Liberating Theology

Political struggles taking place throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas during the sixties and seventies provided fertile ground for the growth of a radically new variety of Christian theological discourse, a diffuse movement of critical, contextual formulations commonly referred to as theologies of liberation. Among the earliest expressions of liberation theology were Black Theology in the United States and Latin American Liberation Theology, which emerged simultaneously but independently in the late sixties, the former among black Protestant theologians and ministers, the latter among European-trained Roman Catholic theologians and priests. Despite the obvious differences in their religious orientations and sociopolitical contexts, these and other liberation theologians have made surprisingly compatible methodological choices and thematic interpretations. Liberation theologies lay claim to being the intellectual expressions of Christian life on the underside of history; they are rooted in rigorous social and cultural analysis and a personal commitment to solidarity with the oppressed, and they advocate a radical reordering of human relations guided by prophetic religious critique.

Liberation has been one of the most popular and influential motifs in contemporary Christian theology, though liberation theology has also had its detractors. Deloria was one of the first Americans to mount a sustained critique of the liberation theology movement–and one of the very few to challenge it from the left–when he questioned the validity of its epistemological roots. Concluding that liberation theology is methodologically problematic because of its (initially) uncritical dependence on Western philosophical assumptions and modes of social analysis, he suggested that theology itself needs to be liberated, not just patched up with some revolutionary rhetoric and biblical texts on social justice. If we are serious about “the necessity of liberation,” he argued, “we are talking about the destruction of the whole complex of western theories of knowledge and the construction of a new and more comprehensive synthesis of human knowledge and experience.” The reversal of agency implied in the shift from liberation theology to liberating theology illustrates Deloria’s rigorous approach to intellectual debates that address power relations.

The first two essays in this section explore the relationship between religious and political ideologies in American society. “A Violated Covenant” was written for an American Indian issue of Event, a monthly magazine for men in the American Lutheran Church. Deloria locates the theological basis for political treaties in the notion of covenant, and for their wholesale violation in the theological tension between covenant and the idea of dominion over creation. Contemporary Indian problems “stem almost directly from Protestant theology and a misapplication of basic biblical ideas in the arena of political thought,” and these problems will persist until Americans take seriously their own moral integrity as a nation. “An Open Letter to the Heads of the Christian Churches in America” inaugurated a monthly series of public statements from political, religious, and intellectual leaders published by the Forum for Contemporary History. The theological dilemma of colonialism produced the doctrine of Discovery, just as the theological dilemma of nationalism later produced the doctrine of Manifest Destiny; “in every era of man’s existence religions have acted to give to political institutions the justification, incentive, and heart to exist.” Deloria challenges American Christian leaders to adopt a more credible theory of history and to hold their political leaders accountable to a higher sense of justice and humanity.

The next two essays, which originally appeared in Katallagete–Be Reconciled, pick up on these themes. “It Is a Good Day to Die” was Deloria’s contribution to a thematic issue on vocation and religious commitment. He approaches the topic by probing the limits of religion and law as social systems. He shares with liberation theologians the conviction that our theologies follow from the kinds of commitments we make, but he is more adventurous than most in exploring how far-reaching these commitments might be. This autobiographical reflection recounts the tension between ideology and experience that Deloria encountered in both seminary and law school. He finds this dilemma evident most clearly in the circular logic that characterizes the relationship between American religion and law, “each ultimately pointing to the other as the binding thesis of its existence.” Deloria argues that we should begin by examining the actual practices of living communities, understanding vocation as the courage to challenge one’s own community to pursue a higher sense of itself in the world. “Escaping from Bankruptcy: The Future of the Theological Task” was published several years later as part of a thematic issue on theological language and meaning. Reviewing more recent developments in legal scholarship, Deloria considers their implications for theology and metaphysics. “In both intellectual and emotional terms,” he writes, “the problems of the human species are approaching an intersection in which religion and metaphysics are not simply possible but are an absolute necessity.” He faults minority, feminist, liberationist, and secular theologians for occupying themselves with language games rather than wrestling with the radical social transformations already taking place around them. Anticipating the emergence of a new vision of planetary existence, Deloria foresees it coming from the inspired leaders of grassroots communities, not professional scholars at the top of the intellectual food chain.

The last two essays respond more directly to the rise of the liberation motif in Christian theology. “On Liberation” was written for theOccasional Bulletin of Missionary Research, published by the inter-denominational Overseas Ministries Study Center, for a thematic issue titled “Shifting Concepts of Mission.” This piece is one of Deloria’s earliest critiques of liberation theology in North America and reflects his continuing interest in underlying assumptions. He points out that widespread awareness of the limits of human knowledge is fundamentally liberating, since conventional approaches to current problems cannot claim absolute authority and “we are free to seek a new synthesis that draws information from every culture.” The eight-point summary of his challenge to Western epistemology is one of the most concise expressions of his position in print. “Vision and Community” is a more recent contribution; it was originally published in Yearning to Breathe Free, an anthology of essays on liberation theologies in the United States. Deloria uses the liberation motif as a lens through which to examine four prominent segments of the American Indian community. Some readers will be surprised by his relatively favorable assessment of a group we might call missionary traditionalists, but Deloria’s primary concern here lies in changing how the average American thinks about reality, a kind of reverse liberation. Does liberation theology have a comprehensive vision of the future or only an assortment of abstract ideas about progress? “Eventually,” Deloria reiterates, “liberation theology must engage in a massive critique of itself and its historico-theological context and inheritance.”