Academic journal article Theological Studies

Method in Liberation Theologies

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Method in Liberation Theologies

Article excerpt

FUTURE HISTORIANS OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY will no doubt judge liberation theology to be the most influential movement of the twentieth century, possibly even since the Reformation.(1) They certainly will painstakingly document its emergence as independent theological movements in the late 1960s and will marvel at its spectacular expansion throughout the entire oikoumene in a matter of just a couple of decades.(2) The profound influence of liberation theology will be evident not only from the way it has penetrated far-flung countries and continents and permeated all the branches of Christian theology, from biblical studies through systematics to ethics,(3) but also from the critique by the Roman magisterium as well as vigorous attacks by political authorities who have regarded it as the most pernicious threat to democracy and the capitalistic system.(4)

Even though it is customary to refer to liberation theology in the singular, it is obvious, even from a cursory study of its history, that it is by no means a homogeneous and uniform system. It has been practiced in different contexts and continents--North America, Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, just to mention those where it has attracted a sizable number of adherents.(5) It has targeted various arenas of oppression--gender (white feminist, womanist, and mujerista theology), sexual orientation (gay and lesbian theology), race (Black theology), class (Latin American theology), culture (African theology), and religion (Asian theology), again just to cite a representative few. Of course, these forms of oppression are not restricted to a particular region; rather they are each widespread in all parts of the globe and are often intimately interlocked with each other and mutually reinforcing, so that any genuine liberation theology anywhere must fight against all forms of oppression, be they sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, racism, classism, cultural and religious discrimination, all at once, siding in effective solidarity with victims of all forms of oppression. In this sense, it is appropriate to refer to liberation theology in the plural: there are liberation theologies. It is important to take account of this diversity of liberation theologies, since it is a common mistake to lump all liberation theologies together as an undifferentiated theological movement.

This diversity has been well expressed by Mary Potter Engel and Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite: "There are distinctive emphases in liberation theologies; they are not clones. None of them--North American feminist liberation theologies, womanist, mujerista, gay and lesbian liberation theologies, African American liberation theologies, Native American liberation theologies, Latin American liberation theologies, minjung theologies, or others, including those who as yet have not found a way to name their theological situation for themselves--is interchangeable with any of the others. Each has its own peculiar interests, emphases, viewpoints, analyses, and aims, dependent upon the requirements of its own particular social context."(6)

While acknowledging these important diversities, this article will focus on what binds liberation theologies together, namely, the essential elements of their method. It will examine the resources liberation theologians make use of, their hermeneutical approaches, and their criteria of truth. In other words, the article will study the three elements of the epistemology of liberation theology--its analytical, hermeneutical, and practical mediations.(7) It will illustrate these methodological considerations with a wide-ranging appeal to the writings of a variety of liberation theologians themselves. It intends to show that liberation theologians, whatever their national and cultural provenance, are fellow travelers on a common journey, albeit through different routes, to the same destination.


It has been asserted that liberation theologies are not simply "genitive theologies" in which liberation would be no more than one subject among many, conventional theologies about some hitherto undiscovered reality or dealing with a new theme. …

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