Leonardo Boff and the Latin American Liberation TheoIogy Movement
J. Scott HorreII*
Franciscan professor Leonardo Boff has recently been placed center-stage in the Latin American liberation theology movement. More so than other Brazilian liberationists such as Rubem Alves, Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop Evaristo Arns, Hugo Assmann and Paulo Freire, Leonardo Boff increasingly dominates the movement theologically in the largest Roman Catholic country in the world. A prolific author, Boff has penned over thirty books and a multitude of articles, totaling well over one hundred editions in at least six languages. As a professor at the Faculdade de Filosofia e teologia dos Franciscanos in Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro, Leonardo Boff, together with his brother Clodovis,1 represents an intellectual avant-garde of liberationists with an impressive train of followers and supporters. In the last several years, Leonardo's works have begun in quantity to be translated into English. Almost certainly more will be seen on the North American market in the decade ahead.2 Evangelical thinkers, therefore, will want to be aware of Leonardo Boff's theological starting points unique to him in some respects, but more generally representative of an increasingly sophisticated liberation theology.
I. Boff's Theological Method
As Emiho Nunez observes, "liberation theology is a new method of doing theology,"3 combining biblical paradigms with a Marxist sociological analysis. Consonant with most liberationists, Boff declares that all theology is built upon two foundations, the one of faith and the other of social reality.4 By engaging the linguistic, philological and sociological tools of modern criticism, theology exegetes in the most rigorous manner possible the biblical text, and then interprets such data hermeneutically and philosophically.5 For Boff, theology becomes the intellectual savior of faith, producing the light of synthesis between primitive faith and modern conditions.
On the other hand, however, extending his Thomistic heritage, Boff clarifies that the social conditions of Latin America are themselves the historical revelation of God. Rational Christian belief per se is but "an initiation to the Christian experience."6 Therefore, theology becomes above all else an invitation to historical action: "definitive salvation and eschatology are mediated through the liberations of history."7 The defining elements of authentic Christianity are not dogmatic but experiential, ethical and social. Consequently, a Marxist revolutionary movement may, in fact, be more genuinely Christian than a church defending the status quo:
For this reason, everytime that men in whatever corner of the earth or under whatever flag strive to see the cause [of liberation] triumph, they actuate the Gospel and advance the cause of Jesus Christ. It is not necessarily wherever Christianity and evangelization occur that goodness, liberation, justice and brotherhood ipso facto exist. Always, however, wherever brotherhood, justice, liberation and goodness occur, there true Christianity becomes concrete and there lives the Gospel - even though it might be under an unnamed different banner.8
Theology, Boff maintains, must learn to interpret Christianity as a historical condition, even in what might be called an atheistic State: "What counts and has weight is not the talking of the conscience but the being of reality."9 Not surprisingly, then, and more mildly than many, Boff has been laudatory toward the Nicaraguan experiment in liberation, 10 yet cautious about socialistic government systems.11
Leonardo Boff's theological basis, therefore, is a higher critical analysis of biblical faith coupled with a Marxian socio-economic analysis of Latin American conditions. in Jesus Christ Liberator, building upon this duality of theological foundations, Boff specifies five ideological shifts away from historic Christian orthodoxy toward a contextualized Latin American faith. Liberation theology Stresses the primacy of 1) the anthropological over the ecciesiological; 2) the utopian over the factual; 3) the critical - rational over the dogmatic,' 4) the social over the personal' and 5) Orthopraxis over Orthodoxy.12 The purpose of theology is to interpret the will of God today and to translate it into historical, liberating action. As such, anthropological ends are synonymous with theological ends, for God is glorified when humanity can be fully human. Liberation theology, then, is God's prophetic voice to the oppressed people of, if not the earth, at least Latin America.
II. Boff's view of Revelation and Epistemology
Traditional Christianity, according to Boff, exists as a major hindrance to the liberation movement. A religion that comprehends faith as adhesion to revealed truths of Scripture is a "vulgar," outmoded religion for today.13 'The revelation of God must not be thought of as miraculous, as if God intervened in the history of the world . it must not be represented as an oracle or as a bundle of truths and prefabricated solutions for the problems of the world."14 The human words of the Bible "do not adequately reveal the divine mystery," and attempting to reduce divinity to biblical articulations does "not let God be God and the mysterious be mysterious."15 For Leonardo Boff, revelation is many things. One thing it is not. however, is objective, propositional revelation. God has not spoken, but acted Any form of Christianity that adheres to the Bible as the propositional Word of God
first of all would be retro-ocular (with eyes turned backwards toward the past) looking toward the focus where salvation irrupted, [believing] the testified facts of Scripture, [trusting] the Word of God as inspired and inerrant, creating Bible courses, developing liturgy, meditating on the Judea-Christian history of salvation, pushing the faith each time more within the mystery of the faith.16
If the Bible itself is not the essence of divine revelation, then what is? Boff responds that the Structure of God's revelation is given in life and human history. "Revelation is a mode of considering the unique history we experience by means of the Ultimate Reality The history of salvation is not a history within history, but history itself seen through its Ultimate Sense, revealed as God."17 Elsewhere Boff declares that "everything that exists is the manifestation of God, is divine theophany, is revelation and the Word of God."18 Of course. in virtually dissolving special revelation (in any classical sense) and declaring that everything is divine theophany, Boff must defend his prophetic passion for liberation from being purely arbitrary. How is good distinguished from evil, justice and grace from oppression and cruelty? In this rather common intellectual quagmire, Boff not so surprisingly shifts epistemological gears and at this point reveals what is the essential nature of his epistemology:
Placed before the social problem, the Christian reacts, shall we say, prophetically, when he detects in an intuitive way its contradiction with the divine plan. Poverty offends man and God: it is sin. One must fight for justice and for the rights of the oppressed. This presents itself to him as a human and Christian imperative. At this point his reflection has not been articulated on a critical level, but on the intuitive, synthetic level. Nevertheless, this constitutes the true popular theology (of the People of God), with their truth and practicality.19 (Emphasis mine)
In 0 Destino do Homem e do Mundo, Boff details in existential, crisis terms how The Feeling that latently is God" arises as a vision and urge within the individual as he comes to understand the profundity and globality of a given situation. By his decisive response, man becomes a hearer of the Word of God, authenticating himself to himself and to the world in which he acts.20 Thus, while at time referring to God as the utterly Transcendent and mysterious Absolute Other,21 Boff's definitive orientation is nearly totally immanental, identifying God as the liberating élan of history, and manifested through, it not synonymous with, the inner conscience of man.
If God is revealed in man's most meaningful experience and his moral consciousness, then how do we explain sincere human contradiction? When intuitions differ and ideologies clash, can anything be said to be true? Interestingly, Boff addresses the dilemma of relativism by responding that some people misinterpret their basic intuition. He presupposes that intuitions will not disagree, and claims that differences surface because of lack of critical reasoning, misperception of cultural problems and unfortunate education -especially on the part of traditional Roman Catholics.22 Truly our consciences are the vanguard of social morality, but if someone is out of line with socio-ethical consensus (e.g. liberation philosophy), he has been conditioned awry or lacks critical abilities. The arbitrariness of Boff's system is obvious. His only resolve for the problem of subjectivity is the hope of a cultural consensus of intuition.
An explicit result of Boff's epistemology is evolutionary religious relativism: In their most pristine and positive form religions are the institutional forms that translate humanity's relationship with the Absolute. . . Religion itself is already an acceptance of grace. It celebrates an encounter with divinity. Hence, without denigrating any Christian claims, we can say that religions are the ordinary pathways to God.23
The original experience is only one in all religions. Only its interpretations, its forms of cultural and historical expression, vary and become typologized from one situation to the next.24
In the end, all truth is historically and culturally relative, conceived through the intuitive expression of man both individually and collectively. In summary. Boff has sought to splice together the empirical epistemology of biblical criticism and sociological science with a prior subjective epistemology of intuition. Moreover, he has sought a solution to the tension between unity and diversity a difficult yoke for a prophet to bear.
III. Boff's Hermeneutic
In Jesus Christ Liberator, his superior academic endeavor, Boff presents a brief history of modern hermeneutics. One immediate observation as Boff summarizes each hermeneutical system is that he seems to adopt each method, building one upon the other. Almost no criticism is given of any of the various hermeneutical theories. Boff seemingly views all of them as valid parts of the whole: "Hermeneutics cannot be taken to mean simply the art of understanding ancient texts; it also means comprehending all manifestations of life and knowing how to relate them to the evangelical message...25 Thus the liberation hermeneutic returns to the liberationists' basic theological method of interpreting both the testimony of faith and the sociology of history as divine revelation.
It appears that the Bible does not mean nothing, but rather anything. Boff recognizes the open-endedness of his hermeneutical conditions and seeks to justify his freedom from the very nature of Jesus' own teaching. Jesus was not like other rabbis, pretending to be biblical experts and proof-texting every affirmation. He taught with authority and such sovereignty that he "dispensed with all exegesis and interpretations of the law and would simply retort.'. But I say to you....26 Boff proceeds to adopt what he assumes to be Jesus free and open hermeneutic. Indeed, quite transparently, he supposes this same messianic authority for himself and the liberation movement:
This necessarily implies a liberation from a certain type of abstract theology constructed in a closed system of concepts. No advance over this theology will be made by mere interpretations of interpretations, but only through a new experience and praxis different from the faith and the church. Thus indeed can a liberated theology be born...27 (Emphasis mine
The language of liberation, as diverse as the ramifications might be. articulates a new optic through which human history both in the present and in the past is interpreted. To think and to act in terms of liberation in politics, in economics, in pedagogy, in religion, in sociology, in medicine, in psychology, in critical ideology, etc. implies a hermeneutical turnaround and the enthronement of a new state of consciousness.. . Now we live under the dominion of this new age that permits a different reading of the texts and historical contexts of both past and present within the horizon of liberation or oppression and regression.28 (Emphasis mine)
Growing concern exists that Leonardo Boff and other liberation theologians have taken too much liberty with the Scriptures. One wonders if a hermeneutical method could ever be conclusively defended, and if it has not become simply a guise to express any intellectual's conceptions. On what basis does Boff deny a different hermeneutic to other Latin Americans e.g. spiritistic, monarchical, or even orthodox? If cultural, intuitive consensus is his only response, then in crying out a messianic message Boff utterly contradicts his own single standard.
Quite transparently, Leonardo Boff embraces with little reservation the non-absolutist thinking of contemporary man. As such, in his theological method. the two foundations of faith and contemporary culture finally erode to appear very much like only one. Boff's theology, not unlike certain other liberation spokesmen's,29 has become a profound anthropology. Boff's epistemology, for all its appeal to critical rationalism, in the end proves completely subjective. And, in his hermeneutical break-away from "the faith and the Church," Boff prophetically declares a "new state of consciousness" that interprets all things through the optic of liberation. Utopianism has indeed left the factual. Perhaps liberation theology itself needs liberating from its own obsessions, so that it can allow itself to be questioned by Scripture. In the end, the great irony is that, in the name of liberating hope, Boff and the liberation intellectuals have destroyed the gospel of Jesus Christ that alone gives eternal hope to the people of Latin America.
1 Clodovis Boff has impressive scholastic abilities as evidenced in the densely documented Teologia a Prática: Teologia do Politico e suas mediçoes (Prtrópolis: Vozes, 1978).
2 Leonardo Boff's books on the English speaking market presently are The Question of Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971); Jesus Christ Liberator.' A Critical Christology for Our Time (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1980); God's Witnesses in the Heart of the World (Chicago: Claret Center for Spiritual Resources in Spirituality, 1981); Saint Francis.' A Model for Human Liberation (New York: Crossroads, 1981); The Lord's Prayer: The Prayer oflntegral Liberation (Melbourne: Dove; Maryknoll: Orb is, 1983); Build Up My Church.' Franciscan Inspirations for and from the Third World (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press; 1984); Salvation and Liberation (Mar yknolk Orbis. 1984).
3 Emiho A. Nunez, "The Challenge of Liberation Theology," EMQ 17:3 (1981):142.
4 L. Boff, A Fe' na Periferfa do Mundo (Petr6polis: Vozes, 1978), 7.
5 Ibid, p.8.
6 Igrela'. Carisma e Poder. p.32.
7 A Vida Religiosa e A Igreja no Processo de Liberta~ao (Petr6polis: Vozes, 1975), p.24.
6 Ibid. p.28.
9 Ibid. p.25.
10 L. Boff, "Leonardo Boff's Impressions of the Church in Nicaragua," Ladoc
11 Cf. Boff's interview, Richard N. Ostling, "Deliberation at the Vatican," Time 124:10 (Sept. 3, 1984)86.
I 2 Jesus Christ Liberator, vi, 44-47.
13 Teologia do Cativeiro, 45-46.
14 O Destino do Homem e do Mundo (Petr6polis: Vozes, 1973), 70-71.
15 Ibid, p.83.
16 A Vida Religiosa. 67.
17 0 Destino do Nomem. 71-72.
18 Ibid. p.73.
19 Teologia do Cativeiro, 31.
20 O Destino do ~omem. 73.
21 Cf. Liberating Grace, 112, 178-183.
22 O Destino do Homem. 77.
23 Liberaung Grace 119-120.
24 O Destino do Homem. 149.
25 Jesus Christ Liberator, 4,.
26 Ibid.. p.144.
27 Teologia do Cativeiro, 71.
28 Cf. Gustavo Gutie'rrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of People (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984).
J. Scott Horrell is a doctoral candidate at Dallas Theological Seminary and has served for several years as Worldteam missionary to Brazil. The present paper is an abridged version of a longer discussion copyrighted by the author, and is reprinted here with his permission.
We urge our readers to become familiar with the tenets of Latin American Liberation Theology as documented in J. Scott Horrell's concise synopsis of the writings of Leonardo Boff. Liberation theology has spread beyond Latin America, and it has clearly passed the Stage of rarefied theological discussion in modernist seminars. Observers report that it is already eroding traditional Catholic belief among the common people, the "grandmothers and children" of Latin America. Liberation theology is also largely the rationale of certain idealistic Catholic religious (especially nuns) who, outraged at the dire poverty of most Latin American people and the corruption of their governments, support Marxist revolutionary terrorist movements which have already claimed the lives of Bible-believing Christians south of the border.
Upholding biblical creation is crucial to our warfare in this newest battle. For only upon the foundation of biblical creation can we confidently proclaim that the God we know and worship is apart from and above this created world; that He is a Person Who speaks to us from above and outside us, rather than an "intuition" or "latent feeling" within our own selves; that He clearly distinguishes between good and evil, loving the one, hating the other; that He gives us clear commandments which we must obey at pain of death; that His purpose for us is to be conformed to His own image and likeness, and to have dominion over the remainder of creation as His stewards; that He Himself initiated history and enters into it, so that our whole lives are and must be a waiting on and for Him in obedient, personally worshipful expectation. Mankind's fall into sin due to Adam's disobedience in paradise is also part of the biblical record of our beginnings; liberation theology, in denying the revealed truths of Scripture as "vulgar" and outmoded, denies the fact of sin and hence the need for Jesus Christ as our Savior from sin.
The rise of liberation theology should spur us on to disseminate the good news of creation and abundant scientific evidences therefor more diligently and joyfully than ever. All the arsenal of the worldwide creation science movement raised up by our Lord sincethe 1 960s should be used to proclaim to lost and converted alike the bankruptcy of all anti-biblical theologies, and the ever again vindicated propositional truths of Scripture. "For ever, 0 Lord, thy word is settled in heaven." (Psalm 119:89).
The Bishop and the Prostitute
Jesus told the woman taken in adultery: "Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more." (John 8:11) Liberation theology accepts the first part of this statement of Jesus and ignores the second.
This is illustrated by the following article which is published in the September 19 edition of LATINAMERIGA PRESS:
In Praise of Liberation Theology
The recent controversy over liberation theology has been felt throughout the Latin American Catholic Church, but perhaps more strongly in Brazil than anywhere else (L.P May30, 7985). During a recent gathering organized by the Higher Institute of Religious Studies in Rio de Janeiro to express solidarity with Brazilian theologians Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Gabriela Silvia Leite, a 34-year-old prostitute, read the following statement:
In July 1984 we prostitutes were invited to participate in the Fourth National Meeting of the Pastoral Commission on Marginated Women. It was during that five-day meeting that I discovered that we are not alone in our efforts to organize.
There I met bishops, priests and pastoral agents who called prostitution a social sin generated by economic, political and social structures. They insisted that because of this situation, we prostitutes must organize. Then we must unite our efforts with those of other oppressed sectors of society in order to advance together toward our liberation.
What, concretely, does this support from the church mean for us? For me and my companions, who have always been stigmatized and excluded by society, it means simply and I want to emphasize this in capital letters - REDISCOVERING OUR DIGNITY.
It is because of this rediscovery of our own worth that I am now able to stand before you and speak out without feeling like a public sinner. For us, the theology of liberation is not just a label used to describe a new trend in Catholic thought; ii is much more. It is a life project, grounded in faith. It offers proof that we prostitutes, by rediscovering the spiritual power contained in our religious belief will also encounter a self-actualizing project that confirms our humanity; and we discover that we too are women.
That it is what my voice and that of the five million prostitutes scattered throughout Brazil wants to tell this gathering. With great assurance and great faith, lam able to say: many thanks to liberation theology, many thanks to all those theologians who have made it possible for us, the outcasts of society, to have access to the Gospel.
Reprinted from CACC Newsletter, Director, Dr. Fred Schwarz, P.O. Box 890, Long Beach, CA 90801