Monday, June 18, 2007

It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism

The above photograph was taken by Evaristo Sa during Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to Brazil. It shows the pope hugging children at “Farm of Hope,” a drug rehabilitation center in Guaratingueta, 200 kilometers from Sao Paulo.

For me, this image is a beautiful representation of that ancient understanding of what the papacy should be all about – a symbol of unity within the Church.

In this particular photo the pope is clearly bringing people together – and not just the children who feature in the photograph but those viewing it. Don’t you feel as if you could readily be part of such a loving and inclusive embrace?

Unfortunately, the pope also alienated some while in Brazil. I’m talking, of course, about his startling declaration that the indigenous peoples welcomed the arrival of European priests at the time of the conquest of the Americas because they were “silently longing” for Christianity.


According to various media reports, indigenous people throughout South America were not impressed by the pope’s comments. A Reuters article, for instance, reports that Brazil’s Indians found the pope’s comments “arrogant and disrespectful,” “wrong and indefensible.”

The article goes on to note that, “Millions of tribal Indians are believed to have died as a result of European colonization backed by the Church since Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, through slaughter, disease or enslavement. Many Indians today struggle for survival, stripped of their traditional ways of life and excluded from society.”

“Even the Catholic Church’s own Indian advocacy group in Brazil, known as Cimi, distanced itself from the Pope,” reports the article.

“Theological Imperialism”

I think it’s fair to say that the pope’s comments reflect “theological imperialism,” which author and theologian Darmuid Ó Murchú defines in his book, Reclaiming Spirituality (Gill and Macmillan, 1997), as “the Christian claim (to which Judaism and Islam also subscribe) that our religion contains the fullness of revelation, in the light of which all other religions are deemed to be somehow inferior” (p. 29).

Ó Murchú also notes that such a claim and its promulgation and/or enforcement is both “arrogant and oppressive.”

Am I saying that the pope, personally, is arrogant and oppressive? No, just the theological framework from which he is operating. It’s a “framework” related, of course, to that “strange form of authoritarianism,” that “Big Book of Doctrine” school of theology identified by scholar Gary Macy, and to which I referred in a
previous Wild Reed post.

This particular form of authoritarianism, writes Macy, “fomented both by the ultra-montanism of the late nineteenth-century papacy and by Enlightenment anti-clericalism, understands Roman Catholicism as fundamentally an attempt to provide the definitive answers to all questions, usually in one ‘big book of doctrine,’ whether it be Thomas’s Summa, Denzinger’s Enchiridion, or lately the Roman Catechism of the Universal Church.”

Understandably, such a “school of theology” can easily morph into theological imperialism.

The intrinsic superiority of Catholicism is still an official teaching of the Catholic Church. While some Catholics cringe at such a teaching, others revel in it. For instance, popular satirist Stephen Colbert’s comment, “I consider all religions equal. And by equal, I mean they’re all tied for second place behind Catholicism,” has recently been taken quite seriously (and celebrated) by a number of traditionalist Catholic bloggers. (Tellingly, by their own admission, the rest of Colbert’s humor goes over their heads!)

Recently, an anonymous visitor left a comment in which he asked if I believed that the Catholic Church holds the fullness of “Ultimate Truth.”

I have no problem with the concept of Ultimate Truth but I’ve long concluded that the Roman Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on such truth. Actually, I’ve come to believe that the entire Body of Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ, is what holds within itself Ultimate Truth.

And as Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day noted: “That the Mystical Body includes only the Roman Catholic Church is heresy. The Mystical Body [of Christ] is the inseparable oneness of the human race. . . . In all human creation, there is no one that does not have Christ within.”

Through my theological studies and life experiences, I’ve come to understand Christ as that spirit of consciousness and compassion embodied by Jesus, and which Jesus calls each one of us to likewise embody.

I’ve come to recognize and experience this spirit, this Christos, as the active presence of that reality which is ultimately beyond comprehension yet which nevertheless envelops and infuses all matter. “Christos” and “God” are just two of many names given to the presence and action of this reality beyond and within human experience.*

My point is that the pope’s recent controversial comments in Brazil make sense, if you will, given the orthodox, theological framework he is operating from. That so many people have found his comments to be “arrogant” and “wrong” tells me that the Church as people of God is ahead of the Vatican in evolving beyond “theological imperialism.” Of course, most would not employ the intellectualized language of theology to make their case. Rather, they simply sense that no one faith tradition – not even Roman Catholicism – can claim a monopoly on God’s boundless presence in the world and throughout human experience and history.

A Pilgrimage of Discovery

Ultimately, of course, awareness of God in our lives and in the world, cannot be taught, it can only be evoked or awakened in the mind. That’s why I’ve come to believe that the language of theology is closer to metaphor and poetry than it is to doctrine and dogma.

So, employing the metaphorical and poetic language of theology, I like to suggest that together as the Mystical Body of Christ we are on a pilgrimage of discovery. We are continually discovering new aspects and dimensions of what it means to be fully human, and thus new depths of “the Truth.”

I’m not an absolutist. I don’t need to know that “my Church” has all the answers to every possible question, right at this moment in time. To claim that it does smacks of hubris – or, in the terminology of some, “religious imperialism.”

I don’t subscribe to a model of revelation that sees truths handed down from on high — complete and unchangeable. For as Pope John XXIII reminded us, “We are not on Earth to guard a museum but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

Such a statement implies that revelation filters upwards through human life and experience, that revelation is ongoing. It’s a concept that is both wondrous and unsettling. Yet for those who need absolute answers for absolutely everything, it’s a concept that is extremely threatening.

Embracing the reality of ongoing revelation propels us out of our comfortable ghettos of formulated answers and into compassionate, and at times challenging, engagement with the world. The Catholic tradition tells us that it is through such engagement that we are called to discern and incarnate the reign of God in every aspect of life.

In closing, I offer the words of Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff who, in an article titled “The Forsaken Ones,” notes the following:

Surely when the Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, had to deal with the central issue of the mission of the Church, they must have faced the still unresolved historical question arising from the treatment afforded the native peoples of these lands, and the Afro descendants. Christianity in general was always sensitive to the poor, but implacable and ethnocentric when it came to cultural otherness. The other (the Indigenous and the Black) was considered an enemy, pagan and infidel. “Just wars” were waged against them and they were read The Requirement (a document written in Latin, recognizing the king as sovereign and the Pope as the representative of God), and if the document was not accepted, forced submission was legitimized. We must never forget that our society is based on great violence: on colonialism . . .

This is why we were astonished when we quite recently heard that the first evangelization was “neither an imposition nor an alienation” and that trying to rehabilitate the religions of our ancestors would be “a backward movement and a regression”. Confronted with this, we cannot but hear the voice of the victims echoing into the present, witnesses of the other side of the conquest, such as the voice of the Mayan prophet, Chilam Balam de Chumayel: “Oh!, let us grieve because they arrived... They came to make our flowers whither away, so that only their flower may live... They came to castrate the sun.” And their lamentation continues: “Sadness was introduced among us, Christianity... That was the beginning of our misery, the beginning of our slavery.”

According to Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West, the Iberian invasion was the greatest genocide in human history. Destruction amounted to around 90% of the population. Of the 22 million Aztecs in 1519, when Hernán Cortés entered Mexico, by only one million was left by 1600. And the survivors, as expressed by the theologian Jon Sobrino, are crucified peoples hanging from the cross. The mission of the Church is to take them down from that cross, and bring them back to life . . .

The mission of the Church is one of justice, not charity: to reinforce the rescue of ancient cultures with their soul that is their religion, and after that, to establish a dialogue in which both parties’ complements, purifies and mutually evangelizes one other.


* In light of all that I’m sharing, I guess you could say I embrace a Spirit Christology, rather than the traditional Logos Christology.

I’m certainly not claiming to have come up with this “Spirit Christology.” Indeed, it’s been present, in one form or another, both within and beyond Catholicism for centuries. Some maintain that it is the earliest form of Christology.

One contemporary Catholic theologian to have explored and articulated such a Christology is Jesuit theologian Roger Haight. His book, Jesus: Symbol of God (Obis, 1999), has been described as a “work of vast erudition” and a “thorough discussion” of post-modern Christology. Accordingly, it’s a work of scholarship that willingly explores beyond the parameters set by the current edition of that “Big Book of Doctrine” school of theology.

Not surprisingly, Haight’s work unsettles the gatekeepers of orthodoxy (see here and here). But then, that’s what good theologians should be prepared to do. They shouldn’t serve as mere stenographers for the Vatican.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
John Allen on the Censuring of Jon Sobrino
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Beyond a PC Pope
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
A Dangerous Medieval Conviction
Charles Curran: Loyal Dissenter
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 Ft.
The Onward Call

1 comment:

crystal said...

I also read and posted on Boff's article :-)