19 November 2009

Contextual spirituality: spirituality and global issues

Socratic and PLatonic wisdom on sale in the Plaka in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In any course on spiritual formation and spirituality for ministry, we need to become aware of:

● the contextual and incarnational dimensions to spiritual formation;
● the relationship between spirituality and global issues;
● some contemporary approaches to spirituality, including political, ecological and feminist spirituality; and
● the spirituality of the poor and the oppressed.

Opening reading:

Luke 13: 1-5:

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Is Jesus indifferent to the political and environmental disasters around him?



I’ve told you before about the T-shirt I once saw on sale in the Plaka in Athens with the slogan: “To do is to be, Socrates. To be is to do, Plato. Do-be-do-be-do, Sinatra.”

Of course there are different personality types in ministry, there are the do-ers and there are the be-ers.

But whichever you are, each of us needs to be aware that any spiritual emphasis without contextual rooting leads to us being irrelevant. On the other hand, activism without spiritual foundations leads to burn-out and disillusion.

In my spiritual journey and growth, I have admired the combination of spirituality and activism in figures such as Anglicans like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bishop Trevor Huddleston and Dean Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, or in other Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, and – beyond Christianity – in leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or perhaps the Dalai Lama.

But there is always a danger of political theologies ignoring the spiritual, or being dismissed for doing that – when they do not.

The example I have chosen to present this morning is from liberation theology. But we could also take examples from a theology of the environment or feminist theology.

Political theology and spirituality:

John Risley is a Dominican theologian who has worked in Bolivia and Colombia. He says: “When Christians, in their struggle to create a just society, turn to the historical Jesus and make a preferential option to support the poor, a spirituality of liberation emerges.”

For many people, the image of “liberation theology” is often an image of a political theology. Similarly, for feminist theology and other contextual theologies, there is often an image of a theology that has a secular agenda with few if any elements of spirituality or few spiritual concerns.

But what most critics miss is the fact that at the roots of any liberation theology is a profound Christian spirituality. Indeed, without this foundation it could not truly be a theology.

And, although that spirituality is articulated and illuminated by the theology, the spirituality itself comes out of a new Christian experience, an experience of faith which is also a praxis of faith. In turn, liberation spirituality motivates and accompanies Christian experience, so that it becomes more and more imbued with the Spirit of God, which ought to be – which must be – its source.

The spirituality of Latin American Liberation Theology

Latin America liberation theology and spirituality look to the historical spiritual experience of Jesus for basic light and instruction

Latin American Christianity has not only given birth to a new model of Church, new pastoral approaches, even a new theology. It has also given us a new spirituality.

Latin America liberation theology and spirituality look to the historical spiritual experience of Jesus for basic light and instruction.

The Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino, who was censured recently by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says Spirituality has to do with the “correct relation of the subject with history, of the spirit of the subject with the proper, objective weight of history, with its proper spirit.”

The Latin American experience has caused a reinterpretation of the very concept of spirituality, a new interpretation which, at the same time, is radically traditional.

A Christian spirituality of liberation can be summed up in two concepts that are keys to understanding liberation theology in Latin America: the first focal point of the spirituality in Latin American liberation theology is the re-evaluation of the historical Jesus; the second emphasis in liberation spirituality is on the “sense,” or meaning, of the poor.

The meaning of Spirituality

Liberation theology seeks to overcome what it sees as the false dualisms that have crept into Western Christian spirituality over the centuries. Spirituality is in no way synonymous with interiority, nor with subjectivity, nor with religiosity. This is not to deny that the deepest roots of one’s spirituality are in the interior depths of the person, where that person directly encounters the living God. But spirituality speaks of the Spirit of God who reveals and manifests himself as the source of life, freedom and love within the totality which is the human person and his or her world and history.

For theologians such as Segundo Galilea, what generates in us what we call a spirituality is the Spirit present in all truly human activities, personal and social, as a liberating force which is manifested concretely and palpably within the historical context of Christianity.

For Galilea and other Latin American liberation theologians, Spirituality is a way of being, a lifestyle – what the Gospel calls “discipleship.”

This following of Jesus involves one’s relationship with self, others, nature (the cosmos), history and God. It has interior sources but also corporal (and structural) exteriorisation and verification that point to the personal and social – and political – conversion and sanctity.

Segundo Galilea is a Chilean theologian and priest – what a wonderful name he has, it means “Second Galilee” – and his books include The Beatitudes: To Evangelise as Jesus Did. Galilea emphasises that, at its deepest core, Christian spirituality is a mística (“mystique”). This mystique is the “why” and the “whereby” of what we do and how we live, that which gives our life and activity its motivation, its force and its dynamism, its deepest meaning. It is those values and basic personal attitudes that generate our life’s options.

Our spirituality provides the evangelical “why” of our Christian personal, social, and political options.

For Galilea, the spirituality-mystique with which I live through the demands and tasks of my faith is always lived within a specific historical and social context. It is, therefore, not independent of the historical, social, and cultural dynamic of the “place” in which my spirituality is shaped. And so, the “signs of the times” of Latin America deeply affect the spirituality of the Church there. The Spirit acts in Latin American society and history, in the values, in the aspirations, in the ideals and historical tasks in Latin America, insofar as they are convergent with the values of the Kingdom of God.

For Galilea, the evangel is the activity of Christ himself, carried on in the Church today. Its ingredients, therefore, are those of Jesus’ own evangelism. And so, we must preach the God who saves, who liberates, and our evangelisation must bring about incarnate rescue. This cannot merely be a promise extra-terrestrial or post-funeral rescue. It must be here, in our history, cultures, aspirations, our whole reality. It must transform individuals and groups, families, and societies into justice-doing people and justice-doing communities. It must be directed to those who are most in need, who are most marginalised, and who are most de-humanised.

What is unique about the Latin American spirituality of liberation is that the secular socio-political context of a poor and oppressed society in the process of transformation and liberation is linked to the religious context of peoples who have a deeply-rooted Christian heritage.

This Latin American spirituality has its preferred “places,” as the Spirit is manifested preferentially in particular “historical places.” It emerges in those places or “presences” of the Latin American Church where the encounter with the Spirit of Christ is more clearly verified. Latin American liberation theologians have argued that in the world of the poor and the oppressed, and in groups such as base Christian communities, the Spirit manifests itself in the cultural values and religiosity of the people and in the aspirations and dynamisms of their liberation.

This spirituality expresses itself and lives out its dynamic in what is known as “the preferential option for the poor,” which calls us both to interior conversion and to the social transformation of structures.

This Latin American spirituality comes out of the new ecclesial praxis of liberation and grows with the praxis that seeks to reach out to and the make a preferential option for the poor and the down-trodden. But this spirituality is also nourished by the same poor, by their spirituality, by their experience of life supported by a deep religious faith which knows how to suffer and knows how to hope.

This link between a developed, sophisticated theology of liberation and the unschooled, inarticulate, and symbolic espiritualidad popular (“spirituality of the people”) is unique to Latin American liberation spirituality. Galilea describes it as an “exodus spirituality,” as an “exile spirituality,” or as a “frontier spirituality.” It motivates and accompanies the “exodus” of the Church from the centre of society (the “haves”) to the periphery (the “have-nots”).

It is “to live the gospel in a strange land,” the spirituality of a Peter who is lead by the Spirit to “where you would rather not go” (John 21: 18).

I referred earlier to the Dominican theologian, John Risley. He argues that liberation spirituality is a return to the source of our faith, the Gospel in its original form, and also a social, historical, and ecclesial experience of the Christian people. Gallilea calls it a “spirituality of liberation.” But since it is a liberation-in-process, in suffering conflict with the forces of domination and captivity, and signed by the cross of Christ, it can also be called “a spirituality from out of captivity.”

Return to the historical Jesus

Liberation theology believes that we have been separated us from the real historical and incarnate spirituality that Jesus experienced

The first focal point of the spirituality in Latin American liberation theology is the re-evaluation of the historical Jesus. Liberation theology believes that both theology and spirituality have suffered from an overly abstract and idealistic concept of Jesus Christ, one that has separated us from the real historical and incarnate spirituality that Jesus experienced.

And so, theologians like Jon Sobrino attack spiritualities that are really “spiritual-isms,” because they are guilty of invoking “the Spirit of Christ but do not look to the concrete Jesus for their real-life verification … They keep appealing to some vague spirit that is not the Spirit that served as the driving force behind the concrete history of Jesus.”

Behind the spirituality of liberation, then, are the new Latin American Christologies and the reflections on the Gospels by Christian groups or basic ecclesial communities. Both start from the historical Jesus, and they see Christ not as an abstract theological problem, but rather as a concrete truth who throws light and inspiration on the concrete truth of our own lived experience.

What Latin Americans have discovered from this approach to Christ is the noticeable resemblance between the historical and social situation in which Christ lived and acted and the situation in Latin America today. The vital themes that surround the historical Jesus and the life-and-death themes that surround Latin America coincide:

● the dawning reality of God’s kingdom which is justice for the poor;
● the call to radical conversion as an option for the poor;
● the crisis situation of a society characterised by social sin;
● the link between orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

But this becomes clear only when we view the history of Jesus, not in idealistic or dogmatic terms, but in terms of the historical categories that describe the human life of Jesus:

● denunciation and Gospel proclamation;
● conflict and confrontation;
● failure of one’s cause and unconditional trust in that cause;
● power and vulnerability;
● death and concrete, historical signs of new life.

In this way, liberation theology and spirituality take seriously the humanity of Christ.

Liberation theology argues that what is needed is more than a “formal” following of Christ, or being guided by his teachings, as one would follow the teachings of any great sage. Instead, liberation spirituality calls for a real following of Christ in the sense that his own history and praxis become the model and basis of our discipleship and gospel style of life.

Chris lived a radical spirituality and undertook a radical mission because he knew that the crisis of his time needed a radical answer, and he answered a radical call from the Father (Luke 4: 18 ff).

Latin American liberation theologians also see the crisis of their time as demanding a radical response, a response of radical change that gets down to the roots of social sin and institutionalised violence.

Emphasis on the Poor

The second emphasis in liberation spirituality is on the “sense,” or meaning, of the poor. It is a theme inseparable from the historical Jesus. To discover the Jesus of the Gospels is to discover an evangelical perspective on the poor which can be understood only on the basis of Jesus’ teaching and practice. Liberation theology, coming out of an experience of the poor which is also an experience of God, starts from the premise that there is no true Christianity without this sense of the poor.

The prophets gave special attention to the day labourer, the orphan, the widow, and foreigner. Jesus gave special attention to the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Each society has to identify the real poor according to the “signs of the times” of poverty and oppression in that society. In Latin America, the “poor” are the victims of structural injustice, economic marginalisation, and political persecution: the indigenous, the campesinos, the exploited workers, the exiled.

Liberation spirituality is trying to reverse an historical fact long ago noted by the Apostle Paul and given theological expression by him: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth,” or “keep truth imprisoned by their injustices” (Romans 1: 18).

Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian Dominican who is regarded as the founding figure of Liberation Theology, says liberation theology “arose in solidarity with the poor.” This is true too of liberation spirituality.

Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian, philosopher and writer who has been silenced twice by the Vatican, first in 1985 and again in 1992, before eventually leaving the Franciscan order. He says the spiritual experience of seeing the poor, oppressed, and needy in their sub-human condition of life which “cries to heaven,” and recognising that the preferred “place” of Jesus is among them, “signifies an encounter with the new and challenging face of God that emerges from the great challenges of historical reality.”

This spiritual experience leads one to know and follow more closely the historical Jesus who is rediscovered in the face of the poor.

The Gospel sense of the poor is also the authentic verification of the contemplative and interior values of Christian spirituality.

To return to Segundo Galilea, he reminds us that orthodox spiritual theology, when trying to discern the criteria for the authenticity of prayer and mystical experience, has always responded that the verification does not come with the contemplative prayer in itself or with the subjective mystical experience. It comes instead in the practice of fraternal love, in fidelity to the sense of the brother or sister in need.

Prayer and Liberation

We all know there is no spirituality without prayer and the contemplative dimension. In the spirituality of liberation, prayer takes on a particular shade or colouring through its insertion in the world of the poor, as a following of Jesus, within the Latin American context.

Liberation spirituality tries to create a synthesis or symbiosis of prophetic commitment to the work of justice and active transforming love on the one hand, and, on the other, of the prophetic call for prayerful “space” in which to listen to the God of history.

In liberation theology, the Gospel is “re-read” in the light of the encounter with the present God of history. The essential prayer of Jesus included: “Father, your kingdom come,” and who, at the same time, went about “doing the kingdom.”

The real synthesis in liberation theology and spirituality is not in prayer and action, or action and prayer, but prayer in action, prayer in the struggle for liberation. What is especially new in liberation spirituality is not simply that prayer and mysticism become involved in the active and secular sphere of life. The new element is that prayer and mysticism enter into the political arena of life.

The task of creating a synthesis of the mystical and political, of producing Christian militants with a truly political sanctity – sanctity in the work of changing structures in the world of social, economic, and political power – is still an unfinished task of liberation theology and spirituality.

Latin American liberation theology should also be known and appreciated for a spirituality that arises from working out the experience of faith. The traditional “places” of spirituality, such as penance, liturgy, spiritual exercises, are all set within a new context and given a new focus.

Liberation spirituality refuses to settle down into an achieved system of spiritual values and practices. It is a “spirituality of crisis.” It underlines the point that Christians always live in crisis, in pilgrimage, and in the call to transforming action, as they await and “groan” for the new creation.

But times of crisis also make it difficult to have the tranquillity and psychological distance to put things nicely in order, to achieve a coherent synthesis that has precision and clarity, to bring about stability in my life. Perhaps it also makes it more difficult to interiorise the values that are newly discovered and dynamically incarnated in real-life, changing situations.


There a three types of people in ministry: those who think, those who do ... and those who just sing along with the cxurrent fashion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Let me return to that T-shirt slogan from the Plaka in Athens: “To do is to be, Socrates. To be is to do, Plato. Do-be-do-be-do, Sinatra.”

Of course there are different personality types in ministry – there are those who emphasise being, and there are those who emphasise doing. And, I suppose, there are those who simply sing-along with whatever the current fashion in ministry happens to be.

But the spirituality of liberation found in Latin America refuses to accept the dichotomy between doing and being, and certainly doesn’t want to sing along with the fashions of the day. The real synthesis in liberation theology and spirituality is not in prayer and action, or action and prayer, but prayer in action, prayer in the struggle for liberation. In liberation theology and spirituality, prayer and mysticism become involved in the active and secular sphere of life. The new element is that prayer and mysticism enter into the political arena of life.

Next: the author as spiritual writer and theologian

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on the Year III course, ‘Spirituality for Today,’ on Thursday 19 November 2009.

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