Theology of Liberation in The Dialogue of Religions: A New Development in Latin America

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2006 »Volume 43 2006 Number 1 »Theology Of Liberation In The Dialogue Of Religions A New Development In Latin America

By Stefan Silber

Stefan Silber is a lay pastoral worker of the diocese of Wurzburg, Germany. He holds a PhD from the University of Wurzburg and has studied at the Instituto Superior de Estudios Teológicos in Cochabamba, Bolivia. From 1997-2002 he was responsible for the formation of permanent deacons and rural catechists in the diocese of Potosi, Bolivia. His most recent publication: Katholizismus, Kulturen, Indigne Theologie Ein Uberblick uber missionstheologische  Entwicklungen in Bolivien, in Neue Zeitschrift fur Missionswissenschaft 60 (2204) 1, 21-49.


At present, the liberation of the poor is no longer conceivable without the dialogue between the members of all religions. For the religions not only bear a great responsibility for the emergence of poverty but also harbor a substantial potential for its conquest. In the past number of years, insights from the theology of liberation have called for a dialogue with the theology of religions, especially in its pluralistic orientation.

Even if this development is only tangible over the past five years, its roots can actually be traced back to the beginning of the theology of liberation. This theology has always maintained a strong skepticism, against religious manifestations and their alienating effects especially on the poor. This skepticism has been nourished by Barth’s and Marx’s criticism of religions. The option for the poor from the beginning has favored the religious experiences of the poor. In the basic communities and in similar new ecclesial creations people have developed a new self-confidence by which they now tolerate indigenous, Afro-American, and syncretistic forms of religiosity and take them seriously. They also encourage them as expressions of the religious self-determination of the poor. The openness of liberation theology towards what the Second Vatican Council called "cooperation with all people of good will" (cf. GS 52) made possible the dialogue with atheists in the same way as the dialogue and the cooperation with people of good will who belonged to other religions have been made possible. Since 1990 this openness has been named "macro-ecumenicity" (Vigil 2004:27, 109-26)—an ecumenicity that goes beyond the cooperation of Christian churches.

Between the years 1980-1990 the theological paradigm of inculturation gradually developed out of the openness for the religious experiences of the poor. Parallel to this openness and with a more radical focus, there emerged the theological movement of the Teología India (indigenous theology)2 with its numerous local and regional contextualizations. In contrast to most of the theologies of inculturation, the Teología India carries on the dialogue with indigenous religions, thus preparing the encounter between liberation theology and theology of religious pluralism.

This encounter had already been experienced earlier by such Asian and North American theologians as Aloyisius Pieris and Paul Knitter. The congress of the Brazilian society for theology and divinity, SOTER3 in July 2000 can be mentioned as a first milestone for religious pluralism. The publication of the articles written for that congress demonstrates the awakening of the theology of liberation to the encounter of religious pluralism. Numerous other publications followed in the Nicaraguan periodical Alternativas,4 in Revista Electrónica Latinoamericana de Teología (RELaT)5 and were published on the web, in Concilium,6 and in other journals.

The Fifth General Assembly of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), which was held from 24 September to 1 October 2002, took place under the spell of the assaults of 11 September. It started an ambitious publication project which intended not only to give proof of the theological encounter between pluralism and liberation but also to advance it. The first two titles7 of a five-volume series, in which this encounter will be pursued up to a new synthesis, have been already published. At the "World Forum Theology and Liberation," which took place in Porto Alegre from 20-25 January 2005 immediately before the World Social Forum, and where 200 theologians from all continents took part, the question of interreligious dialogue also played an important part.

Many of the above-mentioned publications show that the encounter with the world of religions is considered something new. On the Latin American continent—which still considers itself a Catholic one—theology of liberation did not seem to need to deal with non-Christian religions. At the beginning of the new millennium, however, and under the impression of religious motives being claimed for acts of terrorism and war, the growing awareness for indigenous and Afro-American religions prepared theology to recognize the urgency of an encounter with religious pluralism. Hence, this dialogue is characterized mostly as new, necessary, and exciting, and occasionally the question is asked: Why did we not face this subject long since?

The encounter is not only necessary because of the growing political importance of the religions but also because the theology of liberation, to be faithful to its option for the poor, has to take up the religious experiences of the poor. Outside Latin America, however, the poor are, in the majority; therefore, the dialogue with non-Christians will necessarily lead to interreligious dialogue. Considering the global structures of oppression and impoverishment the option for the poor cannot refer to the poor of one continent only but also has to aim at global strategies of liberation.

The representatives of liberation theology do not consider the dialogue with the theology of religious pluralism only as a means of more efficient strategies of liberation but first of all as a sign of the times. The shape of growing world poverty and a growing awareness of the religions of the world are challenging them to adjust their own theology in a new way.

The volume of literature on liberation theology shows clearly that it is not a question of the theology of liberation working about a forgotten subject. The challenge of religious pluralism is leading theologians to review all the central theological themes and the question of theology itself. What is more, in the last few decades, several movements have evolved in the theology of liberation. Positions from the classical theology of liberation—from feminist, indigenous and Afro-American theologies—and from the theology of inculturation have entered into a dialogue with traditional and pluralistic theology of religions. The integration of such different perspectives and their reference to central theological themes anticipate that those arguments will hopefully lead to a fundamental new orientation in theology.

According to the theology of religious pluralism, not only Christianity but all the religions of the world originate in the encounter of the revealing God with the listening and answering human being. For theologians of religious pluralism, the religions are part of God’s plan of revelation and salvation. The theologians of liberation who strive to dialogue with the pluralistic theology of religion proceed mostly from a similar positive significance of religions while avoiding the risk of religious relativism. For them, the acknowledgment of many religions is not a tactical measure at the beginning of the dialogue, so that it only counted for their de facto existence. On the contrary, the religions are acknowledged de iure—as different revelations of God to the members of different regions and cultures. God’s revelation to many religions does not deny or absolutize the peculiar character of Christian revelation because—and here the heritage of Barth’s criticism of religion is shining through—God is greater than every religion, even greater than Christianity.

The acknowledgment of religions has two consequences for liberation theology. Firstly, the acknowledgment of the religious experience of the poor is at the center of interest. Therefore, the encounter with indigenous and Afro-American religions has a prominent place in that discussion. Secondly, for the United States and many European governments, religious pluralism is often seen as contrary to democracy and economic freedom and is therefore discriminated against by them. Islam is hardly accepted and indigenous and Afro-American religions are ignored. As for the Vatican, it gives the impression of denying true interreligious dialogue, suggesting Christianity is greater and truer than any other religion. The acknowledgment of religions and the search for dialogue and cooperation with them to contribute to the liberation of the poor in the midst of the present condition of the world.

Of course, the acknowledgment of the religious experience of the poor includes syncretistic forms of religion. Dual membership in different religions—for example, one in Hinduism and one in Christianity at the same time—often exists among the poor. Besides, indigenous and Afro-American theologies of liberation have impressively emphasized the importance of this double membership in recent years. Therefore, these interesting points of contacts between religions will reflect the pluralistic theology of the religions of Asia.

While unrestrictedly acknowledging the religions as part of God’s plan of salvation, the theology of liberation ought to discuss its traditional critique of religion; especially where religions are responsible for violence, for the rise of poverty, and the prevention of liberation. The classical inner church critique of ecclesial structures and theological pretexts, which become a burden for the poor, are widening to a quasi "inner religious" critique. Notwithstanding the benevolence towards the non-Christian religions and their fundamental acknowledgment that is not devalued by this critique, liberation theology cannot accept any interreligious dialogue to the disadvantage of the poor. On the contrary, the religions are measured with the same measure by which the theology of liberation is also measuring the Christian religion and the Western World: commitment to human dignity, justice, and liberation.

Critiquing religion by the values of human dignity, justice, and liberation might be considered the most important contribution of theology of liberation in its dialogue with the pluralistic theology of religions. For those authors, the interreligious dialogue is not a value in itself but serves justice and liberation. A critique of religion in the name of the poor is also an integral part of the interreligious dialogue. This is not a fundamental criticism of every religious expression but a critique directed at certain religious orientations, doctrines, and institutions which create injustice and hinder liberation. The fundamental acknowledgment of all religions remains untouched. On the contrary, the religions should guarantee human dignity and solidarity. In view of the necessary critique of religion, the theology of liberation does not focus on the conquest of religion but on its conversion to the poor.

This conversion is not understood as a conversion of everybody to Christianity or to the Christian idea of God. On the contrary, the religions are expected to be faithful to their own traditions, and to renounce all fundamentalist tendencies. The option for the poor that already has stood the test by the inner Christian criticism of religion may serve as criterion to identify unjust religious structures, and to denounce them. This option is at the core of the contribution of Christians to the interreligious dialogue.

The encounter of liberation theology with the theology of religious pluralism calls forth numerous consequences of the most important themes of theology. While until now monotheism has been seen as guarantor of liberation from idolatry and oppression, the one-sidedness and historic intolerance of monotheism must still be discussed. Through the openness of religious pluralism other names and images of the divine achieve importance in the theology of liberation, because it has been experienced that a monotheistic God has been understood as male, white, and dominant. This image of God could be misused to oppress women and people of indigenous or Afro-American origin. Nevertheless, to maintain the prophetic criticism of this antihuman idolatry it is a new challenge to define the monotheistic Christian image of God. It will be necessary to show that God, who is greater than all religions and has revealed Godself under many names, can be identified in this plurality as the advocate of the poor.

There is a similar challenge to Christology, which is of great importance to the classical theology of liberation. That challenge is to proclaim a universal liberator without devaluing the possibilities of salvation existing in other religions. In view of the dialogue with other religions, the theology of liberation will have to discuss its Christology anew.

It seems that the consequences for ecclesiology can now be drawn more easily. The difference stated by the Second Vatican Council between the Church and the kingdom of God makes it possible to give the Church a serving function also for interreligious dialogue. The members of other religions are related to the Church not because this is their vocation but because all human beings of good will have to work together with the poor for their deliverance. Hence, the doctrine about the Church of the poor in the theology of liberation can develop in the encounter with religious pluralism.

As in these central theological themes, the theology of liberation will in many cases have to reflect anew on the consequences of the encounter with religious pluralism. Revelation, the Bible and tradition, the questions of ministry, and the sacraments demand a profound discussion that respond not only to the needs of the poor but also to the challenge of the religions of the world.

The encounter of liberation theology with religious pluralism, which this short reflection could only initiate, is an exciting and promising project. Option for the poor and dialogue with the religions will inspire new ways into a more humanitarian and just future. It may be hoped that the theologians of liberation will find that many people of good will from all continents and all religions will cooperate in this project.8





1. First published as: Stefan Silber, Theologie der Befreiung im Religionsdialog. Eine neue Entwicklung in Lateinamerika, in Stimmen der Zeit 130 (2005) 7, 484-88

2. Cf. E.H. López, "Teología Indía," Antología (Cochabamba 2000).

3. Cf. Sarça Ardente. Teologia na América Latina. Prospectivas, edited by L.C. Susin (São Paulo 2000); cf. also No. 20/21 (2001) of the journal Alternativasunder the title "Pluralismo y teologías en díalogo."

4. Cf. especially the no. 27 (2004) under the title "La teología ante el pluralismo religioso."

5.; cf. also the other publications of the Servicios Koinonia and the last editions (2002-2005) of the annual Agenda Latino-Americana-Mundial ( edited by J. M. Vigil and P. Casaldáliga.

6. Cf. esp. the no. 3/2002 under the title "Brazil: People and Church(es)," edited by J. O. Beozzo and L. C. Susín.

7. Por los muchos caminos de Dios. Desafíos del pluralismo religioso a la teología de la liberación, edited by Asociación Ecuménica de Teólogos y Teólogas del Tercer Mundo (Quito 2003); Por los muchos caminos de Dios II. Hacia una teología cristiana y latinoamericana del pluralismo religioso, edited by Asociación Ecuménica de Teólogos y Teólogas del Tercer Mundo (Zaragoza 2004).

8. The whole article is translated by P. Ernst Förster, S.J., taken from


Vigil, J.M.

2004 "Macroecumenismo: Teología de las Religiones Latinoamericanas," inAlternativas 11.

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