Towards A Latin American Theology

A Latin American theology can appear on the scene only after we have tried to comprehend our day-to-day life in history. This would include our economic, political, and cultural life. It is from this that theology arises. Europeans have always been formulating a European theology, a theology which takes everyday life in Europe as its starting point. We Latin Americans have merely aped that theology, alienating ourselves in the process. Only recently have we turned our attention back to our own real life here, discov-

ering a history that has lain buried in obscurity since the sixteenth century .Once again theology has become a real possibility in Latin America, and that in itself is cause for rejoicIng.

It was only in 1968 that the first Latin American theological texts began to appear. When I say "Latin American" here, I mean that these texts contain reflections that are peculiar to this segment of the Church and that are different from the thinking of other segments of the Church. Our thinking is so different, in fact, that theologians from other parts of the world do not understand it when we try to explain it to them; sometimes they do not feel it is any concern of theirs at all. In Quito I had a conversation with a German theologian. I was telling him that we were now reflecting on the whole matter of liberation. He expressed surprise and interest, and he asked me to tell him more about it. But do you know w hat was really on the top of his mind at the moment? Hans Kung's book on papal infallibility. The problem of liberation that occupies us right now -was far from his thoughts. Europeans are down to splitting hairs while we must fInd out whether we even possess a head of hair; and if we do, we must find out how to help it grow.

In short, the situation is very different in the two cases. They are already at the point of engaging in tired subtleties while we are at the point of daw.ning awareness and new beginnings. Marcuse, for example, is now asking how one can get people in affluent societies to eat less. We are trying to figure out how to make sure that starving people get enough to eat. It seems to me that the person who is desperately trying to find enough food has more passion and enthusiasm in his quest than the person who is beginning to eat less without knowing exactly why. The hippy movement is a rebellious movement within the affluent society. Our rebelliousness is quite different, and it is much more meaningful. Mankind is able to express itself much more com pletely and much more spiritually in the movements that now mark Latin America, Africa, and Asia than it can in the movements that mark affluent societies.

I shall go into this matter more fully as we proceed. Right now the point is that if we manage to recover our own past history, we will find ourselves with a new and different way of looking at things. Our point of view and our thought will necessarily be quite different from, or even opposed to, the viewpoint and thinking of people in dominant countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the U nited States. Our questions and problems mean little to them. They will show an interest in hearing from us only when we take the trouble to ponder our own reality. Only then will they begin to respect us as theologians and as a Church, according us some of the rights that go with adulthood. The Latin American Church must find out what mission is properly its own in the near future. It cannot permit other segments of the Church to point out its road to it.

In 1969 a layman wrote a critical article about Cardinal Suenens in the periodical Vispera (Methol Ferre,"Critica a Suenens desde America latina," Vispera, no. 12, 1969, Montevideo). His criticism of certain statements by the great Belgian Cardinal can be summarized briefly. Ferre maintains that underlying Suenen's words is a whole world which is not the world of the Latin American. Hence the conclusions drawn by Suenens are ones with which a Latin American cannot agree at all. There are two different theologies involved because thertf are two different cultural worlds involved and two different political backgrounds. This article by Ferre heralded the start of autonomous theological thinking on the part of Latin Americans. Although Columbus arrived in the new world in 1492, we might well be justified in saying that we are just beginning to "discover" America-Latin America, in particular. The statement is not as absurd as it might seem at first glance. A child grows up slowly. It does not really discover its self until sometime around adolescence. Only then does it realize that it is "other" than its parents. That is why the adolescent begins to show rebelliousness.

The discovery of self goes hand in hand with the initial steps towards full adulthood. The human individual now realizes that he or she is a new and novel being, and has been such from the very start. In the last couple of decades we have come to realize that our culture is distinct from every other culture. "From the very start," for us, means from the start of our history in 1492. Our mother is Amerindia, our father is Spain-or vice versa, if you will. But the child of this union is something new. It is not the culture of Amerindia, Spain, or Europe; nor is it the culture of the Incas or the Aztecs. It is a new culture, a mixed culture, a creole or mestizo culture.

A child is not its mother or its father. But while it is being brought up, it is very much the same as its father or mother. It discovers its distinctness only when it attains its independence. That is what is happening to us today. Discovering ourselves to be an "other," we are turning our eyes back to the past and beginning to discover our own history. That is why we could not really have had a written history of our own before this. One must first discover his own otherness before he can really begin to explore who he is and what his past means.

The existing histories of the "universal" Church are not histories of the "universal" Church at all. If you don't believe me, read what they have to say about Latin America. There is a history of the Church in twenty volumes published under the direction of Augustin Fliche and V ictor Martin; it is in French. Latin America is discussed in brief appendices to various chapters, which were written by my professor at the Sorbonne, Robert Ricard. He simply was not able to consider our historical process in its totality, so it is reduced to a missionary adjunct. But the fact is that the Latin American Church is not simply a mission Church. It has its own distinctive institutions. As we shall see, it is a colonial version of Christendom with its own peculiar and distinctive features. It deserves more than an appendix in Church history.

The existing histories of the "universal" Church are really histories of the European Church for the most part.. Little or nothing is said in them about Latin America. We cannot comprehend Qurselves in these histories because they do not see us as d.istinct. It is only when we discover we are outside history that we can ask ourselves who we really are. Only then can we turn our gaze back to the beginning of our history and thereby interpret our life here and now. This process is already a process of theologizing, and it cannot help but be Latin American in nature. It will be different because we will be pondering things from a historical perspective that has not been taken into account before.

Whether they now really want that role or not, Europeans have been assigned the role and the responsibility of being the dominating people in the unfolding scheme of world history. It is they w ho discovered the other "ecumenes" and who gained domination over them by technology, force of arms, and the impact of horses, gunpowder, and caravels. This domination led them to ponder reality from the standpoint of domination, even where theology was concerned. But if we start to ponder things from the other end, from the standpoint of those dominated, then we see everything in a very different light. The theology formulated from the standpoint of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt was hardly akin to that formulated by the pharaoh and his priests.

So we soon find ourselves facing a new horizon and a whole new set of issues. Everything shows up in .a very different light, as I shall try to show later. When we recover our past history, we will have a solid foothold for undertaking a new and innovative line of thought. The result will necessarily be new because we ourselves are something new whether we wish to be or not. We will have to explore this newness and see what it is all about. We cannot ask Europeans to explain the meaning of what has happened to us; instead we must explain to them mhat has happened to us and what it all means. Indeed, it is my opinion that we may be able to see a great deal more clearly from our standpoint here. Looking at things "from the bottom," we may well be able to see more clearly into the universal human condition and to determine which human project should capture the attention of Europeans and others in the near future.

Consider the pharaoh and the Hebrews seeking freedom. Which party possessed the life and vitality that would move the process of liberation forward? Which party would move history further on into the future? The answer is clear. The Hebrews, in their quest for liberation, would give new life and impetus to history and its forward movement. It is they who were the critical factor in history at that moment. That may be true of us today. Living in a situation of oppression, we may be destined to find a way out for the universal Church. We live in a privileged situation: "Blessed are the poor." We are poor. The poor, living in the desert, have fewer possessions to clog up their ears. They are better able to hear the divine message that calls forth and summons onward. They "comprehend" the oppressor and realize that they themselves are oppressed. The oppressor, by contrast, "comprehends" only himself and gags the oppressed. In the last analysis, he does not comprehend anything at all. It may well be that our Latin American theology will prove to be very important, that it will not only reflect on our own situation but also explain a great deal more than European theology does.

Such is my belief, although I have only offered a few general remarks so far. In the words that follow, I shall try to show that I am not dealing in vague, unfounded hypotheses, that there is something to what I have been saying.

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