A searching and richly textured history of the affinities and common origins of Latin American and North American liberation theologies, The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology
(Oxford University Press 2018) dives into the work of thinkers who understood that theology must must have something to offer to people suffering under oppressive systems.
By offering sharp readings of the ideas of Gustavo Gutiérrez, James Cone, Rosemary Ruether and many others, Lilian Calles Barger
traces the parallels between the liberation theologies of Latin America, black thinkers, and feminists in the 1960s and 70s in response to extreme poverty, entrenched white supremacy, and the constrictions of patriarchal power. Theology from the perspective of elite white men reinforced ideas of freedom “defined by the individualism of capitalist economics,” and upheld the rifts in post-Enlightenment theology: “a sacred/secular split, a universal humanity, a private religious self, and ideological autonomy.” In response, Liberationists across traditions turned to a theological poetics that would express a “theology from below.”
Trained and educated in traditional western theology, but drawing on theological resources outside the seminaries, liberation theologians worked to address the real conditions of subordinated peoples. Turning to social science, they found a discipline still working to think society along the grooves carved by theological thought, absorbing questions authority and community formation though scrubbed them of their religious aspects. Returning the church to concern over social and political life, liberationists recovered the resources of sociology and put them to theological use, in the process continuing to smash the wall between what we perceive as a secular thought, and what we understand as a theological thought, reconfiguring the theo-political ground and making “a singular American contribution” to our understanding of where politics and theology meet.
Rather than taking a biographical or institutional lens to view the history of these theologies, Barger emphasizes “a web of interconnected and circulating ideas.” Lines of descent from “antecedent thinkers, social networks,” and snippets of “personal biography” all appear over the course of the book, but World Come of Age
advances a cultural history that places religious ideas within the “overall frame of social thought,” where “one can see a persistent religious liberatory sensibility and examine how this sensibility converged with numerous intellectual and social movements.” The result is a study wide in scope and full of surprising connections, stark realities, and a compelling statement about “the import and ubiquity of religious ideas in modernity.”
This episode of New Books in American Studies was produced in cooperation with the Society for U.S. Intellectual History
A researcher and writer, Carl Nellis digs in archives and academic libraries for the critically-acclaimed podcasts Lore and Unobscured. Studies on both sides of the Atlantic left him with a taste for the tangled colonial history that threads the culture of the Middle Ages into today’s United States.