Monday, June 15, 2009

Leonardo Boff at 70 - Pt. 2: The Theological Journey

On the occasion of his 70th birthday in December 2008, Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff gave two major addresses -- one about his life and the other about his theological perspective as they have evolved over the years. These talks are available in their original language in the Portuguese section of Leonardo's Web site (click on "Balanço aos 70"). We are pleased to bring them to you in English for the first time, translated by Rebel Girl. With his typical wit, Leonardo signs the two addresses "theologus et peregrinus peccator".

Thank you for the tribute from human rights entities in Petropolis.

On this day, December 16th, 2008, I am marking my life as a theologian and as a human and ecological rights activist from the perspective of social oppression and natural devastation. In my adopted city, Petropolis, Rio, I am receiving this homage from those with whom I have walked the last 30 years, mostly poor people, from communities on the periphery of the city, but people who feel like they are citizens with rights, dignity, and in harmony with nature.

I appreciate the moving words of Maristela Barenco, one of the best students of theology I ever had, an educator, a psychologist and currently coordinator of the Center for Human Rights. The words of confrere Frei Alamiro da Silva linked me to our common journey as Franciscans with the landless, the homeless, in the commitment for the rights of the oppressed and the commitment to the justice, peace and integrity of creation project that the Franciscan Order adopted years ago.

The words of the Jesuit theologian Father John Baptist Libânio of Belo Horizonte, especially moved me because he traced the steps of a journey we made together from the long years of the 70s in the last century to the present. More than a friend, he became a faithful brother and witness with the same expression of faith at the service of life and the suffering people of this world. Endowed with vast humanistic culture, he always managed to combine intellectual rigor with a sense of humor and levity in his expositions.

For those who are present, I have made a brief review of my theological journey in an improvised form that I will transcribe here, noticing too that every turn in my thought, within a basic continuum, is linked to an existential crisis. As we live in times of systemic crisis, a journey of so many years under the arc of the phenomenon of crisis is not incomprehensible. since each crisis serves as a crucible that refines the essence of the options and thus enables a new leap in personal history.

1. The meaning of old age and work

First of all, I acknowledge the rapid passing of time and unexpected irruption of old age. It is more than a biological inevitability. It is an opportunity that God and life offer me to conclude what started one day: the shaping of my own life so that it reaches a certain fullness like a fruit that must ripen to be gathered for the feast of the Lord. I have always tried to lead my life in light of the mystery of God, without ever knowing exactly what His designs for my path would be. And also without understanding the life that is surging more and more like a mystery within me, as is life in general and the evolving universe.

I am aware of the truth of the psalmist: "We are like a morning dream, transient as the grass" (90:5). Aches and pains are showing up now like "the silver thread that snaps, or the golden bowl that is cracked, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, or the pulley broken at the well-head" (Eccl. 12:6). But, even under these twilight conditions, I am not walking towards the end but towards the Fountain of perennial divine youth.

Secondly, I feel like a worker at hard labor. And this unites me to all workers in the world. As a child I labored with a hoe. Then I struggled with quill and writing, day and night, on weekends, on holidays and feast days, year after year. I worked hard to compose my writings, whether in researching them or in giving them literary form. Unconsciously I fulfilled the purpose of the Creator: "investigating and exploring is the thankless task God imposes on human beings" (Eccl 1:13). Thankless task because it is never finished and ready. It must always be resumed anew so that it brings us new windows through which we see reality differently.

But I testify from personal experience to that of which the wise man warns: "Of the making of many books there is no end, and in much study there is weariness for the flesh" (Eccl. 12:12).

2. Landmarks of a journey

a) Franciscanism

My first universe was Franciscanism. It is one of the most humane spiritual traditions in history. All my life and vision of the world were marked by long years of life within the Franciscan Order. Being a Franciscan was a way of inhabiting the world, seeking fraternization with nature and living joyfully the dimension of kindness in the world. I read the classics of philosophy and medieval theology which produced the Order, from Alexander of Hales to William of Ockham. I was very influenced by St. Bonaventure’s thought on the Sacraments and Duns Scotus for the rigor of his conceptual universe and the genius of his vision which are still not sufficiently appreciated by the Church. But the fact that Martin Heidegger did his doctoral thesis on him and Protestant theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg is one of the specialists in his writings show the richness of his thought. But Franciscanism was a kind of ecclesiola, a little church that is sufficient unto itself, with its saints, doctors, and its own liturgy that came to it from the archetypal figure of St. Francis.

b) The church as sacrament of salvation and liberation

Vatican II (1962-1965) and my studies in Munich in Bavaria (1965-1970) awakened me to a world that went beyond Franciscanism. It was the Church in aggiornamento, it is worth saying, that was bringing itself up to date through a vigorous dialogue with the modern world, with science, with work, the new humanism and the process of emancipation—what the Conciliar Fathers called the "legitimate autonomy of earthly realities”. It was a time of enthusiasm and experiencing liberation from a spiritual suffocation that had turned freedom of thought into a risky venture and suspicion of infidelity. The institutional Church had waged a long and inglorious battle against modernity and its intellectual and political achievements. Now a kind of peace would finally be established between the Church and the world at the service of what is good and true for humanity, since such values have their ultimate origin in God. Perhaps the most significant document of the Council is the one titled: "The Church in the Modern World." It is no longer the world that is brought into the Church. It is the Church that finds itself in the world, a greater and more challenging reality. The Church presented itself as the sacrament of salvation for the world, it should be said, a sign and instrument of salvation already accomplished by Christ and offered to all humanity. This was also the subject of my thesis in German, published later under the auspices of the then Professor Joseph Ratzinger. I was living in a moment of spring and great optimism.

Upon returning to Brazil, along with many others, I realized that the biggest challenge for us was not "the church in the modern world," but “the church in the modern underworld." That modern world with its science and technology and emancipatory processes meant weapons to which we submitted or were incorporated in its plans. The first formulation represented the view of the first world, rich and well-situated within the dominant culture. The second focused on the rupture, denouncing the existence of an underworld and a sub-humanity produced by modernity. What does it mean to be sign and instrument of salvation in the context of underdevelopment understood as dependence, as aggregation to the plan of the opulent nations? If this situation produced oppression, then the mission of the Church was to present itself as a sacrament of liberation. How to turn these “non-persons” into people with autonomy and rights?

That is what I was able to understand and articulate in a more organic way in my books Church, Charism and Power and Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church.

Today we are witnessing a significant retreat from the central government of the Church in Rome. It seeks to read Vatican II from the Vatican I perspective, that is to say, read the pastoral in the light of Canon Law. This choice is making the whole Church mediocre and encouraging a weak fundamentalism in the new lay movements and the pronouncements of the central authorities of the Church. It turns around the fear of everything that is modern, demoted to relativism. Fear is the opposite of faith. My basic attitude has always been this: Christ did not call us to stay in the safe harbor. He called us to set out on the high seas and confront the dangerous waves. We do not pray, "Lord, Lord, free us from the threatening waves” but rather “Give us strength to overcome them." Christianity is for great and generous things and not to comfort pusillanimous spirits.

c) The poor question and judge us

The awareness that the developed and underdeveloped worlds make up an unequal and interdependent whole with a clear process of domination of one part over the other, made me discover the universe of the poor. The poor form a painful landscape and a visibly bleeding wound in our society. The scandal of this anti-reality hurt the Christian and human sensibilities of theologians in various Latin American countries. I soon realized that the poor person is really an impoverished person – someone who has been oppressed by economic, political and cultural mechanisms. He is demanding liberation. The Church, with the new consciousness awakened by Vatican II, placed itself on their side. It made the option for the poor and against poverty. Perhaps that has been the most important pastoral and prophetic gesture in its history in Latin America. To opt for the poor was to opt for their historical force, for their ability to make faith a factor of resistance, protest, and liberation. It isn’t the Church that frees the poor. It forms an active alliance with them and thus participates in the blessing of the poor.

Theologians who adopt the cause of the poor become liberation theologians by association because they are not poor nor do they come from the world of the poor. They all come from the school of Pharaoh. But we can attend the school of the poor and become their allies and thus, by affiliation, liberation theologians.

Theologians became slowly aware of the various faces of the poor – the economically poor, indigenous people, people of color, women, anyone who faces discrimination. Each kind of oppression is specific and demands a specific kind of liberation – unique ones for the person of color, the indigenous person, the woman, the leper or just the economically poor person. Through them we are granted the ability to see the face of the crucified Jesus who continues to cry out in His Passion, waiting for someone to take Him down from the Cross. This experience of meeting (encuentro) conferred a uniqueness to liberation theology. To destroy it out of zeal for purity of faith or out of desire for rigorous method, putting the Crucified One on one side and the crucified people on the other – something that one theologian dared to do – is to understand nothing of the origins of Christianity, to forget what the revealed Word tells us: “if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) Therefore such a theology “is nothing” (just what the devil likes!) because it is useless at the supreme moment in history when we face the Judge of time and eternity. Our commitment to the poor will determine the truth or cynicism of our theology, done in the Brazilian and Latin American context.

I raised all sorts of issues and invaded many areas of knowledge, but I never forgot the poor – our masters and doctors and our mediators at the Last Judgment.

d) Our Sister and Mother Earth and Gaia

The poor cry out because they are oppressed. Liberation theology was born trying to respond with justice to their cries. But it is not just the poor and the oppressed that cry out. The forests, water, and animals cry, nature cries, and the Earth moans. All are undergoing a systematic process of oppression and devastation. Not just the poor, but all are prisoners of a paradigm that for more than 300 years now has aimed to limitlessly exploit the resources and services of the Earth. It is a paradigm of wanting power for domination. Hence we are all oppressed and needing to be freed. How can we make the desire for life be valued?

Since the 1980s, it has become clear to me that this is the quaestio magna. If liberation theology want to be complete as it has always wanted to be, it should include the liberation of nature and of the Earth whom St. Francis called sister and mother and modern people call Gaia. It should listen to and articulate both cries – of the poor and of the Earth. There should be a whole ecotheology of liberation.

Because of this, my work for ecology in the broadest sense – environmental, social, mental, whole, I dedicated myself to studying and acquiring the most solid facts from new cosmology, quantum physics, new biology and anthropology. It was an arduous task, years of uninterrupted work. For this reason I was invited to belong to the small group that inspired the whole world and finally drafted the Earth Charter. This document, now adopted by UNESCO, starts with the threats that weigh upon the Earth and, from a perspective of hope and of a new beginning, offers values and principles that could save us. I participated actively in drafting the text along with M. Gorbachev, S. Rockefeller and others.

Today I feel it is more and more urgent for theology to dialogue with this new knowledge so as to better know our history that has been going on at least 13.7 billion years and to be able to speak about God in a contemporary way and be aware of His unfathomable wisdom and design.

d) God: Mystery and Tenderness

At this time of life my mind is more and more occupied with, and my heart embraces, the question of God. All of the questions mentioned above are important. They do not take precedent over each other. They co-exist and are complementary. But, relative to God, they are ultimately a passing flame.

Who is God? What human experience underlies faith and unconditional surrender to God? As much as I study the sacred texts of the religious traditions of humanity and what has been revealed by the tradition of the sons and daughters of Abraham, God is a mystery to me. Christianity shows us that He is not a solitary One but a community of Three. The mystery of the Holy Trinity has always challenged me intellectually and also – if I can put it this way – mystically. I countered with the best of my ability to think. I believe I contributed with something that wasn’t clearly present in tradition.

For me, God revealed Himself, in fact, to human beings and to the universe. To reveal Himself is to commit Himself is to communicate Himself just as He is. If He is Trinity, then He meets us as Trinity. There is no theological reason whatsoever that obliges us to stop at the incarnation of the Son. I support the thesis that the Father became personified in St. Joseph, the Son incarnated in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit spiritualized in Mary. Hence we have the divine family entirely present in the human family.

In front of my house, I planted three conifers to represent the human and divine Trinity. Whenever I come and go from my house, I pass through this human-divine Trinity. And I feel included in the eternal communion. And at night, when I remember to do so, I talk and pray reverently with this representation of the Trinity.

In spite of this concretization, the Triune God remains an unfathomable mystery to me. I always end in noble silence. But it is a mystery of tenderness, of embracing, and of inexpressible communion. When I fall like a tree, I hope to fall into His arms and be nestled in His maternal and paternal womb.

e) Light lives with shadows

Up until now I have been referring to the light dimension of my already long journey. But there was also and is a shadow dimension. Painfully, I am part of the human condition where a sym-bolic portion coexists with a dia-bolic portion. I am a theologian but I am also a sinner. A pilgrim who is also torn apart. Therefore I also owe apologies and beg forgiveness.

I had strong confrontations as a theologian. I never accepted the world I inherited. I always thought that the Church could be better and more of a sacrament of Christ and the Spirit. That is why my criticisms were seen as a challenge to be confronted. I had to submit to the highest doctrinal offices of the Church. I was punished. But I never held a grudge. My suffering was nothing compared to the daily passion of the poor. Finally, everything has to do with the sacred cause of the oppressed, the beloved of the Father. On this point, without being presumptuous, I confess that I was always resistant, resilient, and persistent. I never took my hands off the plow and never looked back. (cf. Luke 9:62) Instead, I looked up ahead, finding a thousand reasons to continue in the same struggle, albeit in another trench.

3. Conclusion: I have lost almost everything but the seed has been sown

What remains? Faith, hope, and love remain. Life, some experience, and mainly seeds remain. I hope that this journey has brought me wisdom worthy of an elder and that it has helped me get ready for the great Encounter, the much anticipated Encounter.

On my slog I have met the fate of the tree. It has lost its top and thus the dialogue with the world became more difficult. I lost the trunk and therefore had to strengthen myself a lot to keep myself sustainable. I lost roots and began much work to continually renew myself. I lost sap and had to learn to live with loneliness and detraction. But the seed remained. I am now only seed. And, as seed, I feel whole. Because in the seed are hidden the freshness of the top, the strength of the trunk, the secret of the roots, and the vitality of the sap. In the seed is all the promise of life, the flowers and the fruit. From it, everything can be reborn. But it is only reborn if, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, I accept the darkness of earth and the fate of every seed – if it does not die, it will not give fruit.

Becoming only seed, I think I have been true to myself and to the calling I have received. The seed keeps the purpose of the universe and the design of the Creator beyond my now tired existence. I anxiously await His revelation that will be in the life beyond this life.

1 comment:

  1. If there not be revelation in the life after this life, then may mean that perhaps there is not such a life.
    Even though the work in this life of people like Leonardo and another Leonardo friend of mine and Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul II, Oscar Romero, Oskar Schindler and Gandhi and The Dalai Lama and St. Francis and your neighborhood honest priest and that dedicated social worker and that compasive doctor and the humble bus boy that has not seen his family in years, etc. etc…you get the point,still make sense and has meaning because the difference has to be made here and now.
    There was a famous roman general that said: “What we do in life, it goes into eternity”. Perhaps yes, perhaps not, but certainly what good you do in life, stays here, to nurture the moment or to nurture during generations.
    We are all gardeners at one stage or another. At the unconscious level we are the seed. Later some times we plant the seed, later we may care for the soil and water, at some point we may watch over the young plant and in some other occasions we collect the good fruits and we should share them for the good of all.
    When is time for the plant to fall, well…who knows what the possibilities are….

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