An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 1

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways;
the point is, to change it.”

Karl Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach

The task of evaluating Gutiérrez’s spirituality is a demanding one because it immediately raises a number of questions, including: What do we mean by spirituality? How much overlap is there between someone’s spirituality and their theology? We will not attempt to answer these questions here, fascinating though they are. The working assumption in these posts will be that there is a strong synergy, even overlap, between Gutiérrez’s spirituality and his theology. It will become clear in the course of this evaluation that this is appropriate given the nature of Gutiérrez’s contextual approach to theology. These posts will focus on the readily available work of Gutiérrez that has been translated into English.

The analysis adopted here falls into four stages (stage one is covered in this first post). Firstly, we consider some biographical information about Gutiérrez. This will help orientate the reader unfamiliar with his work and ensure that all readers appreciate the complex context of Gutiérrez’s spirituality. Secondly, we will identify some key themes of his spirituality. These themes are chosen on the basis of the relative attention given to them in his published work. Thirdly, the key themes will be examined in turn, in order to discern the hermeneutical choices, both explicit and implicit, that underpin Gutiérrez’s spirituality. This evaluation will conclude by considering the strengths, weaknesses and, to an extent, the legitimacy of these central areas of his spirituality.

Who is Gustavo Gutiérrez?
It is impossible to make sense of Gutiérrez’s spirituality without some understanding of his life and his wider context within liberation theology. Indeed for some, Gutiérrez is considered the father of liberation theology. He was born in Lima, Peru on 8th June 1928. He experienced socio-economic hardship in his childhood. His father had a subsistence level income and the young Gustavo suffered discrimination because of his mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. He was also bed-ridden for six years as a result of osteomyelitis.

He decided to become a Dominican priest in 1950. His education, which followed this decision, was a broad one; including psychology, philosophy and theology. He benefited from studying in some prestigious European institutions from 1951 to 1959 including the Catholic University of Leuven and the Catholic University of Lyon.

On his return to Lima in 1959 he consistently demonstrated a commitment to the poor, living in Rímac one of the poorest parts of Lima. He founded an Institute in 1974 which aims to promote social justice for the marginalised in Peru. This institute is named after the Dominican missionary, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), who argued against the enslavement of, and discrimination against, Amerindians under Spanish rule.

Gutiérrez’s contribution to liberation theology is undeniably enormous and his work is seminal for the movement. The influence of liberation theology was felt in a number of key movements within the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) instigated by Pope John XXIII which had an agenda of renewal, both established and instigated a new openness to problems of poverty and economic injustice. This was closely followed by the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference at Medellín (Columbia) in 1968. Gutiérrez’s role in the 1968 Medellín conference was pivotal. In short this conference acknowledged the legitimacy of a liberationist agenda for the Catholic Church.

Gutiérrez’s influence has been felt not just in his native Peru and elsewhere in Latin America but, by virtue of his published work, throughout the worldwide Church too. The following list shows his key published books which are the key sources I have used for elucidating Gutiérrez’s spirituality:

  1. A Theology of Liberation, 1973 (translation of Teología de la Liberación, 1971).
  2. The Power of the Poor in History, 1983 (translation of La Fuerza Histórica de Los Pobres, 1979).
  3. We Drink from Our Own Wells, 1984 (translation of Beber en su Propio Pozo, 1983).
  4. On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, 1989 (translation of Hablar de Dios desde el Sufrimiento del Inocente, 1986).
  5. The God of Life, 1991 (translation of El Dios de la Vida,  1989).
  6. Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Christ,  1993 (translation of En Busca de los Pobres de Jesucristo, 1992).

The importance of his work in the West is indicated by the rapid translation of his work into English.

At the outset we noted the question of the relationship between Gutiérrez’s spirituality and his theology. Gutiérrez argues that there should be no difference between spirituality and theology. In fact he claims that Western theology suffered because of the separation of spirituality from ethics in the fourteenth century. This is not some incidental criticism of Western Christianity, but rather for Gutiérrez the unity between theology and spirituality is an essential part of Christianity. He perhaps unknowingly echoes a self-critical trajectory in the Western tradition (for example, Bonhoeffer and Barth) which challenges what is claimed to be a damaging gulf between theology, spirituality and ethics.

In the next post, four themes, or better still principles, of Gutiérrez’s thought are chosen, forming the titles of its subsections. It will be seen that each of these principles builds on a commitment to the interdependence of spirituality and theology. A commitment we might do well to learn from.

Musing on Hermeneutics and Biblical Interpretation

Over the next few weeks I will be posting a short article each week on hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation. My interest in the Psalms is part of a broader interest in hermeneutics, so it is not a radical departure from what has gone before. But why a focus on hermeneutics? There are so many issues facing the Church today that require wise principles of biblical interpretation. If we want to understand Scripture for today, and to understand why we don’t always understand it to mean the same as other Christians, we need to be intentional in understanding our own hermeneutics and the interpretive principles of others.

My musings will in no way be a course in hermeneutics, nor will they look systematic in any sense. They will however, I hope, make a small contribution to helping those who read them be more intentional in reading Scripture.

The first handful of posts will reflect on the spirituality of a well-known Liberation Theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez. Having read his major works, and some of the other work of Liberation Theologians, I did not become a Liberation Theologian myself. What did happen instead was that my eyes were opened to how theology and doctrine can be shaped by culture. Reading from a whole new perspective or world-view, challenges how much of our own beliefs, attitudes and hermeneutics are shaped not by Scripture but by history, culture and short-shortsightedness. Liberation Theology is no longer fashionable but its advocates are a wonderful resource in avoiding the very worst of modern heresies, gospels of prosperity. Among new movements and established denominations alike, these rivals to the true gospel of cross-carrying discipleship are often lurking. Sometimes they are all too visible. This is the case in different ways in South America, North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

If the project unfolds as I imagine, we will end up back at the Psalter with new insights into its efficacy and vitality as transformative Scripture.

Review of ‘Reflections on the Psalms’

Reflections on the Psalms, Adams, Cocksworth, Collicutt, et al., London: Church House Publishing, 2015

This small book is a devotional companion to the Psalms. It has a page per psalm, with some of the longer psalms being broken into more convenient ‘chunks’, e.g. psalm 18 has three pages, each of which is an individual page-long entry. The contributions are authored by 18 different people. The number of contributors makes for diversity (although largely within the context of the Anglican Communion) which is a good thing in a devotional resource. Contributors include Steven Croft (Bishop of Sheffield), Paula Gooder (Theologian in Residence for the Bible Society), Barbara Mosse (retired Priest and onetime lecturer in spirituality at Sarum College) and John Sentamu (Archbishop of York).

Despite the diversity of the contributions the work has been carefully edited with a helpfully consistent structure. Each psalm is given a lengthy heading which is a part of the psalm which captures a key aspect of its content. Next a fragment from an important verse is quoted. The reflective contribution develops this verse fragment. Each entry concludes with a refrain and a short prayer. The consistency of style enables the reader who uses this for a daily reading to settle into a devotional pattern that suits them. As a helpful focus for morning and/or evening prayer it works well. The entries can be used quickly or are able to inspire longer contemplation and prayer. Either the title, verse fragment or refrain could be taken and used throughout the rest of the day.

I have found this helpful. Whilst it is quite expensive for a small book, used daily it can last half a year and it will be reusable at a later date. Whether you are new to using the Psalms, or an old-hand, you will find the concise introductory material helpful. Paula Gooder’s The Psalms and the Bible is nothing less than a masterpiece of summarising key features of the Psalms. Steven Croft reflects helpfully on The Psalms in the Life of the Church. There are also some reading plans: all of the psalms in 30 days or psalm 119 and the Ascents in the course of a month.

This book has a lot to commend it and no drawbacks that I can see. The attentive reader might want a commentary too, as the psalms often raise questions as to their content and how we appropriate their claims today. I purchased the work as a book but it is also available as an App for both Apple and Android. Additionally, it is available in the eBook formats: Kindle and epub.

I am using this book in a leisurely way – one psalm per day. After 19 days I am very happy with it and the fresh experience of reflecting on the Psalms which is has enabled.