Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thinking philosophically about religion

What does it mean to think philosophically about religion?

Since this is my area of specialization, I should be able to answer this question succinctly. However, philosophical thought is cognitive, placing ideas into categories. Philosophy is not necessarily affective, so why do people spend so much time thinking about various philosophies? Why, also, is philosophy sustained such long presence in academia? And, how does philosophy relate to religion?

Religion is like poetry about life, origins, and eternity. Religion moves people. Sometimes, on the one hand, religion can move people to misbehave, such as the extremists who use religion to foster hatred, misogyny, racism, and terrorism. On the other hand, religion can heal, comfort, drive people to share possessions and supply the material needs of other people. The poetry is explanatory and seeks meaning in life.

The tension is combining the two ideas: philosophy (cognitive) and religion (poetic and affective). This combination leads to a working answer: philosophy of religion is cognitively exploring that which is poetic and affective. The classic definition of philosophy of religion is ‘philosophy concerned with questions about religion’, e.g. the nature and existence of God, studying religious experience, texts, and vocabulary.

My definition might sound more clumsy but it tells what thinking philosophically about religion does. Philosophers explore with their heads, even though they cannot completely remove themselves from the subject they explore. Few, if any, people are ambivalent toward religion. Whether practitioners or not, people have opinions about religion, and when they study religion, they cannot divorce themselves from the epistemological reciprocity of their own past experiences with the subject matter.


Likewise, practitioners are not immune from cognitive explorations. People who are religious can asks philosophical questions. In other words, attending a Christian church does not mean that one cannot ask about the nature of God or studying religious texts. In fact, the most active philosophers of religion should be adherents because the people who have committed to religious practice have a reason to seek greater understanding of their practice.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review: Christianity in Latin America

Christianity in Latin America, A History by Ondina E. González and Justo L. González. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 331 pages. $23.99/$80.00 (paper/hardback)

Tackling the difficult task of encapsulating over five hundred years of religious history in a geographic area of over seven million square miles is quite daunting, especially given the space limitation of three hundred pages of text.  However, Ondina and Justo González provide a good general overview of the history of Christianity in Latin America in their new book.  The authors use a thematic approach to trace the colonial and post-colonial periods in Latin America.  They provide readers with a sense of the transformation that took place as different groups assumed (and often fought for) control across this immense and rich region.  They write in an accessible style, allowing for a fairly wide ranging appeal.  This book will be most useful for undergraduate courses or general readers with interest in Christianity in Latin America.

Over the course of the eleven chapters, González and González write about the different phenomenon of outsiders bringing various ideas to Latin America, but in so doing, Latin Americans adopt, adapt, and take ownership of new concepts arriving on their shores.  After a brief contextual setup outlining the indigenous religious layout before the arrival of colonizing countries, Christianity in Latin America addresses the impact of Roman Catholic Europeans, and the authors make the interesting observation that the New World had a significant impact on Catholicism.  The relationship between the Old World and the New World was reciprocal.  As the various Latin American countries began to gain independence, the landscape appeared homogenously Catholic, but autochthonous (indigenous) movements never disappeared.  Latin America also experienced a steady influx of Protestant groups beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing to the present.

Despite Protestant immigration and evangelization, the Catholic Church remained the dominant religious group throughout the region.  Its prominence made the impact of Vatican II particularly noticeable in Latin America, and it gave birth to one of the most significant schools of thought in the twentieth century: liberation theology.  González and González do an excellent job of placing liberation theology within the broader context of Latin American Christian history.  Even though liberation theology is responsible for bringing many Latin American theologians into fame in North America and Europe, the authors illustrate the breadth of history that preceded the birth of liberation theology.  They also represent the significant Pentecostal movement and growth in Latin America during the latter twentieth century.

While reading the book, I often wished the authors had provided more footnotes or references.  However, González and González explain this omission in the Preface.  They chose to eliminate what they perceived would be an over-burdensome number of citations if they supported every statement, yet even with their thorough bibliography, readers who wish to learn more about a particular topic might find tracking down more detailed, thorough resources frustrating.  Setting this minor criticism aside, González and González summarize the depth and complexity of Latin American Christian history in a single, digestible volume.  Christianity in Latin America is a fast-paced book that will help illuminate an area of Christian history that might be ignored by many people because the field of study is too vast or daunting.  If some people previously believed the history of Christianity in Latin America was monolithic, involving mostly Roman Catholicism, the authors remedy this oversimplification by representing all of Christianity in Latin America.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Book Review: Beyond Liberation Theology

Ivan Petrella, author of The Future of Liberation Theology (London: SCM Press, 2006) and a proponent of liberation theology’s emphasis on historical projects, has written a new book in which he offers a reinterpretation of liberation theology for the next generation of liberation theologians.  It is the third volume in the Reclaiming Liberation Theology series from SCM Press, and while his work is tightly researched and well-written, he might not have pushed liberation theology as hard as he could have.  In an era of continuing human suffering, Petrella could have been more forceful in his indictment of wanton waste and conspicuous consumption.  However, even with that criticism, this book is likely to be a solid contribution to the continuing literature on liberation theology.

Petrella begins the first chapter with several examples from significant theologians and philosophers (Barth, Bataille, Heidegger, Weber, and Foucalt), depicting the origin of knowledge, the mechanization of food, and, generally, human suffering.  He concludes, “These thinkers come from a context of affluence; the suffering they speak to is real and painful, yet rarely life threatening” (p. 8).  Petrella then offers a contrapuntal image of suffering from Vita, “a zone of social abandonment” in Southern Brazil.  Vita “carries the objectivization of human beings to the extreme” (p. 9) and Petrella uses it to illustrate the role of idolatry in the process of objectification, and he writes, “The institutions that govern the global order are the incarnation of the idolatrous logic at Vita’s root” (p. 10).  He concludes the chapter that the suffering in the world functions as a social abandonment zone on a massive scale. 

In the chapter two, Petrella situates liberation theology in the United States, outlining the problems and possibilities of “Poverty in the Midst of Plenty.”  He begins with the two sides of Miami, one rich and one poor.  These two sides provide him with a point of departure for an analysis of poverty measurements in the United States.  He looks at geographical poverty (some states are poorer than others), racial poverty (e.g. African-Americans and Hispanic/Latino(as) make up a disproportionally high percentage of Americans living in poverty), and gender (women fare worse than men).  Petrella concludes the chapter with the “Primacy of Class,” suggesting a class-based affirmative action might be more liberative than gender- or race-based affirmative action.  However, he concludes with a practical and sobering note, “Class-based affirmative action falls outside the realm of what is possible within U. S. politics” (p. 77). 

The following chapter explores different failures within liberation theology.  Petrella explores the role of perception in understanding poverty, and he insightfully draws on the misinforming role that the Mercator projection world maps have played in shaping many people’s perception of the world because it suggests Greenland is similar in size to Africa (Africa is actually almost three times as large).  The role of perception, or misperception, is central to the four criticisms he levies against contemporary liberation theologians.  He argues that the first criticism, monochromatism, effects every brand of liberation theology because they too often limit “the pool of resources they can draw upon to actually engage their tasks” (p. 85).  His second criticism is amnesia, in which liberation theologians “forget the problems they seek to tackle and the goals they want to pursue” (p. 93).  Gigantism, Petrella’s fourth criticism, means many liberation theologians view the problems of oppression as insurmountable and they “see capitalism everywhere and as responsible for everything” (p. 104).  His final critique, on liberation theologians’ naïveté, is that even the most accomplished theologians can be susceptible to falling into the three previous critiques at the expense of a wider prospective.  When this happens, Petrella believes a theologian can move “from an incisive analysis of suffering to mere rhetoric” (p. 107).  His analysis is critical but not personal, and the chapter highlights potential problems that anyone engaging with liberation discourse must guard against. 

The final chapter tries to take the themes of the first three chapters and use the ideas in them to move beyond liberation theology.  The primary method Petrella uses for moving beyond tradition liberation theology is comparison.  He begins by comparing liberation theology and outrage, and in the section “On Liberation Theology and the Two Thirds World,” he compares liberation theology with contextual theologies, social sciences, and identity.  Each comparison draws out the central theme of the chapter: all liberation theologies point out that “theology has traditionally been done from a standpoint of privilege” (p. 134).  He writes, “Recovering the history of common struggles is the basis for envisioning a future where struggles for emancipation not only bring identities together, but forge new ones as well” (p. 146).  

Petrella concludes his book with a “Coda” and an Afterward.  Coda is a musical term, meaning an independent passage that is introduced after the completion of the essential parts of a movement, so as to form a more definite and satisfactory conclusion.  In the Coda, he looks ahead to the future of liberation theology and suggests the possible solution for liberation theologians might be to dissolve itself as an independent field and reform “undercover as an economist or legal theorist and work from within to transform the discipline’s presuppositions” (p. 148).  His Coda does provide a definite ending and, perhaps, his most innovative suggestion.  However, it does not provide a satisfactory explication of the new ideas.  It is less conclusive than it is a point of departure for future research.  In the Afterward, he looks briefly at the cover art, offering his interpretation of Karina and Marcelo Chechik’s The Promised Land and Petrella suggests the ideas in this book respond to Dwight N. Hopkins’ call for a new approach in his article “Theological Education in the New Global Reality” (p. 151). 

Beyond Liberation Theology is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in the contemporary state of liberation theology, and it could serve as a useful textbook in a college or seminary course on the subject.  Petrella avoids overly technical theological jargon and provides sources and more detailed explanations in his copious footnotes.  I would recommend this book as a useful contribution to modern theology.