Theology of Liberation in the Dialogue of Religions
A new development in Latin America


First published as: Stefan Silber, Theologie der Befreiung im Religionsdialog. Eine neue Entwicklung in Lateinamerika, in: Stimmen der Zeit 130(2005)7,484-488.

At present, the liberation of the poor is no longer conceivable without the dialogue between the members of all religions. For the religions not only bear a grand responsibility for the emergence of poverty but also harbour a substantial potential for its conquest. Out of this insight, in the theology of liberation since a few years a new voice is arising that is calling for an argument with the theology of religions, especially with its pluralistic orientation.

Even if this development is tangible only for the last five years actually, its roots can be followed up to the beginning of the theology of liberation. Although this theology has always maintained a strong scepticism, nourished by Barth's and Marx's criticism of religions, against religious manifestations and their alienating effects especially on the poor, at the same time its option for the poor caused from the beginning a huge attention and a growing favour for the religious experiences of the poor. Especially in the basic communities and in similar new ecclesial creations soon arose a new self-confidence which did not only tolerate indigenous, Afro-American and syncretistic forms of religiosity but took them seriously and encouraged them as expressions of the religious self-determination of the poor. The openness of liberation theology towards the matter named by the II Vatican Council 'cooperation with all people of good will' (cf. GS 52), which has been in force from the beginning, made the dialogue with the atheists in the same way a matter of course as the dialogue and the cooperation with people of good will who belonged to other religions. Since the years of 1990 this openness is named 'macro-ecumenicity' {1} - an ecumenicity that goes beyond the cooperation of Christian churches.

Over and above that there arose in the years of 1980, 1990 out of the openness for the religious experiences of the poor the theological paradigm of inculturation. Parallel to it and in many respects more radical and clear there arose the theological movement of the 'Teología India' (indigenous theology) {2} with its numerous local and regional contextualisations. In contrast to most of the theologies of inculturation the Teología India carries on the dialogue with indigenous religions, thus preparing the encounter of liberation theology and theology of religious pluralism.

This encounter had already been demanded quite some time ago by Asian and North American theologians as Aloyisius Pieris and Paul Knitter. As its first milestone, the congress of the Brazilian society for theology and divinity SOTER in July 2000 can be mentioned. The publication of the articles written for that congress {3} demonstrates the awakening of the theology of liberation to the encounter of religious pluralism. Numerous further publications followed in the Nicaraguan periodical "Alternativas" {4}, in "Revista electrónica Latinoamericana de Teología" (RELaT) {5} published on the web, in Concilium {6}, and in other journals.

The V. General Assembly of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) from September 24 to October 1, 2002, which took place under the spell of the assaults of September 11th, started an ambitious publication project which intends not only to give proof of the theological encounter about pluralism and liberation but also to advance it. The first two titles {7} of a series laid out for five volumes, in which this encounter shall be pursued up to a new synthesis, have been already published. At the "World Forum Theology and Liberation" which took place in Porto Alegre from January 20th to 25th 2005 immediately before the World Social Forum, and where 200 theologians from all continents took part, the question of the interreligious dialogue also played an important part.

Many of the above mentioned publications show that the encounter with the world of religions is considered something new. On the Latin American continent that still considers itself a Catholic one, theology of liberation did not seem to need to deal with Non-Christian religions. At the beginning of the new millennium, however, and under the impression of religious motives being claimed for acts of terrorism and war the growing awareness for indigenous and Afro-American religions prepared the theology to recognize the urgency of an encounter with religious pluralism. Hence it is characterized mostly as new, necessary and exciting, and occasionally there will shine through the question: Why did we not face that subject long since?
The encounter is not only necessary because of the growing political importance of the religions but also because the theology of liberation, to be faithful to its option for the poor, has to take up the religious experiences of the poor. Outside Latin America, however, the poor are, in their majority, Non-Christians, and the dialogue with them will necessarily lead to an interreligious dialogue. Considering the global structures of oppression and impoverishment the option for the poor cannot refer to the poor of one continent only but has also to aim at global strategies of liberation.

The representatives of liberation theology do not consider the dialogue with the theology of religious pluralism only as a means of more efficient strategies of liberation but first of all as a signs of the time that, in the shape of a growing poverty and a growing awareness of the religions of the world, is challenging them to adjust their own theology in a new way.

The literature already at issue shows clearly that it is not a question of the theology of liberation to work off a forgotten subject. The challenge of religious pluralism rather is leading to review all the central theological themes, and the question of theology itself. Over and above that there take part in this encounter important movements which in the last decades evolved in the theology of liberation: positions from the classical theology of liberation, from feminist theology, indigenous and Afro-American theologies, and from the theology of inculturation enter into a dialogue with the traditional theology of religions and the developments in the pluralistic theology of religions. The integration of such different perspectives and the reference to the central theological themes let anticipate that those arguments will really lead to a fundamental new orientation of the theology.

According to the theology of religious pluralism not only Christianity but all the religions of the world originate in the dialogue of the revealing God with the listening and answering human being. For the representatives of this theological movement the religions are part of God's plan of revelation and salvation. The theologians of liberation who endeavour a dialogue with the pluralistic theology of religion proceed mostly from a similar positive significance of the religions while avoiding the risk of religious relativism. For them the acknowledgment of religions is not a tactical measure at the beginning of the dialogue, so that it only counted for their de facto existence. On the contrary, the religions are acknowledged de iure - as different revelations of God to the members of different regions and epochs. With this the peculiar character of Christian revelation is neither denied nor absolutized, because - and here the heritage of Barth's criticism of religion is shining through - God is greater than every religion, even greater than Christianity.

The acknowledgment of religions has two consequences for liberation theology: Firstly, the acknowledgment of the religious experience of the poor is at the centre of interest. Therefore the encounter with indigenous and Afro-American religions has a prominent place in that discussion. Secondly, the acknowledgement of the religions contradicts the policy of the United States and the Western World in general. There is also not missing the reference to the resistance against the isolation policy of the Vatican, and fundamentalist tendencies in other religions. The acknowledgment of religions and the search for dialogue and cooperation with them makes a contribution to the liberation of the poor at the present condition of the world.

Of course, the acknowledgment of the religious experience of the poor includes syncretistic forms of religion and membership in two religions, as they exist often among the poor. Mainly indigenous and Afro-American theologies of liberation have impressively emphasized the importance of that acknowledgment in the last years. Hence there will result further interesting points of contact in that area with reflections from the pluralistic theology of religions of Asia.

While unrestrictedly acknowledging the religions as part of God's plan of salvation, the theology of liberation does not forget its traditional critique of religion, especially not, where the responsibility of religions for violence, for the rise of poverty, and the prevention of liberation must be discussed. The classical inner church critique of ecclesial structures and theological pretexts, which become a burden for the poor, is widening to a quasi "inner religious" critique. Notwithstanding the benevolence towards the Non-Christian religions and their fundamental acknowledgment that is not devaluated by this critique, liberation theology cannot accept any interreligious dialogue on the back of the poor. On the contrary, the religions are measured with the same measure by which the theology of liberation is measuring also the Christian religion and the Western World: human dignity, justice, and liberation.

This might be considered the most important contribution of theology of liberation in its dialogue with the pluralistic theology of religion. For those authors the interreligious dialogue is not a value in itself but it serves justice and liberation. Critique of religion in the name of the poor is an integral part of the interreligious dialogue. This is not a fundamental criticism of every religious expression but a critique directed at special religious conditions, doctrines, and institutions which create injustice and hinder liberation. The fundamental acknowledgment of all religions remains untouched. On the contrary, the religions are called up as guarantees of human dignity and solidarity. In view of the necessary critique of religion the theology of liberation does not set on the conquest of religion but on its conversion to the poor.
This conversion is not understood as a conversion of everybody to Christianity or to the Christian idea of God. On the contrary, the religions are expected to be faithful to their own tradition, and renounce all fundamentalist tendencies. The option for the poor, that has stood the test already by the Inner-Christian criticism of religion, may serve as criterion to identify unjust religious structures, and to denounce them. This option is at the core of the contribution of Christians to the interreligious dialogue.

The encounter of liberation theology and the theology of religious pluralism calls forth numerous consequences in the most important themes of theology. While in the question about God up to now the monotheism has been seen as guarantor of liberation from idolatry and oppression, now also the aspects of one-sidedness and historic intolerance of the monotheism come into view. Through the openness for the religious pluralism now also other names and appearances of the divinity achieve importance in the theology of liberation, because it is accepted that a monotheistic idea of God which is coined one-sided male, white and dominant can be misused for the oppression of women and people of indigenous or Afro-American origin. To maintain nevertheless the prophetic criticism of the antihuman idolatry of neoliberal West is a new challenge for the definition of the monotheistic Christian idea of God. It will be necessary to show that God, who is greater than all religions and has revealed himself under many names, can be identified in this plurality as the advocate of the poor.

There is a similar challenge in Christology, which takes a highly prominent place in the classical theology of liberation. Must Christology - following John Hick - be rated down to some extent to oblige the other religions or can Christianity proclaim a universal liberator without devaluating the possibilities of salvation existing in other religions? In view of the dialogue with other religions the theology of liberation will have to discuss its Christology anew.

It seems that the consequences for Ecclesiology can be drawn more easily. The difference stated by the II Vatican Council between the church and the kingdom of God makes it possible to give the church a serving function also in the interreligious dialogue. The members of other religions are related to the church not because this is their vocation but because all human beings of good will have to work together with the poor for their deliverance. Hence the doctrine about the church of the poor in the theology of liberation can develop in the encounter with the religious pluralism.

As in these central theological themes, the theology of liberation will in many cases have to reflect anew about the consequences of the encounter with the religious pluralism. The revelation, Bible and tradition, the questions of ministry and the sacraments demand a profound discussion not only under the eyes of the poor but of the religions of the world.

The encounter of liberation theology with religious pluralism is - as this short reflection could only give a very general idea - an exciting and promising project. In view of the poor and in the dialogue with the religions new ways into a more humanitarian and just future will emerge. It may be hoped, that the theologians of Latin America will find that many people of good will from all continents and all religions will cooperate in this project.

{1} J.M. Vigil, Macroecumenismo: teología de las religiones latinoamericana, in: «Alternativas» 11 (2004) 27, 109-126, Managua.
{2} Cf. E.H. López, Teología India. Antología (Cochabamba 2000).
{3} Cf. Sarça Ardente. Teologia na América Latina. Prospectivas, edited by L.C. Susin (São Paulo 2000); cf. also No. 20/21 (2001) of the journal Alternativas under the title "Pluralismo y teologías en díalogo".
{4} Cf. especially the No. 27 (2004) under the title: "La teología ante el pluralismo religioso".
{5}; cf. also the other publications of the Servicios Koinonia and the last editions (2002-2005) of the annual Agenda Latino-Americana-Mundial ( edited by J. M. Vigil and P. Casaldáliga.
{6} Cf. esp. the No. 3/2002 under the title "Brazil: People and Church(es)", edited by J. O. Beozzo and L. C. Susín.
{7} Por los muchos caminos de Dios. Desafíos del pluralismo religioso a la teología de la liberación, ed. by Asociación Ecuménica de Teólogos y Teólogas del Tercer Mundo (Abya Yala, Quito 2003); Por los muchos caminos de Dios II. Hacia una teología cristiana y latinoamericana del pluralismo religioso, edited by Asociación Ecuménica de Teólogos y Teólogas del Tercer Mundo (Abya Yala, Quito 2004).

Translated by P. Ernst Förster SJ:


Stefan Silber

Portal de la colección «Tiempo Axial» / Portal de la Agenda Latinoamericana / Servicios Koinonía