Forty Years of Liberation Theology: Revisiting Praxis

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2008 »Volume 45 2008 Number 3 »Forty Years Of Liberation Theology Revisiting Praxis

Katarzyna Kasiarz and Edmund Chia 

Edmund CHIA <> is a Malaysian theologian in the faculty of CTU. He is a faculty member of Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. A frequent contributor to the East Asian Pastoral Review, he lectures widely on Evangelization, Interreligious Dialogue, and on issues affecting the Asian churches.


New Way of Doing Theology

his year marks the 40th anniversary of the ground-breaking 1968 Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) which was held in Medellín, Colombia, and which officially baptized the method of Latin American liberation theology. This method spread all over the world, bringing to form revolutionary ways of theologizing. To a certain extent Asian theology owes much to liberation theology.1In particular it demythologized the notion of a "universal theology" and advanced the reality that all theologies are but local theologies. The traditional, neo-scholastic, Roman theology that had been passed on to Asia and elsewhere as "the" theology was no more than a European theology which had evolved from within its own contextual realities. Just because this was transposed and forced upon the mission lands and colonized territories does not mean that they have been indigenized or accepted by the peoples of Asia. That is why Christianity continues to be perceived as a foreign religion in Asia. All this was brought to heightened awareness by the liberation theologians of Latin America and it has helped in the evolution of a series of local theologies in Asia, all of which take as starting point the realities and challenges of their own local situations and contexts. Specifically, Asian theologians have since been engaging in theological reflection in new ways, thanks in part to the impetus provided by Latin American liberation theology.

Liberation theology is really a new way of doing theology in that it understands its starting point to be the historical experience of the oppressed in local communities, often understood as synonymous with praxis.2 According to Matthew Lamb, it was political and liberation theologians who first called for this kind of restructured theology wherein praxis is taken not only as a goal of a preexisting theory, but rather as the very foundation of theological work.3 Insofar as praxis constitutes the starting point and social transformation as the aim, and together they submit theoretical, conceptual, and rational reflection to their service, the methodological question of the relationship between theory and praxis remains central to liberation theology. However, the usages of the terms praxis and theory have proven problematic, and the relationship between them has, in turn, been understood diversely.

In this paper we will argue that insofar as the relation between praxis and theory is at the center of liberation theology, any vague or reduced understanding and application of these terms has the potential to undermine the aims and values central to liberation theology, not to mention its ecclesial status. We begin by exploring the historical underpinnings of the term and concept "praxis"—from its usage in Aristotle, to its transformation in Marx, to its recurrence in contemporary liberation theology. We will orient this section around the possible dangers implicit in unclear or loose usages of the term often found in liberation theology discourses. Next, we will briefly treat the understanding of theory, which is often equated with the practice of theology, and its proper tasks within the scope of liberation theology method. Finally, we will consider the praxis-theory relation in terms of its conceptual development from simplistic to complex. We will conclude with a few remarks on the ways in which the status and work of liberation theologians might be strengthened through the consistent clarification of their understanding and usage of the terms "praxis" and "theory."

Reclaiming Praxis

As it appears in contemporary contexts, including the literature of liberation theology, the term "praxis" exhibits multiple shades of meaning. It is quite often used synonymously with the word "practice." Indeed, The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology itself collapses the terms in its glossary, defining them most basically as action:

Praxis or practice: action, a term often used in liberation theology to describe the actions and commitments which provide the context for theological reflection.4

Clodovis Boff offers a more comprehensive definition of praxis, but one which also stresses practices, especially those in the political sphere:

I mean "praxis" in the sense of the complexus of practices orientated to the transformation of society, the making of history. Praxis then has a fundamentally political connotation for me inasmuch as it is through the intermediary of the political that one can bring an influence to bear on social structures.5

Such usages of the term "praxis," however, largely ignore the deep historical roots of the concept "praxis" in the Western intellectual tradition, reaching from Aristotle to Marx and resurfacing in liberation theology itself. In fact, an historical perspective reveals multiple ambiguities which, though not immediately discernible, are nonetheless embedded in these usages of the term.

In his discussion of different kinds of instruments in Politics, Aristotle distinguishes between two corresponding types of human activity, namely, praxis and poiēsis. He writes:

The instruments of which we have just been speaking are instruments of production; but property is an instrument of action. From the shuttle there issues something which is different, and exists apart, from the immediate act of its use; but from garments or beds there comes only the one fact of their use. We may add that, since production (poiēsis) and action (praxis) are different in kind, and both of them need instruments, those instruments must also show a corresponding difference. Life is action and not production.6

The distinction between the two types of activity lies in their given ends. The end of praxis is strictly internal to itself, while the end ofpoiēsis is external to itself. In other words, the end of praxis is praxis itself, while the end of poiēsis is a given result beyond the immediate doing. The result of poiēsis remains after the action is completed, while praxis is complete in itself. Nicholas Lobkowicz uses the examples of flute-playing and house-building to demonstrate the distinction between these terms. The activity of building a house "would never be considered satisfactory if it did not stop, that is, resulted in a house built and finished."7 Quite the reverse, the activity of flute playing "achieve[s] its end long before it stops," and indeed once it does stop, it is "no longer of any value," simply because it did not aim for any result beyond the playing itself.8 Lamb illustrates this difference between poiēsis and praxis by way of analogy between house and home. To build a house, productive skills are necessary to complete the task. But to maintain a happy home is a doing or performing which is good in itself and requires virtuous family members to carry it on. Similarly, a polis is not just defined by streets and buildings, but it requires virtuous citizens to live out life in that context.9 It is crucial to recognize that for Aristotle, life itself is explicitly identified with praxis, and thus is considered an end in itself. To reemphasize the point from the other direction, life itself does not consist in poiēsis, or the mere production of goods and fulfillment of services.

Richard Kilminster identifies three meanings of praxis as it reappears anew in the work and thought of Karl Marx. First, praxis is a type of "creative practical activity peculiar to human beings whereby they construct their world"; second, it is an epistemological category which describes "the practical, object-constituting activity of human subjects as they confront nature"; and third, it is a "revolutionary praxis" oriented toward "fundamental social transition."10 All three of these usages of praxis can be found in liberation theology.11

Roberto S. Goizueta effectively brings into focus a crucial feature of the first usage, wherein Marx inverts the Aristotelian distinction in the terms praxis and poiēsis. For Marx, it is precisely labor and production (poiēsis) that constitute distinctively human life-activity (praxis):

Conscious life-activity directly distinguishes man from animal life-activity. … It is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life-activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence. … In creating an objective world by his practical activity, in working up inorganic nature, man proves himself as a conscious species being. … Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of his labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species life, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.12

According to a strong reading of Marx, human life, which Aristotle designated as the very end in itself, becomes only a means to the ends of productive activity. However, even if production is intended to engender positive outcomes such as a just person or a just society, it still remains the case that human life is used as a means to an end of production. As Goizueta argues, even if its ends are desirable, their production "necessarily involves manipulation and coercion, and these are, at best, ambiguous instruments of liberation."13 The ethical problem is especially prominent when the objects of manipulation are other human lives. Goizueta puts it starkly when he says that the objectification and instrumentalization, for instance, of a laborer’s life in the service of a future "New Person" ultimately kills that life.14 The problem lies in the fact that present, concrete human lives are not treated as ends in themselves and therefore devalued. Moreover, they are treated as means to little more than a hypothetical, desired, but definitively non-concrete end in the future.

Reducing praxis to practice is problematic because practice itself is recognized already as a reduced term. Goizueta points to several philosophers and intellectuals who observe that over the past century, practice (and, in turn, praxis) has tended to signify merely the technical skills of control.15 According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, in the debates throughout the past century, practice has been understood as the "application of science to technical tasks. … It degrades practical reason to technical control."16 Lamb further describes this phenomenon. He notes that virtually all modern notions of praxis tend to either "connote or explicitly invoke movement."17 Motion involves the action and passion constitutive of physical movement. He identifies this trend as a product of the 17th century emergence of the modern natural sciences. Not only did this scientific revolution "outshine" everything since the rise of Christianity, but it also established movement as the "master metaphor" that would inform all aspects of modern culture and life.18Lamb writes that insofar as praxis has been regularly connected with movement, it has been reduced to practicality. However, he points out that "if all human activity is basically just another species of movement, then being practical means learning the skills and techniques of control."19

Goizueta similarly attributes the distortions in this definition in part to the Cartesian and scientific epistemological paradigms. Praxis becomes reduced to a subject’s action, or manipulation and control, upon an external object, oriented toward a predetermined end. Goizueta prudently reminds us that another human being could readily constitute this external object.20 Moreover, he points out that in emphasizing action upon an external object, contemporary conceptions reduce praxis to its instrumental dimension while overlooking its humanistic dimension. The latter involves a set of corresponding internal effects upon the acting subject him/herself. These effects may or may not turn out to be aligned with the goal of the "empowerment and liberation of the subject."21 According to Lamb, the call to praxis has the potential to empower humans to take responsibility for their own lives and to provide them with genuine experiences of themselves as subjects and effective agents, as opposed to "merely passive objective of their histories."22

These two dimensions of praxis, the instrumental and the humanistic, Goizueta argues, create an ambiguity which has not been appropriately attended to by modern appropriations of the concept praxis. Allured by the promise of empowerment and liberation offered by the humanistic dimension of praxis, some groups have overlooked the ambiguities introduced by the instrumental dimension. Quite apart from what the ends of praxis are, whether noble or vicious,

The instruments we employ (in this case, human praxis and, hence, human beings) always remain ambiguous because all instruments, insofar as they utilize the external environment in order to achieve those ends, necessarily involve manipulation and control—that is, coercion. To ignore this ambiguity is to undermine precisely what we seek.23

Indeed, Goizueta identifies a serious contradiction specific to modern praxis-based theories that reduce praxis to practice and practice to technique: the human being, whose liberation is sought through praxis, simultaneously serves as the object utilized by praxis in order to achieve that higher and presumably liberative or transformative end.24 This problematic process of objectifying human subjects points to a further problem, which involves the devaluation of the "present, concrete life, however ugly" it may be, in light of progress toward an improved future.25 Present, concrete human life, Goizueta argues, ought not to be treated as mere "raw material" for a future creation and thus "sacrificed" to a conceptual reality.26 In light of these problematic outcomes of a distorted notion of praxis, the retrieval of historical conceptions of praxis has become crucial for contemporary discussions about Christian theology and faith.

Liberation theology, in turn, "inherits" some of these problematic aspects of the modern conception of praxis, especially insofar as its vision and method are strongly influenced by Marxism and its tools of social analysis. As Elina Vuola points out, many of the most influential liberation theologians undertook years of education in Europe during the sociopolitical milieu particular to the 1960s. Shaped by modern European philosophy and social sciences, their work exhibits a particular focus on praxis in the classical Marxist sense. This notion of praxis has then been "filtered" through what are characteristically "First World theological currents," including theology of hope, theology of revolution, and political theology.27 Finally, this theologically inclined concept of praxis has been oriented toward Latin American historical, sociopolitical, and economic circumstances and reinterpreted primarily through the context of the marginalized and impoverished local populations. It is praxis that serves as a "point of departure and the objective" of liberation theology.28

Of course, the use of the term praxis within liberation theology has undergone an evolution from its earliest usage to later reflection. According to Pablo Richard, it was the Peruvian father of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, who first used the term "praxis" inLíneas pastorales de la iglesia en América Latina (1970) to refer to the pastoral activity of the Church.29 Subsequent critical reflection on praxis was oriented around the political practices of Christians, particularly the militant involvement of priests, religious, and lay leaders. Ultimately, critical reflection focused on the activity of the popular classes as agents of their own history.30 In his crowning work, A Theology of Liberation, originally published in 1971, Gutiérrez provided a broad, historical sense of praxis for Christians as their "active presence in history."31 More specifically, Christian praxis finds its context in a life centered on the primary value of charity, and is characterized by action, reflection, "commitment and prayer."32 It was in the 1988 edition of the volume that Gutiérrez attended to the specific entailments of Christian commitment and prayer, namely, liberating praxis:

The praxis on which liberation theology reflects is a praxis of solidarity in the interests of liberation and is inspired by the gospel. … Consequently, a praxis motivated by evangelical values embraces to some extent every effort to bring about authentic fellowship and authentic justice. … This liberating praxis endeavors to transform history in the light of the reign of God.33

However, as Goizueta points out, the term "liberating praxis" used by Gutiérrez already contains an ambiguity. The point in question is whether liberation is "a concomitant or a goal of praxis."34 In other words, is praxis its own end, such that the subject is freed in the very act or process of transforming history, or is praxis just a means to the end of freedom? If praxis is only a means to an end, the implication is that its subjects (i.e., people and human lives) are on some level treated as objects. Whether that condition is ever acceptable is to be determined by ethicists, philosophers, and theologians. Consciously or unconsciously, both views have been undertaken by liberation theologians. Some emphasize the self-empowerment of the poor as subjects of social transformation, while others emphasize the very call for social transformation.

It is well known that liberation theology has often been accused of employing base communities as a means to political upheaval and rebellion against the presiding governmental institution. In light of such interpretations of liberation, some political and liberation theologians have distinguished between technology, aligned with poiēsis type activity, and praxis in the Aristotelian sense. They indicate that the worship and action of their ecclesial communities, especially their celebration of the Eucharist, are goods in themselves and are performed as ends in themselves. Indeed, all Christian discipleship can constitute praxis. By extension, these goods in themselves are said to empower all those who participate in them, rendering them true subjects in both worship and Christian action.35 In any case, both the views of praxis as an end in itself and praxis as a means to an end require further systematic treatment within the method of liberation theology.


Within liberation theology, theory or theoretical practice is constituted by theology itself. As such, theoretical work includes reflection upon the ways in which God is active in human history, whether to bring about justice, hope, or judgment, or otherwise transform reality. In his famous formulation, Gutiérrez defined theology as "the critical reflection on praxis in the light of the Word of God accepted in faith."36 He elaborates this definition further in saying that theology is critical reflection on humankind itself and basic human principles. To retain complete integrity, it must involve a "clear and critical attitude regarding economic and sociocultural issues in the life and reflection of the Christian community."37 For Gutiérrez, then, theology is necessarily a critique of society and of the Church in light of God’s call in the Scriptures. Finally, Gutiérrez re-emphasizes that theology must be the theory of a "definite practice."38 In other words, it must refer to concrete, particular action.

Gutiérrez’s formulation of the critical function of theology, however, is not intended to supersede theology’s historical functions of wisdom and of rational knowledge. Rather, critical theology presupposes and requires these, but reorients them to begin with and to develop within the context of praxis.39 Gutiérrez argues that both of these functions of theology exist as permanent dimensions in contemporary theology. The first of these, theology of wisdom, is historically characterized by the aim of growth in the spiritual life, especially with the aid of the Scriptures. This aim commanded varying degrees of importance over the centuries, but has always remained integral to theology. The second function, theology of rational knowledge, is historically identified as a science or intellectual discipline wherein faith meets reason. Its exemplary practitioners were the likes of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. While the use of reason was once exhibited mainly through philosophy, today it includes a range of modes, including the social, psychological, and biological sciences, the latter being crucial to Latin American liberation theology.40

Clodovis Boff, a central figure in the development of the formal and methodological aspects of liberation theology, uses the term "theory" in the Greek sense of "vision" or "contemplation" of reality.41 He argues that theology is a scientific practice in the sense that it "pursues, in its own way, the formal approach that any discipline pursues in its own way."42 It is a "critical, reflexively conscious, and self-regulating approach … distinct from that of other kinds of knowing," including the prescientific, rhetorical, and ideological.43As a science, theology can be understood as an ongoing project which itself is an act of labor, or a "production of cognition."44 It is a genuine practice, whose "materials, means, and products" happen to be theoretical in nature.45 Theological practice does not, however, directly "transform external things" but rather "it transforms ideas."46 It does not have an "immediate objective in life experience," nor is it "built in direct function of a practice."47 Rather, its immediate objective is the cognition of the object of faith, namely, God’s salvation.48

Nonetheless, a theory or vision serves to enable human beings to identify praxis and to endow it with meaning. Boff describes theology as a type of theoretical practice that generates concepts and theories that in turn confer meaning to praxis. Insofar as theology treats and transforms ideas and concepts, it is then able to relate the cognition of faith to praxis, seeking to give ultimate meaning to praxis.49 Indeed, theology is a practice that does nothing less than "[confer] upon action its human character—that is, its essence as praxis, by which human beings freely implement historical meaning and come to their own destiny."50 In Boff’s view, theory holds the key to praxis, for praxis would not exist were it not engendered by theory. What is not clear, however, is what his understanding of praxis entails, and whether it more closely reflects the Aristotelian or Marxian model.

As we have seen, for Gutiérrez, theology is primarily a reflection upon the reality we encounter. Boff, on the other hand, identifies theology as a kind of practice. However, as Vuola argues, theology cannot be reduced either to mere reflection which in no way extends beyond itself or a type of practice. Theology certainly involves a theoretical moment of reflection on God’s activity in human history, but this reflection must bring about a judgment and transformation on the level of history.51 It is this kind of understanding of theology, one which is done with consciousness of its relation to and impact on the practical, historical dimension, that characterizes liberation theology.

The Relationship of Praxis and Theory

The relationship of praxis and theory is central to the method of liberation theology. Peter Phan points out that liberation theologians generally presume an "indissoluble link" between orthodoxy and orthopraxis.52 However, this relation has been diversely conceived, and there remains no general consensus as to its exact definition. It is sometimes concluded to be enigmatic at best, if not altogether insoluble.53 Boff begins his discussion of this presumed relationship between theory and praxis by first rejecting two extreme conceptions. On the one hand, he disagrees with the idea that there is no relationship at all. He argues that such a position is difficult to maintain especially since a discipline or theory can develop only under a set of particular conditions. On the other hand, he disagrees that there is a "direct and intimate," namely, a causal relationship between praxis and theory.54 He points out that the logic of theory, which he considers a science, is entirely unlike that of practice, which involves politics. So, it is evident prima facie that neither one can directly engender the other.

If praxis and theory are indeed in relationship, but not a relationship of a causal nature, then where do they stand vis-à-vis one another in terms of scope and significance? While acknowledging an interconnection of praxis and theory, liberation theologians have often assigned priority to praxis, and insofar as it was given primacy it also came to be referred to as the "criterion of truth." Gutiérrez was among the first to designate theology (i.e., reflection and a critical attitude) as the "second step" in the method of liberation theology.55 Theological reflection necessarily follows the "first step," which is constituted by Christian faith expressed through works of authentic charity, action, and commitment to serving others.56 Inasmuch as it is a critical reflection on reality as it presents itself to us, theology can only occur after the particular encounter. In that sense, theology is somehow subordinated to and put in the service of praxis. Other liberation theologians have followed Gutiérrez in making praxis central to their understanding of theology. For example, even Boff himself describes theology as the "reading of the praxis of Christians in light of God’s word."57Uruguayan theologian Juan Luis Segundo quite clearly argues that orthopraxis should be understood as transcending orthodoxy:

Orthodoxy possesses no ultimate criterion in itself because being orthodox does not mean possessing the final truth. We only arrive at the latter by orthopraxis. It is the latter that is the ultimate criterion of the former, both in theology and in biblical interpretation. The truth is truth only when it serves as the basis for truly human attitudes.58

According to Segundo, truth is ultimately to be found in praxis, in the actual human work done in the name of liberation. On the other hand, theological beliefs become subservient because they are not in themselves efficacious or immediately actualized. This view, a sort of pragmatism, disposes rather quickly of the power potential in beliefs for motivating and guiding action and shaping the world into the better place that we imagine it can be.

It is not particularly surprising that liberation theologians might emphasize praxis, given their overarching hope and goal of social transformation centered on the alleviation of poverty and the neutralization of oppressive circumstances and relationships. Nevertheless, some of the same theologians who emphasize praxis also recognize that an adequate articulation of the relationship between praxis and theory is more complex than the simple prioritization of one element over the other. Indeed, the notion of the primacy of praxis is increasingly seen as vague and questionable. In his later writings, Gutiérrez himself begins to break away from the position that praxis "gives rise to truth or becomes the fundamental criterion of truth."59 Rather, he states that the ultimate criteria of truth "come from revealed truth which we accept in faith and not from praxis itself."60

Perhaps the most prominent challenge to the simplistic notion that orthopraxis has priority over orthodoxy is forwarded by Boff. His argument arises from his initial conception that there is no direct, causal relationship between praxis and theory. There is no obvious analytical road by which one might pass from theological theory to love-centered Christian praxis and vice-versa. He suggests that there is a complete "rupture" or breach between the two.61 Neither theory nor praxis could ever engender the other, and indeed they "represent irreducible orders."62

Boff provides some justification for why theory cannot engender praxis and vice-versa. From the perspective of a complex praxis, theological theory is considered to be "only one of the elements, or one of the tactical moments, in a broader strategy."63 Being just one element within the larger whole of praxis, theoretical reflection and belief cannot account for the emergence of praxis. Boff articulates this idea more fully in the following description of theoretical reflection:

Thought is but an island in the ocean of the real. And just as it arises from within that real, so also it will return there. The ultimate finalization of all theory is its reabsorption into the bosom of the life that generated it. Thought terminates in its "return to things." Theory is completed in praxis.64

Theory, we see, is confined to the world of thought. Thought is generated by life and returns to life, impacting it. At all times, thought is sandwiched between real, practical life (i.e., praxis). Insofar as theory can only develop through interaction with real life, with praxis, it cannot itself be the cause of that praxis. Gutiérrez likewise affirms the fact that theological theory is not the generative source of praxis, which he takes to be the pastoral activity of the Church. He writes that pastoral activity does not "flow from theological premises."65 Rather, theology must look upon this activity in the Church and discern the presence of the Holy Spirit at work there.66 Whereas Gutiérrez understands praxis in terms of pastoral activity inspired by the Spirit, it is evident that Boff’s understanding of praxis is something much broader than any particular set of practices. It appears to encompass the full arena of human activity, and this arena includes theological theory itself as a constitutive element.

Indeed, Boff posits that praxis is the thing that "gets theory going," the stimulus that "‘fires’ the logical mechanisms of the cognitive process."67 Theory always develops in response to praxis insofar as praxis provides theory with problems and challenges for analysis, reflection, and consideration. However, Boff insists that theory is emphatically not reducible to a "pure ‘reflex’ or epiphenomenon" of praxis.68 Rather, it is its own entity and works according to its own axioms. Moreover, it is theory that makes it possible to transform perceived problems into questions. In that way, it is integral to the very possibility of the "interrogation arising at the heart of praxis."69

Because theory and praxis are of two fundamentally different orders, Boff goes on to argue that it is irrelevant and illogical to directly compare them and assign primacy to one over the other. He states:



From the viewpoint of theological practice, (political) praxis neither is nor can be the criterion of (theological) truth. … The thesis that praxis is the criterion of truth is theologically nonpertinent. It seeks to compare the incomparable.70


As a result of this fundamental division, Boff draws a corresponding critical distinction between two types of criteria of truth: "theological criteriology," which indicates criteria of truth in theology as a theoretical practice, and "pistic criteriology," which indicates criteria of truth in theology as practiced faith and love.71

Boff confirms that "pistic truth—a truth of praxis—and theological truth—a truth of theory—call for each other, and interact upon each other."72 Boff’s indication that real dangers can be involved in a single-minded focus on praxis is an important contribution. Perhaps most obviously, without a proper balance of theoretical consideration, political action risks myopia or blindness to the wider scope and scale of its impact and significance. Its work could become overly hasty, altogether misdirected, and self-hindering. In omitting regular theological reflection, political action risks growing away from its rootedness in Christian Scriptures and faith.

Gutiérrez also argues that theological reflection is a crucial and necessary component to a praxis-oriented liberation theology. He writes that theology helps "safeguard" society and the Church by putting historical events and periods into perspective as temporary rather than allow them to be regarded as permanent. In that sense, theology actually serves as the "inverse" of ideology, which seeks to rationalize, justify, and sustain a given status quo within society and/or the Church.73 Theology puts specific pastoral activity into a broader context, which helps avoid potentially dangerous activism and immediatism. It also helps the Church avoid fetishism, idolatry, narcissism, and religious alienation.74 In all these functions, theology is a truly liberating endeavor.

Praxis and theory necessarily call for one another. They can neither be divorced nor disproportionately emphasized without doing damage. Although subjects approach a problem cognitively (i.e., for the sake of knowledge itself, and therefore disinterestedly), they are led to do so by nothing other than concrete problems found in praxis. However, it is likewise the case that cognition provokes new interests in terms of concrete action. As such, theory and praxis remain in a relationship of dialectic tension. A dialectical relationship is emphatically non-static but rather is dynamic and in continual motion. In Boff’s technical terms, this relation of ongoing, reciprocal impact is held in place by the dual forces of perichoresis (the bond of mutual dependence between praxis and theory) and chorismos (the fundamental distinction in kind of the two terms).75 This quality of being in constant motion results in the fact that a "total theological synthesis" is never achieved, but is always coming into being.76

One illustration of the dialectical nature of the praxis-theory relation is Segundo’s famous formulation of the hermeneutical circle:

Firstly there is our way of experiencing reality, which leads us to ideological suspicion. Secondly there is the application of our ideological suspicion to the whole ideological superstructure in general and to theology in particular. Thirdly there comes a new way of experiencing theological reality that leads to exegetical suspicion, that is, to the suspicion that the prevailing interpretation of the Bible has not taken important pieces of data into account. Fourthly we have our new hermeneutic, that is, our new way of interpreting the fountainhead of our faith (i.e., Scripture) with new elements at our disposal.77

A theologian is compelled to enter the circle by an initial problem, question, or suspicion arising from his or her experience of reality, and is led to ideological suspicion. Through the lens of suspicion, the theologian reexamines the overarching status quo ideas and narratives driving his or her reality. This new perspective on experience leads the theologian to also view the Scriptures with suspicion and to reinterpret them anew vis-à-vis lived reality. Finally, a new hermeneutic is achieved. By uncovering and bringing into consciousness the ideologies shaping reality, a theologian opens up the possibility for positive change at the ideological level and, via the dialectical relationship, also at the material level.

According to Boff, the dialectical movement with respect to a given question or problem is ultimately driven by praxis. Praxis is always "standing at the beginning point and the end point of this movement," while theory is nothing more than a "necessary resource, an indispensable detour, never the decisive turn."78 In this sense, praxis is granted an analytic primacy in the examination of the dialectic. However, theory continues to hold the key to the identity of praxis, which could not occur without its theoretical counterpart to orient it. The dialectical relation between the two is not "smooth and pacific," but is better represented as a "current receiving its first thrust from the side of praxis, ricocheting off theory, and returning to praxis and dislocating it—and so on, over and over again."79 Since theory and praxis are qualitatively distinct, they each bring something distinct to bear on the other with every instance of impact or dislocation. Boff admits that the process is complex and defies systematization, reminding us that there is no master key to unlocking the mystery of history and its unfolding.


It is precisely this tricky issue of the praxis-theory relation that has aroused much suspicion and opposition against liberation theology amongst the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church and other theologians. Vuola cites Cardinal Walter Kasper on this point. In Kasper’s view, liberation theologians generally display a lack of clarity and explicit definition in their use of the term "praxis." He is particularly concerned with this problem because of the fact that praxis has a long history and has held and continues to hold multiple meanings.80

The issue of reductionism in the definition and subsequent exercise of praxis and theory has been a common cause of suspicion of and opposition to liberation theology by the Vatican and other European theologians.81 Some argue that liberation theologians tend to reduce the term praxis to practice or action and to reduce the term "theory" to praxis. While such usage of the terms has indeed been present in liberation theology, it is also the case that theologians have made serious and systematic attempts to define and employ the terms with care. For instance, Boff has made a crucial step in clarifying liberation theology’s vision of praxis and theory. By demonstrating that praxis and theory are distinctive in kind, he in effect defends the position that neither element can be reduced to the other. Boff, among others, witnesses to the fact that the simplistic reduction of either praxis or theory is precisely what liberation theologians critique. However, many questions still remain. Thus far, theologians such as Boff have focused on explaining why the dualism of praxis and theory exists and on forwarding preliminary descriptions of their interrelation. However, it remains unclear how the rupture between praxis and theory might be bridged in any concrete way. The presence of this dualism is at odds with liberation theology’s attempt at an integrative approach.

As this paper has demonstrated, the term "praxis" is a complex and ambiguous term, especially when divorced from its context in Western intellectual thought. As such, any careless, confused, or premature understandings and usages of the term "praxis" may incorporate ideas that actually serve to undermine the basic goals and values of liberation in several ways. If praxis is understood in a reduced sense, either as movement, production, or the technical skills of control, then human life can become objectified or reduced to a means to an end. Subjective experience as such is devalued. Simplistic or reduced uses of praxis raise important ethical questions about the treatment of human life, the legitimate extent of "working on" or using the present as a means to achieve a conceived future benefit, and the proper balance of theoretical reflection that ought to accompany political action.

When a theologian uses the term praxis without explicit intentionality, without a proper awareness of its intended meaning in the given contemporary situation vis-à-vis its possible historical meanings, he or she cannot grasp its fuller implications and in turn cannot evaluate its ethical implications. Furthermore, the unclear usage of such sensitive terms as praxis and theological theory can, ironically, undermine liberation theology in a very practical way. With liberation theology entering midlife, we are confident the next 40 years will see a refinement of its method and clarification of its terms, particularly the terms "praxis" and "theory."




1. See Jacob Kavunkal, SVD, "The Impact of Medellín and Puebla on Asian Theology," 3 February 2000, in, accessed 25 July 2008.

2. Clodovis Boff, Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), xxi.

3. Matthew Lamb, "Praxis," in The New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Joseph Komonchak, Mary Collins, and Dermot Lane (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1988), 784.

4. Christopher Rowland, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),xvii.

5. Boff, 6.

6. Aristotle, Politics, I, 4, 1254. The distinction between praxis and poiēsis is further detailed in Nichomachean Ethics, VI, 4, 1140a1-23, and summarized in VI, 5, 1140b6-7.

7. Nicholas Lobkowicz, Theory and Practice: History of a Concept from Aristotle to Marx (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967), 10.

8. Ibid.

9. Lamb, 786.

10. Richard Kilminster, "Praxis," in The Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Social Thought, ed. William Outhwaite and Tom Bottomore (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 508.

11. Ibid.

12. Karl Marx, "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844," in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978), 76.

13. Roberto S. Goizueta, "Rediscovering Praxis: The Significance of U. S. Hispanic Experience for Theological Method," inWe Are a People: Initiatives in Hispanic American Theology, ed. Roberto S. Goizueta (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992), 60.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., 45.

16. Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Hermeneutics and Social Science," Cultural Hermeneutics 2 (1975): 312.

17. Lamb, 785.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Goizueta, 54-55.

21. Ibid., 55.

22. Lamb, 785.

23. Goizueta, 55.

24. Ibid., 56.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Elina Vuola, Limits of Liberation: Praxis as Method in Latin American Liberation Theology and Feminist Theology (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1996), 48-49.

28. Ibid., 45-46.

29. Pablo Richard, Death of Christendoms, Birth of the Church, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 147.

30. Ibid.

31. Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, rev. ed., trs. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 6.

32. Ibid., 6, xxxiv.

33. Ibid., xxx.

34. Goizueta, 61.

35. Lamb, 786-787.

36. Gustavo Gutiérrez, The Truth Shall Make You Free: Confrontations, tr. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 67.

37. Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 9.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid., 11.

40. Ibid., 45.

41. Boff, 75.

42. Ibid., 70.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., 70-71.

45. Ibid., 71.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid., 111.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid., 71, 216.

51. Vuola, 48.

52. Peter Phan, "Method in Liberation Theologies," Theological Studies 61 (2000): 59. Cf. Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 9.

53. Boff, 216.

54. Ibid., 166.

55. Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 9.

56. Ibid.

57. Boff, 139.

58. Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, tr. John Drury (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 32.

59. Gutierrez, The Truth Shall Make You Free, 181, n. 45.

60. Ibid., 101.

61. Boff, 193.

62. Ibid.

63. Ibid., 173.

64. Ibid., 178.

65. Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 9.

66. Ibid.

67. Boff, 190.

68. Ibid.

69. Ibid.

70. Ibid., 198.

71. Ibid., 205.

72. Ibid.

73. Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 10.

74. Ibid.

75. Boff, 210-213.

76. Phan, 60.

77. Segundo, 9.

78. Boff, 190.

79. Ibid., 216.

80. Vuola, 48.

81. Ibid., 54.

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