Does It Liberate? Kaufman Addresses the Praxis Question

Humauaca By Elemaki (Own work)
via Wikimedia Commons
The relationship between academic theological method and practical political commitment is a vexed one. Latin American liberation theologians, in particular, have called out Western academic traditions as being insufficiently nourishing of the kind of engaged resistance movement that befits the Jesus movement. (It's a complicated issue, especially given the fact that many of these same theologians, especially in earlier years, fed pretty directly on these same traditions -- humanist Marxism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, etc. See, for example, Clodovis Boff's massive work from three decades ago, Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations; Juan Luis Segundo and Jon Sobrino, among others, shows a similar dependence upon Western theory.)

I recently ran across a striking challenge lobbed by Gustavo Gutierrez, arguably the dean of Latin American liberationists, toward North American academic theologians. Gordon Kaufman, a leading light of constructive theology in recent decades, tackles the question head on, at the beginning of his major work in constructive theology

In the Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology, By Gordon F. Kaufman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

In an earlier post, I raised (not answered, mind you) the question whether some aspect of Kaufman's historicist, constructivist systematic project might abet a debilitating moral relativism lacking, say, in more confessionally assertive theological proposals. Gutierrez gets at the same kind of worry, albeit from a different angle: How can the writings of Western academic elites speak to those gripped in concrete, often life-and-death struggles against injustice?

Kaufman, for his part, proves himself meticulously aware of and sensitive to the economic, political, and environmental challenges that faced the world in the early 1990s (and perhaps even more so today!); indeed, one might read his project as in many respects framed by such concerns. He acknowledges the privileges inherent to his social location as a white, North American academic working at the richest university in the country, and to the risks of ideological distortion that attend such a pedigree. The issue comes up, particularly, around the question whether academic theologians of his ilk, obsessed as they have been with the post-Enlightenment crises of meaning and authority besetting Western religious traditions, have blunted the edge of the gospel in an orgy of intellectual abstractions and speculation (my paraphrase is a bit more florid than how he puts it).

He writes:

The liberation theologians are certainly correct in holding that there is no justification for focusing Christian theology on essentially speculative games of interest only to elite intellectuals; Christian theology which does not contribute significantly to the struggles against inhumanity, injustice, and the other serious evils in our world has lost sight of its deepest raison d'etre (p. xi)

That our Western intellectual traditions continue to be roiled by turmoil and uncertainties is indubitable, and to the extent we still count ourselves "religious" (or if you prefer, "spiritual") we will continue to wrestle theologically with the critical challenges spawned from secularization, radical pluralism, scientific naturalism, etc. But perhaps the vast majority of the world population has little leisure to indulge such head games. Kaufman writes:

What may appear (from a Christian point of view) to be the most deep-cutting criticism of all has been made by liberation theologians. Gustavo Gutierrez, for instance, has said that "The question is not how we are to talk about God in a world come of age, but how we are to tell people who are scarcely human that God is love and that God's love makes us one family." (p. x).

Such a contention might easily be used -- though certainly not by Gutierrez himself! -- to put the kabbosh on all academic God-talk whatsoever. Old-school Marxism, freshly minted for today's humanities scholar, stands ready at hand for those who draw this atheological conclusion. Kaufmann pushes back, though:

It would be a mistake, I think, to regard this as expressing a proper criticism of the program of theological reconception and construction that I undertake here. For it is not simply skepticism about the God-symbol, so widespread in western academic circles, that I am principally concerned to address (ibid.)

(I will just tag here, without unpacking this question: What are "western academics" to make, given their embrace of pluralism, of the fact that the "God-symbol" evokes other kinds of responses, many not quite as skeptical, outside of their highly privileged "circles"?)

What are we to make of the face that Christian institutions, communities, and traditions have been responsible for so much oppression and suffering in human history? (ibid.)

Of course, Kaufman is absolutely right to highlight such ethical critiques, and any theology worth its salt must truly wrestle with them. It is not, however, self-evident to me that the kind of critical inquiry Kaufman practices is incompatible with more directly engaged forms of theological praxis and discourse. The Western theological heritage -- in its myriad orthodox, liberal, and revisionist forms -- has proven itself surprisingly amenable to reinterpretation and retooling to address the pressing issues of the day. Maybe not infinitely malleable, but surprisingly supple for such an ostensibly bankrupt heritage. From where I sit there is no univocal relationship between theological method and ethics. Nonetheless, any theologian should always be prepared to face these questions about the impact of her theological constructions: Does it promote human flourishing (Kaufman)? Does it liberate (Gutierrez)?



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