Sunday, March 21, 2010

brute material

All theologies, knowingly or not, are theologies of specific life-experiences.

-- Otto Maduro, “Liberation Theology”*

We must admit that Unitarian Universalism has a specific, sometimes alienating culture, and we must change it.

-- Rosemary Bray McNatt, “We Must Change”**

Marx would say that ideas of God are epiphenomenal. Which is to say, they are sparks flung out by clashes of brute material: ideas do not make history but are made by it. The god of rulers justifies their rule, while the god of those who are ruled consoles them in their oppression. Religion is the sword of the mighty, the opiate of the masses.

“The history of the world, my sweet,” sings Sweeney Todd, “is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” The liberation theologians begin with Marx’s view of history, bottoms-up: theologies arise, they say, from specific locations in time and place, and answer the needs of those who live in those places. No theologian wants to think his ideas of God are mere gurgles in history’s gullet, so the liberationists choose one of God’s locations as the right one. God, they say, has taken a “preferential option for the poor,” adopting the location of the oppressed as Her own. But the Oppressed do not love their location; they want to change it. So when the God of liberation joins the poor, He must help them move out of Egypt and into the Promise. “Congratulations to the Poor! for they shall inherit.” But what they shall inherit is somewhere else.

Let’s say it again. Every theology has a social location. And every social location has a theology. When the Oppressed arrive at their Promise, they will take on the theology of their new location. They shall all be changed, and will no longer be the people whom God had preferred. Oppressed people want to become, in at least one respect, like liberals. They want to be autonomous. They want what liberals have – the physical, social and intellectual capital of autonomy. As oppressed people rise up and free themselves, with or without God’s help, everything will change for them.

Again. Every theology has a social location. The liberal church is not the church of everyone. Nor is the church of the oppressed for everyone. Liberals hope to be saved through each person’s affectional, intellectual and spiritual freedom. Oppressed people hope to be saved through communally enacted dreams of a better future. To liberals, a free mind is the holy of holies; to the oppressed, a committed heart. These priorities do not amount to the same thing. But priorities change as people change their location.

Again. Every theology has a social location. Every social location has a theology. So it’s not a sin to be socially located. Nor is it a virtue. But each theology, in its social location, is an occasion of sin; we are called to own our location and know its boundaries, to contain its deathly tendencies and to enhance its powers of life, knowing that if we stood in a different place we would believe differently, and knowing that we owe solidarity, regardless of their theology, to those who were born with a boot on their necks. We liberals, unlike other people of privilege, know that we owe such solidarity. We know it because we are highly educated, and because we inherit the Enlightenment with our education. Our ethic of solidarity is a product of our social location.

We white liberals will never be born with a boot on our necks. We missed that bus. People like me did not create black liberation, nor did we give to people of color such freedom as they have. Liberation belongs to those who need it and have struggled for it. At times we have been solid with them, and we owe such people our solidarity, but not because they’re liberals – many are not. We owe them solidarity because they have been badly treated and deserve better. When they have achieved the Promise of autonomy, when they choose their loves, their works and gods, and respect that choice in others; then and only then will some of them be liberals. But it’s not for me to say that they should become liberals. Liberated people are not obliged to love my songs and thoughts, or to vote my way in the next election, just because at times I was solid with them. Their only obligation will be to become, each of them, who they are. I am not the one to say who they are.

Again. Every theology has a social location. Liberal religion is a specific culture. Some like it. Some don’t like it. Some are at home in it, some are alienated from it. But being who you are is not a sin.

Harvard is a great university, so great that its name stands for excellence. Everyone aspiring to college, in a sense, wants to go to Harvard. But if everyone went to Harvard, then Harvard wouldn’t be the thing that makes everyone want to go there. So our world doesn’t really need for everyone to go to Harvard; what it needs is for Harvard to endure, so that talented people of many races, nationalities, beliefs and cultures can be educated there.

Unitarian Universalism is a great American religion. It could be larger and more influential than it is, but it will never be a religion for everybody. So America doesn’t need everyone to be a Unitarian or a Universalist. What America asks of us is to endure, so that people of talent and integrity, who reject both arrogant metaphysics and brute materialism, can continue to practice the third way of religion.

We will endure better, and spread our values more effectively, if we look more like America as it is becoming, and less like the society of Mayflower descendents we once were. We might have to diversify our musical choices, learn to permit enthusiasm, and apply our curiosity to the scriptures of America’s great religions. But I don’t want my church to “look like America” in its sexual ethics, or in its view of biblical authority. I don’t want a church that demeans the value of women, or the role of conscience in Revelation. These are not superficial matters. Liberal religion will always alienate somebody, but it doesn’t deserve to die on that account.

Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t spread our message very well is that we have lost our faith. Liberationist thinking has done such a number on us that we feel unworthy to be good. They tell us that our principles are mere rationalizations for our privilege. We remind ourselves that we are creatures of privilege, corrupted in our judgment, undeserving of what faint power we hold. But self-loathing is not a persuasive quality. If we could own our social location, claim our besetting sins and our besetting virtues, take responsibility for our errors and pride in our achievements, perhaps it would be easier to attract diverse communities to our fellowship. They don’t know, after all, why we look so sheepish and guilty. It’s a mystery to them.

Again. Every theology has a social location. We should learn from the liberationists that we liberals are not oppressed. We are, compared to many of our neighbors, privileged people – and the choices before us are the choices of privilege. I cannot become black, or gay, or female; but if it is true that my lack of such credentials amounts to power, then I should use that power without apology on behalf of my brothers and sisters. The problem is not that some are comparatively free. The problem is that so many are not.

*A New Handbook of Christian Theology, eds. Donald W. Musser & Joseph H. Price (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992)

**UU World (Feb. 15, 2010)

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