Saturday, April 30, 2011

José Comblin: a challenge to academic intellectualism

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

On March 27, the liberation theologian José Comblin died at age 88 near Salvador (Bahia). Belgian by birth, he chose to work in Latin America, as he realized that European Christianity was in its twilight years and saw in our subcontinent room for creativity and a new test of Christian faith joined with popular culture. He embodied the new way of doing theology, launched by Liberation Theology, which is having one foot in poverty and the other in academia. Or, to put it another way, articulating the cry of the oppressed with the liberating faith of Jesus' message, always starting from the contradictory reality, not doctrines, and collectively finding a liberating way out, starting with the people.

He lived poor and dispossessed in northeastern Brazil. And even there, where it is assumed there are no conditions for high-level intellectual production, he wrote dozens of books, many of them of great erudition. Naturally he took advantage of the times he spent in his home university of Leuven, to renew himself. Thus he wrote one of the best books on the ideology of national security, two volumes on the theology of revolution, a detailed study of Neoliberalismo: Ideologia dominante na virada do século ("Neoliberalism: the dominant ideology at the turn of the century"). And dozens of theological, exegetical and spirituality books, among which are Tempo de ação ("Time for Action"), Cristãos rumo ao século XXI ("Christians toward the 21st century") and Called for Freedom. He was an adviser to Dom Helder Camara in his fight for the poor and Don Leonidas Proaño, bishop of the indigenous people in Riobamba (Ecuador).

Because of his ideas, he was expelled from Brazil by the military in 1972. He went to work in Chile, from which the military also expelled him in 1980. Back in Brazil, he began to give shape to his deep conviction that the new Christianity in Brazil must be born of the people's faith. He created several popular evangelization initiatives that are known as the Theology of Azada. He was inspired by Father Ibiapina and Father Cicero, the great missionaries of the Northeast who, more than administering the sacraments and strengthening the institutional church, ministered by counseling and consolation to the oppressed, both of which they were seeking most.

He is one of the best representatives of the new type of intellectual that characterizes the liberation theologians and pastoral workers who are on this path: making the exchange of knowledge, that is, taking seriously the lore, "created through experience", soaked in blood and sweat but rich in wisdom, and articulate it with academic knowledge, critical and committed to social change. This exchange enriches both. The intellectual passes on to the people a knowledge that helps them move forward, and the people force the intellectual to think about the hot issues and take root in the historical process. Academic intelligence has a huge social debt with the poor and marginalized. The universities are largely macro-apparatuses of reproduction of society, which is characterized by inequality, and factories forming cadres to operate the existing system. But it should be acknowledged that, despite their limitations, they were and are a laboratory of rebellious and libertarian thought.

But there has not yet been a profound encounter between the university and society, making an alliance between academic intelligence and popular misery. They are parallel worlds and university extension services will not cover the gap that separates them. There must be a genuine exchange of knowledge and experience. Ignorant is he who imagines that the people are ignorant. The people know a lot and have discovered a thousand ways to live and survive in a society that is adverse to them.

If there is any merit in liberation theologians (who exist here and around the world; Rome has been unable to destroy them) it is in having made this union. So one can not think of a liberation theologian if he is not involved in both worlds, in order to try to bring into being from this union a more egalitarian society that, to put it in the Christian dialect, has more assets of the Kingdom which are justice, dignity, rights, solidarity, compassion, and love.

Father José Comblin left us the example and the challenge.

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