BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): C.D. Tirres’ (2014) The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 1]

12 September 2014

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 1]

Someone requested I read and reply to this book. And so, since this asks for something more familiarly “formal” than my typical “reply”, the following provides a longer, more point by point reflection of the book. This is part one.

What follows likely only addresses the opening 13 pages of his book (the Introduction). Not all of my commentary will run at such length, but the details included below help to frame Tires’ approach throughout the rest of his book. It contains many of the background assumptions and we will misread his book if we don’t keep these assumptions, presumptions, and premises in mind.

Theory, Practice, Praxis

Tirres, a North American Latino academic scholar[3] teaching at DePaul University, symbolises in his dialogue between “liberationist “ and “pragmatic” thought a “South/North divide” that characterises many of the differences of opinion on the topic ever since Gustavo Gutiérrez—the man that Tirres refers to as “the father of liberation theology” (5)[4]—established the discipline/practice/approach more than forty years ago. Simply for the sake of clarity, one may summarise a large number of the differences of opinion as centred on a dominating concern with “practice” (in the world South) as contrasted with dominating tendency to “theorise” (in the world North).

This, of course, oversimplifies the matter. Since a great deal of South American liberation theology took various cues from Marxist analysis, to reduce it only to a “practice” offers a parody of it; similarly, to characterise “north American” liberation theology as always or only empty intellectualizing without any substantial concern for engagement with the “real world” also parodies the actual state of affairs.

At the same time, parodies generally contain at least grains—if not whole chunks—of truth. When we look at the general circumstance of those composing or working with liberation theology, for instance, in Latin American settings, where priests were often persecuted and sometimes murdered by the State for the work the priests were doing, we see a very different picture from liberation theologians in ivory towers in the world North. For those in the trenches of warfare or the oppressive ravages of the State, theological hair-splitting becomes not only dangerously irrelevant but also morally suspect, because people shall go on dying around you while you twaddle on trying to work out which hair to split.

Of course, an immediate position one may take on this “theory” or “practice” split denies the “or” in the first place, and insists that theory and practice remain equally necessary. However, this ultimately only begs the question. If we need both, then how much of each do we need? 50/50? 60/40? 40/60?[5] Whatever the answer to this, the opposition suggested in Tirres’ title between “liberationist” and “pragmatic” thought moves in the murky space of this distinction.

Tirres frames and gives us a taste of an answering with the two quotations that open the book: the first declares the “announcement of the demise of liberation theology [as] both parochial and questionable” (1) and insists that “liberation theology needs to be and has been restated for the new situation on a more global level” (1); the second quotation cites a formula by Cornel West that identifies prophetic pragmatism as itself an orientation capable of overcoming the South/North, liberationist/pragmatic divide that Tirres addresses throughout his book.

I want to add: many (academic) disciplines and (revolutionary) movements have confronted this problem. One sometimes hears of “praxis” as a melding of theory and practice. What Arendt noted in another context—that Western philosophy often focuses too much on the life of the mind to the detriment of everyday life—reprises once again the theory versus practice debate; and she specifically promoted the notion of praxis as its antidote. Similarly, commentators have deemed Marxism in general as a philosophy of praxis. The prophetic pragmatism West avows above would similarly constitute a praxis in this sense.

I say all of this (1) not to oversimplify the matter but (2) not to lose sight of the fact that these distinctions do, in fact, matter. In (revolutionary) movements, sometimes those with too much theory show themselves as cowards, i.e., unwilling to engage in everyday life or confrontations on the barricade. Similarly, one sees moments in history when people elected to pursue paths of resistance woefully stupid or misinformed or, worse, so wrongly informed that the outcome achieved the opposite of that intended: a result that they would have avoided had they had a more lucid or illuminating grasp of theory. So, if sometimes theoreticians become cowards (and people die as a result), at other times activists act stupidly (and people die as a result).

So these issues don’t at all become “merely academic” all the time and everywhere. Sometimes they become matters of life and death. So that if there does seem some sense in distinguishing “theory” and “practice” (not only as concepts we can use to try to analyse the lived experience of human beings as well as our own but also as moral yard sticks for identifying human behaviour in times of crisis or peace), then they remind us not simply to move back and forth between but to know when we must. They can help us to understand when we face a “moment of theory”—a moment when something requires an analysis of a situation or a reflection on an experience—as opposed to a “moment of practice”, when something requires an intervention into a situation or the enacting of an experience.

For people in affluent communities, as the world North generally reflects, we far less frequently find ourselves confronted by overt, life-threatening moments of crisis—and so the liberation theology of the north may “wallow” in the life of the mind or the contemplative life. But for those in nations torn apart by war or under the heel of totalitarian oppression, such moments of crisis come much more frequently. Thus, what a South American liberation theologian understands as “pragmatic” when standing at gunpoint before national “security forces” differs markedly and alarmingly from what a liberation theologian in the North would understand as “pragmatic” in a daily-life sort of way.

From this, it must already have become clear that the apparently tidy category (in the title) that distinguishes “liberationist” and “pragmatic” thought does not hold up so well when put to work. I will return to this.

Liberation Theology “Defined”

Liberation theologies have for the last forty years animated much thought amongst those deemed marginalized populations (the poor, the world South, women, queers, people of colour). I say “marginalized populations” in order not to say “subaltern populations” since, contrary to expectations, these “subalterns”[6] have spoken, while not necessarily heard or hear correctly.

Given this wide range of applications, any attempt to “define” liberation theology will run into problems. But at least with respect to Tirres’ book, we may get a sense of what he intends to mean by it (and, presumably, later chapters will expand further upon this as necessary).

He notes that from liberation theology’s “earliest days, critics have charged that liberation theologies reduce faith to politics and, in doing so, fall short of an encompassing, or “integral,” sense of liberation” (3). In a word, liberation theologies (note the plural) were too worldly; they gave short shrift to the spiritual. Hence, “Whereas, on the one hand, the Vatican clearly reaffirms liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor, it takes issue with liberation theology’s ‘temptation to reduce the gospel to an earthly gospel,’ on the other” (3).

Two things need mentioning here. Along with the “debate about ideas” that we may see in the above, these also often have an extremely strong political element. Where the Vatican desired to oppose an emerging Marxist resistance, it could criticise liberation theology on the grounds that it seemed to worldly or earthly. Conversely, of course, Marxists could, as a matter of strategy, leverage the existing faith of their Latin American country folk—under the theologically unassailable category of “helping the poor”—and thus move toward political (not liberatory) power.

To sort out whether, at any given moment, the Vatican had played politics first and theology second, or whether a liberation theologian plays spirit first or politics, can only get sorted out by specifically examining that historical moment, if we even can do so any more. I will generally state: when the Vatican in these matters appears to put spirit first, this disingenuously attempts to mask the power-play at work. For them, theology is power and expressly for the purpose of maintaining the present status quo of power. By contrast, if disavowals of political aspirations might sound disingenuous from liberation theologians, for them theology is resistance and expressly for the purposes of changing the present status quo.

North American liberation theologian may occupy a kind of third position in this opposition. If the South American liberation theologian stands at root as a revolutionary seeking to change the current social order (for the benefit of the most oppressed), and the Vatican, in its reaffirmation of “liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor” stands at root as a reactionary against too much (political) change in the final analysis, then the North American liberation theologian may take up a kind of watered-down version: he (or she) may serve as an apologist for the Vatican (and power) or as an advocate for a change of power.

But she or he does so from a doubly protected but also doubly disadvantaged position. On the one hand, they (generally) have the luxury of not dying in a Latin American dictators torture chamber while facing only the threat of a loss of prestige (or perhaps ecclesiastical stripping) if they “go too far” in academic circles. Similarly, the kind of basic, social irrelevancy that Eagleton (1984)[7] noted for academic literary critics applies here as well; they can say what they want, because what they say doesn’t matter. And distance from the controlling Authority (the Vatican) makes the force of that Authority less threatening. So long as they don’t lose tenure, in the final analysis, who cares? Moreover, the dynamics of independence or Vatican control exerted over academic (North American) liberation theologians must, again, vary by circumstance.

This means, in consequence, that a central battle fought by North American liberation theologians will line up more in terms of securing political influence within the academy, whatever the more wide-spread (actually political) influence generated in terms of public policy. It means that liberation theology will tend to become a means to an end (the academician’s career) and not an end in itself (the articulation of a liberation theology itself).

I mentioned before that a Vatican emphasis on spirit (over politics) must necessarily read as disingenuous, if not actively deceptive, and that the South American liberation theologian’s political disavowals might also seem disingenuous—a “threat” usually offset by the blunt an frank denial by the theologian that the world of engagement itself cannot help being political and that not all politics arise as brutally self-serving. One may politick for others. Similarly, a North American academic will often sound disingenuous in the claim that his or her work has no relation to career aspirations, and he or she might try to draw an analogy with the (sincere) example of their South American counterpart, who politicks for others.

This should not deceive us. An assistant professor has relative less power than the administration overseeing him or her, but the context of the academic institution—as a bulwark of cultural power in the United States—makes that “relative powerlessness” a red herring. When we look at the risks and the threats that many south American liberation theologians faced, the analogy with any “risk” or “threat” in the north American context collapses. Moreover, whatever “sincere” gesture an academic’s work offers, if it issues only in the form of productions with egregiously limited social reach, then we cannot take seriously any claim that such work happens “for others”—unless, by others, we mean the narrow, small, limited coterie of specialists who might stumble across the work. We may compare this kind of claimed work “for others” to the high public visibility of Terry Eagleton or (even more so) Raymond Williams as necessarily embodying a requisite “public self” without which work “for others” becomes the sort of sterile and harmless stuff Eagleton identifies.

So, between the in a sense very real politics of Vatican versus south American liberation theologian—however the lines of force play out in those circumstances—we must contrast the play-politics generally at work in academic publication. I do not mean that academic careers do not “live and die” by such politics—but in the confrontation between the Vatican and the world South, people, not careers, die.

All of this does not say this particular (academic) work lacks a convincing ethical commitment to the world. It does mean that in taking up the contrast between “liberationist” and “pragmatic” thought—whatever that proves to be—the engagement Tirres makes with it arises in an academic context where (1) little stands at risk for him, and (2) he already participates in the world-dominating power of the United States, whose foreign policy (terribly and ironically) played a paramount role in creating the conditions in South America that made liberation theology “necessary”. As such, we may suspect in advance that any articulation of “prophetic pragmatism” (praxis) offered by Tirres serves less the end of liberation theology itself and rather merely “solves a problem” that currently exists due to the on-going (specifically academic) hair-splitting about “theory” and “practice”.

Tirres employs another categorical distinction to describe. He contrasts “the ethical and political dimension of faith practice” heavily emphasised by Latin American liberation theologians with the emphasis on “aesthetic and cultural production (lo cotidiano)” that US scholars have often taken up. By looking at this, US scholars “have explored the potential life-giving aspects of Latino popular religion, a topic that several early Latin American theologians dismissed” (6).[8] He then writes (I will unpack some of it below):

On the other hand, however, in turning to cultural and aesthetic categories, US Latino/a theologians may often risk losing ties with the ethical and political dimension of faith practice. I find problematic, for instance, the suggestion by some US Latino/a theologians that the Latin American “preferential option for the poor” is better understood in the North American context as the “preferential option for culture.” This distinction strikes me as entirely too stark.6 To be clear, I see the value and originality of US Latino/a theologians using culture and aesthetic practices as basic staring points for reflection. However, if this reflection does not bring into focus some form of social misery—whether actual, implied, or remembered—then I do believe that it is fair to ask whether US Latino/a theology is indeed a liberation theology.7 I agree, in part, with critics like Manuel Mejido and Ivan Petrella, who have argued that US Latino/a theology may at times fall back on questions of cultural identity without sufficiently promoting a political program. At the same time, however, I do not believe that this is an either/or proposition, wherein the only available option is either to focus on aesthetics and culture or to promote a concrete blueprint for political change. The more interesting and challenging question, I believe, is how a turn to aesthetics and culture, when done carefully and critically, may re-inform and reinvigorate both the theory and practice of faith-in-action (7).

6 González raises a similar point in Afro-Cuban Theology, 144-45. [footnote in original][9]

7 Writing early in his career, Cornel West makes a comparable observation as regards Black theology. He argues that if the social vision of black theologians is to equate liberation with middle-class status, black theologians “should drop the meretricious and flamboyant term ‘liberation’ and adopt the more accurate and sober word ‘inclusion.’” West, “Black Theology,” 413. [footnote in original] [10]

We can see in this extended quotation most of the tendencies and tensions I have already identified. When he says he finds “entirely too stark” the US Latino/a theologian substitution of a “preferential option for culture” in place of the original “preferential option for the poor” I think he not only understates the matter by an order of magnitude but also that he betrays a class bias by far, far too politely rejecting this substitution. For one, even in our “North American context,” we have millions of poor in need of liberation and the substitute of an emphasis on anything else, much less “culture”, seems nothing less than a denial of the necessity of addressing poverty. Whereas liberation theology in South America had to “step down” to serve the poor, in our North American context it would (at the very best) prefer to lift the poor up to “culture”—no doubt with the help of the “potentially life-giving aspects of Latino popular religion”. I find it hard to read even a phrase like “far too stark” as anywhere near stark enough for what lies at the back of this substitution from “poor” to “culture”.

This heading seems an expression of class solidarity—he will not condemn in the appropriate terms what I would call an of betrayal by his academic peers.[11] At the very best, we may imagine him grinding his teeth in disgust. His next sentence acknowledges in principle their academic efforts, but then he says, “However, if this reflection does not bring into focus some form of social misery—whether actual, implied, or remembered—then I do believe that it is fair to ask whether US Latino/a theology is indeed a liberation theology” (7), and he cites Cornel west’s monumental authority (in a footnote) to back this claim up.

This marks a very strong rebuff to his fellow academics. However, it does not yet distinguish whether he seriously means this challenge or if he merely seeks to clear a certain amount of intellectual space so he can present his own argument. The following more suggests the latter:

At the same time, however, I do not believe that this is an either/or proposition, wherein the only available option is either to focus on aesthetics and culture or to promote a concrete blueprint for political change (7).

In this rejection of an “either/or proposition,” we should remember the “either/or” itself only exists in this context (Tirres’ book in particular) because academics accept it as premise and use it to argue about the discipline they practice. As I noted before, over and over one hears someone saying, “No, it’s not X or Y. It’s a blend of both”; “life isn’t black or white; it’s shades of grey”.

False. I see no shades of grey about the position “people of colour are inferior”. Or the notion “homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed marry” and so forth.

As curious human creatures, we resort frequently to either/or contrasts an then, just because somebody proposed, we start acting like we have no alternative to them and that they actually suffice explanatorily. “Nature versus nurture” offers a fine case of this. People have literally had their sex organs removed because of arguments that depend on “nature or nurture”. And because nearly every at least mildly thoughtful person recognizes that both ends of a proposed spectrum never make sense by themselves—i.e., human beings consist only of nature (nurture plays no role); or humans emerge only through nurture (nature plays no role at all)—then it starts to seem very reasonable, common sense even, to claim some middle ground, i.e., “it’s not either/or but a mix of both” (nature AND nurture, or in Tirres’ case, ethical and political aspects AND aesthetic and cultural aspects). He abbreviates these two categories, as we see in the title, aesthetics and ethics.

But if I have a bunch of rotted meat in my left hand and a bunch of diseased vegetables in my right rand, then claiming “it’s not either/or” and smashing the two together into some kind of “shade of grey” will not yield a tasty treat, but only a disgusting mess, just as Herrnstein & Murray’s 60/40 nature/nurture split in their book offers a disgusting mess, not a palatable, much less tenable, position.

I do not mean to suggest that Tirres merely pays the kind of lip service to and and/also like Herrnstein and Murray di. One of his book’s two premises insists that “critiques of liberation theology’s reduction of faith to politics have been largely misguided, since these critiques have not fully grapple with some of liberation theology’s core background assumptions” (4). The second premise:

is that liberation thinkers can still do a better job of articulating what they mean by integral liberation. I propose to address this question not by returning to the familiar an somewhat outworn categories [dichotomy] of faith and politics, but rather, by looking at the question of integral liberation through the categories of the ethical and the aesthetic (5–6).

This substitution of “faith and politics” with “ethics and aesthetics” may seem a facile substitution but behind it Tirres insists that one may approach the latter categories “as inherent and common qualities of experience, rather than rigid or separable domains of human experience [i.e., faith and politics]” (6). We’ll wait to see if this this proves the case or not. One may have some trepidation for the project in advance, however, since a very great portion of the book devotes itself to the side project of reconstructing John Dewey’s philosophy in order to make it into a tool for arguing for what Tirres call integral liberation.

One may wonder, in all sincerity, just how necessary such a reconstruction would be. The South American liberation theologians seem to have fared just fine without this largely academic side project that bulks so largely in Tirres’ book. Moreover, it hardly seems likely that tires would suggest if South American liberation theologian did not take up this (non-Hispanic) “reconstructed” philosophy that they could not achieve anything in their respective cultures. At the outset here, it becomes too easy to imagine this book as a properly dressed up intellectual exercise serving, at most, simply to solve a narrow (philosophical) problem that has no bearing on daily life—all the while citing daily life as essential, of course. More charitably, the book may offer an (unnecessarily hobbled or limited) project in that it seeks to arrive at an impossible conclusion (an actual integral liberation that does not marginalize the world South): impossible because, in attempting to building something not polluted by the Master’s sins, Tirres has had to use the Master’s tools to do so.


 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] His pedigree includes Princeton University, Harvard Divinity School, and indebtedness to, if not patronage by, Cornel West.

[4] I dislike greatly such designations, since they explicitly elide who the mother in question is, both metaphorically and literally (in the form of women who made it possible for Gutiérrez to arrive at the point of articulating liberation theology).

[5] This may seem itself a silly hair to split, but one may see a particularly laughable and awful example of it in Herrnstein & Murray’s (1995)* The Bell Curve, where after much very dubious blather about nature versus nurture they finally declare, quite brightly and confidently, that nature/nurture splits 60/40. Since Herrnstein & Murray plump for biological determinism, if not racist eugenics outright, this conclusion comes as no surprise, but it serves also as an (unconvincing) justification for their genetic determinism in the first place, since “nature” plays a more dominant role than “nurture”.

* Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. (2010). Bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life: Simon and Schuster

[6] Subaltern studies most frequently (or popularly) take as their starting point Spivak’s (1988) seminal “Can The Subaltern Speak?” More precisely, “The term ‘subaltern’ … is an allusion to the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937). It refers to any person or group of inferior rank and station, whether because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion” (from here).

The [Subaltern Studies Group] arose in the 1980s, influenced by the scholarship of Eric Stokes and Ranajit Guha, to attempt to formulate a new narrative of the history of India and South Asia. This narrative strategy most clearly inspired by the writings of Gramsci was explicated in the writings of their “mentor” Ranajit Guha, most clearly in his “manifesto” in Subaltern Studies I and also in his classic monograph The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency. Although they are, in a sense, on the left, they are very critical of the traditional Marxist narrative of Indian history, in which semi-feudal India was colonized by the British, became politicized, and earned its independence. In particular, they are critical of the focus of this narrative on the political consciousness of elites, who in turn inspire the masses to resistance and rebellion against the British.

Instead, they focus on non-elites — subalterns — as agents of political and social change. They have had a particular interest in the discourses and rhetoric of emerging political and social movements, as against only highly visible actions like demonstrations and uprisings (from here).

Tirres refers to the subaltern in his own work.

[7] Eagleton, T. (1984). The function of criticism: from “the spectator” to post-structuralism: London: Verso.

[8] I find this claim rather thorny. Tirres would do well to explain (1) the rationale such theologians had for dismissing this factor, an (2) for US scholars to take upon themselves the conceit of declaring upon the “potential life-giving aspects of Latino popular religion” (6) reeks already of dubious anthropology. People from the “First World” have a long and bad habit of “discovering” the “life-giving” customs of those of the “Third World”. But Tirres gives us nowhere near enough documentation here to draw any conclusions. Nonetheless, that merely “potential” life-giving aspects were “discovered” seems to make this claim (on behalf of US scholars) even more hollow. Meanwhile, no doubt any “popular religion” that served to politically neutralize and placate a local population would very likely get dismissed by (Marxist) liberation theologians as positively a hindrance. Since such a theologian stood on the ground where these cultural forces played out, that US scholars could claim to more correctly read what locals “need” seems patronizing at best, and reactionary at least. Again, Tires does not provide enough background here to explain the justification for his claim.

[9] González, M. (2006). Afro-Cuban theology: religion, race, culture, and identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

[10] West, C. (1979). Black theology and Marxist Thought. In JH Cone and G. Wilmore (eds.) Black theology: a documentary history, vol. 1, 1966–1979, pp. 409–24. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

[11] I do not imagine for a moment that those who would substitute “culture” in place of “the poor” do not themselves offer some variety of justification for this, but it would take far more than some facile lip service from an academic to present a convincing justification for this “in a North American context”. The poor stand erased enough from history already; well-off and sheltered academics thousands of miles away should excuse themselves from ever repeating that gesture.

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