A little while back, R. O. Flyer wrote a post called “Thoughts on the Future of Liberation Theology” (see here). In this post, he highlights how experience plays a crucial role in many liberation theologies, and how the experience of the poor in particular functions as “the central criterion of adjudicating between good and bad theologies”. This, then leads Flyer to assert that liberation theology is fundamentally reactive because of the way in which it prioritises praxis over theoria.
Further, Flyer finds this emphasis upon experience to be problematical as appeals to experience are all too often made by others as well — notably those liberal theologies that have been disciplined by the logic of capitalism. However, noting that all of us are shaped by our own particular experiences and inextricably entwined in our own particular histories, Flyer asserts that the crux of the problem is this: “the specific move made by much of liberation theology… that sees experience… as more fundamental than revelation.”
Thus, based upon this understanding of the nature of liberation theology’s experiential methodology, Flyer concludes that liberation theology might well be a doomed enterprise.
So what are we to make of all this? On the one hand, I’m somewhat perplexed by what Flyer is trying to do. I’m not sure exactly how he is relating ‘liberation theology’ to ‘liberal theology’ and ‘the logic of capitalism.’ He seems to be saying that each somehow uses ‘experience’ as a primary methodological category, but he doesn’t talk much about how each party uses experience — and they certainly do use it in different ways (which leads liberation theologians and liberal theologians to often be at odds with each other).
On the other hand, it is worth revisiting the role of experience in doing theology. First of all, I find it odd that Flyer creates such a sharp distinction, perhaps even an opposition, between ‘experience’ and ‘revelation’. Flyer seems to be contrasting these things in the way in which Barth contrasts ‘natural theology’ with revelation-based theology, but this is an entirely wrong way of approaching this topic. When liberation theologians talk about the priority of praxis, they are talking about prioritising the experience of the revelation of God in particular historical realities. In this regard, the liberation theologians are actually very close to Barth’s own method. Barth writes out of his experience of being met by the living God in that God’s revelatory action, and the liberation theologians simply complement and add flesh to this approach by arguing that God tends to come out to meet us in God’s revelatory action, in certain places and people.
Secondly, I believe that the theologies of the New Testament writers are just as deeply experience-based (and therefore just as ‘reactive’) as liberation theology. That is to say, the understanding of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, in the Gospels and elsewhere, is entirely dependent upon the experience of encountering the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus. All NT Christology is reacting to this experience. Similarly, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God, without requiring them to undergo circumcision or follow Jewish food laws, is entirely dependent upon the experience of Gentiles manifesting the Spirit apart from these things. Paul’s ecclesiology is deeply rooted in experience, and is thus also fundamentally reactive.
In fact, when we get down to it, all Christian theology can be described as reactive because all we are doing in our theology, and in our Christian living, is responding to God’s gracious initiative. This is not to say that our reactions can’t also be creative — they can be — but it is sufficient to show how an ideologically loaded label (because, you know, it’s bad or unimaginative to be ‘reactive’ these days!) is actually much more neutral in this context than we might first imagine.
So, where does this leave us in terms of how we analyse liberation theology? Essentially here: we are incapable of properly analysing and criticising liberation theology unless we first enter into the experiences to which it calls us. Thus, despite the intellectual discussion that has ebbed and flowed over the years, liberation theology remains (in the West) a largely untested thesis. My suspicion is that things (in the West) will remain this way. Liberation theology is ‘doomed’, not because of a faulty methodology, but because it takes following Jesus (who was also doomed) more seriously than most other theological movements.