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Why we need theologians.

What does it mean to be human? Scientists and theologians often have radically different answers to this question. And that has serious consequences in the era of frightening scientific breakthroughs, says theologian Alex Garcia-Rivera.

Rivera, a teacher at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, is part of a new generation of theologians trying to bridge the gap between science and religion and our understanding of nature and culture. The whole endeavor hinges on our understanding of grace, he says.

"When we talk about our very being as grace and start appreciating the value of our very nature--the fact that you're a white woman, a black man, or a gay person--we're saying that grace varies with who you are in all that mix. If we don't learn to articulate that important value, then scientists can start checking off parts of our nature."

What is the role of the theologian?

Specialists in theology used to be aware that theology could not be done in isolation from the people. But now many theologians become involved in the academic community, which is a culture of its own--with its own language, customs, and rituals--and distance themselves from the greater faith community. Theologians must not forget that they're not there to speak for other specialists but to somehow understand what the community is saying and what the problems are.

As a theologian I am always conscious of the fact that I'm Hispanic and Anglo, living in two worlds, living among the different races within my own family. Before I found myself in my present position as a Catholic scholar, I was both a physicist and Lutheran minister, two careers that may seem to be on two entirely different ends of the spectrum. But my reasoning and interest for pursuing both careers were very similar. In science I thought I could find some definite truths and really make sense of what I felt was a jumble in my life. And I still approach my theology with thoughts to how science would act.

I see my role as theologian to be not unlike the shaman in the Native American community. The shaman undertakes journeys of the imagination--and sometimes they're dangerous--to understand the problems in the community. He or she goes into trances to see what is harming the community--why there's dissent. The shaman is a scout that is always at the service of and accountable to the community. He or she is the front line of the future.

That has not been the theologian's role for a long time, and it needs to be. Recently Third World theologians--such as those seven Jesuits and the two women who were murdered in El Salvador--have begun bringing theology to very dangerous places. Theologians can no longer have genteel discussions between specialists. Specialists need to talk about popular problems.

So specialists are out?

Yes and no. Theologians who deal mainly with other theologians exclusively are on the wrong path. The tough problems are found in the issues people deal with in everyday life. That is not to rule out the service of the intellect, but it is to rule out the service of the intellect, but it is to rule out the service of the intellect to separate artificially the specialist from the public. In fact, I'm all for the intellect, but it's the service of the intellect to undersand the problems of the people and to find the language that solves those problems.

We're in a time of so much change that we are confused by what truth is anymore. As a society we seem to vacillate between the so-called liberal stance of "I'm okay, you're okay" to the ultraconservatism of "Nobody's okay except people like me." So between those two extremes there must be a place people can stand. There must be a place where they can say, "This is wrong. This is right. And that's the truth." This quest for truth gives direction and understanding to their faith. If theologians can't say what's right or wrong or where truth is, then what the heck, they might as well become scientists.

If we can say what's true, then why are we always disagreeing?

Theology addresses the universal, but each of our worlds are so very different. Let me give you an example of such a difference. In part due to my wife's influence, I became a Lutheran minister for a time, and my first call was to a Pennsylvania Dutch congregation that wanted to be the base for a Hispanic Lutheran community. I was a bicultural minister trying to bridge the cultural gaps through religion.

Our combined Hispanic and Pennsylvania Dutch congregation's first Christmas together brought our differences home through the simple act of decorating a Christmas tree. The Anglo congregation had chosen a beautiful natural tree that they had chopped down and had very meticulously and tastefully arranged, topped by a simple little star. My Hispanic group had picked up an artificial tree that they covered with all sorts of colorful ornaments and threw tinsel on like it was going out of style. And to boot, they had multicolored, blinking lights all over.

Well, when we all met to look at our respective works of art, the Anglos said, "Look how gaudy this tree is." The Hispanics countered with, "But your tree has no spirit; it's just dead and cold." I looked at both of the trees and saw how they represented the styles of both people, not that one was better or worse, just different. I liked the elegance of the first tree but was moved by the joy of the second one.

The assumption for most multicultural ministries is that we are all really the same people, but that's an assumption that needs to be examined because we obviously live in different worlds. Yet all of us know there is something about us that makes us a common humanity. But what does it mean to be human? That's a question theologians have been struggling with for centuries. From my experience in Pennsylvania I learned that the cultural differences were so pronounced that in the end, culturally, we really couldn't be just one community.

So can multicultural ministries work?

Yes, if differences are taken into account and people are willing to live with absurdities. For example, another breakdown at my Lutheran church occurred when the Hispanic group wanted their church to be named after Saint Martin of Porres--a Latin American from the 17th century who not only happens to be a Catholic but also a saint in the Catholic Church--not very Lutheran. That didn't go over well with the Pennsylvania Dutch Lutherans. They couldn't understand why we would name a Lutheran church after a Catholic saint. You can't really blame them, it was an unusual request. In fact, the name went through and it's the only Lutheran church I know of that's named after Saint Martin. But what is important is to look at these events to see what works and what doesn't work when trying to bridge cultures. It shows how different the understanding of tradition is among various groups.

Catholic and Lutheran theologians can get together in Lutheran-Catholic dialogues and come up with statements no one reads, yet a Lutheran community can actually create a Lutheran church named after a Catholic saint. That's where the power is.

What are some of the most pressing issues in the U.S. Catholic Church?

To me one of the major issues is assertiveness. Alienated groups must say to the church, "You're not really speaking to my reality." These unique realities we all face put us in a strange relationship to the church. And we need to figure out just how to make that transition.

Take for example the trend toward inculturation. Recently I was attending an American Academy of Religion seminar and was talking with some Native Americans about a particular church that places a peace pipe on the altar as a symbol of inculturation. But as it turns out, many Native Americans find this act offensive because the peace pipe, which is also a war pipe, is a separate symbol to them and shouldn't be mixed with the symbols of the Mass. It's like putting a bull in a china shop.

It is not the sign itself but the way it is interpreted that makes it indigenous to a group. Think of the plastic Jesus on the windshield of someone's car: it's not the sign that's important, it's the interpretation. So putting a peace pipe on the altar as a sign does not make the interpretation any more indigenous to Native Americans--it may even make it less so. When people get all upset over an African church that loves Gregorian chant because chanting is so "anti-Vatican II," they don't ralize that they're missing the interpretation because they're so overwhelmed by the sign.

Most cultural groups are in a crazy situation because their lives really are full of absurdities. For example, Latin America was formed by American, Asian, African, and European blood. Theology needs to address this reality.

How does it do that?

The Hispanic American theologian Father Virgil Elizondo was one of the first theologians to handle the idea of the diverse mix of nature and culture together in a truly significant way. Most theologians left nature to science. Elizondo spoke of mestizaje, or the mixing of race and culture, as grace. As Catholics, we usually speak of grace in terms of our redemption or salvation--our final end. Rarely do we hear of grace in terms of our origins and of what we were made of. Through Elizondo, we began to understand grace as not just a matter of our salvation but also a matter of our origins--we are graced in who we are and in what we do.

By bringing those two concepts together, Catholics can see the sacraments as not so much serving the purpose to get to an end but acknowledging what's right there already in you and part of who you are. This theology validates and confirms who we are rather than just indicating or pointing to whom we should become. You see, when you point to something out there, you start saying that where you are is not very comfortable. What Elizondo says is that that very uncomfortableness is part of grace.

Can you give an example of what might be considered uncomfortableness?

The former understanding of grace, or that which most of us have been taught, is to point away from the mix--our nature and culture--and say it is not going to be part of salvation. In the meantime, we offer it up. It is a call to change who we are--for example, a Cuban Catholic who finds himself living in Ohio with an Anglo Lutheran wife. We hear it in those terms because the uncomfortableness of our lives is not part of the medium by whihc we find salvation. But in fact, Elizondo is saying that the mix itself is the means of grace and the path of salvation is already there for us.

Whether we call it grace or not and whether we have faith or not, we're still experiencing grace. When you bring in the concept of faith, now you're talking of grace directed to our end. But there's also grace that comes from our origins, that comes from that time when we were not. And because we came from where we were not, just the fact that we're here is a grace.

Where is this understanding of grace found in our tradition?

One place is in the seven-day creation story at the beginning of Genesis and the story of cultures in the middle of Genesis--Noah and the ark. The sevenday story is a family story about human origins, which is what we call nature. The Noah story is the story of our cultures--the nations we come from, the traditions we have. If we see ourselves as part of both our natural family and our culture, the concept of grace becomes a bridge. It really helps me understand the original paradise that's spoken of in the Bible. It is a harmony of nature and culture together in the human--our natural ability to make cultures, cities, and nations with our mind and intellect.

Can theologians address everyone's experience of grace if it includes so

many varied origins?

Every individual's experience of grace is a very sophisticated theology, which the specialist community has not really been able to articulate yet. Now that's not throwing bricks at theologians. They're trying to understand why grace is more than "there will be a better life to come." They're trying to figure out why people experience grace as an everyday sort of thing, as a sustainment and burden. But that wisdom of grace that individuals experience is very difficult to articulate because it's profound. It goes to the very roots of what it means to be human. And when theologians try to talk about it and get everybody to agree, all hell breaks loose.

What are the consequences if theologians don't try to articulate our

experiences of grace?

There are things happening in this world that are beyond our experiences. For example, not long ago a genetic-engineering project was brought to the attention of the institution where I am a student of theology. Engineers from the project were asking us, as ethicists and theologians, what we felt were the implications of genetically controlling the shape, size, and nature of a human being. Now if I don't as a theologian have a good answer to that question, these scientists could go ahead and do whatever they want.

So our experience of grace has very profound roots because our very existence is profound. By understanding what Elizondo meant by grace as a combination of culture and nature, it gives me a handle on how to talk about genetic experimentations and how they apply to the human being. When we talk about our very being as grace and start appreciating the value of our very nature--the fact that you're a white woman, a black man, or a gay person--we're saying that grace varies with who you are in all that mix. If we don't learn to articulate that important value, then scientists can start checking off parts of our nature. Scientists could say, "No, we don't want a white woman or a black man. We want someone with this particular mix and these particular features." Values are then reshaped and judgments are made that are contrary to our understanding of grace. Is it more graced to have a perfect baby than a blemished one? Are blemished babies graced less? Of course, with a Christian understanding of grace, we must say no.

But can't we benefit from science?

Yes, actually I find in science a spirit that I wish we had in theology. We need to take a lesson from science and work in the context of discovery and not justification, because with discovery comes truth. It is then theology's job to give meaning to truth.

If theologians embark on an understanding of religion as justifying things and if scientists approach their work as an enterprise of discovery without meaning, a split will form that will literally kill both.

The scientific enterprise itself, while dealing with genetics and nuclear war for example, has come to a point where meaning now becomes paramount to them. Before, perhaps, it could be ignored, but now meaning is staring right in the face of scientists. Some cosmologists have told me that in the end they will have to "invent God" to speak of and explain some of the work they do.

Where do religion and science meet?

Okay, I'm going to stick out my neck a bit and tell you my opinion. I maintain that what guides both religion and science--what's really real--is the imagination.

Let me give you an example: inertia. Intertia is the concept that things tend to stay in motion or at rest. Scientists see inertia as what is really real. But inertia is not really within our experience; our experience is friction. If I push a cup across the table, it stops. To think of this cup as moving on forever after I hit it is really an act of the imagination. It is not within my experience. I have to go beyond my experience and imagine intertia. However, scientists believe that that imagination is what's really real. Theologians do very much the same when talking about God and love and grace. The broader meaning of intellect, in my opinion, is the imagination.

How does the imagination play out in a dialogue such as the genetics

project you described?

In the same way that theologians and scientists can be helped and guided by listening to the people, I believe they learn from the myths in culture. Whether scientists like it or not, they are shaped by the myths we live by. Those myths are not our imagination, but they provide the foundation from which the imagination springs. Myths are a collective wisdom about what works and what doesn't in this world. Our genes are, in a sense, a collective wisdom of nature about what has lived or has the ability to live. It's the wisdom about living. The wisdom that's available to us by our genes is built out of lived experience of millions of years. Part of science's work is to look at that wisdom and learn from it. In some sense a scientist working with genetic material for 30 years is like the tourists who go to Mexico for a week and come back thinking they know Mexico. Scientists should not be rushing to change the human makeup.

What does it mean to be human?

That, as I said, is the question theologians have struggled with for centuries. Let's look at the example of the early Europeans, who originally said that the criterion for being human was to build cities. The Europeans who set out to conquer the Americas saw that everyone around them built cities, so they assumed that this factor was part of human nature. Well, when they came across the people in the Americas who apparently looked like other human beings but who were not building cities, they were in a quandary. They either had to call these people other than human (which was their initial reaction), redefine who Europeans were, or find a new definition for being human (which they eventually did). In this interaction with someone other than they were, they found out who they themselves really were.

Now this can be seen as what I call the asymmetric other. In other words, we're not symmetrical. The uniqueness of individuals is what causes us problems. But it's a graced problem because the only way we're going to find out who we are is to find out who the other is, because the same creator who made me unique, made you unique. If I come to know who another is, I come to know again the source of who made me.

It is this uniqueness that drives us to form communities. True community is when our individuality comes together with our culture in a true fellowship--a fellowship that really articulates the creator who made us. It is not by creating a sameness for both of us.

So we shouldn't strive for sameness?

No. Oppression occurs when people try to set the condition by which you can be you. But that's not to say we can't live in harmony. It all goes back to the imagination. If we truly want fellowship, our particularities can be bridged through our imagination. But we can never actually feel someone else's experience no matter how much our intelligence will let us understand it. We are different and diversity plays a very important function in nature and in the perpetuation of our species. But we are all human, and in the end it's not that you're male or female or black or white, the final reality is that it's between you and me.
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Title Annotation:interview with theologian Alex Garcia-Rivera
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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