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Stefan Silber

Theology of Liberation
in the Dialogue between Religions

A new development in Latin America


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 7/2005, p. 484-488
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


At present the liberation of the poor is no longer conceivable without the dialogue between the members of all religions. For the religions not only bear a great responsibility for the emergence of poverty but also harbour a substantial potential for its conquest. For the past few years from that insight in the theology of liberation a new voice has been arising calling for an examination of the theology of religions, especially of its pluralistic orientation.

Even when that development is only discernable since about five years, its roots can be followed up to the beginnings of the theology of liberation. For that theology has always maintained a strong scepticism, nourished by Barth's and Marx's criticism of religions, religious manifestations and their alienating effects especially on the poor. But at the same time the option for the poor attracted from the beginning much attention and a growing appreciation for the religious experiences of the poor. Especially in the base communities and in similar forms of new church institutions soon a new self-confidence developed which not only tolerated indigenous, Afro-American and syncretistic forms of religiosity but took them seriously and promoted them as expressions of the religious self-determination of the poor. The openness of liberation theology towards the matter called by the Second Vatican Council 'cooperation with other men of good will' (cf. GS 52), which has been in force from the beginning, made the dialogue with atheists just as much a matter of course as the dialogue and the cooperation with people of good will who belonged to other religions. Since the 90ies of the last century that openness has been called 'macro-ecumenism {1} - an ecumenism that goes beyond the cooperation of Christian churches.

In addition to that in the 80ies and 90ies from the openness to the religious experiences of the poor the theological paradigm of inculturation arose. Parallel to it and, in many respects more radical and more clearly defined, the theological movement of the 'Teología India' (indigenous theology) was formed {2} with its numerous local and regional contextualisations. In contrast to most of the theologies of inculturation, the Teología India pursues the dialogue with indigenous religions, and prepares with it the encounter of liberation theology and the pluralist theology of religion.

That debate has been demanded already for quite some time by Asian and North American theologians as Aloyisius Pieris and Paul Knitter. The congress of the Brazilian Society of Theology and Religious Studies SOTER in July 2000 can be mentioned as its first milestone. The publication of the contributions to that congress {3} demonstrates the awakening of the theology of liberation to the discussion with religious pluralism. Numerous other publications followed in the Nicaraguan periodical "Alternativas" {4}, in "Revista electrónica Latinoamericana de Teología" (RELaT) {5} published on the web, in Concilium {6}, and in other journals.



The Fifth General Assembly of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), which was held from September 24th to October 1st in 2002 under the shadow of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, started an ambitious publication project that is not only to document but also to promote the theological encounter between pluralism and liberation. The first two titles {7} of a series planned for five volumes, in which that debate is to be pursued up to a new synthesis, have already been published. Also on the "World Forum Theology and Liberation", which took place in Porto Alegre from January 20th to 25th in 2005 immediately before the World Social Forum and was attended by 200 theologians from all continents, the question of interreligious dialogue was of great importance.

Many of the aforementioned publications show that the encounter with the world of religions is felt as new. For on the Latin American continent which still regards itself as Catholic for the theology of liberation for many years no necessity seemed to exist to deal with non-Christian religions. But the growing awareness for indigenous and Afro-American religions prepared the theologians at the beginning of the new millennium and under the impression of religious motives behind the acts of terrorism and war to recognize the urgency of a debate with religious pluralism. It is therefore mostly characterized as new, necessary and exciting, and occasionally the question shines through: Why did we not face that subject long ago?

The debate is necessary not only because of the growing political importance of the religions but also because the theology of liberation, in order to be faithful to its option for the poor, has to be prepared to meet the religious experiences of the poor. But outside Latin America the poor are mostly non-Christians, and the dialogue with them will necessarily lead to an interreligious dialogue. In view of the global structures of oppression and impoverishment, the option for the poor cannot refer only to the poor of one continent but has also to strive for global strategies of liberation.

The representatives of liberation theology regard the dialogue with the theology of religious pluralism not only as a means of more efficient strategies of liberation but above all as a sign of the times challenging them, in the form of growing poverty and a growing awareness of the religions of the world, to orientate anew their own theology.

The literature already available makes clear that it is not about the task of the theology of liberation to catch up with a forgotten subject. The challenge by religious pluralism rather leads to a debate about all central theological topics and about the question of theology itself. What is more, important movements which developed in the last decades in the theology of liberation participate in this debate. Positions from the classical theology of liberation, from feminist theology, from indigenous and Afro-American theologies and from the theology of inculturation enter into a dialogue with thoughts from the traditional theology of religions and the developments in the pluralistic theology of religions. The participation of those different perspectives and the reference to central theological themes let hope that this debate will really lead to a fundamental new orientation of theology.

According to the theology of religious pluralism not only Christianity but all religions of the world originate in the dialogue of the revealing God with the listening and answering human being. For the representatives of that theological movement the religions are part of God's plan of revelation and salvation. The theologians of liberation who look for a dialogue with the pluralistic theology of religion mostly take a similar positive understanding of religions as their starting-point without falling victim to relativization or relativism. The recognition of religions is for them not a tactical measure at the beginning of the dialogue, so that it only applied to their de facto existence. On the contrary, religions are recognized de iure - as different revelations of God to the members of different regions and epochs. With it the particular nature of the Christian revelation is neither denied nor one-sidedly made absolute. For - and here the heritage of Barth's criticism of religion shines through - God is greater than every religion, also greater than Christianity.

The recognition of religions has two sorts of consequences for the liberation theology: On the one hand the acknowledgment of the religious experience of the poor is in the focus of interest. That is why the encounter with indigenous and Afro-American religions has a prominent place in that discussion. On the other hand one is aware of the fact that the acknowledgement of those religions is fundamentally opposed to the policy of the United States and the Western World in general. Also the reference to the resistance to the Vatican's policy of demarcation and fundamentalist tendencies in other religions is not missing. In the present state of the world the recognition of religions and the search for dialogue and cooperation with them makes a contribution to the liberation of the poor.

The recognition of religious experiences of the poor of course includes that also syncretistic forms of religion and double membership (belonging to two religions) as they often are met among the poor get an affirmative answer, Just the indigenous and Afro-American theologies of liberation have in the last years impressively emphasized the importance of that acknowledgment. So in that area further interesting points of contact arise from reflections of Asia's pluralistic theology of religions.

While recognizing without reservation religions as part of God's plan of salvation theology of liberation does nevertheless not forget its traditional critique of religion, especially when the responsibility of religions for violence, for the rise of poverty and the prevention of liberation must be taken as its topic. The classical inner church critique of ecclesial structures and theological pretexts, which is to the debit of the poor, widens to a quasi "inner religious" critique. With all the benevolence towards the non-Christian religions and despite their fundamental recognition, which is not devaluated by that critique, liberation theology can accept no interreligious dialogue that is to the disadvantage of the poor. The religions are rather judged by the same standard by which the theology of liberation judges also the Christian religion and the Western World: human dignity, justice, and liberation.

This can be regarded as the most important contribution of the theology of liberation in its dialogue with the pluralistic theology of religion. Interreligious dialogue is for those authors not a value in itself but serves justice and liberation. Critique of religion in the name of the poor is an integral part of the interreligious dialogue. With it it is not about fundamental criticism of every religious expression but about a specific critique of individual religious conditions, doctrines, and institutions which create injustice and hinder liberation. The fundamental recognition of all religions remains therefore untouched. The religions are rather called upon as guarantors for human dignity and solidarity. In view of the necessary critique of religion theology of liberation does not set on the conquest of religion but on its conversion to the poor.

That conversion is not understood as everybody's conversion to Christianity or to the Christian conception of God. One rather expects the religions are faithful to their own tradition and renounce all fundamentalist tendencies. The option for the poor, that already stood the test by the inner-Christian critique of religion, can on that occasion serve as standard, in order to identify unjust religious structures and to denounce them. That option fundamentally belongs to the contribution of Christians to the interreligious dialogue.

The encounter of liberation theology and theology of religious pluralism yields numerous consequences in the most important topics of theology. While in the question about God up to now monotheism has been seen as guarantor of liberation from idolatry and oppression, now also the aspects of one-sidedness and historical intolerance of monotheism come into view. Through the openness for religious pluralism now also other names and appearances of the divinity gain importance in the theology of liberation, because it is accepted that a monotheistic conception of God, one-sidedly moulded male, white and dominant, can be misused for the oppression of women and people of indigenous or Afro-American origin. To maintain nevertheless the prophetic critique of the antihuman idolatry of a neo-liberal West is a new challenge for the formulation of the monotheistic Christian conception of God. It will be necessary to show that God, who is greater than all religions and has revealed himself under many names, can be identified in that plurality as the advocate of the poor.

A similar challenge exists also in Christology. For it has a highly prominent position in the classical theology of liberation. Must it - following John Hick - be, as it were, devalued in order to come to meet other religions or can Christianity proclaim a universal liberator without devaluing the possibilities of salvation existing in other religions? In view of the dialogue with other religions the theology of liberation will have to discuss anew its Christology.

It seems that the consequences for Ecclesiology can be drawn more easily. For the difference established by the Second Vatican Council between the church and the kingdom of God makes it possible to give the church a serving function also in the interreligious dialogue. The members of other religions are related to the church not because it is their vocation to convert to it but because people of good are to work together with the poor on their liberation. The doctrine about the church of the poor in the theology of liberation can therefore develop in its encounter with religious pluralism.

As with those central theological topics, theology of liberation will in many cases reflect anew what consequences the encounter with religious pluralism has for it. Also the topic revelation, the position of Bible and tradition, the meaning/importance of the [church] office and of the sacraments demand a deeper discussion not only in the presence of the poor but also of the religions of the world.

The encounter of liberation theology with religious pluralism is - as I could only indicate in this short reflection - an exciting and forward-looking project. In the face of the poor and in the dialogue with the religions new ways towards a more philanthropic and just future emerge. One should wish that many people of good will from all continents and all religions cooperate in that project with the theologians of Latin America.



{1} J. M. Vigil, Macroecumenismo: teología de las religiones latinoamericana, in: Alternativas 11 (2004) 27, 109-126.

{2} See above all E. H. López, Teología Indía. Antología (Cochabamba 2000).

{3} See Sarça Ardente. Teología na América Latina. Prospectivas, edited by L. C. Susin (São Paulo 2000); see also no. 20/21 (2001) of the journal Alternativas under the title "Pluralismo y teologías en díalogo".

{4} See especially no. 27 (2004) under the title: "La teología ante el pluralismo religioso".

{5}; see also the other publications of the Servicios Koinonia and the last editions (2002-2005) of the annual Agenda Latino-Americana-Mundial ( edited by J. M. Vigil und P. Casaldáliga.

{6} See especially no. 3/2002 under the title "Brasilien: Volk und Kirche(n)" edited by J. O. Beozzo u. L. C. Susin.

{7} Por los muchos cominos de Dios. Desafíos del pluralismo religioso a la teología de la liberación, edited by the Asociación Ecuménica de Teólogos y Teólogas del Tercer Mundo (Quito 2003); Por los muchos caminos de Dios II. Hacia una teología cristiana y latinoamericana del pluralismo religioso, edited by the Asociación Ecuménica de Teólogos y Teólogas del Tercer Mundo (Zaragoza 2004).


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