Recently, a friend (also a former priest) allowed me to read a master’s dissertation he wrote while in Rome 40 years ago. As a 34-year-old Kiltegan missionary with experience in Africa, my friend (now in his early 70s) was exploring the meaning of the term “conversion.” It was a query, I suspect, sparked by his personal struggle with questions raised by his own discomfort with missionary work aimed at converting “pagan” Africans to Christianity.
Reading my friend’s dissertation recalled my own similar struggles as a member of the Catholic missionary group, the Society of St. Columban. Like the Kiltegans, the Columbans emerged from Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. My group’s original work was converting Chinese rather than Africans. As I was completing my graduate studies in Rome, I too had my own doubts about the Columbans’ project.
So, for me reading my friend’s work was a trip down memory lane. His thesis addressed the work of theologians I remember admiring during the late 1960s.
I’m talking about the revered thinkers Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and a lesser-known Jesuit theologian, William Lynch. I recall so well puzzling over their dense prose as it tried to make sense of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the light of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Who was Jesus, they asked, and what was his relationship to the “modern world?” As I said, my friend’s question to them was about their understanding of the term “conversion?”
Lonergan’s, Rahner’s, and Lynch’s answers to such questions revealed their developed world perspectives. Lonergan was a Canadian; Rahner a German; Lynch, an American. All three were heavily influenced by existentialist and Heideggerian philosophy that at the time contrasted so refreshingly with the Thomistic approach of pre-conciliar theology that heavily relied on Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholastic philosophy.
However, I (and theologians in general, including, I presume, my friend) have long since moved beyond the impenetrable, abstract, thought of the three theologians in question. Influenced by Jesus scholarship and by liberation theology, the reflections of today’s scholars are much more biblically and historically grounded – much more reliant on concrete social analysis than on existential speculation.
Let me try to show what I mean.
Lonergan, Rahner & Lynch
Without venturing too far into the deeper weeds of their relevant speculations, here’s how Lonergan, Rahner and Lynch approach the question of conversion:
- Lonergan: Conversion is acceptance of truth rather than the world’s falsehoods. Its end point is awakening from an uncomprehending slumber. Its heightened consciousness yields a changed attitude towards the problem of evil, which is ultimately theological before the world’s otherwise incomprehensible tragedies. Conversion emerges from one’s unique experience of God which is analogous to falling in love. It is not rational; it is not dependent on argument. Conversion simply happens as a gift from God to one inexplicably grasped by the reality of Christ crucified, dead, and risen.
- Rahner: Conversion is the owning of one’s human nature which is absolute openness (potentia obedientialis) to ultimate reality (aka “God”). Conversion is the process of becoming receptive to what the world discloses about itself against the backdrop of the Ground of Being. That receptivity is modeled in the person of Jesus the Christ.
- Lynch: Conversion represents a radically changed way of experiencing the world. The world of the convert revolves around a different center than it does for the unconverted. He or she perceives and embraces the fact that all of creation is driven by eros – by the basic life-force that informs everything that is. For Lynch, Jesus understood that fact and because of living its truth, represents the ultimate version of humanity. He reveals to human beings who they are.
All these insights are profound and helpful to academics seeking a deeper understanding of the term conversion. And, as I earlier indicated, I once found them to represent the apex of theological reflection. I agreed, that (1) human beings are basically asleep to life’s deeper dimensions, (2) conversion entails awakening and (3) finally embracing a shared human nature as fundamental openness to Ultimate Reality that some call “God.” (3) Accepting that reality involves perceiving the Life Force (eros) that informs and unites all of creation. (4) Such perception gives the lives of the converted a new center not shared by “the world,” but (5) embodied instead in the person of Jesus the Christ crucified, dead, and resurrected.
That’s what I once believed. But that was before I encountered Jesus-scholarship and liberation theology. It was before (precisely as a Global South advocate) I took seriously the imperative to change the world rather than explain it to intellectuals.
Jesus Scholarship & Liberation Theology
Jesus-scholarship and liberation theology agree that conversion involves awakening to a reality other than that generally accepted by “the wisdom of the world.” But it understands awakening as development of class consciousness. Theological awakening moves the center of reflection from imperial locations such as Rome, Canada, Germany, and the U.S. to the peripheries of neo-colonies and the slums of Sao Paulo, Managua, and Mexico City.
For liberation theologians, reality is not fundamentally theological or philosophical, but historical, economic, political, and social. It has been created by phenomena that Raul Peck says summarize the last 500 years of western history. Three words, he tells us, encapsulate it all – civilization (i.e., white supremacy), colonialism, and extermination. Those terms and the bloodstained reality they represent rather than abstract theological speculation, summarize the real problem of evil. That problem is concrete, material, and historical, not primarily theological. It is not mysterious, philosophical, or even theological.
Accordingly, liberation theology’s reflections start with the real world of endemic poverty, climate change, and threat of nuclear war. Closer to home, they begin in biblical circles where poor slum dwellers ask why there’s no electricity or plumbing – why their children are threatened by gang members and drug dealers. Only as a second step does theological reflection enter the picture. In reading the Gospels, the poor (not developed world theologians) discover the fact that Jesus and his community faced problems similar to their own. In the process, they find new relevance in the narratives of Jesus’ words and deeds.
This leads to a third step in liberation theology’s “hermeneutical circle” – planning to address community problems and to the identification and assignment of specific tasks to members of the reflection group in question. Will we demonstrate in front of city hall? Who will contact the mayor? What about community policing?
Answering and acting on questions like those represent the third step in liberation theology’s circle of interpretation. They are a form of reinsertion into community life. That reengagement then begins the circle’s dynamic all over again.
In summary then, liberation theology begins with social analysis that defines the context of those who (regardless of their attitudes towards theology) would not merely understand the world but are intent on transforming it in the direction of social justice. That by the way is the purpose of liberation theology itself – highlighting the specifically biblical stories whose power can change the world. Accordingly, liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the standpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed who are committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.
And this is where Jesus enters the reflective process in ways that traditional theologians (even like Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch) end up avoiding. For liberation theologians, Jesus is not merely crucified, dead, and risen. He also had a life (traditional theology’s “excluded middle”) including actual words and deeds before the eventuation of those culminating events.
In other words, Jesus is not primarily the transcendent Universal Christ. He is an historical figure who (as William Lynch correctly has it) relocates the center of the world and history. However, as just seen, he moves that center from the privileged terrain of Rome or the United States to their imperialized provinces and colonies. For liberation theology, kings and emperors are not the center of history, but people like the construction worker from Nazareth. That’s the astounding revelation of Jesus. It turns one’s understanding of the world upside-down.
Put still otherwise, (according to biblical stories whether considered historical or fictional) Jesus represents God’s unlooked-for incarnation in the earth’s wretched. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, an infant refugee from infanticide, an asylum seeker in Egypt, an excommunicate from his religious tribe, a friend of drunks and street walkers, and a victim of torture and capital punishment precisely for opposing Rome’s colonial control of Palestine.
Yes, I remember admiring the likes of Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch. But they no longer speak to me. Their abstract words, tortured existential questions, and impenetrable grammar obscure the salvific reality so easily accessible and fascinating in the character of Jesus belonging to the Gospel stories – and to those impoverished and oppressed by what bell hooks calls the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy.
Unfortunately, however, the world and its theologians have always been reluctant to recognize that figure for what he was. The change he requires is too drastic. It would mean taking sides with the wretched of the earth.
Instead, theologians even like Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch have preferred to focus on Christ crucified, dead and resurrected without the biblical narrative of the construction worker’s words and deeds that stand 180 degrees opposite truths taken for granted in the world’s imperial centers.
But it is precisely that down-to-earth Jesus that our world today needs more than an abstract Universal Christ. Conversion to that despised and rejected messiah means rejecting identification with empire’s pretensions and goals. It means taking to the streets with the Sunrise and Black Lives Matter movements. It means running the risk of sharing with Jesus his own fate as a victim of arrest, torture, and even capital punishment.
That’s what Jesus meant by urging his followers to take up the cross and follow him.