We Drink from Our Own Wells: the Spiritual Journey of a People

Written by Gustavo Gutierrez, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell Reviewed By J. Scott Horrell

We Drink from Our Own Wells was originally an annotated series of lectures delivered in 1982 by Gutierrez at his training centre in Lima, Peru. The tone is both pastoral and apologetic, with thirty-four pages of densely documented endnotes and nine pages of Scripture and source indexes.

Gutierrez’s message is that the absolute beginning point for all authentic theology is ‘an encounter with the Lord’ which through critical reflection then becomes relevant and tangible in the context of life. True liberation is necessarily and profoundly spiritual. The three parts describe how this theme relates to the people of Latin America.

In part one, Gutierrez explains anew ‘the contextual experience that is the matrix or crucible of the spirituality now being born in Latin America’ (p. 2). Admitting aberrations within the liberation movement, he maintains that liberation entails a holistic process generated from spiritual experience; anything less is not genuine liberation.

Part two serves as an analysis of Christian spirituality from two perspectives. First is a fairly detailed biblical study on the concepts of flesh, spirit and resurrection of the body through which the author seeks to clarify the wholeness of man. To the detriment of both his point and his exegesis, Gutierrez skirts the traditional concept of bodily resurrection.

The second perspective concerning spirituality derives from the testimonies of Augustine, Bonaventure, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola and many others. Through these historic examples, coupled with those of modern Latin America, Gutierrez develops his central thesis that every spirituality receives its initial impulse from an inner encounter with God. Only by means of individual experience with the Spirit and subsequent reflection is theology born.

In part three, Gutierrez sketches a profile, with five summary characteristics, of ‘the new way that is coming into existence among us’ (p. 94). Primary is conversion, a break from old ways and a solidarity with ‘the church of the poor’. Second is a sense of gratuitousness, seeing divine grace in all of history leading to the utopian kingdom; ultimately, ‘everything is grace’ (p. 109). A third mark of the liberation movement is deep-felt joy in the midst of suffering. Fourthly is the aspect of spiritual childhood, which he again yokes with unreserved commitment to the poor. He declares categorically, ‘Spiritual poverty is obligatory for every Christian and for the church as a whole’ (p. 123). As a final characteristic, Gutierrez deals with the axis of solitude and community, the two enriching one another: a liberationist’s persecution because of his preferential love for the poor drives him more fervently to appreciate the fellowship of the suffering community.

Amidst the objections to Gutierrez’s theology, three stand central.

  1. The author states, ‘we approach the Bible from our experience as believers and members of the church. It is in the light of that experience that we ask our questions’ (p. 34). We might ask, with John Goldingay, if it is not simply a reflection of themselves that liberationists see at the bottom of the hermeneutical well? (cf. ‘The Hermeneutics of Liberation Theology’, Horizons in Biblical Theology 4:2–5:1 (Dec 1982–June 1983), p. 140.)
  2. Christologically we remain with the suspicion that Jesus is far less than the pre-temporal member of the Godhead. As we encounter ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ within the depth of our being, questions arise: How do I know this I experience is the Jesus of the Bible? Is Jesus but a name for what is essentially a universal spiritual experience? Is Christology without the husks, therefore, just anthropology?
  3. While we must be humble before biblical exhortations to care for the needy, can we not contend that Gutierrez has advanced a mythology of the poor? Do only the rich oppress the poor? Or are the poor themselves sometimes cruel oppressors? Can we credibly believe that slums, so generally rampant with prostitution, addiction and brutality, are in fact the haven of the people of God on earth? That rich are evil and poor are good? With this central premise, Gutierrez with searing literary energy creates a romantic ideal. Surely need exists for biblical balance. While criticizing critics for being reductionistic, Gutierrez must fend with this weakness in his own system.

We Drink from Our Own Wells may cause you anger or may leave you edified. It will probably do both. The work is a standard for all who care to understand the theological flow of the Third World.

J. Scott Horrell

Texas, USA