We welcome this guest post by Ronaldo Zacharias (UNISAL- Brazil) on the recently published essay “An Interdisciplinary Theological Method from the Knowledge of the Forgotten” by Alexandre A. Martins.

New insights regarding method and moral theology in “An Interdisciplinary Theological Method from the Knowledge of the Forgotten”

In my view, there are five perspectives that should be highlighted:

  • All theology is contextual and, therefore, it makes no sense to characterize those developed in the Southern Hemisphere “contextual theologies” so as to moly they are only relevant “in context”. Although the theological reflections are undertaken within certain sociocultural contexts and, therefore, respond to the historical needs and demands of a certain people, it is important to make clear that all theologies, regardless of context, deal with the same divine revelation that God has made manifest throughout the history of salvation;
  • It is important to recognize that theological reflection must be interdisciplinary. Inherently, the very concept of interdisciplinarity includes the experiences, the voices and the narratives of those considered to be among the last and the least (poor, marginalized, oppressed, suffering, forgotten and excluded). Such inclusion, in addition to the particular contribution it makes to systematic theology, also serves as a reminder that no matter how valid any attempt to give expression to the mystery of God may be, when it comes to giving expression to the actions of those who are created in the image and likeness of God, such articulations always will be limited and incomplete to some extent;
  • The realities in which the last and the least live constitute a locus theologicus out of which cries of suffering emerge. These cries need to be heard and properly interpreted in order to grasp their profound meaning and significance. Such cries are appeals for life, for dignity, for respect, and for the right to flourish as a human being. If theologians are to properly interpret these cries they must enter into the lives of the last and the least with humility. If they are to share in the experiences of those who suffer and participate in their struggles, they must to do with integrity and vulnerability;
  • Making the option for the last and the least is not a mere suggestion for those who do theology. If one truly wants to understand God’s action in human history, this preferential option is an imperative. Admittedly, both the experience of God and that of theological reflection are always contextualized. Inevitably, they also are informed and influenced by historical conditioning. At the same time, they always contain an element of universality that makes it possible to enter into dialogue with any context, namely: the preferential option for the poor. This preferential option thus becomes an imperative that is moral and ethical;
  • If interdisciplinary work must include the cries of the last and the least, and the realities in which they live must be affirmed as a locus theologicus, theologians must strive to guarantee that God’s desire for justice is somehow realized in their theological works and hermeneutical mediations. It is no longer possible to do theology and at the same time be indifferent to or complicit in realities that are incompatible with God’s desire that all of God’s children have life and have it in abundance. This means that all theological endeavors must be committed to justice, to its implementation and, consequently, to the struggle against all forms of violence that have their origin in the injustices that are committed against the last and the least. Viewed from this perspective, when theological ethics is not oriented toward human liberation and informed by the lived experience and praxis of “God’s favored ones”, it ceases to make any sense at all.

Strengths of the argument

Here, too, I point out five strengths that are very important to me:

  • Any claim to the universality of reflection is overbearing, including in the field of moral theology. If, for the course of time, abstraction dominated theological discourse regarding the divine mysteries, thereby giving rise to a Christian theology that was far removed from the life experiences of faith communities, while belittling the importance of so-called contextual theologies, today we need to be humble and recognize that this type of theological reflection is incapable of awakening and nourishing people’s faith;
  • It is necessary to combat the colonizing mentality that also is found in the field of moral theology, as if “theology” could only be done in a certain context and in a certain way. Theological works that do not recognize the foundational significance of the concrete gestures of divine self-revelation make no sense. As Christians, we profess that God became so involved in the history of humanity that, upon seeing the suffering of his people, he delivered them from slavery into freedom; after having exhausted all means of maintaining his covenant with his people, he sent his Son to take on human flesh and redeem it forever; he sent the Spirit to dwell in the hearts of his sons and daughters in order to lead them into the fullness of freedom. Adhering to these beliefs, we must acknowledge that any kind of Christian theology, including moral theology, which has been imposed upon the Church and alleges universality, needs to be decolonized and the structures of power that sustain it must be dismantled;
  • There is no dialogue between God and humanity that is not mediated by history and the history of a community. Theological reflection, therefore, must always emerge from a community of faith and return to that community in order to transform it. It is in this context that the work of moral theologians should be situated. “Professional” theological reflection should give expression the experience of liberation found in communities that strive to discern the will of God in contexts where countless forms of injustice prevail and where their contexts are transformed according to the demands of the Kingdom;
  • Theological endeavors should be characterized by contemplation of the mystery of God and by dialogue among all types of reflection that seek to foster faithful following of Jesus Christ and openness to the Spirit. The experience of authentic faith presupposes an encounter among people. In response to the God who reveals himself and is present in their midst, communities of faith make a concrete commitment to seek unity, fraternity and solidarity. In this experience, dialogue is the key mediation; dialogue with God, with history, with others and especially with those who have experienced the greatest injustices, the last and the least;
  • An authentic dialogue requires willingness and the ability to listen and accept what is said and who said it. Those who are at the service of the lives of the last and the least cannot afford to choose with whom to dialogue. If one wants to contribute to the integral development of people and the world, one must recognize that all interlocutors are necessary mediators. Among them all, the last and the least have much to teach, both because they participate in the sensus fidei and because, in their flesh, they bear the sufferings of humanity.

The author’s engagement with intersectionality studies

  • The very historicity of an experience of faith requires tools to make it possible not only to see what is happening, but to interpret the facts in the light of God’s self-revelation. Such tools are necessary because theology alone does not have all the resources necessary to properly read and interpret reality. This means that a theological work that seeks to be significant for today must extend itself beyond the boundaries of theology itself;
  • God does not reveal himself outside the concrete history of humanity. Therefore, the limits of time and space can hinder the interpretation of God’s will. At the same time, it is necessary to contextualize theological endeavors, that is, to promote interaction between the Word of God and the realities in which this Word is experienced. It is also necessary to recognize that dialogue requires the presence of different voices. When it comes to understanding reality and the historical challenges that derive from or are imposed both on faith communities and on the human community in general, dialogue is the right path to follow;
  • The theologians of liberation as well as theologians of the theology of the people, within the limits of the contexts in which they were inserted, knew how to use certain hermeneutical tools that theology did not possess when it came to reading and transforming realities. These hermeneutical tools came from the natural and the social sciences. The experience that occurred in Latin America was and experience that also occurred in the world Church. However contextualized they may be, the foundations that supported these theologies from Latin America constitute the heritage of all the people of God, wherever they may be;
  • By including the last and the least as interlocutors in theological reflection, Latin American theologies recognized as subjects those who were previously only objects of study. Thus, Latin American theologians learned to speak not only “about” the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed and the excluded, but to dialogue “with” them. This experience, although contextualized, is an eminently ecclesial experience and, therefore, a point of reference for the entire Church;
  • This “method”, which began with the last and the least, has expanded today to other groups and it has engaged professional theologians in discussions and debates regarding issues related to gender, sexuality, ecology, bioethics, race, indigenous peoples, etc. However, significant steps need to be taken, since the people who are interested in such questions are still far from being heard and accepted as subjects of theological reflection. Furthermore, the ethos of such people/groups/communities is, at best, an object of curiosity or aversion. Immersing oneself in one’s own existential experience is one of the great challenges to be taken on by members of communities of faith.

My questions for Dr. Martins

  • Is it possible to do theology without living a relationship of personal intimacy with the Trinity? Is it not this relationship that gives the moral theologians a sense of their own vocation and which constitutes for them a constant challenge to look at reality with the eyes of God and to feel the suffering of the people with the heart of God?;
  • Can moral theologians be more than mere “observers” of what happens in a given context if they are not part of a community of faith that constantly strives on a daily basis to discern how to respond to the will of God within the concrete context in which one lives and mindful of the conditioning of such context?;
  • Would not openness to diversity and dialogue about difference and otherness be the best means for an inclusive moral theology? Wouldn’t the mere affirmation of “constant doctrines” be a form of lack of charity in the search for the truth and an expression of disrespect or disregard for a process that should be characterized by a constant attitude of discernment?;
  • Shouldn’t the process of intersectionality lead the moral theologians to opt for a “pilgrim” hermeneutics, that is, a hermeneutics that is on the way, that results from listening to reality, to the people and to the Holy Spirit, a hermeneutics that fosters a process of discernment oriented towards the ecclesial integration of all people, that opposes muteness as a condition for participation and that is open to a multiplicity of voices that make the voice of the Spirit echo in our midst?;
  • What is the role of the sensus fidei in moral reflection? Isn’t it past time for the Church to more effectively incorporate the conscience of the faithful in its moral proposals and in the practices that derive from them?

Concluding Thoughts

  • I agree with the author when he states that there is a certain prejudice and a certain ignorance in relation to theological reflection produced in contexts other than those of Europe and North America.
  • Regarding the theological-moral reflection produced in Brazil – with the exception of a few works translated into Spanish, English or Italian – this way of thinking is totally unknown.
  • This means that all the richness of our reflection does not “become a school of thought”, in the sense of helping theologians from other regions to open up to perspectives different from their own.
  • The difficulty in relation to the language – Portuguese is not a sufficiently known and valued language in other parts of the world – this can be a real obstacle. But I believe the author is right when he attributes the lack of interest in Brazilian academic production to the colonialist mentality.
  • In this sense, I believe that this article should be read by all theologians of good will who believe that, despite the contextualization of reflection, it raises questions that may be of universal interest. In this sense, interest in learning the Portuguese language would be the most worthy expression of respect for a part of the world that also has something significant to say.

To read this blog post in Portuguese, follow this link.