Latin@ Theology and the Preferential Option for Culture
“It was fun!” That was my graduate students’ assessment of the historic colloquium "The Preferential Option for Culture in Latino/a Theology" held on March 26, 2015 at Loyola University Chicago. They were Latin@s, U.S. born and raised, and immigrant Latin Americans, laity, vowed religious, and seminarians, ministering in the Chicago area and studying at Catholic Theological Union. They were nonLatin@s, from Bharat (that is, India) to the Midwest, preparing to accompany the Catholic Church in the USA with its Hispanic plurality.
Organized by Latino theologian Miguel H. Díaz, Loyola’s John Courtney Murray University Chair in Public Service and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, the colloquium brought nationally recognized Latino/a theologians together with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. For my students it was fanfest, a rare opportunity to hear, meet and take selfies with the theologians they read in their “Latin@ Theology Methods and Sources” course. This “fun” was not an amusing diversion from the mundane, rather it was delight taken in the affirmation that their lived experiences, pastoral work, aspirations, and the communities they accompanied were indeed the stuff of theology. For me, as one of the Latin@ theologians who presented, revisiting this colloquium through their eyes confirmed that doing theology latinamente makes a needed difference.
Situating Latin@ Theologies
Biblical scholar Jean-Pierre Ruiz once observed that Latin@ theologians possess “an anthological imagination” rooted in our preference for doing teología en conjunto, in a collaborative process whereby the product reflects accountability to the multiple communities from which it arises. In this way several anthologies have emerged, from the most recent The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Latino/a Theology (2015) to the influential From the Heart of Our People:Latino/ a Explorations in Catholic Systematic Theology (1999) where editors Orlando Espín and Miguel Díaz coined the expression “preferential option for culture” to describe a key characteristic of theologies done latinamente. This unprecedented colloquium, convened in honor of Ravasi’s visit to the USA and in anticipation of Pope Francis’s visit in September, was another example of doing teología en conjunto. The depth and breadth of the presentations provided a taste from a creative theological table that continues to expand its offerings and bring new perspectives that remain marginalized in the academy, in theological education, and in the life of the church.
Marian Díaz, a professor of practical theology at Loyola, approached Latin@ theologies as a nonLatina who accompanies la comunidad with one foot in and one out. Díaz invoked memories of pioneers, some still with us like Virgilio Elizondo, and others like mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz who have passed too soon. She highlighted our wisdom of remaining grounded in lo cotidiano, in daily lived experience “in all of its forms, including the joy and the pain, the suffering and the growth” of Latin@ communities too often invisible and unheard especially in national and ecclesial conversations “relative to race and the abuse of power.”
Ethicist María Teresa (MT) Dávila, a professor at Andover Newton Theological School, brought a prophetic edge by unmasking contexts of privilege which are challenged by Latin@ theologies. She noted that in the preferential option forculture “the preferential option for” meets the realities of lo cotidiano in a theological academy and church “reticent to fully embrace the task of being and becoming Divine love incarnate in the realities of others.”She mapped a preferential option for—history, the suffering, the marginalized, youth, migrants, the poor—in opposition to the luxury of an option for culture wars. This latter quest for human fulfillment, born of the Enlightenment and imperial thrusts, and empowered by privilege “is marked by a spirit of domination, a neo-colonial drive to silence the everyday struggles that question the sacred dichotomies of the public square (left/right, pro-choice/pro-life, legal/illegal, etc.).” For Dávila, Latin@ theologies call out, resist and interrupt these discourses, self-referential to the point of idolatry, by positing instead options for that cultivate encounter and communion in ways that are transformative.
Life on Hyphens and at Arrobas
Virgilio Elizondo’s groundbreaking 1978 doctoral dissertation, published in 1983 as Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise, introduced hybridity, in the form of the daily experience of being mestizo/a in the socio-cultural context of the United States, as a ground and source for doing theology. In the ongoing development of Latin@ theologies, hybridity is articulated through images, metaphors, and categories, for example mestizaje, mulatez, espanglish, border crossing, each incomplete yet reflecting the complicated messiness of human and cultural intermixture born in violence, love, indifference, passion, conquest, migration, and even choice. It is performed in language expressing intricate and diverse identities, among them Latin@, Latino/a, Latinoa, Latin@́, and Latinx. It is reflected in resistant practices like refusing to italicize Spanish words, a reminder of the daily code switching that marks lives on multiple hyphens, or on el arroba, the at sign (@), a signifier that insists on the ethical responsibility to socially locate, to contextualize all particularity. Hybridity as multivalent locus theologicus was among the themes explored.
Néstor Medina, a professor at Regent University, built upon his acclaimed book, Mestizaje: (Re) Mapping Race, Culture, and Faith in Latina/o Catholicism (2009). He unpacked the non-innocent history of mestizaje as “a cipher” encompassing a complex set of positive and negative intersecting forces. Challenging romanticized appropriations, he underscored the reality that mestizaje “assumes our history of violence, culturecide, and as yet unspoken silences, without which it is practically ineffective as a category.” For Medina, this acknowledgement is necessary to any theological interpretation of mestizaje. The ongoing retrieval of mestizaje “unburies the historical skeletons in the closet of traditional theological discourses” carving out new spaces for reclaiming the multiple sources of our complex identities. In light of the Incarnation, mestizaje reflects “collaboration of the human and divine in the construction of a new humanity able to reflect the divine imaging” thus serving as a pattern for human existence and cultural co-existence.
Miguel Díaz employed the metaphor of crossing, drawn from centuries of religious, racial, ethnic and cultural hybridities lived in Spain and las Américas. He characterized Latin@ life in the USA as experienced in border crossings and in being crossed over by borders; as life lived on the hyphens of cultures and burdened with crosses of dislocation, discomfort, marginalization, and suffering. Paradoxically he discovers hope in these crossings and crosses which create spaces to encounter others, and see there God and neighbor, “the very neighbor who lives in us as a result of our multiple hybridities.” These daily experiences of grace and sin are revelatory because in Jesus Christ, “God crossed unto and assumed human history and continues to take up life-threatening and life-giving migrations in order to bestow on humans the gift of the Spirit.” Díaz perceives “the life-giving grammar of border-crossings” in the flux of divine movement between God and humanity, and neighbor to neighbor, especially and preferentially with those marginalized and oppressed.
Jean-Pierre Ruiz, professor at St. John’s University in New York, modeled a Latin@ biblical hermeneutic while exploring Ruth 1:16-17 through a lens of migration. For Ruiz, the turn to culture in Latino/a biblical interpretation is a key component of the turn to the reader and as such must be collaborative, connected and committed. It is collaborative by engaging across disciplinary boundaries in biblical and theological scholarship. It avoids abstraction by remaining connected to daily experience as a reference, and by being committed to “communities of flesh and blood readers past and present.” With this in mind Ruiz reads the story of a Moabite woman’s decision to accompany her Israelite mother-in-law in a “bidirectional conversation” between the equally rich and complex worlds of the book of Ruth and communities before the text. Through this conversation between ancient and contemporary migrant women, he challenges alarmist rhetoric of “defection” explaining that religious switching is not only about religion, but about relationships made possible in contexts of hybridity. Ruiz’s interpretations problematize and unsettle simplistic usage of the Bible in vogue on all sides of the immigration issue, a task he began in his award winning book Readings from the Edges: The Bible and People on the Move (2011).
“Lo Popular” as Locus Theologicus
In a worldview where distinctions between the sacred and secular are blurred, the faiths of the people also find expression in material culture, and in a variety of media, practices and performances. Latin@ theologizing on “lo popular,” literally that which is of the people, offers insights reflective of life, and proactive in imagining new possibilities for an improved future.
Orlando Espín once famously described popular Catholicism practiced latinamente as an “epistemology of suffering.” This intuition is evident in the scholarship of Roberto Goizueta, a professor at Boston College. Consistent with his powerful treatment of popular Catholicism in Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (1995) and in Christ Our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation (2009), Goizueta reiterated his position that for Latino/a Christians the experience, belief, and conviction that Jesus Christ accompanies us, especially in our struggles and suffering is at the heart of faith and is the deepest source of our liberation. Goizueta weaves a preferential option for the poor into his analysis of popular practices bolstering his claim that Latino/a popular religion is a place where the poor experience Christ's nearness, especially the Crucified Christ. In the mutuality of accompaniment, the experience of Christ as Companion and, especially, as the companion of the poor, serves as impetus to make a preferential option to accompany those who are marginalized. For Goizueta, "Resurrection is not just the victory of life over death, but the victory of communion over isolation."
Neomi DeAnda, a professor at the University of Dayton, broke new ground at the intersection of popular devotion, art and practice with her retrieval of la Virgen de la Leche. Her historical overview of images of lactating Mary in Iberian culture noted the resonance it found in las Américas among indigenous peoples with their own traditions of nursing deities. The significance of DeAnda’s scholarship and forthcoming book has implications for re-imagining theologies of Eucharist, Mariology and Christology. Her research has uncovered a compelling and textured world of such theologizing in the works of forgotten convent women of colonial New Spain like Sor María Anna Águeda. These texts remain marginalized sources because few scholars, like DeAnda, dare make the effort to decipher Baroque Spanish, let alone the words of women beyond a token presence. For DeAnda these scholarly retrievals are labors of justice ever relevant in affirming life-giving practices across cultures, time and space.
My own contribution related directly to the work of the Pontifical Council on Culture, namely Ravasi’s 2012 creation of a department of Sport and Culture. Through a hermeneutical privilege of the margins, critical attention was given to the relationship between colonization and evangelization in the non-innocent history of cricket and baseball. These sports were part of larger imperial projects rooted in Christian theological assumptions about mission. The use of sport to “civilize” displayed an inherent dismissal of God-given dignity reflected in the marginalized and colonized other. Perfection as a goal in sport impacted real bodies and reflected racist, hyper-masculine, classist, and ableist biases. These biases, along with socio-economic disparity, continue to keep the playing field uneven. Theologizing latinamente on cricket and béisbol, and how they were and are played in resistance on the margins, expands the scope of contemporary constructive theologies of sport and shares with Ravasi a hope that sport can function as convivencia, a just and flourishing living together.
The Word Became Culture
Since its inception, Latin@ theologies have intentionally embraced the cultural dimensions of lived faith. Orlando Espín, professor at the University of San Diego, remains a persistent voice insisting on “the crucial, dogmatic importance of the ‘faith of the people,’ of their cultures and contexts, and of the God-inspired sensus fidelium.” His books, for example The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism (1997) and Grace and Humanness: Theological Reflections Because of Culture (2007), demonstrate his commitment “to relocate theology to the reality of the majority of humans, who are like the majority of the People of God, the poor and the ‘disposables’ of their worlds.” He emphasized the responsibility of all theologians to grapple honestly with the consequences of being contextualized, “of our being in and molded by asymmetrical power relations, of our living as persons and communities that are inescapably transient, historical, cultural, raced, gendered, socially classed, and so on.” For Espín, such an admission of contextuality begs the questions: Whose faith is the “faith of the Church”? Whose traditioning is the traditioning of the Church? In whose cultural image are the contents of the faith communicated, and out of what privilege does theologizing arise?
Cardinal Ravasi harkened back to an understanding of culture that was rooted in the work of the fields, in common and sustaining human activity that is not restricted to elites. He challenged dated and Eurocentric concepts of culture and sought instead a dynamic interpretation, suggesting that the prologue of John’s Gospel might be translated today as “the word became culture.” In this age of Pope Francis, he underscored three dimensions of contemporary culture in need of transformation: self-referential dispositions, cultivation of a throw away culture that privileges dominance and power, a globalization of indifference. He affirmed that a holistic theology must include the intellectual, volitional, affective, and effective, and that the doing of theology must be a global act of faith. Ravasi resonated with the commitments of Latin@ theologies and shared an appreciation for the incarnational implications of culture. He identified the heart of the preferential option for the poor in the suffering of Christ crucified. For Ravasi, in the sphere of the poor can also be found the rich sinner, whose poverty is manifest in his oppresion of others. Engaging Latin@ insights, he suggested “the first mestizaje is in Christ between humanity and Jesus Christ who is God. In this light we can see how the preferential option is essential for theology.” Ravasi paid particular attention to the mutual interest in sport as a manifestation of culture and of embodiment. He noted that sport and music are “the true languages of the world” and in sports with its majesty and its instances of violence, racism, doping, and corruption “we have a parable of sin and grace.”
Espín raised a provocative question: “What would happen to our theological education if instead of transmitting a tradition coextensive with the thought and practice of the dominant we were to educate within the thought and practice of the unimportant?” From the perspective of Latin@ theologians, as it became clear to Ravasi, such theological education looks resistant, subversive, embodied, committed, and embedded in the messiness of life. It is the joy of the gospel in action, a fiesta amid struggle, a promising dialogue in the spirit of the Courtyard of the Gentiles.