A guest post by Ramon Luzarraga, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington.
Meghan Clark, Anna Kasafi Perkins, and Emily Reimer-Barry invited me to comment on Alexandre A. Martins’ article in the special issue of the Journal of Moral Theology on intersectionality, most ably co-edited by them. Martins contributed an article that focused on how intersectionality performs as part of a theological method, which he does utilizing a Latin American context of marginalized communities of faith, specifically those of his native Brazil (44).
Martins’ contribution is to map out how a theological method with intersectionality as a prominent feature would work. He cautions that his attempt is not a single model that exhausts this method of doing theology. Instead, he models in broad outline how theology should be done through an intersection of narratives of persons of faith within their communities of faith, which speak to their encounters with God.
Following Latin American theologians, this method is a “second act.” It is a systematic reflection of the “first act,” the experience of faith by persons in community. These experiences form the two pillars of theological reflection: the first is the contemplation of the truth God reveals to us, the second is where intersectionality is most explicitly practiced, the multiple dialogues which occur among members of faith communities with each other and God. These dialogues are not just local, but regional and even international. These dialogues bring into theological reflection other sources used: notably Scripture and tradition, secular history, the social sciences, and with environmental questions coming to the fore, the natural sciences. Articulating and understanding diverse persons of faith with their diverse experiences of encounter with God and seeking to understand those encounters, the myriad of intersecting lives, locations, historical epochs, and understandings of faith generate an incomplete but growing mosaic which constitutes the closest thing we can possess of an objective understanding of who God is and our relationship with God.
Central to these dialogues is the concrete participation of the poor of Latin America and the rest of the world. Their poverty is often reduced to just economic deprivation. Martins in response to that brings in another Brazilian theologian, Maria Clara Bingemer, who helpfully defines poverty as persons wronged by injustice and the structures and behaviors which perpetuate it. Those who belong to any marginalized group, suffer some kind of poverty. The Church and its theologians accompany the poor, listen to them, and engage them to understand their suffering, and from that develop an “anthropology of suffering” supplying the knowledge needed to articulate a vision of justice that, when implemented, would counter, and mitigate against their suffering. This is because unjust structures would be dismantled or reconstructed, and people would repent from their egotism, both of which oppress the poor and cause much of their suffering. In sum, theology consists of persons engaged in contemplation and dialogue in which they realize that the transcendent is present in the immanent. Their lived experience of faith happens in history where God is revealed in people’s lives and their struggles for freedom (52).
Martins argues that an intersectional approach in theological method is necessary to counter the chronic marginalization of contextual theologies developed in regions like Latin America by theologians in Europe and North America. He does not reject the work of the latter, crediting them as one important source for the liberative turn Latin American theology has taken since the 1960s. He instead rejects as presumptuous both the implied and explicit universalism of theology from “the North” which causes it to look down on theology from “the South” as intrinsically inferior to itself. Such an attitude is, according to Martens, a colonial one. Theologians from Europe and North America work from their contexts too, making their work just as contextual as from any other region on Earth. This is because while the truth of God is an ahistorical and transcendent reality, the human reception of and dialogue with God is always contextualized by one’s location, social and political context, and historical epoch (46).
The editors also invited me to offer questions which may arise in response to Martins’ article. I shall conclude with just one. Martins’ method places great confidence in persons of faith exercising consistent solidarity with God and each other through the shared practices of contemplation and dialogue. But is his confidence warranted? Brazil and the Global South are witnessing a growing individualization of the religious practice of Christianity. This phenomenon could be traced to the United States, beginning after the Second Great Awakening of 1800-1830, where most Americans have long placed their own individual common sense and experience over that of any clergy who claim the authority and ability to interpret the Bible or over any official church authority. As Nathan Hatch wrote in his book The Democratization of American Christianity, Religious “power, influence, and authority were radically dispersed, and the most successful came by way of popular appeal” (64-65). One need only drive down any street of any sizable U.S. city or town and count the number of independent churches or turn on religious television and see the variety of preachers with divergent messages, to see evidence of what Hatch speaks. We have been exporting through television, radio, and traveling revivalists this individualized model of Christianity which has led to the exponential growth of small congregations which strongly emphasize an individual relationship with God above all else. This comes at the expense of those ecclesiastical bonds which produce a culture that make mutual contemplation of God’s revelation done as a community of faith, and dialogue about that revelation, Scripture, tradition, and the other sources of this theological method possible. The intersectionality of the religious practices of persons, out of which a liberative culture and practice of faith can be developed, are being broken up by a religious anarchism being exported from the United States to the world. This is why observers of religion in Brazil and the rest of Latin America have quipped that while the Catholic Church may have made a preference for the poor, many of the poor have made a preference for joining a small Protestant congregation or sect.
Advanced undergraduate and graduate students, professors of religious studies or theology, persons in ministry in particular Catholic education, and interested laypersons would benefit from reading Martins and the other contributors of this special issue.