This interview with the progressive Spanish theologian Juan José Tamayo by Roberto T. Pintos was published in Escuela on June 2, 2011 and reproduced on Atrio. We are pleased to bring it to you in English.
To begin, Professor Tamayo, what is a theologian?
The Anglican archbishop William Temple, a man who worked for dialogue between the various Christian faiths, was asked the same question in the 1970s. He answered as follows: "A theologian is a very sensible and brainy person who spends a lifetime enclosed in books trying to give excruciatingly exact and precise responses to questions that nobody raises." He showed the British sense of humor, but there was an element of truth in the definition. Theologians have spent hours and hours caught up in discussing the sex of angels and unraveling unfathomable mysteries as if they were mathematical formulas.
And do you identify with that type of theologian?
Not at all. I move between European political theology, liberation theology, and the theology of religions. The definition of theology that resonates with me and that I try to put into practice is the one given by the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez, considered one of the founders of liberation theology: critical reflection on historical praxis in the light of faith.
Is it true that one can feel comfortable living on the border?
Yes, yes, because man is a being on the border between life and death, words and silence, doubts and certainties, desire and reality, joy and sorrow, loneliness and companionship, hope and frustration, promises and their unfulfillment, love and hate, happiness and sorrow, weakness and strength, dedication to a cause and neglect, war and peace, health and disease, love and heartbreak, suffering and well-being, balance and instability, activity and inactivity ...
The political border as well?
Of course. I have never given my unconditional support to any political party's ideological agenda, which doesn't mean being apolitical. Quite the contrary. I take on left-wing civic and political engagement without losing sight of freedom and critical thinking. I am not aware of having fallen into the temptation, like the biblical Esau, to sell my freedom of conscience and opinion, expression and academic chair for a mess of pottage, however appealing it was or however hungry I was. And I've gone hungry as a child!
Let's talk about two of your latest books that will surely interest the readers of Escuela. First, La teología de la liberación en el nuevo escenario político y religioso ("Liberation theology in the new political and religious scene", Tirant lo Blanc, Valencia, 2010, 2nd ed.). Is liberation theology still alive? Hasn't it been swept away by the winds of globalization?
Good question. They once asked Woody Allen about the death of God and he answered, "God is dead, Marx is dead, Nietzsche is dead, liberation theology is dead, and I'm not in good health." It was true, in those days, Woody Allen had the flu. Is liberation theology afflicted by a temporary or chronic ailment? Is it in such bad health? Has it already been buried? I think desire is being confused with reality. Many take it for dead and have even wanted to bury it alive: the Vatican, the Empire, neo-liberalism, because it threatens the established order founded on an unjust structure. It's an anti-hegemony theology, anti-imperial, it's the critical conscience of capitalism. The more the attempts to kill it, the more liberation theology today stands at the side of the social movements, the alter-globalization ones.
But can religion be liberating when it has been a source of violence and has been allied with power?
You're right. There is no denying the violent nature of religions and their alliances with the powerful, nor can we ignore the fact that they have built phantasmagoric worlds outside reality to draw believers away from their historical responsibilities with promises of rewards in the afterlife for the gullible. Marx said that religion is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. But religions have also been founts of wisdom, opportunities for reconciliation in the midst of conflict and a force for liberation. Again I turn to Marx for whom religious misery is, on the one hand, the expression of real misery and, on the other, the protest against that misery, and religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of a soulless world.
Does this mean that Marx is the true inspiration of liberation theology?
No, I didn't say that. As my Latin American colleagues usually say: Marx is not the father or even the godfather of this theology. Marxism isn't the theory that is the basis or underlies liberation theology. The source of inspiration is the Gospel; it's Jesus of Nazareth, the liberating Christ. But neither Jesus nor the Gospel provide tools for analyzing reality. So we have to resort to the social sciences, which offer us analytical tools to better know the social, political, economic, etc. situation. And in this area, as in ethics, Marxism is very helpful as a tool of analysis, as a theory and praxis of social transformation and as an ethical attitude of denouncing structural injustice, but taken on not in a discipular way, but critically, as Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotle in his time.
To conclude, let's turn to the second book, En la frontera. Cristianismo y laicidad ("On the Border: Christianity and Secularism"). Are the two concepts and phenomena really compatible? Were they ever? Will they be?
The book answers three questions dialectically, in the Hegelian mode. First, the thesis: Christianity and secularism are fully compatible phenomena. Moreover, Christianity was born and developed in the early centuries as a secular religion. Its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, is a lay Jewish believer who lives His faith without losing sight of freedom and in conflict with the occupying power, the Roman Empire. Religious freedom is the principle through which early Christianity governs itself until Theodosius the Great declares Christianity the official religion of the Empire in the Edict of Thessaloniki in 380.
And the antithesis?
While the secular state is being built in Europe throughout the Modern era, official Christianity becomes its main opponent, saying it is against the law of God, natural law, and the rights of the Church. And we're still in that, at least at the level of the institutional Catholic Church, that is rowing against the tide of history and doesn't represent the sentiments of Christians located spontaneously on the horizon of the secularism of the state and its institutions.
Is synthesis possible?
Of course. It's possible and necessary. The diversity of ideologies and religious beliefs can not be a source of confrontation between the citizens of a country. The State is not against religion. What it does is stay neutral and not favor some over others, however entrenched and majority they are, and facilitates the free exercise of all of them at both a public and private level, without taking the side of one faith or another, as is done in religious regimes.
But is secularism the panacea? Is it a solution to the problems that arise in democratic and pluralistic societies?
No. Secularism is the legal and political framework of the modern state -- which is no small thing -- with room for all ideologies, all religious beliefs and non-beliefs, provided that they are lived out and expressed peacefully and under the rule of law. But that legal and policy framework must be guided by a moral axiology, which gives it legitimacy, by the values of justice, freedom and solidarity. It must be built on the basis of political democracy, but also on an economic and ecological one, and on the principle of equality without discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, culture, religion, class or geographical origin.