“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:
- A Theology of Liberation, 1973 (translation of Teología de la Liberación, 1971).
- The Power of the Poor in History, 1983 (translation of La Fuerza Histórica de Los Pobres, 1979).
- We Drink from Our Own Wells, 1984 (translation of Beber en su Propio Pozo, 1983).
- On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, 1989 (translation of Hablar de Dios desde el Sufrimiento del Inocente, 1986).
- The God of Life, 1991 (translation of El Dios de la Vida, 1989).
- 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.