Teaching a class of undergraduates at the University of Notre Dame some years ago, Gustavo Gutiérrez was asked about liberation theology and violence. He paused a few moments and then told a story about his friendship with Camilo Torres, a Colombian priest and sociologist. During their studies in Louvain in the late 1950s, he recalled, they argued frequently, often late into the night, about whether violence was an acceptable—or even necessary—Christian response to the death-dealing poverty and dehumanizing injustice that the majority of Latin America’s people endured. Ultimately, Torres left his academic position and the priesthood to take up arms in Colombia. He was killed in 1966 in his first military engagement. Gutiérrez went on to write one of the seminal works in liberation theology: The Theology of Liberation. Commenting on this episode in his life, Gutiérrez remarked: “I wanted to write a theology because I was convinced that proclaiming the Gospel could be a powerful response to poverty and injustice.” For him, at least, liberation theology was born out of a passionate desire to share the joy of the Gospel at the margins, as Pope Francis would say.
During the same period that Gutiérrez and others were developing liberation theology in Latin America, intellectuals and activists in this country were turning to the experiences of African Americans and women with similar questions and the same determination. It is no coincidence that these three movements arose at roughly the same time. Yet, one did not give rise to the others; and while they all drew on intellectual currents in Europe, their similarities cannot be explained simply by linking them to a shared intellectual origin on the other side of the Atlantic. To write “an intellectual history of liberation theology,” one must do justice to the originality and the distinctiveness of each of these different branches while recognizing their common themes and sources. Lilian Calles Barger’s sprawling but rewarding The World Come of Age strikes this balance well.
Calles Barger argues that those common themes and sources come from the social sciences, particularly those critical social and political theories that trace back to Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Later figures such as Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, and Herbert Marcuse figure large in her story. Liberation theologians drew on them to respond theologically to Marx’s famous claim that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Prior to the innovations of the “liberationists,” Calles Barger believes that theology had been mostly an impediment to this task. She contends that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Christian churches, along with the theologians who served them, accepted a “Great Separation” between religion and politics. Religion came to be seen as a private matter that oriented one toward a transcendent fulfillment outside of history. Politics was left to “this-worldly” politicians and intellectuals whose theories and policies were based on values that could be fully defined without reference to God, an afterlife, or anything else that transcends this world. For these politicians and intellectuals, religion was, at best, a temporarily necessary “opium of the people,” easing the pain of suffering. It should be—and will be, in the great march of history—left behind as people find more effective political responses to human needs and aspirations.
The first protests against this “theopolitical truce” came in the middle of the twentieth century. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who gives this book its title) asserted that “in a world come of age” Christian theology can and should convey the truth and value of the Gospel to the political realm by taking up a perspective that sees the world etsi deus non daretur: as if God did not exist. In the 1960s, “death of God” theologies and works such as Harvey Cox’s famous celebration of secularization in The Secular City gave liberationists a way to talk about what Calles Barger calls “the full secularization of religion.” They also learned from radical social, cultural, and political theories that took account of the underside of modern history in a way Cox, at least, had not. Finally, the liberationists were inspired by radical popular and social movements—the Cuban Revolution, for example, as well as the Black Power and women’s-rights movements here in the United States.
Within this common framework, Calles Barger gives an effective account of the differences between Latin-American, black, and feminist liberation theology. She traces genealogies for liberation theology in Latin America that include the Indian leader José Gabriel Túpac Amaru II, who led an indigenous rebellion in eighteenth-century Peru, and José Carlos Mariátegui, who argued two centuries later for a version of Marxism open to the positive role of religion. For black theology, household names such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X are joined by less familiar figures such as Reverdy C. Ransom, who created a distinctively black version of the Social Gospel movement. Similarly, famous feminist thinkers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Daly, and Rosemary Radford Ruether are joined by others such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose book His Religion and Hers (1923) represented a “nascent feminist theology” combining a radical social theory and a new “female-centered ethic of a God within.”
While one can find more thorough histories of each of these three movements, what’s distinctive about this book is the way it relates them to one another. Calles Barger provides fascinating vignettes of unexpected connections, such as the friendship between Reverdy Ransom and Jane Addams, or Bonhoeffer’s brief sojourn in New York in the early 1930s, during which he encountered the Harlem Renaissance and came to better understand the evils of racism. She also recounts heated debates among different kinds of liberationists in the seventies and eighties, during the course of which it became clear that the texture of oppression based on economic class, for example, was different from that of oppression based on race or gender. One needed different modes of analysis to address these different species of injustice, so the theology that resulted would necessarily be different as well.