In this post we examine the second of the four themes of the spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez that we identified in the 2nd post.
What are the Implications of Placing Praxis Ahead of Text?
Given that liberation theology ‘evolved in protest against the inability in Western church and missionary circles, both Catholic and Protestant, to grapple with the problems of systematic injustice’ it is not surprising that the ‘poor’ should be central to its very nature. However, the resulting so-called ‘preferential option for the poor’ is strongly rejected by some scholars and theologians.
Gutiérrez is not alone in placing the poor at the centre of his interpretive paradigm; the preferential option for the poor is a central plank of not only Latin American liberation theology but other contextual and materialist theologies too. Solidarity with the poor, for Gutiérrez, means something far more dynamic than some other uses of the term might indicate. For Gutiérrez we have the concept of praxis operating here: ‘The praxis on which liberation theology reflects is a praxis of solidarity in the interests of liberation and is inspired by the gospel’. Praxis is used in the Marxist sense, as typified in Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach that we have already referred to (see post 1), albeit with a biblical twist: ‘This liberating praxis endeavours to transform history in the light of the reign of God’. Gutiérrez’s writings are full of references to praxis and his call for all believers to live out a spirituality which is active in living with the poor, indeed in actually being poor as an active choice. Gutiérrez has lived out this spirituality since returning from his education in Europe but this approach requires further justification than just a subjective empathy for the plight of the poor and Gutiérrez’s selfless commitment to them.
At some level it seems that Gutiérrez is ascribing revelatory status to the call to live and practice poverty. He continually invests the time of writing with an eschatological flavour by, for example, referring frequently to this being the kairos. Furthermore, for Gutiérrez praxis is a first step, what he calls a critical reflection, ahead of Scripture as a second step. We have already seen that such an epistemological choice has the danger of providing hermeneutical closure to any complementary or broader themes to those of socio-political liberation. All this is despite Gutiérrez’s use of Anselm’s Proslogion which is often paraphrased as Faith Seeking Understanding. Contra Gutiérrez we might argue that his is a Praxis Seeking Justification. Anselm’s point is surely that he brings to theological reflection (including his spiritual life) nothing other than openness to God. Is this really the same as a commitment to the poor? There isn’t anything wrong with a commitment to the poor but is this not a consequence of the gospel rather than an epistemological a priori? The danger is surely a narrowing of the gospel by making liberation praxis a locus theologicus. To put it another way such praxis has replaced the Rule of Faith by prejudicing orthopraxis over orthodoxy.
In addition to this epistemological problem there is also an ontological one. Gutiérrez’s makes so much of his preferential option for the poor that when reading Gutiérrez there appears to be a sense in which it is poverty that saves rather than Christ. Now to be fair there are passages of Scripture, in particular in the Old Testament, which as Brueggemann puts it, are consistent with ‘something like’ a preferential option for the poor. But Gutiérrez, despite protestations to the contrary, seems to tend to equate the poor with the saved and a praxis of solidarity as a very singular reflection of the scope of salvation presented in Scripture. This is not to suggest that Gutiérrez’s conception of salvation is necessarily shallower than some in the Western tradition but that both can learn from each other if a sounder hermeneutical circle, which questions presuppositions, is employed.
 Bosch, Transforming, p.432.
 The term was coined a the Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops at Puebla, Mexico in 1979, see Bosch, Transforming, p.435 and Gutiérrez, Theology, p.17.
 See for example Muskus, Origins, pp.266ff.
 See, for example, Myers, Binding, pp.5-7 and his call to recognise the Locus Imperium and the need to listen to the ‘margins’ and Cone, Black, p.117 for the ‘suffering and humiliation’ of black people as ‘the point of departure for all God-talk’.
 Gutiérrez, Theology, p.22.
 Gutiérrez, Theology, p.22.
 For example see Gutiérrez, Theology, p.9, Gutiérrez, Wells, p.8 and Gutiérrez, Life, pp.100-101.
 See Gutiérrez, Theology, p.27 and Gutiérrez, Wells, p.36.
 So Muskus, Origins, p.15.
 On the function, inevitability and importance of a Rule of Faith see Williams, Tradition, pp.117-120.
 So Muskus, Origins, p.16.
 So Brueggemann, Theology, pp.144 and 422.
 See, for example, Kapolyo, Transformation, pp.135ff. who argues that Western Evangelicals are have made social action an optional extra because of their affluent context.
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