'Respectable' Liberation Theology?
Liberating Relationships with the Creation
Alastair McIntosh, Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology
Synopsis of a presentation to the Scottish Church Theology Society, Crieff Hydro Hotel, 19 January 2005, presented for publication (as demanded) in the Bulletin of the Society.
Liberation theology is about the liberation of theology from structures that cause death, and also, theology that liberates so as to give life; not just any old life, but promised “life abundant.”
Such theology is, in the experience of this speaker, the expression of a realised eschatology: that is to say, a realm of God that is not up there, or elsewhere, or at some other time to come, but right here and now in the fullness of the human heart situated in a “Communion of the Saints” that comprises membership one of another.
This community of Life extends to all Creation. Without its motive force “was not any thing made that was made.” As such, spiritual development means recognition of relationship with all of Creation: relationship with our home on this Earth (i.e. “soil”), relationship with God (i.e. “soul”), and relationship with one another (i.e. “society”). And it means such relationship right here and now, in the sacramental immanence of the present moment
These rubrics of relationship I would call the three pillars of community. I believe we find them reflected in the temptations of Christ.
Taking the ordering of Luke’s gospel, the first temptation is to turn the stones into bread – in other words, to abuse natural power and so violate right relationship with nature (perhaps as much industrial agriculture does).
The second temptation was to abuse social power by taking control of kingdoms and so violate right relationship with one another (as much landlordism does, hence the imperative of Scottish land reform).
The third temptation is to abuse spiritual power by putting God to the test, so violating right relationship with the deepest ground of our being (so begging consideration as to whether the Devil’s most potent work, if we might think in literal terms, is undertaken from the pulpit).
If we accept that community and with it, communion, is the core meaning of incarnate relationship with the Creation, then one of the problems that we must wrestle with is that, as Mark Twain put it, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” The only antidote to that contempt – which can be contempt for the Earth, contempt for one another, and even contempt for God (thus the appeal of idolatry in both the secular realm and in churchianity) - is grace-given spirituality.
Spirituality is that which gives life; life as love made manifest. The Song of Songs shows us that this involves a “passion” that is nothing short of erotic. And I use that word here in the specific sense that the black feminist writer Audre Lorde does, where she speaks of the true erotic as “the passions of love in all its meanings.” This she distinguishes from the mere pornographic by suggesting that the true erotic is about feeling (and not just sexually so) with the heart engaged, whereas the pornographic (and again, not just sexually so) is about sensation that is devoid of the heart’s engagement. Such an understanding of pornography offers penetrating insight into consumerism. It suggests that much of every-day life is technically pornographic, because we engage with one another, with the environment and with God in a manner that is instrumentalist and without the heart’s connection through relationship. This is why, by contrast, alternatives such as Fair Trade and organic production are so vital. They fulfil the joy of sensation by providing providentially in right relationship with the rest of Creation. They allow for the contempt in which we might otherwise become immersed to be swept away by waves of felt connection – begging consideration that, as one eminent member of this Society put it to me: “Heaven is the fulfilment of the erotic.” Alternatively, Solomon’s Song puts it like this: “Eat friends, drink, and be drunk with love” (5:1).
In my own work, I use or have used liberation theology extensively in programmes promoting Scottish land reform (the Isle of Eigg Trust), ecodefence (the Harris superquarry campaign), ecological education (the Centre for Human Ecology) and solidarity with those in hard-pressed urban situations (the GalGael Trust in Govan). Indeed, it is hardly a matter of “using” it, for liberation theology is more than a tool. It is a way of contextualising theology in our present lives in the present moment. The very passion of it moves us, like it did the Prophets, into the realm of poetry, and in giving my presentation I drew heavily on poetic expression. This approach, I have to confess, did not go down at all well with many members of the Scottish Church Theology Society meeting for a week at the Crieff Hydro Hotel. Indeed, I felt as if I’d been put on heresy trial.
Two members of the Society condemned my talk as a disgrace and an affront - “oppressive to most of us,” “theatre of the absurd,” and, in its sometimes Jeremiaic style of delivery (cf. Jeremiah 15 & 20), “violence of expression towards so much of the Church’s life.”
Not everyone agreed. One said he had heard love, not violence. And the Rev Ian Fraser of the Iona Community who had proposed my invitation concluded, “I am delighted at the wonderful presentation of theology we have heard tonight….”
Later, one of the objectors, who had taken command of the rostrum for a good ten minutes, put his critique in perspective. He came up and explained: “All week long we’ve been listening to lectures about liberation theology in Latin America, but what you’ve done tonight is to bring it home to Scotland ... and it’s terrifying!”
I was struck, as so often before when amongst those who do their theology in collars and ties, by how crippled parts of the Church continue to be by the very eschatological fear from which Christ sought to liberate religion. Yet again, I was moved to poetry.
Ode … to the Scottish Church Theology Society
on Politely Discussing Liberation Theology
at One of the Best Hotels in Scotland
Placing me Effectively
If we are
not very careful
the doors of Heaven
will open wide and we
shall all be engulfed … and
THERE SHALL BE NO DAMNED
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17 May 2005