7 Questions with Lilian Calles Barger: The World Come of Age

Cover for 

The World Come of Age

I corresponded recently with Lilian Calles Barger about her new book, The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology (Oxford University Press). Lilian is a historian, author, women and gender consultant. She is currently a podcast co-host for New Books Network covering women and gender, religion, intellectual history and American Studies. Her research interests include the historical development of social, religious and feminist thought in modern America with a particular expertise in women and gender history. Visit her website (www.lilianbarger.com) or follow her on twitter (@lilianbarger)

Tell us about how you became interested in liberation theology

I have been thinking about the history of theology in general for a long time. Women’s history and feminist theory was something I was interested in and reading in the 1990s. I found feminist theologians referring to Black and Latin American liberation theology and curious to find out more about that connection. My own background as a Latin American immigrant to the U.S. and my interest in feminism gave me two legs of a three-legged stool. The exposure to African American history completed the triad and deepened my interest in the question of how and why these three theologies of liberation emerged independently and yet simultaneously in the late 1960s. That was a historical question no one was addressing and I found intriguing.

Because I have read a lot of theology across traditions I know it’s not nailed down or unchanging. The theological field is one that since the early twentieth century has gone on its merry way largely ignored by other humanistic disciplines. I think that is a mistake because of its vast influence over individuals and communities. We tend to concentrate on the social and political effects rather than on the source. As historians, I think we can bring some outside accountability to that field through our critical examination. I say this with all due respect to the many professional theologians I know.

Could you tell the blog readers a bit about your method? You call your work a "cultural history of liberationist ideas" and also "a cultural history of thought." The method hones in on specific texts written by liberationists, but it also provides deep political and social context going all the way back, in some places, to early modern political theology. The chapter on the social sciences and liberation theology engages pragmatism, Comte, and Marx. I found this very effective. It would be great to hear more about how you developed this approach.

I went into history, and specific intellectual history, because I was interested in how ideas, emerge, change, adapt and influence people’s lives socially, politically, and culturally over long spans of time. This interested arose from a life-long practice of observation. A cultural history of thought was a method I gained from my brilliant graduate advisor Daniel Wickberg. It fit with my already formed interest in the history of ideas.

A cultural history of thought supported my interest in getting beyond abstracted philosophical or theological arguments of a few “great “ thinkers. It allowed me to view ideas in the context of lived culture giving them concrete on the ground significance.  My other influence came from the sociology of knowledge in which ideas are cultural artifacts or create the environments in which we all live. It does take a strong anthropological approach to historical change. This way of approaching the continuous generation and regeneration of ideas is something that I will continue to apply.

The origins of liberation theology are geographic, chronological and intellectual. In your chapter “The Political is the Total” you also show that the origins of the movement are in the realization that theology is not autonomous from the political and that “politics constituted all theology.” Tell the blog readers about this realization among thinkers like Cone, Gutierrez, and others.  How does this connect to the argument that God is with the oppressed?

The idea that all theology is political is one of the most significant challenges to modern theology that the liberationists as a group took up. They did not believe that elite white male thinkers, who constructed modern theology in Europe and the U.S., could read the Bible with pure openness. Their position of social power created a bias. They found in the text what they were looking for to justify their political and social position.

Liberationists turned it around. They did not believe that theologians, like anyone else, could escape ideology (capitalist, racist, or sexist) that colored their reading. Recognizing that ideology was inescapable, what mattered was the nature of ideology and whether it furthered freedom or subjugation. As liberation theologians, they brought to the text a prior commitment to the oppressed and applied Marxist and critical race and feminist theories and found within the text the idea of a holistic salvation for blacks, women and the poor overlooked by other theologians.
During the turmoil of the 1960s and 70s, liberationists came to identify the oppressed as knowing something about God arising from their own experience. What oppressed people heard or read in the Bible was significantly different because of the situation of oppression. An example I like to give: If two people are praying and one is a rich and male Wall Street banker and the other a poor single black mother, how are their prayers different? What they find by way of religion differs because of their individual social positions. This is obvious to us now, but theology had virtually ignored it believing that classic and modern hermeneutical tools were sufficient to discover the meaning of the text.  Liberationists sought to validate a reading “from below” by recognizing it as a valid theology. For them, a theology that ignored oppressed people in their struggle was ultimately an abstraction that made it irrelevant to the social or political situation and could not bring about the radical social change they saw as necessary.

How would taking theology more seriously change the fields of American Religious History and US Intellectual History?’

Religious history and intellectual history are close siblings. When we think of historians of American religion such as Perry Miller, Sydney E. Ahlstrom and Mark Noll, they are all concerned with religious ideas and how they shaped the nation’s political and social life. Recently, Molly Worthen and Christopher Grasso have followed in those footsteps. For historians of religion attending to theology in both formal and popular forms, not just lived religion or institutions, can expand the field to demonstrate how religious ideas combine with other systems of thought to bring about disruption and continuity.

As the work of applying a specific hermeneutic to the biblical text, Christian theology, particularly of the Protestant kind, is continually changing and adapting to social and political environments and influencing them in return. For example, the Protestant Reformation’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and justification by faith became a basis for the ascendancy of modern democracy. It’s not the whole story, but surely part of it.

It’s easy to think that the theology of a conservative evangelical like Carl F. H. Henry, considered the theological father of the Christian right, remained strictly within an unchanging dogma. More attention needs to given to Henry and how his theology changed and its political ramifications. I only touch on this in my book but intrigued by its possibly for illuminating the theological foundation for the rise of the Christian right. Like any other field of thought we might investigate, the language of theology is learned.

The field of intellectual history has experienced a revival in the last couple of decades but it has also narrowed by often excluding theological thought in understanding movements like pragmatism, critical theory, feminism and political conservatives and radicals. We tend to understand these in non-religious terms. By attending to change in theological thinking, intellectual history can offer a fuller more robust description of the constitution and dissemination of ideas. Maybe because the fields of intellectual and religious history have produced a huge amount of scholarly work they have forgotten that they need each other.  We need to bring these back closer together and I see good signs this is happening.

Of all the thinkers you write about, both secular religious, both more contemporary and distant, do you have a favorite?

I don’t think much about individual thinkers but rather I pay attention to ideas and always have. Asked if I have any intellectual heroes, my answer is generally no, but I’m impressed by the power of certain ideas and their eloquent expression. I admire a probing mind that offers insight for understanding the social world especially that of William James, Karl Mannheim, Simone de Beauvoir, Juan Luis Segundo, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and James Cone. I’m generally interested in how cultures are constructed and the embeddedness of individuals so I have a keen interest in social theory. Those thinkers who take that on have my full attention.

Your book recovers a very important and unexpected chapter in the history of secularization. Tell the blog readers about how the liberationists' efforts to secularize religion changes the way we think of modernity. 

Our work in intellectual and religious history needs to be continually suspicious of the categorical secular/sacred split. Asking what counts as religion, or theological thinking, is the first step. That’s not settled. Instead of seeing religion as under assault by secularizing forces or of religious incursions into the secular state, I think the main story is about them being mutually constitutive. Modernity has been a movement toward a unified political order in which there is no room for a challenge by any other realm or interest. The field of political theology is critically examining the phenomena and offers historians a theoretical scheme.

Liberationists, as political theologians, marked a critical historical junction as theology was breaking through its artificial sequestering and  “secular” thinkers were recognizing its power to both legitimate social structures and challenge them. This was the end of private religion and the start of recognizing that religion(s) offered competing social visions for society that often clashed with the goals of a liberal state. America is now again at another critical point in which a new “war of religions” has emerged between the religious right and the religious left. The religious left has gained strength and visibility. This is a political conflict in which different views of God and God’s will is at the center in regard to human sexuality, the meaning of social justice and the nation’s self-definition. The question now is whether the liberal state can negotiate that conflict and maintain its preeminence.

What are you working on next?

I’ve started a research project on the long cultural history of feminist thought and how it led to the gender revolution we are experiencing today. I have wanted to do this work for a long time. I set it aside for the topic of liberation theology for a variety of reasons.

Of course, the relationship between feminism and changing gender norms is both one of affinity and conflict in which the political, scientific and philosophical come into play. I believe that religious ideas play a significant part in redefining what it means to be a woman, a man or non-binary. Ultimately, questions of gender equality are moral questions on how we will live and organize society as gendered and sexual being. There is much to do in the way of research but the field literature is vast and extremely fruitful.

Thank you!


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