The Paradigm of Pluralism: New Challenges of Latin American Theology

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2008 »Volume 45 2008 Number 4 »The Paradigm Of Pluralism New Challenges Of Latin American Theology

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 Teologicos 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.



In 2008, the eightieth birthday of Gustavo Gutiérrez as well as the election of Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, as President of Paraguay, ensured that liberation theology was again in the news. Furthermore, the disciplinary measures against Jon Sobrino and José María Vigil and the controversy between the brothers Clódovis and Leonardo Boff also showed that conservative circles in the Catholic Church do not underestimate the importance of this theology. And the death threats against Bishop Erwin Kräutler, two other bishops, and many other people in Brazil further make it clear that the violence and conflict situations from which liberation theology emerged have not really diminished. Whoever reads these names, however, might suppose that the theology of liberation has now become an issue only of Catholic priests above sixty, hence, a "disappearing minority."

This is not the case. While liberation theology often remains identified with well-known and venerable names, one can identify a new generation of theologians in Latin America who have produced new directions in liberation theology.1Among them are many laypeople—quite a number of them, women—and many members of indigenous or Afro-American cultures. This new generation of liberation theologians is no longer exclusively Catholic; indeed, to many of them, confessional identity is of no importance.

Four Crises in Liberation Theology’s History

Three crises prevalent in the 1980s-1990s were relevant to the further development and differentiation of liberation theology. They are well known:

  • the ecclesial crisis—the two Instructions (1984, 1986) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith against liberation theology and the silencing of Leonardo Boff in 1985;
  • the ideological crisis—fed by the political changes in Eastern Europe and Nicaragua; and
  • the cultural crisis—arising from the increased perception of the different cultural realities of Latin America.

Another element appeared sometime later. Moved by concrete encounters with people in pastoral work and oriented by numerous groups who organized themselves in Latin America, theologians became more aware that it is not possible to tackle the cultural diversity of the continent by assigning people to only one or the other "special group." It is not enough only to design specific pastoral programs for indigenous people, Afro-Americans, homosexuals, and women, and not also to criticize the core of an apparently universal theology. In dialogue with poststructuralist and postmodern philosophy and sociology, in conversation with global feminist discourses, and in conjunction with the theology of religious pluralism, particularly of Asia and North America, numerous theologians in Latin America, especially the younger ones, became convinced of the plurality of theologies and thus gained a final independence from European universalism.

As a result of these factors, especially this last, a pluralist liberation theology is being developed in Latin America as a genuine response to the challenges of religious and cultural pluralism. These theologians accept the existence of the "other" as a challenge to their own identity. Some of them are themselves representatives of populations characterized as the "other." Thus, they are able to contribute their own characteristic theological designs in order to construct plural theologies close to the variety of human and social realities. They are also thus enabled to deconstruct the contextual limitations of classical theologies. In this way, pluralist liberation theology describes poverty as a concrete, social, cultural, and personal phenomenon and thereby designs individual strategies of liberation.

The Paradigm of Pluralism

The paradigm of pluralism in theology responds, in the words of Ivone Gebara, "to the pluralism of life, to its complexity, to the diversity of situations in which love and justice happen in our midst. How can one dare to reduce the creativity of love?"2 A faithful observation of reality leads to perceive people as individuals and real persons and, hence, to perceive their otherness. They are not classified any longer in categories such as "the poor," "the women," "the indigenous," etc. After a period in which the number of these categories had multiplied, theologians are now beginning to accept people as individuals and to respect them seriously.

While any categorization may produce a strategic benefit, it also violates the individual’s dignity. Whoever is defined as a victim will be made a victim all over again. Whoever is categorized according to his/her African ancestry finds oneself being robbed of his/her sexuality. And any man who finally has managed to characterize himself as accurately as possible as an indigenous, poor, single, heterosexual, migrant, male Protestant, might have just lost the opportunity to form strategic alliances with other people.

Theology in a pluralist paradigm considers human beings as different from one another while related to each another in varying ways. Moreover, people will keep changing themselves in the processes of their lives. This is not a postmodern arbitrary pluralism. Rather, the option for the poor and the experience of poverty, hunger, disease, exclusion, and exploitation are at the bottom of this paradigm. The poor are no longer perceived as objects or as victims. Rather, liberation theology nourishes itself from the dialogue with the individuality and diversity of the poor and their life experiences. They themselves are its authors.

Nancy Cardoso Pereira says that the poor "can be what they want to be," i.e., "the poor in the form of diverse and complex events. Even within the analytical grid of class, gender, and ethnicity, the life of the poor as an event of resistance and liberation surpasses the categories."3 The life of the poor is more than powerlessness and oppression. There is always resistance, creativity, and wisdom, in a very wide variety of ways.

José María Vigil states that pluralism is "the coming paradigm,"4 which means a revision of the whole of Christian theology, not only liberation theology. For several years, Vigil, along with other liberation theologians, has been in dialogue with the theology of religious pluralism.5 The same pluralism applies to the Latin American feminist and queer theologies. In addition to the well-known gender paradigm, multidimensional, pluralist, and multisexual identities are also being integrated into theology. Gender roles, f.i., are being criticized as "educational devices"6serving the fixation of social domination.

In a similar way, the pluralism of cultures, generations, and ethnicities is being analysed. Even within classic liberation theology’s field of economics, it was found that the poor have developed plural forms of economy, with none of these forms being a priori better than the others. The poor are not considered solely as victims of economy, but also as its subjects. Economic pluralism is therefore—like any other pluralism—an expression of the diversity, vitality,and creativity of the poor.

This pluralism of cultural and social phenomena corresponds with a pluralist understanding of truth.7 The representatives of this paradigm are convinced that there is no unique "real" truth. Rather, any truth is also merchandise that expresses the interests of certain persons and groups of people. Indeed, feminist theology criticizes "essentialist tendencies" in the traditional theology of liberation. They say that this becomes evident when liberation theologians "use the same strategies for justification (appeals to divine will and the true kernel of tradition) as the theologies they criticise, thereby continuing structures of domination."8

Theology of Liberation and Pluralism

With pluralism, liberation theology constitutes itself in often surprising and seemingly contradictory (and in any case very diverse) new figures. After a centrifugal movement in the nineties, during which both conservative and radical theologians distanced themselves from liberation theology, now is emerging a centripetal motion. Despite all the differences among pluralist theologians, they once again identify themselves with liberation theology. They accept the option for the poor as the essential and enduring foundation. Thus, within the paradigm of pluralism, a connecting link is found, which allows the various movements for justice, participation, and inclusion to network with each other.

Some common characteristics9 of the theology of liberation and pluralism will help us identify and understand the pluralist paradigm. They also show the novelty of this paradigm and suggest how these recent developments in liberation theology will challenge other forms of theology worldwide.

  1. The reality of pluralism is not only stated phenomenologically but also brought forward ethically and politically. This is not just pluralism de facto—as if in the face of facts, it cannot but be inevitably stated. This diversity is also considered de iure, as a legitimate pluralism that ought to be. For example, as Andrés Torres Queiruga explains in view of the pluralism of religions: "All religions are true"10 because all religions respond in their own limited and imperfect way to the call God made to them.
  2. Deconstructivism thus becomes a theological principle. It means liberation of people from categories that have been used as a means of oppression. Theologians realize that it is unavoidable for liberation and theology to use categories, but they also point out that every construction can be used for control and exclusion.
  3. Pluralism does not lead to anonymity, but helps to discover the value of each individual person. Everyone is a concrete, individual person. Each specific individual as such can be discovered as a value compared to everything else. In recent publications, alongside the well-known names of the liberation theology tradition of Latin America, there now appear less-known personalities such as the Peruvian Isabel Choque,11 the women from the neighborhood of Ivone Gebara,12 and the homosexual activists who burned the Vatican flag in front of the cathedral of Santiago de Chile.13 Biography as a starting point of theology applies not only to celebrities and persons in the limelight, but also to the poor, the excluded ones, those from the masses.14 It is possible to experience God's presence in their lives.15
  4. Individuals are human bodies. They do not only have bodies; they are their bodies.16 Pluralism therefore is physical—it deals with ethnic characteristics, skin color, gender, age, clothes, jewellery, appearance, and attitudes. In the same way, the pluralist paradigm influences the perception of the human body. People are not only men and women, black and white. They deal with one another in a variety of physical relationships marked by very different kinds of oppression, exploitation, and exclusion. Human bodies may be reified, alienated, expropriated. The physical side of the option for the poor therefore receives increasing attention.
  5. Together with the attention to the individual, there is also the growing mistrust towards the great universal utopias which shaped liberation theology towards the end of the eighties. Instead of great revolutions in government, economics, society, and the Church, small and diverse, but real and efficient changes and liberations are sought. These concrete steps are done in the knowledge that any liberation can only be limited and provisional. Liberation theology is already part of the World Social Forum, a movement that looks for alternatives to the present world order and believes that "another world is possible."17
  6. Individuals must be perceived as being unique, all through their otherness. Alterity18 as a theological principle means: I am not the other, I am different.19 From the other’s perspective, I must re-understand myself and not try to assume the other as a stranger and myself as known. This principle is particularly important in intercultural dialogue. What seems strange to me is known to the other. Yet I will seem a stranger to them. With the principle of alterity, I can perceive and accept myself as a stranger, yet the other as a reality in all his/her peculiarity and individuality.
  7. Truth is no longer understood as absolute, abstract, and idealistic, but as processual and provisional. Ivone Gebara criticizes the "hegemony" of absolute and eternal truths and claims "new truths, provisional truths, starting from our bodies, from their wounds and healings, on the basis of our joys and our renewed hopes."20 She proposes therefore, "to look at Jesus beyond all dogmatism and not connected with the eternal truths."21 She relates truth to the necessity of constantly reconstructing identity. Life in poverty and marginalization means for many people the need to redefine themselves and their "truths" in the face of always new challenges. Truth will always be captured only in piecemeal terms and processually. It becomes an instrument of life, a coping strategy.
  8. The option for the poor remains fundamental. Liberation theology will remain a theology in the service of the poor, their lives and their liberation. The paradigm of pluralism serves to enter into the concrete living conditions of the individual poor and their own precarious truths. It is not a liberal pluralism of arbitrariness, which accepts exclusion, victimization, and abuse of others.

Challenges to Western Theology

Pluralist liberation theology is hardly known outside Latin America, but it brings before us very interesting and important challenges.

  • The universalist paradigm of Western theology is challenged by a pluralism de iure, which is justified not merely phenomenologically, but mainly theologically. Thus, the theological foundations of a large part of Western theology are being questioned. Despite many excuses to the contrary, Western theology is still based on the hidden premise that there is only one universally valid truth, and hence only one generally verifiable theology. This would be European theology, as is also tacitly assumed. Theology confines itself to the Greco-Roman, Enlightenment, or dialectic paradigms of the European sciences, and clings to traditional European universalism, because it refuses to learn from the mistakes of the colonial past. The pluralist paradigm, which does not deny the European notion of truth but places it within a variety of uncertain and provisional truths, is bound to shake Western universalist security at its foundations.
  • This new contextualization of truth enables pluralist theology to correct its own stance towards ecumenical exchange, interreligious dialogue, and cooperation with all people of good will, as demanded by Vatican II. The anachronistic adherence to truths of past contexts, however, prevents the common search for truth in the present time and the construction of adequate truths as a basis for a decent future. Pluralist liberation theology, therefore, seeks intensive ecumenical, interreligious, and even so-called macroecumenical22 exchange. Ecumenical and interfaith efforts in Europe and throughout the Western world could learn a lot from this enriching experience.
  • The theology of pluralism consequently addresses the experiences of individual people, especially the poor, and tries to perceive them not only as pastoral or social categories. It recognizes their alterity and accepts them as individual human beings. This is a challenge to Western theology, not only to correct its pastoral, ethical, and social categories, but also to take theological learning out of a one-way street. Theology is not a doctrinal system that could be taught using catechetical methods, but a learning process made by individuals through their biographies and this must be taken seriously by theological science.
  • By maintaining the distance between the pluralist paradigm and universalistic political ideologies and utopias, it is possible to seek concrete, tangible, and efficient ways of liberation, knowing that every single process of liberation is always temporary, limited, and unilateral, but nonetheless necessary. This is a real challenge to a certain sort of liberal theology, which is satisfied with demanding changes in Church and society without enforcing them. A misconceived notion of eschatological reservation leads to limit oneself comfortably to analysis and prediction, leaving aside the actual and effective means of liberation. On the other hand, whoever does not only look for the one and only "true" and universal liberation is able to construct real, effective, and tangible plural processes and even to cooperate with people, political parties, movements, and institutions who share only a certain amount of common interests. Here, the Western theologies, in their liberal, political, conservative, and progressive variations, will have to learn to overcome their fears and get involved.


"Everything is relative, except for God and hunger."23 This sentence of Pedro Casaldáliga shows the focus of pluralist liberation theology and also summarizes its challenges to Western theology in times of ever less concealed European centralism and universalism. Not everything is relative, but almost all of what we believe to be important and indispensable is. Casaldáliga and many other theologians in Latin America doing pluralist theology together with the poor make us aware that the only aim of theological science and of the Church in general is to glorify God by realistic and efficient efforts, together with the poor, to construct decent living conditions in another possible world where everyone fits in.





1. Ivan Petrella, ed., Latin American Liberation Theology: The Next Generation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005). Cf. also Stefan Silber, "Vielschichtig und lebendig. Neuere Entwicklungen in der Theologie der Befreiung," Herder-Korrespondenz 60 (2006) 10: 523-528.

2. Ivone Gebara, "Cristologías plurales," in Bajar de la cruz a los pobres: Cristología de la liberación, ed. La Comisión Teológica Internacional de la Asociación Ecuménica de Teólogos y Teólogas del Tercer Mundo ASETT (México: Dabar, 2007), 125-130.128.

3. Nancy Cardoso Pereira, "Der stille Krieg. Wie die Menschen in Lateinamerika sein können, was sie sein wollen," Concilium German Edition 44 (2008) 1: 39-50.49.

4. José María Vigil, "La causa del diálogo interreligioso," in Pedro Casaldáliga. Las causas que dan sentido a su vida. Retrato de una personalidad,eds. Benjamín Forcano, Eduardo Lallana, José María Concepción, and Maximino Cerezo B. (Madrid: Nueva Utopía, 2008), 107-115.112.

5. Stefan Silber, "Theology of Liberation in the Dialogue of Religions. A new development in Latin America," East Asian Pastoral Review 43 (2006) 1: 53-59. Also published in Voices from the Third World 29 (2006) 1: 58-65. See also Stefan Silber, "Die Bekehrung der Religionen. Die Option für die Armen als Maßstab für den interreligiösen Dialog," in Glaube in der Welt von heute. Theologie und Kirche nach dem Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, Vol. 2, eds. Thomas Franz and Hanjo Sauer (Diskursfelder, Würzburg: Echter, 2006), 78-104.

6. Marcella María Althaus-Reid, "Queer-Theorie und Befreiungstheologie. Der Durchbruch des sexuellen Subjekts in der Theologie," Concilium German Edition 44 (2008) 1: 83-97.97.

7. Ivone Gebara, "Mujeres: ¿Un tema? ¿Un desafío? ¿O la otra mitad de la humanidad?" Alternativas 13 (2006) 32: 165-176.171-172.

8. Hanna Stenström, "Is a liberating feminist exegesis possible without liberation theology?" Lectio Difficilior (2002) 1. Available at

9. Cf. Stefan Silber, "Befreiungstheologien im Plural. Neuere Entwicklungen in Lateinamerika," Christin und Sozialistin/Kreuz und Rose 60 (2007): 4, 34-41.

10. Andrés Torres Queiruga, "El diálogo de las religiones en el mundo actual," Alternativas 11 (2004) 27: 17-38.20.

11. María José Caram, "Isabel Choque, eine Frau aus den Südanden. Samenkorn eines neuen Volkes," in Räume der Gnade. Interkulturelle Perspektiven auf die christliche Erlösungsbotschaft, eds. Margit Eckholt and Sabine Pemsel-Maier (Ostfildern: Schwabenverlag, 2006), 96-110; Ursula Silber, "Nichts Besonderes!? Lebensgeschichten von Frauen als Räume der Gnade," in Räume der Gnade, 111-121.

12. Gebara, 167.

13. Althaus-Reid, 83.

14. Virginia Raquel Azcuy, "Biografische Vermengungen als theologische Räume. Beiträge zu einem Ethos kirchlicher und sozialer Gegenseitigkeit," in Räume der Gnade, 58-72.

15. Stefan Silber, "The Hidden Christs. Christology (-ies) from the Excluded Ones," Voices from the Third World 30 (2007) 1: 48-56.

16. Maricel Mena López, "Unser Körper ist die Erlösung. Schwarze feministische Befreiungstheologie," ila 256 (2002): 17-18.

17. Ana Esther Ceceña, "Los desafíos del mundo en que caben todos los mundos y la subversion del saber histórico de la lucha," Alternativas 11 (2004): 28, 139-164; Marcella Maria Althaus-Reid, Ivan Petrella, and Luiz Carlos Susin, eds., Another Possible World: Reclaiming Liberation Theology(London: SCM Canterbury Press, 2007). Cf. also

18 Luiz Carlos Susín, "Teología y nuevos parádigmas," Alternativas 8 (2001) 18/19: 11-34.

19. Hans-Joachim Sander, "Entdeckung durch Eroberung—ein Verdecken von Humanität. Die Würde der anderen als Prinzip der Evangelisierung," inEntdeckung-Eroberung-Befreiung. 500 Jahre Gewalt und Evangelium in Lateinamerika, eds. Wilhelm Dreier et al. (Würzburg: Echter, 1993), 161-174.

20. Gebara, 171-172.

21. Ivone Gebara, "Patriarchale Erkenntnistheorie," in Wir tragen die Farbe der Erde. Neue theologische Beiträge aus Lateinamerika, eds. Freddy Dutz, Bärbel Fünfsinn, and Sabine Plonz (Hamburg: EMW, 2004), 198-220.215.

22. José María Vigil, "Macroecumenismo: teología de las religiones latinoamericana," Alternativas 11 (2004) 27: 109-126.

23. Cited in Jon Sobrino, "Getting the Poor Down from the Cross. Epilogue," Voices of the Third World 30 (2007): 1, 62-73.63.