Spirituality and Liberation

Written by R. McAfee Brown Reviewed By Stephen N. Williams

This book, like Gaul, is in three parts. The first part exposes the need to overcome the great fallacy of dualism. At least 35 examples of dualism are offered, but the title of the book suggests the unifying concern, which is to reconcile spirituality and liberation after their tragic divisions into worship and politics, inwardness and social action, etc. Dualism must be repudiated in any form, but so must any reduction of spirituality to liberation or liberation to spirituality. Rather, Brown recommends a double movement—‘withdrawal and return’—whereby each nurtures the other in a unified life. The second part gives ‘clues for construction’. Here an examination of OT (Micah), NT (incarnation) and liturgical/sacramental materials purports to establish the unity of the sacred and the secular, true spirituality and true liberating practice. It ends with a celebration of the spirituality of sex, including an apparent endorsement of sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage. The third part offers the conclusion that spirituality and liberation are two ways of talking about the same thing. A consciously and literally radical approach to interpretation will learn that ‘when we do get to the root meaning of either term, the inclusive reality to which each of them points is the same reality’ (p. 114). Drawing on Guttierez, the proposal essentially sustained is that a single, unifying act of life defines Christian discipleship, with prayer and the quest of justice as components but not as separables. Dualism, the great fallacy, is banished.

The book is written in a deliberately racy style which, while it sometimes brings to life the biblical materials, also sometimes carries away its author, for instance when he dubs the opening verses of Hebrews 11 as dull and confusing (p. 140). But what of the substance? The claim that spirituality and liberation (e.g. active commitment to social justice) need to be integrated is sound enough and important enough. If we have heard this a lot recently, some of us doubtless need to hear it again. However, the presentation of this claim is marred by at least five defects.

  1. The central idea, dualism, is confused. Thus Brown lists ‘Greek vs. Hebrew’ as a dualism to be repudiated (p. 26), but then he proceeds to insist on opposing the Hebrew to the Greek understanding in order to show the non-dualist nature of biblical religion (p. 63, but see too p. 27). He ignores both the fact and the significance of the fact that there is such a thing as a healthy spirit in a sick body or a sick spirit in a healthy body, finding even the language ‘physical or spiritual’ dualistic (Berdyaev, p. 113).
  2. There are too many assumptions and too few arguments about the ‘political’ nature of Christ’s ministry. This is a difficult area, for people’s surface reading of the gospel data apparently differs from culture to culture and such reading in any case needs to be supplemented by knowledge of the first-century background. But the closer we sail to the proposition that Che Guevara helps us redefine Christian prudence (Balasuryia, p. 133), the more we need to be clear on the differences between Che and Jesus.
  3. There is no awareness of the danger in modern advocacy of liberation, namely the danger of surrendering distinctive Christian identity. Following a lead from the Jewish author Elie Wiesel, Brown aspires to communicate to non-Christians by writing as a Christian. Fair enough. But when cello playing is given as the instance of spirituality and remarks on the transcendence of art offered as a way of explaining the movement to break down dualism, the author seems to miss his mark. Yet asking about the distinctiveness of Christianity is always useful when discussing liberation.
  4. We need more specificity on our attitudes to the poor. It is true that Brown is concrete in his attention to liberation, as his final chapter well illustrates. Yet there are different levels, conditions and causes of poverty. Further, as the words of Berdyaev reveal, there are different attitudes to poverty: there may be a time for counselling others as one counsels oneself to endure something and times for sparing no effort to revolutionize something. We need guidance to discriminate, a guidance offered by those who experience poverty to those of us who live in luxury.
  5. Finally, we need a sound historical sense of what the church has held to be essential to spirituality. Brown thinks that the church for most of her history has been guilty of the great fallacy. Others tell us it all happened at the Enlightenment. Such statements are often made without supporting evidence. Granted that Brown is not trying to write a history, one wants to see the basis of the claim that so many have got it wrong all these centuries. And that brings us back to our first point: clarity on ‘dualism’ is essential.

Theologians have doubtless often revelled in reflection, with little concern for action. Amongst the strengths of liberation theologies is their criticism of this. But we cannot sidestep the need for careful and thorough reflection. Then positive truths embedded in Professor Brown’s contentions will be allowed to emerge.

Stephen N. Williams

Stephen Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and served as general editor of Themelios from 1995 to 1999.