An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 5

In this 5th post we consider the third and fourth principles of Gutiérrez’s spirituality that we identified in the 2nd post.

Can Socio-Critical Tools Produce ‘Critical Thinking’?

Having questioned the role of Marx’s concept of praxis in Gutiérrez’s spirituality we now turn to the use of socio-critical tools such as Marxist hermeneutical suspicion. Liberation theologies, including Gutiérrez’s, turned to Marxism because of its ability to unmask social injustice in socio-political systems. We can agree that aspects of Marxist analysis have made a compelling case that Capitalist economics tends to increase the gap between rich and poor both between the nations and within the nations.[1] Gutiérrez, however, goes further because of the coincidence of vision between the socio-political Utopian goals of Marxism and his eschatological understanding.

This distinction between Marxism showing the injustices of Capitalism and a more thoroughgoing Marxist analysis of history is an important one. The former raises precisely the questions that the Church has often not taken seriously enough, in particular the Roman Catholic Church in South America, which thus provided the context in which liberation theology was a voice of protest. Even at this level, however, its value is limited as there are plenty of voices in the West that admit that materialism and the Capitalist status quo produce social injustice.[2] The problem with social injustice is not lack of awareness of the problem but the willingness to change it (Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach again). Might a prophetic restatement of biblical views of social justice as a process of conscientization be a more legitimate than the proclamation of Marxist analysis with all its unhelpful baggage?

The possibility afforded by a fuller Marxist analysis of history brings us to the question of eschatology.

Is Gutiérrez’s Eschatology Biblical?

We have already seen that for Gutiérrez his spirituality is one that has the transformation of the world at its heart. We have seen that he speaks of the time, or kairos, frequently in his writings in a tone that can only be, and indeed probably is intentionally, eschatological. Elsewhere he speaks of signs and ‘painful birth’ which hint of this eschatological dynamic.[3] More explicitly he commends positively the ‘rediscovery’ of eschatology in the message of Jesus by Weiss and Schweitzer, although we should note his judgement that theirs was a false start.[4] What he commends is the recovery of the ‘now’ dynamic of eschatology.  For Gutiérrez the call of liberation theology and the spiritual commitment to the poor is about transforming society so that it is just, and this process is the eschatological enterprise of kingdom growth. He goes as far as equating history and salvation history.

Gutiérrez’s view stands in stark contrast to the heavenly focused spirituality of some theologies.[5] We would want to affirm that the sort of spiritualities that Gutiérrez derides were (and are) deficient. Gutiérrez’s spirituality goes however to the opposite extreme, it raises the hope that social justice for all is within our grasp and, more than that, that it is the poor themselves who need to achieve this end that they so desire. If Gutiérrez is wrong in his reading of the times, or has placed too strong an emphasis on what is achievable in the near future, then at best the hopes of the poor will be damaged and such disillusionment might harm their faith. At worst it could incite not liberation but revolution. Even if the end could justify such means we know that the history that Gutiérrez emphasises teaches us that revolution does not tend to deliver social justice in the long term, as oppressed become oppressor.

This brings us to the heart of the problem with Gutiérrez’ eschatology. Where is the work of God in New Creation? Where is the biblical anthropology of humankind’s weakness in the face of sin? Where is Christ in this picture? Gutiérrez speaks of a hope that overcomes death,[6] but can this be bought by political means, however deserving the agents of change? What Gutiérrez opts for is a ‘now’ eschatology in reaction against those that he perceives as ignoring social injustice because of their ‘not yet’ eschatology. Both of these appear to miss the richer biblical message of an eschatology which is a tension between these two dynamics of present and future fulfilment.[7]

We have come full circle in our critique of the four principles that form a helpful overview of Gutiérrez’s spirituality; the deficiency of Gutiérrez’s eschatology is a failure to read Scripture adequately. If we read Scripture with a focus on the plight of the poor and a Marxist analysis we see reflected back something rather similar. This is actually not surprising but all the more troubling when we note that as Newbigin puts it, Marxism ‘is a secularized version of the biblical hope’.[8]

In the next, and last post, we will make some concluding remarks and provide full bibliographic details of the works referred to in all six posts.

[1] Following, for example, Newbigin, Secret, p.111.

[2] Jackson, Prosperity, p.172.

[3] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.199.

[4] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.160.

[5] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.200.

[6] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.203, 223.

[7] Kümmel, Promise, pp.141-155 famously championed this view and this has since been a dominant view in contemporary scholarship, see Marshall, Eschatology, p.39.

[8] Newbigin, Secret, p.104.

Lessons from The Wall and The Psalter

This short post was inspired by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. You might be wondering, at this point, if you are reading the right blog. Please trust me for just a little longer! The Wall is a concept album that was released in 1979. It is the story of a life, a sad narrative of decline. It deals with an experience of abandonment and loneliness, and in exploring these aspect of Western culture, it asks profound questions about:

1. Life after death. For example, in the song Vera a question is asked:

“Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn? Remember how she said that we would meet again some sunny day?”

The implication is that any hope for a satisfactory conclusion to the pains of life, perhaps more specifically any eschatological hope, is a naive fallacy.

2. Authority. The famous refrain from Another Brick in the Wall part 2: “We don’t need no education”, is just one line, of many, which questions where authority comes from. In this song the inference is that the protagonist, Pink, has experienced an education system in which the figures in authority had sinister motives of their own, that had little to do with the nurture and teaching of those in their charge.

3. The ethics of life. Much of the album questions: ‘Just where are we meant to find direction in this life?’. Various aspects of hedonism, including drug use and extra-marital sex, are explored, but all are found wanting.

4. Judgement. In the penultimate song, The Trial, Pink is subjected to a courtroom trial. It is perhaps meant as a parody of the Last Judgement. In a universe in which there is no God, Pink is charged with “showing feelings . . . of an almost human nature”.

The very title of the album summarises the disturbing premise of the album: some of us go through life, like Pink, in a way that experience after experience builds a barrier between us and others. For Pink these events include the death of his father in the Second World War, a stiflingly protective mother, a failed marriage and the sadistic attention of teachers.

When compared with the concept album that is The Psalter we see that The Wall presents an alternative Way, a rival eschatology and a denial of the possibility of a faithful God. What it gets broadly right is a negative anthropology – as it portrays a convincingly lucid picture of some people’s experience of the human condition.

Likes the Psalter, The Wall, is a holistic whole. It is a work written to be experienced from beginning to end. When The Wall is heard in a single sitting, the power of its claims build-up into a disturbing whole. The Psalter in contrast, in its journey from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, provides a vocabulary and a theology for dealing with the trials of life, such that their power over us is broken. This journey also provides the right vision with which to see the blessings of Yahweh, which abound in His Word, His actions in history and His glorious creation.

We live in an age in which the concept album and the Psalter have both been reduced to a 3 minute quick fix. Both The Wall and The Psalter, when heard/read/experienced add up to much more than their component parts. One of them portrays the dangers of building a wall, from behind which we cannot relate to others or our creator, the other is a lifelong companion of prayer which ensures we can build on the creator’s instruction and wisdom. Rather than building a wall we end up ‘rebuilding’ ourselves as a flourishing tree (Psalm 1:3).

The Wall concludes with Pink’s wall being torn down, though the significance of this is unclear. The faithful reader of the Psalms knows that the wall that separates us from God has been demolished by our Father through His Son, with no need for artistic poignant ambiguity. The Psalter, thus in stark contrast to The Wall, ends with emphatic praise, as will those who travel the Life of Faith with the living God named Yahweh.

In memory of the dearest of friends, Roy Jephson, who ended the Life of Faith 7th March 2014.