stages, humans gradually internalize restrictions on the self-centered drives (especially sexual) common to all humans. Such restrictions are necessary for the ordering of human community that avoids Hobbes war of each against all. Nevertheless, Marcuse finds that the social control required for such order soon develops into “surplus repression” far beyond that required for rational order (35, 37, 87f, 131, 235).

In the light of that reality, Marcuse’s overriding question becomes how to identify and escape excessive control that ends up serving the interests of dominant few, while immiserating all others. The chief misery imposed by those classes is that of alienated labor which requires that humans spend most of their lives performing (and recovering from) mind-numbing and body-destroying activities that have little or no intrinsic value (45).

Again, in order to answer his question about exiting this situation, Marcuse traces the origins of surplus repression. It begins, of course, in the family with a child’s relationship to his parents, especially (in the west’s patriarchal culture) with one’s relationship to father. Following the pattern of Freud’s myth of the primal horde, male children begin their lives confronted with a father who unreasonably imposes surplus repression upon them. His excessive demands cause rebellion paralleling that described in the Primal Horde myth (15). However, in most cases, rather than actually murdering the father, rebellion usually takes the form of sexual deviation from patriarchal restrictions.

Deviation from sexual restrictions is especially important, because (in the words of Erich Fromm) “Sexuality offers one of the most elemental and strongest possibilities of gratification and happiness.” Moreover, “. . . the fulfillment of this one fundamental possibility of happiness” of necessity leads to “an increase in the claim for gratification and happiness in other spheres of the human existence” (243). In other words, the human sexual drive represents the spearhead of Eros, the fundamental life force. That basic drive, Marcuse argues, lurks at the heart of all rebellion against civilization’s super-repression.

Eros differs from sexuality in that it is far less focused on genitalia (205). Even more, it locates its contested terrain on the fields of myth, art, philosophy, liberating education, and play.
Play proves especially important for Marcuse, because (in contradiction to society’s demands for productivity – and its “performance principle” expressed in alienated labor) “play is unproductive and useless precisely because it cancels the repressive and exploitative traits of labor and leisure” (195). It manifests existence without anxiety or compulsion and thus incarnates human freedom (187).

As noted earlier, the repressed human drive towards such liberation finds expression in philosophy, art, folklore, fairy tales, phantasy, and myth. Marcuse finds the latter especially expressive in the cases of Orpheus, Dionysius, Prometheus, Narcissus, Pandora. Accordingly, he devotes two entire chapters (8 &9) to analysis of Greek mythology. Myths provide instances of phantasy’s expression that “speaks the language of the pleasure principle, of freedom from repression, of uninhibited desire and gratification” (142).

Nevertheless, phantasies based on Greek mythology, though preserving the truth of “The Great Refusal” (to be entirely controlled by alienated labor), remain according to Marcuse’s analysis, “entirely inconsequential” in terms of actual resolving the problem in question (160).

In other words, while Marcuse focuses on a divine Eros in a promising way, he throws up his hands regarding the question of how to talk about its liberating reality to those for whom the very Greek mythology he finds so meaningful lacks resonance. He similarly characterizes folklore, fairytale, literature and art as also insignificant in terms of yielding a reality principle that realistically provides liberation from the “surplus repression” of the one that prevails (160).

This leads to the question: if Greek mythology is so ineffective, then why spend two chapters on the subject? Why did not Marcuse instead explore the liberating dimensions of the mythology of the Judeo-Christian tradition with which so many in the West can indeed identify? It might even be said that for the 75% of “Americans” who identify as Christian, their religious tradition amounts to a kind of underlying popular philosophy that supplies meaning for their lives. Therefore, finding and describing connections between that tradition and liberation from surplus repression would hardly be “inconsequential.”

Clearly, Marcuse was aware of such possibilities. His friend and Frankfurt School colleague, Erich Fromm, had already identified them in his The Dogma of Christ also published (like Eros and Civilization) in 1955. Moreover, Marcuse himself references such possibilities in Eros and Civilization, although he doesn’t elaborate the allusion. There, he observes:

“The message of the Son was the message of liberation: the overthrow of the Law (which is domination) by Agape (which is Eros). That would fit in with the heretical image of Jesus as the Redeemer in the flesh, the Messiah who came to save man here on earth. Then the subsequent transubstantiation of the Messiah, the deification of the Son beside the Father would be a betrayal of his message by his own disciples – the denial of the liberation in the flesh, the revenge on the redeemer. Christianity would then have surrendered the gospel of Agape-Eros again to the Law . . .” (69-73)

Here Marcuse introduces a crucial distinction between the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth on the one hand and his “transubstantiation” from a human being into the very equal of God. Beforehand, Marcuse says, Jesus was actually a heretic, an earthly Messiah intent on liberating actually existing human beings from oppressive legal systems. His followers, however gradually transformed his liberating Gospel of Agape-Eros into an instrument enforcing a super-repressive Law.

Having opened this promising door of critical analysis, Marcuse unexplainedly leaves it ajar without pursuing its promise.

Benjamin’s 18 Theses

In his final entry in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, a collection of Walter Benjamin’s works reflecting his work as a critical theorist, Walter Benjamin ventures into the realm of Judeo-Christian theology that Marcuse so carefully avoids. Benjamin does so in the context of offering a series of eighteen theses on historical materialism and its philosophy of history. By the way, I take “historical materialism” to mean the philosophical conclusion holding that historical experience creates ideas rather than ideas creating historical experience.

Following this conclusion, Benjamin presents a highly contextualized approach to history wherein each of the latter’s moments is shaped by all previous ones as well as by prevailing ideologies and the historian’s own experience of life.

In other words, the writing of history is not simply a matter of recording events that unfolded in time understood as homogenous and empty of cultural influences and repercussions from what came before. Neither is it merely a matter of recording the past for the sake of preserving disconnected memories. Rather, historiography has the social purpose of shedding light on present dangers and crises for purposes of discovering exits from such existential threats.

Crucially for Benjamin (as already indicated), historical method is not only materialistic in the sense just referenced; it is also highly theological. As we shall see, Benjamin’s very first thesis in his list of 18 makes this point by suggesting Pauline theology as the guiding force of critical thought. Subsequently, virtually every thesis in the author’s list contains some reference to elements such as: theology itself (253), redemption, Messianic power, Judgment Day, the kingdom of God, spiritual things (254), good tidings, the Messiah, redeemer, Antichrist (255), theologians (256), angels, Paradise (257), monastic discipline, friars, meditation, Protestant ethics (258), savior (259), mysticism (261), Messianic time (263), the Torah, and prayer (264).

Moreover, like medieval religious practice, Benjamin’s theses are intended to turn the attention of readers away from the world and its affairs – but this time as described by traitorous politicians entrapped by a stubborn belief in the religion of progress (258). In fact, given Benjamin’s theological interests (4, 253) it is easy to interpret his theses on the philosophy of history as attempts to reinterpret theology in the service of historical materialism.

All of this may become evident in the following summaries of each our author’s 18 theses:

Thesis I: In an atmosphere of smoke and mirrors, and guided by theology, critical thought in the form of historical materialism promises inevitable victory over its opponent – viz. automated technology. And this, despite the latter’s deceptions that distort and reverse perception of reality into its mirror-opposite.

Thesis II: Historical materialists agree that Past (lost opportunities), Present (attempts to reverse those losses) and future (refusal to deal with the consequences of present action) exist in dynamic dialectical relationship captured by the words of history, redemption, and envy.

Thesis III: It is true that no event is insignificant in the long course of history. However, the significance of particular events can only be known at history’s conclusion.

Thesis IV: Despite apparent setbacks in workers’ struggles against ruling class domination, the long arc of history bends towards the victory of the poor and oppressed, because their subtle courage, humor, cunning and fortitude are more powerful than the gross tools of their oppressors.

Thesis V: Historical materialists (vs. mere chroniclers of past events) realize that recollection of past events is valuable only insofar as those events relate to and illuminate the present.

Thesis VI: The threats represented by ruling class attempts to reduce traditions about the past to tools supporting conformism must be resisted so that the past’s recollection might serve resistance and liberation instead.

Thesis VII: Historians who recount history without connecting it to present existential threats serve the interests of the world’s rulers (past and present) who steal the spirit and artifacts of those they’ve subdued. Historical materialists swim against that current.

Thesis VIII: History must reflect the “pedagogy of the oppressed,” which makes us aware of the changes necessary to overcome the perennial state of danger that has always characterized human existence and its struggle against oppression, which even its opponents treat as inevitable.

Thesis IX: As history’s messengers (angels), historical materialists perceive “progress” as responsible for an unending series of catastrophes. Ironically however, the devastating power of those very calamities prevents historical materialists from successfully alerting audiences to their own loss and lack of perception.

Thesis X: The accepted understanding of history (as a detached chronicling of the past) only serves traitorous politicians who have surrendered to fascism with its uncritical belief in progress, its manipulation of the masses, and its totalitarian structures.

Thesis XI: The conformity of the German working class is grounded in the conviction that “progress” includes and benefits its members. Alienated and enslaving factory work has been dignified by this belief. However, contrary to the convictions of “vulgar Marxism,” technology need not destroy, but could actually enhance and make nature more fruitful.

Thesis XII: It is angry recollection of the past rather than concern for the future and future generations that inspires resistance and rebellion in the working class which is the real repository of meaningful history.

Thesis XIII: Any valid critique of the Social-Democratic concept of progress (as anthropocentric, boundless, and irresistible) must be context-based rather than ignorant of historical context – as is the common Social-Democratic understanding of history.

Thesis XIV: Since only the present moment (the mystical nunc stans) is real, any consideration of the past has value only insofar as it sheds light on the present always characterized by ruling-class domination.

Thesis XV: Revolutionary holidays stop the ongoing continuum of history at decisive junctures – eternalizing the moment of liberation like the clocks simultaneously stopped by bullets on the first evening of fighting in the French Revolution, July 1789.

Thesis XVI: In contrast to historicists, historical materialists experience the present not as a transition to the future, but as an end in itself shaped by past events.

Thesis XVII: Unlike historicism, materialist historiography is not merely additive and does not treat time as homogenous, empty and inexorably in motion. The materialist approach is more contemplative, since it allows thinking (and therefore time) to stop so that history’s flow might be perceived as a unified whole. This pause and perception enables the historian (and his audience) to identify history’s underlying oppression and to uncover openings (past and present) for revolutionary change as the overriding project of one’s life.

Thesis XVIII: Humankind’s 50,000-year stature in a 14 million-year-old universe is nearly insignificant. As a result: (A) Alleging causal connections between historical events remains highly speculative (though any given present is both influenced by the past and contains intimations of a salvific future) and (B) the Jewish concept of time (as fundamental openness to a better future) is helpful here, since it is neither empty nor homogenous, nor magical.

Franz Hinkelammert’s Reading of Benjamin

Analyzing the story recounted in Benjamin’s first thesis on the philosophy of history, liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert specifically connects Benjamin with Paul of Tarsus and with critical theory. In doing so, Hinkelammert advances the theory of this brief review, viz. that theology constitutes the foundation of critical theory.

In fact, Hinkelammert considers Paul as the West’s first critical thinker. As such, Paul’s thinking, Hinkelammert argues, anticipates critical theory’s historical materialism, universalism, anarchism, and identification of the messianic function of the world’s poor and oppressed (Hinkelammert: La malidicion que pesa sobre la ley: Las raices del pensamiento critico en Pablo de Tarso. Editorial Arlekin. San Jose, Costa Rica, 2010. 16). More specifically, Hinkelammert recognizes the apostle as the hunchback pulling the strings of the puppet (historical materialism) in Benjamin’s cryptic parable (pictured above) recounted in the opening lines of “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

Hinkelammert justifies doing so on the basis of the following observations:

• By his own admission, Benjamin’s basic orientation was decidedly towards the biblical past.
• He lamented that the biblical “wizened” founders of modern thought remained hidden and out-of-sight (Benjamin 253, Hinkelammert 23).
• In one of Benjamin’s surviving fragments, the latter’s closest friend, Gershom Scholem, celebrated Paul as the most notable example of a revolutionary Jewish mystic (Hinkelammert 14).
• Like the hunchback in Benjamin’s story, Paul suffered from some kind of physical deformity as described in II COR 12:7-9.
• Benjamin description of the parable’s puppet as wearing “Turkish attire” reminds us that its hidden alleged puppet-master, St. Paul, came specifically from Tarsus which is located in modern day Turkey (Hinkelammert 15).
• Other commentators like Jacob Taubes have found the presence of Paul’s thinking prominent not only in Benjamin, but in the most important currents of modern thought including that of Freud and Nietzsche. (The latter by the way, signaled support for this review’s thesis by villainizing Paul for the apostle’s anarchism, defense of the poor and oppressed, and prefiguration of Marx and of historical materialism) (16).
• Above all, Paul’s criticism of Law as the sin of the world, prepared the way for critical theory’s criticism of market law and of the state as the armed force imposing the will of the ruling class on the oppressed majority (17). For both Paul and critical theorists, complying with an oppressive law remains completely immoral (18).


Tellingly for this review’s thesis – that theology is the basis of critical theory – Hinkelammert points out that after Benjamin’s suicide in 1940, his fragment “Capitalism as Religion” came to light. The fragment drew a direct line from orthodox Christianity to capitalism whose system and ideology, Benjamin argues, replicates point-by-point (in secular terms) the elements of medieval Catholic orthodoxy.

However, according to Hinkelammert, Benjamin failed to note, much less exploit, the critical difference between such orthodoxy and the original message and praxis of the thoroughly Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. Had he done so, Hinkelammert observes, Benjamin would have strengthened his conclusion about the connections between Paul and historical materialism, since the teachings of St. Paul followed so closely those of the radical prophet and mystic Jesus of Nazareth.

In the end, it is Paul’s critique Law as well as the apostle’s anarchism and defense of the poor that prefigures the elaborations of Marx and Freud as understood by critical thinkers Benjamin and Marcuse. Only by embracing Paul’s influence, Benjamin correctly observes, can historical materialism claim its assured destiny as victor over the technological automaton intent on destroying us all.

Contemporary critical thinkers and activists would do well to heed Benjamin’s advice. They would do well to join liberation theologians in exploiting the popular power of a reinterpreted Judeo-Christian tradition that supports subversion, anarchism, and the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.

My Experience in Zimbabwe (14th in a series on critical thinking)


So far in this series, I’ve been trying to trace my personal development from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. The tracing has had me recalling leaving home for the seminary at the age of 14, then traveling to Rome for 5 years following my ordination in 1966. From there I spent a year working for the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky, and then decided to leave the priesthood. I subsequently began my 40 year career of teaching at Berea College. My first sabbatical in 1984 took me to Brazil; that was followed by language study in Nicaragua, some teaching in Costa Rica,  where I also worked in a liberation theology think tank, and then several trips to Cuba. In this posting I tell of a mind-expanding six months in Zimbabwe — my first time in Africa. 

Fresh from my first trip to Cuba, my family and I spent 1997-’98 in Zimbabwe – this time accompanying my wife, Peggy, who had received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in the capital city at the university in Harare. In terms of critical thinking, our experience in Zimbabwe helped me further reflect on the importance of Franz Hinkelammert’s observation about the centrality of utopian concepts in critical thinking. Zimbabwe embodied a problem that must be faced by any critical thinker in the mold of what this series intends to explore: Which utopia is a better guideline for structuring a just society – a world with room for everyone, or a market free of government regulation?

That is, if Cuba demonstrated utopian commitment to Hinkelammert’s capacious world, Zimbabwe revealed what typically happens when socialism’s goals are dropped in favor of capitalism’s utopia. Let me share with you my personal experience in the former Rhodesia, for it provides a case study in systemic critical thinking about the way social problems can implicate us all.

To begin with, the Zimbabwe my family discovered in 1997, had experienced the triumph of its bloody socialist revolution in 1980 under the leadership of ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). After its triumph, and unlike Cuba, ZANU was very cautious in the socio-economic reforms it implemented. True, ZANU established as its goal economic “growth with equity.” And towards that end, its policies followed the Cuban model through programs of modest land redistribution, as well as emphasizing education, health care, higher wages, and food subsidies. This required large government programs and expenditures. In those early days, ZANU devoted approximately 50% of its annual budget to such endeavors. These reforms succeeded in significantly raising living standards for the country’s overwhelmingly black and poor majority. After years of apartheid, they were finally experiencing living room.

However, from the outset, ZANU chose not to institute truly comprehensive land reform to aggressively redistribute white-owned acreage to poor black farmers. Instead, it left 70% of the country’s productive capacity in the hands of the former Rhodesia’s white settler class and under the control of foreign corporations.

Then in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had supported socialist revolutions everywhere, Zimbabwe, like Cuba, lost a role model as well as a major source of foreign aid. Socialism seemed entirely discredited. So like other socialist countries, Zimbabwe found itself at a crossroads. Its question was that of every socialist country at the time: Should we continue on the socialist path or admit defeat and surrender to the apparent inevitability of capitalism?

Whereas Cuba, despite overwhelming pressure from its virulently hostile North American neighbor, chose to remain with socialism, Zimbabwe decided otherwise. Acceding to the recommendations of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, the country embraced capitalism and drastically restructured its economy. It lowered taxes on local (usually white) commercial famers as well on foreign investors. It cut back on social programs, lowered wages, and devalued its currency. The idea was to create in Zimbabwe an investment climate attractive to multi-national corporations, whose wealth would finance jobs and trickle down to the country’s poor masses.

When our family arrived in Zimbabwe in 1997, the effects of such counter-revolutionary reforms were visible everywhere. On the one hand, Harare seemed to exude prosperity. Downtown streets were broad, clean, jammed with traffic during rush hours, and largely absent of the beggars, homeless, prostitutes and street children we had encountered elsewhere in our travels.

The apparent prosperity was commercial too. Stores in Zimbabwe’s capital were modern, clean and well-stocked with items from all over the world. The East Gate Shopping Center was a monument to it all.  Standing at the corner of Second Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue, it was a block square mall five stories high. Entering this darkened underworld from the sun-drenched pavement outside, patrons were suddenly transported from steaming Third World Africa to very cool and exotic locations resembling Paris, São Paulo, or New York.  The transition was a day to night experience. In the mall the hour was always post meridian, brightened by shop lights, garish neon signs or by commercial manifestos with the same light-bulbed borders otherwise reserved for backstage Hollywood dressing rooms.  Four sets of glass-enclosed, stainless steel elevators whisked shoppers and office workers to their respective destinations. The layers of overhead walkways were constructed of dark green girders, pipes, tubes and mesh floors all made of hard, cold steel.  The appearance of complex, unending scaffolding and catwalks gave reluctant testimony to the unfinished impermanence of the New World Order congealed in the mall’s defiantly postmodern architecture.  At the same time, though, the formation trumpeted the fact that Zimbabwe was part of it all. East Gate housed thoroughly up-to-date clothing shops, shoe boutiques, candy and liquor stores, pharmacies, beauty parlors, sporting goods outlets, and food courts.

It all stood in sharp contrast to Cuba. During this same historical period, after losing overnight 70% of its (Soviet) trading partners, the island found itself plunged into a decade-long depression far worse than anything Americans had experienced after the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Survivors of the “special period” recalled that the average Cuban adult probably lost about 20 pounds. A sociologist told me “We all looked like those pictures of World War II concentration camp internees.” Yet astoundingly in Cuba, not a single school or hospital closed, and unlike European countries after socialism’s demise, there were no riots in the street, much less any   counter-revolution.

Yes, Cuba was apparently miserable under socialism, while Zimbabwe prospered under its new allegiance to capitalism. But was the difference merely apparent? My personal observation and experience with Zimbabwe’s working class and maid system made me wonder. Both showed the country’s underbelly where the vast majority lived in distressing poverty that (in contrast to Cuba) remains to this day.

Anyone could see the distress each morning. Beginning at sunup, around 5:30, a long procession of tan mini-buses transported to the city center waves of black workers from their shacks in the “populous suburbs” that had little to do with East Gate prosperity. Life there was like living in the favelas we experienced in Sao Paolo and Recife. As the vehicles arrived one after another, the waves crashed together to form a turbulent sea of humanity walking, jogging, running, frowning and chattering along streets like Alexandra Park’s Barrowdale Road.

Dressed in heavy wool sweaters and toboggan watch caps of navy, sky blue, red or black, machine operators, plant janitors, maids, gardeners and factotums hurried to assume duties in the industrial centers, or in the homes of well-off whites who meanwhile breakfasted securely behind well-locked gates invariably patrolled by huge fierce dogs. The wealth disparity between blacks and whites was there for all to see.

Each morning innumerable underpaid and overworked maids bravely made their ways from the Chitungwiza slum to Alexandra Park and other white sections of Harare.  It was the same “maid systems” we had encountered in Brazil and throughout Central America.  Actually, I realized, it’s a step below slavery.  At least in the slave system, owners had to provide food, shelter, clothing and health care for their workers and offspring.  With capitalism and the “maid system,” the master class could wash its hands of such concerns, pay a pittance, and leave the maids to figure out how to take care of their children and make ends meets.

Yet I have to admit that in Zimbabwe, we found ourselves cooperating with that very system. And using maids made us complicit in the exploitation of workers throughout the Third World.  The wage we paid our maid was the same Nike workers received in Taiwan — $1.50 a day.  The hours she worked were as long as theirs — twelve. The ideological justification for not providing higher pay was identical as well. “We know the wages are terribly low,” employers everywhere in the world have said from time immemorial. “But if forced to pay more, we’d have to go without employing these people at all; we simply couldn’t afford them.  As a result, they’d be laid off and have no income.  At least under the current arrangement, they have some money coming in.  Moreover, if as an individual, I could afford to pay more, it wouldn’t be fair to other employers who might not be able to do so.  It would just create tension between them and the maids they’ve hired.  We’re trapped in a system without a just alternative.”

This is the sort of contradiction Zimbabwe revealed to me – including in our own lives. So who was better off, Zimbabweans or Cubans? Which country made the better choice? Whose utopia is preferable? And should our family have cooperated with the one Zimbabwe’s governing elite chose? Answering questions like those reveal the essence of the critical thinking recommended here. What do you think?

Peggy & I Study with Franz Hinkelammert in Costa Rica (12th in Series on Critical Thinking)

Franz & Peggy

The next stop on the critical thinking odyssey I’m outlining here was Costa Rica. There I finally met Franz Hinkelammert, whose Global South approach to critical thinking provided the theory I sought to make everything I had learned in Brazil come together. Recall that I had encountered his latest work while in Brazil. (Franz is pictured above with Peggy and me in 1992.)

Franz Hinkelammert is a German economist and theologian. After coming to Latin America in 1976, he lived and worked mostly in Chile. But then the 1973 U.S.-sponsored coup removed the democratically-elected Socialist president of the country (Salvador Allende). The subsequent installation of a brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, made Chile extremely dangerous for people like Hinkelammert. So he fled to Costa Rica, where he, liberation theologian giant, Hugo Assmann and biblical scholar, Pablo Richard founded the Department of Ecumenical Research (DEI), a liberation theology think tank. The DEI specialized in preparing grassroots organizers to work for social change throughout Latin America. However, its emphasis was not on “training” for activism, but specifically on analysis and critical thought.

My opportunity to study with Franz came with my second sabbatical in 1992. Peggy and I applied and were accepted as the first North American participants in the DEI’s annual Workshop for Invited Researchers. The eight-week course hosted about 20 scholars from across Latin America. Each of us had a research project whose goal was publication in the DEI’s quarterly, Pasos. Not surprisingly, mine was on critical thinking.

During the workshop, Franz, Pablo Richard, and fellow Chilean, Helio Gallardo were the principal presenters and discussion leaders. In his own lectures, Franz emphasized what is for him an enduring key idea about critical thinking. It is expressed most clearly in his Critique of Utopic Reason and also in his Critique of Mythic Reason. In both, he highlighted the essentially utopian nature of critical thought. Its point, he says, is not simply to analyze arguments for logical fallacies. Instead, it is political. It is essentially utopian – to create a better world by imagining the best possible world. Hinkelammert’s argument runs as follows:

  1. If politics is the art of the possible,
  2. Then a utopian idea of the impossible, but at the same time desirable, is required
  3. Not necessarily as a goal to be implemented
  4. But as a “North Star”
  5. Guiding critical thought and action towards what indeed can be practically accomplished.
  6. No such goal can be arrived at without utopian ideas towards which critical thinking gestures.
  7. Utopian thought comes naturally to human beings.
  8. In fact, critical thought without utopian concepts is itself unconsciously utopian.

Franz illustrates his idea by pointing out that utopias are not at all merely the province of starry-eyed idealists. They are essential for any critical thought intent on beneficial social change. In that sense, Franz’s own North Star for critical thought is the simple idea later articulated by the Zapatista rebels in Mexico as a world with room for everyone. Meanwhile, the capitalist utopian ideal is of a completely free market governed only by Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” That is the guiding constellation under whose direction all mainstream economic theory is fabricated.

Hinkelammert’s argument highlights the difference I’ve been trying to describe between critical thinking as taught in the United States and what I discovered in the Global South. In the Global South, critical thinking is concerned with the big picture – with entire systems, with social analysis of economic and political structures. As explained by Franz and others, it is by no means a matter ferreting out what is now called “alternative facts” or “fake news.” Such concern glosses over the lies embedded in the very parameters of perception which act as blinders for both students and their teachers. In that sense, the critical thinking I had become used to had been literally partial in its ignorance and denial of the experience of the world’s majority who live in the former colonies. From that viewpoint concentrating on logical inconsistencies or falsehoods in arguments divorced from the unexamined socio-economic matrix of capitalism only serves to normalize what should be completely unacceptable to human beings.

For Hinkelammert, that was the insight of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx. Marx in particular was a humanist who saw critical thought as focusing on human emancipation from the chains imposed by capitalism and the colonialism on which it depended. Critical thinking, in Marx’s estimation, involved identifying those chains and the steps necessary to humanize all relationships between persons and with nature itself. In theological terms, the mandate is: “Do what God did; become a human being!” That is the project of the type of critical thinking I was now encountering.

That, in fact, became what I subsequently attempted to communicate my students. And I began right there in San Jose. There, by mere coincidence and chance, I began teaching in a Latin American Studies Program (LASP). It was a term abroad for Evangelical students from the United States whose institutions were affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Teaching fundamentalist Evangelicals about colonialism, U.S. intervention in the Third World, and the history of capitalism was a wonderful challenge. Even more so was helping them understand liberation theology.

We clashed, especially at the beginning of our semester-long encounters. And (in terms of the topic at hand) that was because I was coming from the world-centric perspective of liberation theology, while their standpoint was almost exclusively ethnocentric. For them, the United States could do no wrong, and the Bible was to be taken at face value. To criticize the U.S. or to interpret parts of the Bible as myth, legend, or poetry was simply unacceptable.

I, on the other hand, owned the world-centric approach I’m describing here. I took to heart international polls that consistently identified the United States as the greatest threat to world peace.[1] Moreover, my approach to the Bible was informed by the historical critical methodology of modern scripture scholarship.[2]

Such challenges however were mitigated by the reality check the LASP program provided each semester’s cadre of students. I’m referring to four days among the descendants of African slaves in Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, as well as two weeks each in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In each of those cases, we more or less followed the practice I had experienced in Nicaragua. In the midst of their studies, students lived with local families and received on-site presentations from indigenous tribal leaders, union organizers, politicians, historians, and church officials – most of whom were not ethno-centrists. Students uniformly described it all as life-transforming. And I’m sure that direct contact with the victims of what bell hooks calls “white-supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy” made them more thoughtful about their reactions to world-centric perspectives.

Additionally, at least for me, those LASP trips – especially to Cuba – provided opportunities to observe and judge attempts to implement what Hinkelammert would call critical utopian theory.

(Next week: My learnings in Cuba)

[1] Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “Womp! This Country Was Named the Greatest Threat to World Peace.” The Huffington Post., 02 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

[2] “What Is the Historical-Critical Method?” The Historical-Critical Method. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

My Study of Liberation Theology in Brazil (10th in a series on critical thinking)

Dom Helder

My study in Brazil initiated a profound change in my understanding of critical thinking. It led me to see that liberation theology itself amounted to a Global South version of that discipline. However, the critical thinking I encountered in Brazil didn’t concern itself with abstract dilemmas and logical fallacies. Instead the Brazilian version addressed problems confronted in the very lives of its protagonists – hunger, poverty, dictatorships, imprisonment, torture, police raids, and the reasons for widespread hunger in an extremely rich and rather thinly populated country.

Neither did critical thinking in Brazil worry about neutrality and balance or with giving equal time to capitalists and their working class opponents. In the minds of its teachers, those problems had long since been settled. After all, in 1964, defenders of capitalism had overthrown Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1960s that had been the case throughout the region. In Brazil it meant that by 1984 the country had completed its second decade of a military dictatorship fully supported by the United States. Over those years, vast numbers of priests and nuns, union organizers, university professors, social workers, lawyers, and simple peasants had been routinely imprisoned, tortured and often murdered. Their crimes?  They had demanded land reform, higher wages, health care, education, freedom of speech, and ability to speak freely and organize. No, capitalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had clearly shown itself to be the enemy of the people.

All of that became very clear for me when, to begin with, I connected with the legendary Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s methodology for teaching literacy had exercised strong influence on liberation theology, and especially on “Base Christian Communities” (BCCs) which following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) proliferated throughout the country. My intention was to research those communities as part of my sabbatical assignment.

At the same time, my wife, Peggy was working on her doctoral dissertation on Freire’s work. So she worked in his center every day and every week with literacy teachers implementing his method in Sao Paulo’s favelas. On our fifth wedding anniversary, we had supper with Paulo and his wife, Elsa, in their apartment. Afterwards, he read aloud Peggy’s latest dissertation chapter. I remember him pausing at one point after reading a quotation from his own Education for Critical Consciousness; he said, “Right now I am loving these words!” He was wonderful.

While in Recife, our whole family twice visited Dom Helder Camara, the famous “Red Archbishop” of that huge city in the northern part of the country. I phoned his office to set up the appointment. He answered the phone himself!

Considered a saint even before his death in 1999, Dom Helder was also called the “Archbishop of the Poor.” He once famously observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” With those words, this patron of liberation theology expressed the central question of critical thinking in the Global South: Why are people so poor in the midst of so much abundance?

I informed Dom Helder of my intention to experience liberation theology’s BCCs in Recife. That was during our first visit in his office, while he held our four-year-old daughter, Maggie, in his lap. (I later told her she had been embraced by a saint!) I asked the archbishop to share his thoughts about those communities. He told me, “It would be better for me not to say anything at this point. Why don’t you do your research first? Experience those communities, and then at the end of your visit come back and tell me what you found. Then I might tell you what I think.”

So I followed the saint’s advice. During our family’s weeks in Recife, I participated in several BCC meetings. There I witnessed the kind of critical thinking referenced above. It was the same process that had been prescribed for teaching literacy years earlier by Paulo Freire in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I had read while still in Rome.

I consistently found all of that inspiring. Here were absolute giants in the field of critical thought, centralizing their fundamental identities as spiritual beings in order to address in practical terms genuine problems of politics, economy, and personal life. I found such embrace of human political spirituality absent not only in the standard approach to critical thinking familiar to me, but even in the churches of my own experience.

I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of that approach to critical thinking.

To that end, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar taught by liberation theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars I had been reading for years – figures like Argentina’s Enrique Dussel, Chile’s Pablo Richard, Belgium’s Francois Houtart and Brazil’s own Frei Gilberto Gorgulho and Ana Flora Anderson. In the course of the experience, I was also introduced to the work of Chilean economist and theologian, Franz Hinkelammert, who would become for me an extremely important mentor. Significantly, Franz was to later found the international Grupo de Pensamiento Critico (the Critical Thinking Group).

As I listened to these scholars describe history in ways I never had confidence enough to seriously entertain, I found myself wondering, “What is the key to all of this?” I mean, Enrique Dussel described World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.” What is he talking about? I wondered. Was Hitler really a capitalist? It was a completely foreign thought.

Meanwhile, Frei Gorgulho spoke of Cuba as “the envy of the Third World.” Pablo Richard had just returned from a trip to revolutionary Nicaragua and was full of stories about Anastasio Somoza, the history of U.S. oppression in the country, the Sandinistas, land reform, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionary Contras. The positive evaluation of Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution stood contrary to everything reported in the U.S.

Even more disturbingly, everyone constantly and negatively referenced highly destructive American military interventions in its “backyard” and throughout the world to defend colonialism and what was termed “neo-colonialism.” The whole seminar was scandalized by a picture in the Folha do Sao Paulo of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II sitting together in Rome – both of them smiling broadly. “That photo,” all agreed “will cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” (It was because it implied that the pope endorsed Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America.)

None of these thoughts would ever be expressed in the United States. But here they were bandied about by these teachers of pensamiento critical as though they were perfectly obvious. And there was no objection from my classmates – most of them priests, nuns and lay theologians.

Again, I wondered, what is the analytic key to this sort of thought.

I later found it was the dependency theory of the German-American sociologist and historian, Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder Frank traced everything back to the history and structures of colonialism and neo-colonialism. I resolved to find out more about that; it seemed essential to this kind of critical thought. I asked for sources. Other than Gunder Frank’s works themselves, my seminar colleagues told me to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For perspective on Africa, they recommended Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I immediately purchased the books and my education in critical thinking took another giant step forward.

To repeat: this was not the type of critical thinking I had become used to. Unlike its U.S. version, what I found in Brazil was politically committed, historically grounded, and deeply spiritual. In the United States, everything familiar to me was apolitical, historically uninformed, and entirely secular. That caused me to reflect once again on my own historical ignorance. I also wondered about neutrality and the stories about Nicaragua routinely disseminated back home. I could already see that those tales amounted to one-sided propaganda. As one of my Ten Rules would later express it, I was beginning to suspect that truly critical thought involved rejecting pretense of neutrality.

I resolved to visit Nicaragua as soon as possible. I did the following year.

(Next week: Nicaragua!)

Why I Left the Priesthood: Pt. 2 Intellectual Influences

I didn’t have much of an intellectual life when I was in the seminary. True, I studied hard and got good grades. I learned what I was expected to know on tests. But the intellectual curiosity just wasn’t there. Why should it have been? As Catholics we had the whole truth; there was nothing new to learn. There was no salvation outside the Church. The pope, at least, knew all the answers. There was no need to think much, except to “defend the faith.” 

Beyond that, thinking critically wasn’t much encouraged at all. In fact, from my high school seminary days till half-way through the major seminary (when I was about 23) a palpable anti-intellectualism pervaded the curriculum. For instance, I remember being taught in my first or second year as a philosophy major that Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” We never read Descartes, nor anybody of much consequence as far as “the world” was concerned, apart from snippets in the various manuals – and then only as parts of refutations. These quotes, followed quickly by rebuttal, did after all give the distinct impression that Descartes, Kant, Marx, Freud – not to mention the “Modernists” and Protestants in general – were clueless. So why be concerned about them or their writings?

In 1962, of course, things started to change, when John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council. I was a senior in college then. And some of our professors started encouraging us to actually read books, and to discover what was happening in the world. I resisted. I had well internalized the passivity which the seminary curriculum had encouraged in terms of not thinking for myself, at least theologically.

I had the good fortune, however, of having classmates and friends who were less gullible than me. They were excited by the prospect of the Council. After a bit of a struggle, one of them even got our library to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter. In class and outside, others voiced criticisms of a whole host of things I considered sacred. I remember, for instance, a spirited seminary-wide discussion about the worth of continuing to regard The Imitation of Christ as a source of spiritual wisdom. I resisted that too. I remember writing something “learned” defending The Imitation’s author, Thomas a Kempis.

A series of lectures put together by the Paulist Fathers in downtown Boston was especially instrumental challenging my defensiveness. First of all it was a relief to be outside the seminary walls to attend the series. Most importantly though John L. McKenzie, Harvey Cox, Andrew Greeley and others gave powerful lectures as part of the program. Particularly memorable for me, however, was a talk by Barnabas Ahern. As a scripture scholar, he spoke of the human Jesus, and of the way the Gospels had gradually elevated the historical Jesus almost beyond recognition.

Our faith, Ahern reminded us, is that Jesus was a divine person who is fully God and fully human. We believe the first part with all our hearts, he said, but pay only lip service to the second. Ahern’s words made such profound impression on me that the next day I wrote out from memory virtually everything that he had said. His approach showed me what demythologizing in its best sense is all about. I resolved that I wanted to think and speak that way. That represented a tiny step towards adopting as my own a motto suggested to me by one of my mentors years later in Rome: “No more bullshit.”  

Eamonn O’Doherty, one of my scripture professors in the major seminary also moved me in that direction. The beginning of the Council coincided with my class’ entry into our four-year theology program in Milton. Central to it all was Eamonn’s introduction to modern scripture scholarship. Eamonn insisted on dealing exclusively with primary sources. His own notes and lectures provided the commentary. His approach was contextual. And with that I was introduced to genuine critical thinking for the first time. In Eamonn’s class (unlike Moral Theology of all places), questions were encouraged. I especially remember two colleagues (both a couple of years ahead of me) raising many questions I found interesting. Even more intriguing was the fact that they could actually ask them.

I wondered what they were reading. One of them gave me a list of three books – two by Hans Kung. Meanwhile our Liturgy professor acquainted us with Edward Schillebeeckx, and had us read Christ: the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Soon I was delving into James Kavanaugh’s A Catholic Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. I was on my way.

I didn’t realize it then, but even before my ordination, I was starting my exit from the priesthood. I was beginning to recognize that what I was aspiring to – its rationale, its way of life, its theological justification – just couldn’t stand up to the evidence, not scriptural, nor historical nor theological.

By the time ordination came, I was secretly hoping I’d be sent to do graduate work instead of to the “foreign missions.” I wanted to know more. So I was delighted when my first appointment was to Rome and the Academia Alfonsiana to “do” Moral Theology. Evidently, my superiors planned for me to teach in the seminary following my years in Rome. (My intellectual development there however soon had them rethinking that idea.)

I knew Bernard Haring, the great Catholic moral theologian, taught at the Alfonsiana, and looked forward to studying under him. However, before beginning that three-year program, I had to get a degree in Systematic Theology. (Even after four years of theology in Milton, we had no corresponding degree to show for it.) So I enrolled in the Benedictine Atheneum Anselmianum.

Rome was still electric in the aftermath of Vatican II. After each day’s lectures at the Anselmo, I remember coming home on fire. I really admired Swiss Professor Magnus Lohrer. I can still see him smiling enthusiastically as he explained some fine point of the Council, Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth – in Latin. Raphael Schulte wasn’t far behind in my estimation. Their excitement about theology, their engagement with the world, their scholarship shook my world and drove me to make up for all that “lost time” at Milton. I read voraciously – everything I could by Rahner, along with books by Congar, Schillebeeckx, Dewart, Cox, Tillich, Moltmann, and (later) by liberation theologians, especially Franz Hinkelammert of Costa Rica. Meal times in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste were spent in hot debate. I remember those discussions so well: liberals versus conservatives – and all the time enduring our rector’s dark scowls.

It was at this point that news started trickling in about seminary colleagues who were leaving the priesthood. The huge post-conciliar exodus from the priesthood had begun. Table talk on Corso Trieste refocused to that topic. Was the priesthood really forever? And what about celibacy? By now everyone knew that renunciation of marriage was quite late coming along as a requisite for ordination. Its imposition and defence had a lot to do with protecting church property from the heirs of priests. Besides all of that, Vatican II had changed the very ideas of priesthood and church. The priesthood of the faithful had been emphasized. And the church itself was primarily understood as a People of God, not as a top-down clerical hierarchy. Clerics were less important. So, what harm if ordained priests realized all of that and acted accordingly?

Such insights and insistent questions spilled over into the General Chapter of the Society of St. Columban, which I attended in Ireland in the early ‘70s. There I and an Irish and Australian colleague were specially elected “youth” delegates – even though all of us were over 30. Because we were such youngsters, we had voice at the Chapter, but no vote. I remember being disappointed, but not surprised at how closed older delegates tended to be to new ideas expressed not only by the three of us (who were literally “back benchers” in the Chapter hall), but to those expressed by forward-looking priests I had come to admire.

We were impatient for change, and for addressing big questions such as the purpose of missionary activity in an ecumenical world, and even priestly celibacy. Lack of serious response had an alienating effect, at least on me. Additionally, personal observation of the way my order worked, of its members’ basic fear of change, of stonewalling, machismo, and denial intensified the impression that those in charge didn’t really know what they were talking about.

But then, of course, alienation of youth was a “sign of the times” in the early ‘70s. Estrangement of young priests from church structures was part of all that.

It was also part of my story.

 Next Week: Personal Steps away from the Priesthood