Symposium Introduction

It is difficult to know how to begin introducing Orlando Espín’s remarkable Idol & Grace: On Traditioning and Subversive Hope. It is a slim book about “traditioning”, the living and active process by which the Christian faith is transmitted, received, and lived. As Espín makes clear early on, his book is not a historical account of tradition or a theology of tradition, two related projects so admirably performed in Yves Congar’s Tradition and Traditions. While this may be true of Espín’s Idol and Grace if ‘tradition’ is taken to be an unchanging body of propositions or practices, it seems that such a remark is more indicative of authorial modesty rather than intent. The difficulty of introducing Idol & Grace is that this book about traditioning, offered from the perspective of a Latino/a Western Catholicism concerned with and grounded in the experience of the marginalized and lo cotidiano, is in truth a short primer in systematic, moral, and political theology, such that it does indeed contain, at least implicitly, a brief history and theology of traditioning. An immense amount of theological, cultural, and sociological material must be deployed for the development of any substantive “theology of tradition(ing)”, but what makes Idol & Grace so distinctive within this genre is the clarity and scope of its vision and the ease with which Espín discusses any number of theological topics and issues. When working through what Christian traditioning means and is, Espín offers clear and reasoned proposals regarding everything from the doctrines of God and revelation, Christology, ecclesiology, and the Christian life, to what it means to do theology and live faithfully within the context of globalization and massive social and economic disparities, all of which is done within the key of an intercultural and dialogical theology. The result is impressive, even more so because of the book’s eminently readability.                     

What is it, then, that the Christian traditions actually “tradition”? What is it that they hand over and receive and celebrate in their myriad different times and places? Throughout the book there is a mild and yet firm denial that what Christianity traditions is a timeless and universal depositum fidei, an ossified group of claims to be held and practices to be performed. This measured and consistent polemic against the “doctrinification” of Christian traditioning, a temptation which Espín is comfortable labeling as idolatrous, is coupled with a positive vision of God’s self-revelation and presence in Jesus Christ and the inauguration of a “subversive hope” that God is with and for the socially and economically marginalized and disposable. Indeed, it is the memory of Jesus and the subversive hope which he inaugurated and traditioned which becomes the red thread running throughout the book’s different sections. In contrast to the idol of Christianity reduced to a series of truth claims, grace names God’s work to enable and sustain the memory and hope of Jesus, which is witnessed to by acts of compassion and justice intra et extra ecclesiam, and which is what Christianity traditions when it is faithful to God’s act of self-donation in Christ.

This is a clear and compelling view of Christian traditioning, and there is whole host of theological and cultural arguments and presuppositions at work which will hopefully be fruitfully developed in this symposium. Elías Ortega-Aponte’s response to the book beautifully draws upon and develops the startling and daring ethical challenge Espín’s work puts before the reader. Mary Doak’s contribution advances several implications for ecclesiology and sacramentology given Espín’s account of traditioning. In his appreciative and substantive response to Idol & Grace, Todd Walatka reflects upon what Espín’s book means for the nature and task of theology as whole. Finally, Samuel Cruz offers some contextualizations for the book and a series of questions regarding to what extent Espín’s account of tradition is itself traditioned, and so one tradition among many within Christianity. From the opening remarks of Idol & Grace it is clear that the book was crafted and written in the company of many voices and friends. It is our hope that this symposium will continue the conversations that led to the book and which are present within it.

About Orlando Espin, author of
"Idol and Grace"
Orlando Espín is professor of systematic theology, and of religious studies, at the University of San Diego, where he founded and directs the interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Latino/a Catholicism. He has specialized in the theological study of popular Catholicism, as well as in theologies of culture and traditioning. He is regarded as one of the founders of U.S. Latino/a theology. He is the 2016 recipient of the "John Courtney Murray Award"-- the highest recognition by the Catholic Theological Society of America.


Traditioning the Hope of Lo Cotidiano

How does one goes on “traditioning” the hopes of the people who struggle, survive, and at times thrive, in spite of ongoing threats to their survival? Given that those with privileges and those without them all share a social world constructed through the unequal distribution of power and resources, how do we tackle the challenge of traditioning not in the name of the least of these, but with them, and do so with an openness to being questioned? More importantly, how do we turn attuned hearing, perceptive sight, and nimble imagination to the task of learning from and being challenged by the “least of these,” the poor of the earth—poor and long suffering by the creation of unequal social arrangements legitimized by abuses of power—economical, political, education, and religious? In Idol & Grace: On Traditioning and Subversive Hope, Orlando Espín puts forward a compelling answer to such questions. In what follows, I attempt not to summarize in a nutshell the argument of a work filled with insights about the theological task, challenges to taken for granted assumptions of received bodies of knowledge and traditions, admonitions to live emboldened by the powerful message of an executed Galilean peasant, Jesus, and an ethics fueled by the hope for a more compassionate and justice-filled mañana. As philosopher Hilary Putnam once put it, “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.”

The argument Espín puts forward in this lucid text, the work of a powerful and vital theological imagination, a masterful teacher comfortable in multiple bodies of knowledge at the height of his craft, prompts us to take with all seriousness that it is not what we may claim or believe doctrinally that bears witness to good news of the executed Galilean peasant, but the things about which our lives bear witness. What can explain the power of that news, and the meaning of being a church, is how the subversive hope “that has led them demonstrably to bet their lives together for a world built on compassion, justice, and dignity for all” (132). Idol & Grace, as a poem, deserves to be read, once in silent contemplation, then again aloud as a practice to hear the voice resonating against the body and the filling of the space around us, and read yet again as a eucharistic act of community-making, transforming and empowering. In reading this text, those of us fortunate enough to have shared bread and wine, or un cafecito, with Espín, will hear the voice of a dear mentor, friend, and stellar human being. We hear his passion and laughter through the pages of the text, but more importantly, we understand the seriousness, y el compromiso, with which Espín takes the ways of knowing and expressions of faithfulness of those marginalized. What now is vital is his willingness to dialogue with the marginalized, among the marginalized, and in the languages of the marginalized (127). I pray that my preceding comments be not taken as hyperbolic; this text addresses itself to us in a most subversive grace-act posing the question: Do we dare to take a bet on the living in hope for the living and in so doing be the church?

As meaning-making and sharing creatures, however imperfect, we make attempts to extract the essential from our experiences; the meaningfulness with which we nourish ourselves, and which we hope to pass on as memory. But such essential extractions from our experiences, from our everydayness, are slices of larger webs of significations, utterly human acts, beautiful and complex as they are misshapen by power dynamics and precariously limited. Memories of who we are as individuals and communities are also tricky and risky things to be passed on. They have the capacity to heal as to hurt, to built as they can destroy. And yet, for those daring to bet on the living and to go on filled with hopes, esperanzas for a better tomorrow, acts of interpreting quotidian experiences are cornerstones to saying anything that is meaningful of faith and tradition—whether Christian or not. We recall moments of beauty and pain, like the smell of the flowering rosebush or the prickle of its thorn, as put in the verse of Nancy Morejón, Rosa, “Hablémosle, nuestra es su espina [Rose. “Let’s speak to it, its thorn is ours (43)]. We latch onto experiences, made into memories to make sense of who we are as individuals and community: we celebrate our ways as we often attempt to dominate others. At times, domination opens the door to being haunted by memory.

There are haunting moments in Espín’s Idol & Grace: On Traditioning and Subversive Hope. Haunting in that they let the ghosts of voices repressed through marginalization appear, speak, and challenge idolatrous understandings of faith. Charles Lemert has said that when ghosts appear “they are more than the living. They visit with impunity, by their own pleasure. The living cannot easily shake them off because even the courageous would rather not hear what they have to say” (6). Espín dares to listen to the marginalized and more than listen, to converse with their perspectives; he brings them to the theological feast not as guests but as hosts. My point is not to hint toward a hauntology of tradition in the work of Espín akin to Derrida’s critique of the tradition of Marxists’ critiques of capitalism, or Avery Gordon’s counter-conjuring to Social Theory. But rather to suggest that, similarly to the ways in which ghosts disrupt the ruling organization of social worlds that resulting from the unequal mix of domination, resistance, and survival, and as ghosts touch forces us to come to terms with the living and those who perish under the undue burden of marginalization, Espín’s proposals ask us to revisit, and in so doing disrupt, what we have taken for granted in terms of the meaning(s) of the tradition(s) we hold to be truth, how we arrive at the judgment that they are true, and the ways in which we opt to transmit them. Or, put differently, to challenge “the self-idolatry of many among the ordained, the learned, and the pious” and urge us, whether ordained, learned, or pious, to radical acts of giving primacy to compassion and justice as guiding principles in our particular traditioning of our faith experience (123).

I want to lift one of those moments of Espín’s work that will remain with me above all else: “Even if God did not exist, the transformation of the world into a new reality of compassion, justice, and inclusion remains the most extraordinary, meaningful, and subversive dare to humanity. . . . That a peasant was executed resonates as real daily life in most of the world; it has for more than two millennia. That a peasant dare to dream of a daily world of compassion and justice also resonates as real daily hope in most of the world; it resonates very meaningfully and dangerously” (122). Because I am a religious humanist, an agnostic with Christian sensibilities, I cannot but hear the ethical challenge at my feet. Do I dare to believe, and because I believe, act in ways to be an agent of transformation of the current world into one a bit more compassionate, un poquito más justo, and striving to be more inclusive? Answering this question, if I read Espín correctly, is what is at stake in faithful traditioning, and this answer cannot be spoken from the privileged epistemological, ontological, and methodological voice of the powerful. It resonates from within the cries of the oppressed.

Espín calls us who dare to be faithful the living message of our traditions, to work through the ethical failings of leaving out the vast reservoir of knowledge of those who have been left out of history. He calls us, then, to be savvy interpreters of the contextual cotidiano. Les Back, as Espín, has argued that focusing on the everyday life prompted us to be attentive to what goes on around us, those mundane encounters that may we may pass up was not important. “It also means we have to think about the wider spectrum of life experiences from the despair and social damage to the ordinary triumphs of getting by” (821). For Espín, “the voices and lives of the immense majority of humans who could not write or whose artifacts were not preserved by nature or humankind cannot be left out of history.” More important, and herein lies a subversive ethical direction that urges of to take faith as seriously as our humanity in its possibilities and limitations: “Faithfulness to history and tradition is also faithfulness to the meanings and hope constructed by the victims” (43). And thus, we have to proceed with utmost care heeding the warning that, because we are humans, everything we do is a cultural act; there is no human space outside of culture. But we also have an ethical obligation to work for a better tomorrow with the cultural tools, traditions being one of them, that have been handed down to us and have contributed to shape us, and that we shape and pass on.

As a sociologist, I find that Espín’s proposal to move from tradition to traditioning is akin to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s argument for the decolonial potentials of theory. That is to say that theory, as tradition, can also be mobilized for humanizing ends. Linda Tuhiwai Smith proposes that theory is important for decolonial struggles, and thus, methodologies need to be decolonized in order to inform theories with liberatory potentials. This should be so because theories contain within them “methods for selecting and arranging, for prioritizing and legitimating what we see and do. Theories enable us to deal with contradictions and uncertainties. Perhaps more significantly, it gives us space to plan, to strategize, to take greater control over our resistances. The language of a theory can also be used as a way of organizing and determining action” (1999, 38). Tuhiwai Smith has also said that “what makes ideas ‘real’ is the system of knowledge, the formations of culture, and the relations of power in which these concepts are located” (1999, 48). In order to do so, however, the theorist needs to be actively self-reflective, and thus, proceed informed by the insights provided by automethodology, another possible way of referring to lo cotidiano.

Sandra Pensoneau-Conway and Satoshi Toyosaki have argued that automethodology involves “knowledge and theory about method about the self . . . knowledge and theory about method by the self and knowledge and theory about method for the self” (385). Because of this, then, “the line between the ethnographic self and the ethnographic other becomes blurred, as the seemingly distant two are merged into (an albeit slippery) one.” In this sense, “the autoethnographic self is a particular kind of full body social actor, constituted, interrogated, revised, and reconstituted within the liminal, intersectional, discursive, and performative space where these multiple layers of ethnographic gazes interact. Autoethnography is a living text which renders a careful understanding of the complexities of cultural identities” (386). Any automethodology, then, aims at taking seriously the realities of the theorists as culturally bounded agents aiming at understanding and responding to the world around them in ways truthful to who they are and their contextualities. Such is also the task of those actively engage in traditioning.

A conclusion signals a closing of, a stop of this discussion; instead, and in the spirit of Espín’s work, in lieu of a last word, I want to say, “Thank you, Orlando, for such a wonderful conversation! I hope to speak with you again soon.”

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    Orlando Espin


    Reply to Elías Ortega-Aponte

    I am grateful to Prof. Ortega-Aponte for his response to Idol and Grace. Reading his response made me remember that this book is also, besides a book in the theology of traditioning (and etcetera), an argued expression of why I call myself “Christian.”

    Ortega-Aponte’s response clearly highlights that the main methodological challenge in theologizing today is “to dialogue with the marginalized, among the marginalized, and in the languages of the marginalized.” And, “to listen to the marginalized, and more than listen, to converse with their perspectives . . . not as guests but as hosts.” As in the other responses to Idol and Grace, Ortega-Aponte underlines methodological issues the book poses to theology. His reflection led me to further expand mine.

    It seems evident that Christian theology as a scholarly discipline—regardless of denominational context—wants to engage human reason, and methodologically walk the path of the rational. The human reason engaged, nevertheless, but be recognizable as reason by the majority of humankind. Because if by “reason” we only or mainly refer to the logic of the hegemonically dominant, we have degraded reason to a vulgar tool of empire.

    As I have said elsewhere, all theological constructs, whether they consciously reflect on it or not, imply and result from social and cultural contextualizations. Furthermore, theological works follow methods that are always dependent on those contextualizations and on the “non-innocent” methodological assumptions and choices of the theologians. Because, no matter how evident, we often seem to forget that theologians are human persons with families, jobs, needs, gifts, friendships, genders, races, sexual orientations, ethnicities, nationalities, etc., and with inescapable limitations, contextualizations and the transience of humans. Theology, done by theologians, cannot avoid reflecting its crafters’ real lives, contexts and limitations—in what theology’s crafters see as important and in what they do not see (or choose not to see).

    Theology methodologically approaches and tries to understand those dimensions or horizons of human life, of human societies, and of the whole world, which persons and communities regard as ultimately grounding and determining meaning and life. Furthermore, theology studies human life, human societies and the whole world because these are both loci and protagonists in revelation (which is the grounding “theological” relationship).

    Theology is still “faith seeking understanding” to the degree that faith is the grounding perspective. This perspective (faith) and this process (theology), in turn, require (at least) contextual, interdisciplinary approaches because no human learning (theology included) could exhaustively name or comprehend life’s ultimate meaning. However, it would seem woefully inadequate to consider theology’s task today as exclusively a matter of naming, knowing or understanding even something as profound and arguably crucial as ultimate meaning. There is no question, of course, that theology does attempt to know and understand—and no apologies are made for this—but this “noetic” dimension is far from exhausting what theology’s task is in the contemporary world.

    Theologians are increasingly convinced that, in the words of philosopher and theologian Ignacio Ellacuría,

    theology understands itself as a reflection, from faith, on the historical reality and action of the People of God who follow the work of Jesus in announcing and fulfilling God’s Reign. . . . [Theology] tries to establish a living connection between the world of God and the human world. Its reflective, disciplined character does not keep theology from being an action of the People of God. . . . Theology must make use of theoretical tools that seem to remove it from immediate action, (but its theoretical work is for the purpose of enlightening and informing action). Theology is, thus, a (theoretical and action-destined) process that begins with historical acts and seeks to lead to historical acts, and it is not satisfied with being a purely interpretive reflection. It is nourished by faithful belief in the presence of God within history—an operative presence that, although it must be grasped in grateful faith, remains a historical action. There is no room (in theology) for faith without works; rather, that faith draws believers into the very force of God that operates in history, so that we are converted into new historical forms of that operative and salvific presence of God in humanity.[1]

    Christian theology, therefore, is not exclusively or mainly a theoretical, hermeneutic exercise—no matter how satisfying, important or attractive. Christian theology is disciplined reflection on reality, within reality’s dynamics, conflicts, power asymmetries and social configurations, for reality’s transformation, from the perspective of faith in the Reign of God and in the God of the Reign as announced by Jesus of Nazareth. Fides quaerens intellectum ad mundi transformationem, if I may paraphrase Anselm of Canterbury’s famous dictum.

    Therefore and conversely, if the intimate connections with reality (as locus and aim of the theologian’s craft) were not present in a theology, or if the ultimate goal of reality’s transformation were absent from a theological construct, then that theology would be deeply flawed as Christian theology—regardless of its otherwise impressive academic apparatus. And yet again conversely, if the scholarly theoretical tools were absent in, or were merely incidental to, what is presented as theology, that work too would be profoundly flawed as Christian theology, because theology must make use of the best theoretical tools available to the theologians for the purpose of enlightening and informing reflection and action.

    It is precisely this understanding of theology today that leads theologians to affirm their discipline’s indispensable interdisciplinary character and dialogical vocation. Therefore, it is not the latest academic fad, or some need to appear still relevant, which press “western Catholic” (as the expression is defined in Idol and Grace) and other theologies into conversation with philosophy, with the social or natural sciences, or with any other scholarly discipline. It is the very self-definition of theology that marks it as interdisciplinary.

    It must be emphasized, however, that by “interdisciplinary” here we do not mean, in any way or form, some sort of academic “syncretic academic smorgasbord.” On the contrary, the starting point (i.e., human reality under the light and call of revelation), perspective (i.e., faith), and aims of theology (i.e., the transformation of all human reality according to God’s revelation), are all clearly its own. The interdisciplinary character of theology pertains to its methods—and this is no less important in theology than its starting point, perspective and aims. But since theology’s methods make possible theology’s understanding of reality, of revelation, of faith, and of the many processes, conditions and contexts which impact the aforementioned, then interdisciplinarity shapes and conditions theology’s work and constructs in a manner not extrinsic to theology itself.

    All theologies, furthermore—and I cannot emphasize this enough—are contextual (representing and expressing the cultural, gender, social, racial and other contexts of their practitioners as well as of their diverse milieu). There can never be (and there has never been) a Christian theology that is, strictly speaking, “universal,” a-historical, a-culturally located, or a-contextual in racial, gender, sexual orientation, social class, etc., realities, perspectives, assumptions and interests. All theologies and all theologians are contextually “non-innocent” (borrowing Justo González’s insightful expression). A theology labeled as “mainstream” begs us to ethically ask whose “mainstream” and whose “labeling” decision?

    Consequently, when the majority of (Christian and non-Christian) humankind is treated as “disposable” and/or “marginal” by decisions of the dominant (i.e., “the learned, the powerful and the pious,” as I often refer to them in Idol and Grace), and when the reason and logic of the poor are summarily dismissed as impossible or irrelevant (and “not good enough”), one has to ethically question if theological methods and constructs born and crafted with and by the tools, and the expected “standards” of the dominant, are more than useful tools in the attempted legitimation of the world’s injustices and cruelty—maybe not the theologians’ personal intentions, but the result welcome by the dominant. Can “the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house?” echoing Audre Lorde.

    As Prof. Ortega-Aponte wrote in his response, theologians need “to listen to the marginalized, and more than listen, to converse with their perspectives . . . not as guests but as hosts.” What will happen to theology then? What will “good” theology be, and by whose criteria?

    I thank Ortega-Aponte for his response to Idol and Grace. His words, evidently, made me again hope for another way of theologizing, through which the crafters of the fides quaerens intellectum will construct understanding not for themselves or to impress the academically or socially dominant but for the victims of our world, in sustained existential and intellectual dialogue with the disposables, inventing new methods that would not silence but make them loudly speak, for the building of a radically different just and compassionate world. Ad mundi transformationem.

    One of my favorite salsa composers (Gilberto Santa Rosa) once wrote: No va para ningún lado quien no sabe dónde está. Very true, and often forgotten. We live in a world of deep and cruel power asymmetries, imbricated in cultures, societies, religions and . . . theologies. Are we theologically hoping for and actually building a humane, just and compassionate alternative?

    [1] Ellacuría, “La Iglesia de los pobres, sacramento histórico de la liberación,” in ECA: Estudios Centroamericanos 348–49 (1977) 702–22.



Subversive Hope: A Challenge to the Church

Orlando Espín’s provocative book Idol and Grace: On Traditioning and Subversive Hope refuses to allow professional ministers or academic theologians to be content with abstract formulations of Christian faith, however intellectually satisfying they may be. Such expressions, as Espín persuasively argues, truly serve Christianity only when they “tradition the hope that Jesus of Nazareth was right regarding the dawn of the reign of God and the God of the Reign” (129). The point of doctrine or theology, Espín argues, is not to reduce the lived faith of Christians to mere acceptance of statements of belief (which Espín rejects as “doctrinification”), but rather to express that faith in such a way that new generations continue to “bet their lives” on the subversive hope of Jesus of Nazareth.

I am interested in briefly exploring here the implications of Espín’s account of Christian traditioning for an emerging ecumenical consensus about the purpose (or mission) of the church. Numerous recent church documents declare that the task of the church is to be a sign and instrument of union with God and unity among humanity (and, as often further specified, with the non-human creation as well). This understanding of the church’s mission, drawn from Orthodox theology, is explicitly stated in the ecclesiological documents of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et spes. More recently, this idea that the church’s mission is to witness to and work for (or, be a sign and instrument of) the oneness of all in God has been affirmed in documents of the World Council of Churches (especially the recent The Church: Towards a Common Vision) and in numerous other ecumenical and denominational statements.

At a time when the role of Christians in society, and especially the value of a faith community, is unclear to many, this widespread ecumenical agreement has the potential to have broad impact on the life of the church. It behooves us to determine, then, whether this is an appropriate exercise of traditioning as understood by Espín: a statement of faith that will serve Christians in their everyday lives of witness to the hope of Jesus of Nazareth. Or might it instead be a theological fad, perhaps even one that distracts Christians from the truly subversive hope they are called to embody?

In light of Espín’s praxis-oriented approach to traditioning, the first question we should ask of this statement of the church’s mission is: what kind of unity is the church seeking when it serves as an instrument of the unity of all in God? After all, fascism is a form of unity, joining the community in obedience to an authoritarian god-like leader. Global capitalism is another kind of unity, incorporating the whole world into a market-dominated economic system that leaves little room for non-market values and, as Espín astutely notes, increasingly renders “disposable” those people who do not serve the needs of the market (50).

Surely neither fascism nor capitalism represents the unity the church is called to foster. But what do these various church documents mean by unity? Without clarifying what kind of unity the church seeks, and on whose terms, the mission of the church is at best vague, and at worst pernicious in proffering a platitude that can be endorsed for opposing purposes.

Espín provides a first clear direction for defining this unity by pointing out what should be (but is not always) obvious: Jesus of Nazareth is at the center of Christianity and should be the starting point for any theology (1). Given that, as Espín repeatedly reminds us, Jesus bet his life on the subversive hope that God is transforming the world in accord with God’s limitless compassion, it follows that the unity the church aims for, in itself and in society, must be a compassionate, just, and inclusive unity. A church that follows Jesus of Nazareth must then seek to bring together all of humanity in a limitless compassion that is extended especially to the poor, the devalued, and the disposable ones.

Church documents (such as Gaudium et spes) do often affirm that the unity the church seeks is not a bland sameness but rather a universally inclusive unity-in-diversity. Too often today uniformity is mistaken for unity, when in fact uniformity negates unity. Simply put, without difference, there is nothing to unite. As Espín emphasizes, a God who is limitlessly compassionate is a God who values each person as who s/he is in her/his cultural, racial, gendered, and personal particularity. The unity of God’s reign is not served by a church that enforces a hegemonic uniformity, but rather by one that welcomes and celebrates the diversity that individuates people and cultures.

What these church documents do not always clearly communicate, however, is that the unity of God’s reign is thoroughly opposed to the ubiquitous and unjust human power asymmetries that make the world “outright cruel toward most human beings and abusive toward most other living creatures” (94). Christians should bet their lives (as Jesus did) on a God who, as revealed in the crucifixion of Jesus by the unjust powers of his day, calls us to solidarity—to seek our common good—with all of the countless and too often nameless victims of history: babies killed in war or dead from treatable disease or starvation, their devastated parents, the families divided by migration, the trafficked children treated as mere commodities, to mention just a few of the systemic cruelties of our world. Any church that wishes to serve the ultimate unity of all in the God of Jesus must, as Espín’s work clarifies, actively subvert this status quo, seeking instead a unity in which all are joined in a compassionate care extended especially to the most excluded, the most disregarded, the most suffering among us.

The church cannot serve the unity of God’s reign, then, unless it fosters a unity that is subversive of society at its core and not merely at its periphery. A Christianity that embodies the hope of Jesus is not a faith that will merely soften the edges of the current injustices, but one that recognizes and acts against the profound oppression, the denial of equal worth and dignity, that is structured into our social systems and perpetuated by our institutions (especially by the global capitalism that determines so much of contemporary life). Unity in the God of Jesus of Nazareth is not a surface harmony to be created on the basis of a fundamentally abusive and unequal status quo, however “nicely” Christians may treat others. The task of the church, as Espín clarifies, is to challenge foundational cruelty and injustice so that true human unity can be achieved.

This ecclesial, communal hope is thus also and especially a practical hope—a hope that, as Johann Baptist Metz has similarly argued, Christians can truly defend only through their actions. As Espín further emphasizes, an authentic Christian faith is lived as kenosis, the self-giving risk of one’s life through which Christians respond to the revelation that God is giving God’s self for us and for all of the world. Perhaps few would dare to deny this claim, since the command to love God and one another has been so central to Christian faith as passed down (or traditioned) through the centuries. Nevertheless, church doctrines and theology continue to need Espín’s reminder that self-giving love is the dangerous sine qua non of all Christian life and therefore of any adequate Christian theology.

Ignoring (or forgetting) the centrality of this fundamentally practical hope, much of contemporary ecclesiology focuses on debates about the church’s (too often presumable static) nature and structures, rather than on the church’s mission to live its hope. Espín’s theology of traditioning, with its emphasis on Christian faith as a praxis of hope in God’s transformation of the world, restores to its proper primacy the mission of the church to contribute to an inclusive, diverse, and just unity in the world. I believe it follows that ecclesiological debates about the church’s nature and structures are appropriately a secondary stage of traditioning. These are efforts to express (for the benefit of future generations) the historically and culturally conditioned ways that Christians have organized church life to serve the church’s mission by fostering Christian experience of and response to God’s transformative grace.

Espín’s theology of traditioning also makes a significant contribution by reminding us that Christian hope is ultimately eschatological. To be sure, Espín endorses as central to Christianity the belief that God is actively transforming the world now. Christian hope, then, is partially (or proleptically) achievable in history, and so this hope must be an active hope expressed in cooperation with the divine action. Nevertheless, no particular historical project, however much it seems to support inclusion, diversity, and justice, should be treated as the final goal of history, lest it become a present idol (demanding sacrifices!) rather than a future and liberating hope. The fullness of God’s reign will only be realized beyond history; Christians’ ultimate hope is for a perfection of love in a universal community beyond time.

Both the eschatological and the paraxial dimensions of Christianity’s subversive hope are implied in the Catholic emphasis on the church itself as a sacrament (which I would argue is a good example of the theology of the church’s sacramental nature supporting rather than displacing the church’s mission). Since Catholic teaching defines a sacrament as a sign and instrument of God’s transforming grace, the description of the church’s task as to be a sign and instrument of unity in God is clearly intended to convey to Catholics that the church is a sacrament and, indeed, a sacrament of our ultimate union with God. This is obviously an eschatological sacramentality, pointing as it does to our final goal: the consummation of history in God. And, insofar as the church is to witness to and work for greater unity in the world, the church’s task requires the practice of inclusive compassion that Espín has identified as the living of subversive hope.

A sacramental view of the church also further supports Espín’s position that Christians must be engaged in transforming the world at all levels. In sacraments, sign quality and instrumental effectiveness are inseparable: a sacrament is a representation of God’s grace that is so effective that it communicates to the world the grace that it represents. While this underscores the church’s responsibility to embody in its communal life the just and inclusive unity in God, as many political theologians currently emphasize, the church must also work for that greater inclusivity and justice in the broader world. After all, God’s compassion and offer of transforming grace are universal. Any dichotomy between the church as a witnessing community and the church as a socio-political agent in the wider political realm is utterly inadequate to the Catholic understanding of sacrament as both a sign and an instrument of the grace of a God whose love knows no bounds.

However, a sacrament must not become an idol. Sacraments communicate partially but not fully the eschatological goal of graced union with God. Espín aptly observes, “All we can say about the Mystery is necessarily limited, cultural, perspectival, transient, neither definitive nor absolute and for us” (83). The church as sacrament shares in the life of God, but the church is not God and is the church not the fullness of the reign of God on earth. Christians must beware the idolatry that would mistake the sacrament of God’s compassion for the full reality of God or of God’s realm.

As I hope to have suggested here, Espín’s theology of traditioning thus points to potential strengths and weaknesses in the current ecumenical focus on the church’s mission to unify. This may be an appropriate and valuable expression of Christianity, provided the commitment to the inclusive and just reign of a compassionate God is clearly expressed. Any adequate Christian belief, including any statement about the church’s sacramental task, must impart the practical, eschatological, and thoroughly subversive hope of Jesus for a transformed world. Otherwise, even in the name of unity, Christians may replicate power asymmetries, create new idols that deny hope, absolutize the status quo and its sacrifices, and thus betray Jesus of Nazareth’s fully monotheistic and non-idolatrous faith in the active coming of God’s compassionate reign.

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    Orlando Espin


    Response to Mary Doak

    I very much appreciate and thank Prof. Mary Doak for her response to Idol and Grace, and for the important, insightful ecclesiological reflections she shares in her response.

    The ancient Christian “church-as-sacrament” ecclesiology was not in my mind as I wrote Idol and Grace, but after reading Doak’s pages I see why she points to it, because it is necessarily implied in what I wrote.

    Every Christian effort (communal and individual) to live in compassion, and to thereby contribute to a world built on justice, on inclusion and on compassion, will always fail to bring it about fully. As Doak very clearly says, “No particular historical project, however much it seems to support inclusion, diversity and justice, should be treated as the final goal of history, lest it become a present idol (demanding sacrifices!) rather than a future of liberating hope.” The hoped-for Reign of God will only be fully here beyond history—everything else would, at best, be a stage in the journey toward the Reigning of God on earth. Evidently, the notion of “sacrament”—ecclesiological in origin before it entered liturgical vocabulary—clearly fits the “here” but “not yet” of the Reign and of Reign-building, and of the church (as community of those who tradition the hope for the Reign by betting their lives for it and in the construction of it). The inescapable human transience and the ineffability of the Mystery prevent the idol from appearing final, while they continue to dare Christians toward creativity and authenticity—in other words, toward the future, because no present will ever fully be the Reign of God.

    The mission (the “task,” as Doak refers to it) of the church is to tradition the hope that Jesus of Nazareth was right, regarding the dawning of the Reign of God and the God of the Reign. The mission of the People who are the Church, therefore, is to demonstrably bet their lives for that hope, in each of their many daily realities—understanding that their hope is subversive of all of the world’s structures and systems, and of all securities and certainties, that construct and reinscribe asymmetric power relations among humans (power relations that provoke the marginalization of the vast majority of humanity, treated now as “disposable” by those who benefit from the structures and systems and who craft the securities and the certainties).

    Understood thus, then it is clear why Prof. Doak did not hesitate to point to the notion of sacrament and to “church-as-sacrament” ecclesiology.

    I have no difficulty or reservation whatsoever in Doak’s use of “church-as-sacrament” ecclesiology. I would simply add, to further specify and clarify the mission of the church, that as God is solidarious with humans, who are abysmally unlike God, so Christians should be solidarious with each other and with every human—especially, with those not like them (and more emphatically, with those most unlike them). And as Jesus did not try to save his life by reinterpreting or softening the explicitly subversive consequences of his message and hope, neither can Christian traditioners.

    All human efforts at being demonstrably and daringly solidarious will never, by themselves, fully become the new world of compassion and justice that God has begun to make real (according to Christian hope). But the new world will not happen without them either—not if the message of Jesus is credible and right (as Christians subversively hope). That is the “church-as-sacrament” ecclesiology (and the ecumenical implications) that I understand Prof. Doak is incisively pointing out.

    To be solidarious, in this world, is a real and serious risk that can (and will) bring consequences for those who would dare “endure with” the marginalized. Solidarity is not a theory, a political ploy, or a pious emotion without real consequences. Therefore, the risks and dangerous consequences (for church and individual Christians) provoked by solidarity are to be expected—and cannot be defused, diluted or circumvented—by the patristic and current understandings of the “church-as-sacrament,” as Doak clearly points out.

    What would happen to ecumenism if the subversive hope of Christians, which demands a demonstrable, real-life bet for solidarity, justice and compassion were to become the explicit driving force of unity among Christians—instead of “ecclesiastical organigrams” or the “doctrinification” of subversive hope for the Reign of God and the God of the Reign? Prof. Doak asks, and with her I suspect most of humankind, too.

    I again and sincerely thank her for her response to Idol and Grace.



The Method of Idol and Grace

Orlando Espín’s Idol and Grace is one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking books that I have read in a long time. It is a slender volume (only 132 pages, though followed by 60 pages of notes jam packed with interesting clarifications and asides), but I found myself pausing on nearly every page to ponder Espín’s arguments and my own perspective on the tasks, methods, and content of Catholic theology. Espín offers such a clear, passionate, and definite vision that one is forced to affirm, apply, dissent, or clarify at almost every turn. I am very grateful to be able to write a response. My focus will be on what I took as the book’s central challenges and perspectives for how one should go about doing theology. I will unpack these and then raise a few points of concern on issues where I am fundamentally in sympathy with Espín but where I would like further clarifications.

It is tempting to simply place Idol and Grace within the general movement of Latino/a theology. This would certainly be accurate, if incomplete. Espín is an influential theologian in the movement, and emblematic Latino/a theological themes (for example, the hermeneutical importance of lo cotidiano and social justice) fundamentally shape Idol and Grace. However, Espín’s the book should not be seen as simply a contribution to one “school” of Christian theology. It surely is part of the discussion within Latino/a theology, but it is more than this. It aims (a) to offer an account of how Christian faith undergoes change in history (“traditioning”) that is attentive to cultural, social, political, economic, and other biases inherent to the process of “handing on” the faith and, accordingly, (b) to provide a way forward that preserves Jesus’s message of subversive compassion and that is attentive to the voices of the marginalize majority in the People of God. This is an argument for how every theologian should do theology.

The question of Espín’s book is how to “tradition” Western Catholic Christianity—how to shape the inevitable and ongoing transformation of Christianity—in such a way as to deepen its commitment to justice and break the ties with hegemonic and oppressive systems of thought and power. Every religion undergoes a continual process of traditioning and this process takes place in cultural, social, political, and economic worlds marked by structures of power. In his famous Louvain address, Oscar Romero warns, “By commission or omission, by associating themselves with one or another social group, Christians have always had an influence upon the socio-political makeup of the world in which they lived. The problem is about the ‘how’ of this influence in the socio-political world, whether or not it is in accordance with the faith,”1 Espín affirms this point, but focuses even more intensely on the reverse shaping: how the socio-political makeup of the world necessarily impacts the self-understanding of Christians. Once this is recognized, methodological questions become intrinsically—though not reductionistically—ethical and political.

At the core of the book I found a refreshing humility in the theological task and hopeful confidence in the power of those at the margins to “tradition” Christianity against dehumanizing idolatry. Theological humility is demanded in the face of what I discern as a three-fold limitation placed upon all human speech about God. (1) God’s revelation, as the self-donation of God, can only be understood by humans using human concepts, and this inherently limits the perspicuity of our language as we cannot rationally “master” divine truth. (2) God’s revelation may be above all human constructions, but the human beings who receive revelation are inescapably cultural beings and thus every understanding, interpretation, and definition of revelation are inevitability wrapped in distinct cultural worlds (shaped as they are by structures and biases). (3) Speech about God—in texts, theological treatises, conciliar definitions, liturgical texts, whatever else—can be dangerously overemphasized in comparison to the lived response to God’s compassion in the daily lives of the People of God. Whenever these three limitations are not recognized, our conceptions of God and faith become idolatrous. Espín helpfully quotes Giorgio Agamben twice on this point: “The only true representation is one that also represents its distance from the truth” (61, 81). Or as Espín puts it, “[The] discovery of self-contingency is a sine qua non condition for critiquing our own historical, cultural, universality, thereby avoiding the self-idolatry of our historical, cultural universe” (69).

The way forward for Espín is a dialogical and intercultural sensitivity to the lived faith of the People of God and, in particular, the lived faith of the marginalized who make up the majority of the People of God. Without idealizing the poor or the virtues of popular Catholicism (see pp. 109, 115, and 187, for example), he passionately argues that a resistance to Eurocentrism and other idolatrous conceptions (including a conception of faith that is only attentive to texts, which historically means being attentive to only the literate elite) demands such a dialogical and intercultural perspective: “If western Catholicism claims that the Church is the People of God, and the People of God are factually of and in the Third World, then there can be no legitimate western Catholic ecclesiology that ignores or dismisses the conclusion that the real faith of the Church is the faith of the real People of God” (18, his emphasis). It is in the lived faith of the People of God—in Popular Catholicism (25)—that one encounters most powerfully a subversive hope in the compassion of God. Theology must be responsive to this lived faith, broadening the voices at the theological table and recognizing the inherent power dynamics in every intercultural dialogue (70–71).

There are many points in Idol and Grace that are worthy of further discussion. I found myself pausing often to think about the nature and challenges of intercultural theology, the remaining positive function of doctrine and creeds (particularly the Nicene Creed), and the language of compassion (instead of, for example, mercy) throughout the book. Hopefully some of these themes will come up in other responses or the discussion to follow. Below I raise three questions—with the third being the most extensive/critical.

An Academic or Pastoral Exemplar?

It may be troubling to initially focus on theologians in response to Espín’s book. Much of the volume is a call to stop (a) focusing so exclusively on classical theological texts to the exclusion of other voices and (b) thinking of professional theologians and voices from the elite as the primary forces of traditioning. Nevertheless, the book does make clear demands upon theologians and ecclesiastical leaders. Espín hopes that his work “can help challenge the unethical naïveté of many theologians, philosophers, and social scientists, who continue to assume that their work is about ‘books talking with books’ and thus continue to dismiss (by ignoring) the faith of the real church” (184n83). Historically speaking, it would seem that few theologians have followed the path laid out by Espín. It is also an immensely complex path. For example, an engagement with the lived faith of the marginalized demands an eagerness to learn, but also careful and critical discernment of sin and idolatry within this lived faith. Espín is clear that a turn to lo cotidiano must not devolve into a simplistic romanticization.

Given that much of Idol and Grace is an argument about method how tradition is and should be transformed, I am curious to hear whom Espín would point to as an exemplar of his theological vision. I recognize that this may be a foolish request—there is the whole tradition of Latino/a theology which has adopted key elements of this vision for decades now! Nevertheless, I am always looking for concrete examples to accompany abstract or methodological discussions. My own thoughts turn to Oscar Romero, but I also wonder if Romero embodies too much of a speaking for the oppressed (see the illuminating discussion of the danger of “assistentialism” on pp. 126–27) even as he clearly embodies (at least in my mind) a subversive compassion that endures with the marginalized and resists the hegemonic powers which seek to silence the poor (and concretizes the teachings of Medellín and Puebla to which Espín offers some support [185n89]).

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis

Throughout Idol and Grace Espín confronts what he calls the “doctrinification” of Christianity: the temptation to see doctrine as the central content of Christianity and the measure of faith. Espín is clear throughout that doctrine does have a positive function within the Christian community, but that it is also easily manipulated, particularly when it is seen as absolute. He writes:

The faith of the people of God has no need for doctrinal validation. Consequently, orthodoxy without a foundation and corroboration in demonstrable orthopraxis becomes an idol, because it pretends that correct “mental” assent is more important than being compassionate. Our doctrines must catch up to compassion in order to be useful to Christians, because what is said to help explain revelation cannot then contradict or dispense with the self-revealing God who is compassion, and because no doctrine or sum of doctrines can ever claim to be revelation as Jesus is. (100–101, his emphasis)

Given the emphasis on compassion and right discernment, I wonder if Jon Sobrino’s account of “orthopathy” would be a helpful addition to Espín’s theological categories. Sobrino defines this as “the correct way of letting ourselves be affected by the reality of Christ” 2 as a willingness to see in Jesus what one did not expect to see and to be moved to live as Jesus did. This category would seem to fit well with Espín’s discussion of prayer as “an attitude, a risk, and an openness to the Mystery we call ‘God’” (29).

A More Substantial Concern: The Message of Jesus

Espín provides a strong, detailed account of the nature and purpose of Jesus’s preaching. He summarizes this as follows: “God is transforming this world, in its structures of power, in its structures of ownership, and in its very understandings of what ‘religion’ is, to make this world a different world that reflects the compassionate will of God. . . . Christianity stands or falls on the reasonable hope that God, as Jesus said, is really intervening in this world, transforming it according to God’s compassionate will” (6). The basic ideas in this passage are repeated throughout the book as the core of Jesus’s message and the central content of Christian hope and revelation (see 89–92 and 118, among other places). I am in broad agreement with a vision of the ministry of Jesus as fundamentally oriented by compassion. However, the function, foundation, and formulation of the passage above keep circling uneasily through my mind. For the sake of conversation, I will state my concerns as starkly as possible.

As already noted, a core thesis of Espín’s book is the non-absolute character of all human speech. Non-idolatrous and interculturally-open speech is speech in which “the original claim does not present itself as necessarily applicable or correct or ‘true’ for all possible recipients and in all possible cultural contexts” (65). Espín’s own formulation, therefore, cannot be absolutized in a straightforward sense either—it is human speech and thus culturally, historically, socially, and politically conditioned. He would undoubtedly say the same. Nevertheless, in Idol and Grace the description of the core message of Jesus given above seems to function as a sort of unmeasured measure of true Christianity; I am having difficulty conceiving a substantial—rather than semantic—qualification to the formulation that Espín would accept.3

In terms of the foundation of Espín’s account, he places heavy weight upon historical Jesus scholarship—it is a “non-negotiable condition that the proclaimed Jesus and his message actually reflect the historical Jesus” (176n40)—and his view is that such scholarship affirms his description of Jesus’s core message. The bibliographic notes to the opening of the book convey the impressive level of engagement that grounds Espín’s account of the historical Jesus. Nevertheless, I am left wonder to what extent his account of Jesus’s core message is actually dependent on such scholarship. Is the centrality of subversive compassion dependent on historical-critical verification? A concrete example would be helpful here. A strength of Espín’s portrait is his fidelity to the Jewishness of Jesus. As part of this he recognizes Jesus as an interpreter of Torah:

Not the only one, certainly, but one of the more radical. His understanding of revelation and covenant reflected the reality, needs, and concerns of his fellow Galilean Jewish peasants. The “will of God” seems to have been paramount in Galilean Jewish village contexts in Jesus’ day, a will expressed in Torah, yet misunderstood by those (mostly from the cities) who attempted to doctrinify and codify Torah, reducing it to compliance with ritual and purity requirements and with proper tithing. Jesus proposed a different, radical interpretation of Torah, wherein a compassionate way of life outweighed all other demands and practices. (2)

This account of Jesus’s halakhic views is crucial to Espín’s argument given the recognition that Jesus was Jewish. I should be clear, again, that I am sympathetic to an emphasis on compassion in describing the message of Jesus. But I am also persuaded by the work of John Meier that “the fragmentary nature of the legal teachings of the historical Jesus that have come down to us suggest a further important but negative insight. In Jesus’ halakha (as far as we can know it), one cannot discern any moral or legal ‘system’ containing some organizing principle or center that makes sense of the whole.” 4 Most of Jesus’s halakhic discussions are probably lost to us and two of his most certain views—an absolute prohibition of divorce and oaths—are not connected to the organizing principle of compassion in the texts we have. This is not to say that Christian theologians can’t make such connections or follow Luke in connecting love of neighbor with the Samaritan’s compassionate mercy but this is not the same as claiming that such readings are grounded in the historical Jesus. According to Meier, to the extent something broader can be claimed about Jesus’ view of the totality of the Torah, it would be something like “love of God and the love of neighbor as the first and second commandments of the Torah, superior to all others. Love—of God first and of our neighbor second, in that pointed order—is supreme in the Law.”5 I don’t want to simply pit historical Jesus scholars against each other here: Herzog vs. Meier! Instead, I am more interested in the function of this scholarship for Espín. If Meier is correct, what does this do to Espín’s account of the core of Jesus’s message?

Finally, I would suggest a more substantial revision to Espín’s formulation of Jesus’s core message. Implicit in the quotations above, Espín strongly pushes against an account which sees Jesus focusing on individual salvation or the “salvation of souls” (2, 176). This fits well with Espín’s reading of the resurrection of Jesus as primarily the affirmation that “Jesus was right about God” (God is intervening compassionately in the world) (6). Or as he describes it later, “Christian claims of his resurrection are clearly referring to his having spoken and acted according to the will of God. In other words, God agreed with Jesus regarding the Reign of God and the God of the Reign, and raised him in order to demonstrate that agreement” (89). Christian theology is always in danger of separating or collapsing the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Most pertinent here is the danger of collapsing the significance of the resurrection to merely a divine affirmation of earlier moments—usually either a reduction to his liberating message or his atoning death. Both, I would argue, are incorrect theologically and historically. For example, in line with historical-critical scholarship, it is important to recognize the origination of belief in resurrection in an apocalyptic context as both a protest against oppression and hope for the victims of that oppression. Even if Jesus should be seen as “a martyr, not a victim” (6), the resurrection must still be placed in the context of hope for God’s compassion toward the dead (see 2 and 4 Maccabees in particular). There is always the danger that such hope may lead to an evasion of history and/or an ignorance of the gracious presence of God’s transformative compassion in history, but the opposite danger is a too-narrow vision of divine compassion and solidarity. As Johann Baptist Metz urges, Christian solidarity should be “understood in a strictly universal sense: a solidarity that proves itself not only in relation to the living and to coming generations, but also in relation to the dead.” 6 And in my own view, prayers to and for the dead within popular Catholicism also support such a vision: a hope in God’s compassion toward the dead, a strength that comes from their presence in the community, and a call to live compassionately and as agents of change in the face of suffering and injustice.

  1. Archbishop Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, trans. Michael J. Walsh (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985), 178.

  2. Jon Sobrino, Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), 210.

  3. Furthermore, an emphasis on the faith of the people of God as a source and measure of traditioning (see 21–22) does not remove my question given that popular Catholicism can be liberating or alienating (109)—seemingly in terms of whether or not the lived faith of the people reflects the subversive hope and praxis of compassion or a hegemonic social structure.

  4. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4, Law and Love (Yale University Press, 2009), 653.

  5. Ibid., 576.

  6.  Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Crossroads, 2007), 84.

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    Orlando Espin


    Response to Todd Walatka

    I start by thanking Prof. Todd Walatka for his response to my Idol and Grace. As I read his text I found myself often nodding in agreement and saying, “Got it!” I am grateful for his careful attention to and reflection on my latest book.

    His response’s third (“The question of Espín’s book is . . .”) and fourth (“At the core of the book . . .”) paragraphs seem to synthesize very well the purpose of the volume. There are, as expected, issues raised and questions addressed to me in Walatka’s thoughtful response, and so I will briefly address some of these here, as well as indicate other issues.

    In the book I use the term “Latino/a” to explicitly refer only to US populations of Latin American / Hispanic ancestry. Reading Prof. Walatka’s text I sometimes perceived a certain conflation with Latin Americans. Maybe a small detail to some, but of significant importance to Latino/a theologians and communities. I want to make sure that this point of self-identity and location is not misplaced or downplayed in reading the book or in this response. I do not do Latin American theology (although I earned a doctorate in theology from a Brazilian university). I do a theology born from the faith and reality of the usually disregarded half of the US (“western Catholic”) Church. Latino/a theology is neither translation nor application of Latin American theology to the US context, although there are some themes and approaches that are shared by both theologies.

    Walatka raises an important question about the “nature and challenges of intercultural theology.” I suspect that a more thorough discussion of its “nature” will need to wait until it can be understood and described through intercultural “contrasting” dialogues (as indicated in the book). The “challenges,” however, are evident and urgent. How does one do “western Catholic” theology and somehow not engage the majority of real-life “western Catholic” communities in the world? How can one do “catholic” theology and ignore the intercultural demands and dimensions implicated in the very notion of catholicity? This suggests (at least to me, given the explicit definition of the expression “western Catholic” I offer in the book) that intercultural thinking and engagement is necessary and inevitable, as well as the need to break many (denominational, ecclesiastical) barriers among and about “western Catholics.” As indicated in Idol and Grace, I have found the work of Raúl Fornet-Betancourt to be an indispensable contribution to any serious intercultural understanding (he is a recently retired professor of philosophy at the University of Bremen, Germany, and one of the “founders” of intercultural philosophy). Fornet-Betancourt’s work suggests that an understanding of intercultural thought and approaches will only be achieved through the risk of “stepping out” and engaging the other. The first challenge, therefore, is to break out of our Eurocentric theological molds, frames and methods—as if these were the only worthwhile references or the only “rigorous” methods. The first and indispensable challenge that intercultural theology would throw our way is to critique our own cultural idolatries, not for the sake of the critique but for the sake of solidarity and learning. Once this first challenge is on its way . . . we can then, jointly with the other, as equal partner and not as guest, engage and face the biggest dare: an intercultural theological method.

    Professor Walatka very insightfully noticed that throughout the book I use “compassion” instead of the language of “mercy.” And that is because “compassion” allowed me to work with the Latin etymology of the term (“enduring with”) as a way to reflect on the Christian message and hope. “Mercy,” or the Hebrew hesed, would have pointed the reflection in one direction (i.e., from the one who has mercy to the one who needs it), while compassion’s etymology enriched my point by uncovering the mutuality, the solidarity (and hence, the “incarnational”) in the message and the hope of Christians.

    In his response, Prof. Walatka asks: “Given that much of Idol and Grace is an argument about method and how tradition is and should be transformed, I am curious to hear whom Espín would point to as an exemplar of his theological vision.” As he correctly recognizes, there is a decades-long tradition of Latino/a theology whose theologians have been constructing theology in a different key, from a different location, through a different methodological perspective. Each of these theologians has searched for their way to listen and understand, for their loyalty to the people’s faith and lives, for their way of theologically engaging and expressing. Therefore, it is really impossible to say which single theologian can be held as an “exemplar” of my theological vision. I don’t know if I would be an exemplar of that vision! However, if we were to understand by “vision” (as I think Walatka would, too) a perspectival departure point, a methodological style, a commitment to listen to, learn from, be solidarious with, and respect the Latino/a communities and their realities, struggles, hope and faith, then I would be able offer the names and work of most Latino/a colleagues.

    Walatka mentions Oscar Romero as someone who might, perhaps, somehow embody my “theological vision.” I’d be much honored if that were possible, but no—Romero did not. I had the privilege of meeting Archbishop Romero some months before his death, and I very much still admire his holiness, solidarity, insightfulness and extraordinary courage. Nevertheless, his context, departure point and perspective evidently were (and had to be) in El Salvador. Not in the United States. Here we have cultural struggles, and struggles for our identities and dignity, social bigotries to contend with, economic and political abuses, convenient ecclesiastical silences, “white” privilege that deeply infects the academy, church and society, and a series of other issues that might somehow parallel those of El Salvador, but are certainly not the same and cannot be confronted through the same perspective. To assertively be Latino/a (in the United States) is itself seen by many as an act of provocation that will often lead to abuse. To assertively be Latino/a (in the United States) is often cause for dismissal by others. And . . . a long list of etceteras.

    Evidently, the “disposables” of the world, and their realities, cannot be “cut (or understood) with the same (theological) scissors,” and I am sure that Prof. Walatka will be the first to agree.

    Jon Sobrino’s notion of “orthopathy” was a category I was at first inclined to use in Idol and Grace, but decided not to. It was a choice, in order to keep the book focused on compassion and on the subversive solidarity it can and should lead us to. “Orthopathy,” I think, would not have altered my points. However, if today I were to rewrite, or perhaps continue to write, Idol and Grace, I would probably engage Roberto S. Goizueta’s reflections on “accompaniment,” and/or Miguel H. Díaz’s proposal of “walking with,” and/or Carmen Nanko-Fernández’s “praxic” notion of “Espanglish” (beyond the linguistic).

    Professor Walatka’s last set of comments, in his response, are the more serious ones, as he well says. And I start by acknowledging that I do not hold any of my statements in Idol and Grace to be absolute. To think otherwise would be foolish, besides being a direct contradiction of the book’s arguments. My formulations of what I understand of Jesus’ core message are mine, and therefore necessarily open to correction, development and critique (as I explicitly state in the book, in reference to all human thought and formulations). But this having been said, the fact remains that the moment anyone claims to be part of Christianity one is claiming and referring to a message and its messenger, thereby requiring the claimant’s formulations of these.

    The questions that Prof. Walatka raises, in my view, would not be sufficiently answered if I were to point to this or that scholar working on the “historical Jesus,” or to scholars who engage the historico-critical method. Walatka asks: “Is the centrality of subversive compassion dependent on historico-critical verification?” More urgent, in my view, would be to ask whether the lives and words of peasants are ever remembered except by those whose lives they shared and impacted? What and who could be “verified” if methodologically we are dependent on what manages to survive the centuries, and is “remembered” by those with the sociocultural power to “verify”? Lack of the evidence is not lack of existence or of importance. So no, the centrality of subversive compassion does not rest on verification by the methods of the learned. In Idol and Grace I explicitly state, several times, that even if there were no God, the claim made by the “core message” would still make sense and demand action. The inescapable need and centrality of subversive compassion (i.e., how I formulate the “core message”) needs to be verified by and in the lives of the “disposables” of the world—and there, transparent to anyone who wants to see, is the piercing cry and urgent need for a compassion that would subvert this world into a new one where justice, compassion and equality would actually reign in the daily lives of the entire human race.

    Implied in the above is the still urgent need to further develop and employ a theological methodology for the study of “popular Catholicism” (as the latter is understood and studied, for example, in US Latinoa theology). But this is a matter for further conversation.

    Again, my sincere thanks to Prof. Todd Walatka for his thoughtful and insightful response to Idol and Grace.



The Limits of ‘Traditioning’

Dr. Espin is creative and somewhat original in his approach, suggesting that we refer to “traditioning” as a verb rather than to speak of “tradition” in a historical sense as accustomed within Western Catholicism. He goes to great lengths to emphasize that “tradition” or “traditions” are ideas, doctrines, beliefs, and teachings of the church that were produced within specific contexts. This is all true.

Therefore he suggests it is problematic to use “tradition” to support present day doctrines. Espin views this as problematic for various reasons: (1) the doctrinification of doctrine, which he views as the overlooking of the contextualized constructions of these teachings, and perhaps the most important for Espin is (2) the idolatry infused into such a perspective. Prof. Espin states that: “Traditioning, as process, is the best antidote for the idolatrizing tendencies in the doctrine of a propositional deposit of faith” (13). Espin makes it clear that the theological process or traditioning is how we should consider the creative process of understanding our faith anew as created through very specific lived reality—“Lo Cotidiano.”

In turn, this contextual understanding of the faith is and should be passed down from generation to generation. Espin spends a great deal of time (more than I deem necessary) explaining how “tradition” is really not a static reality, but that all theologizing is contextual and therefore will change with the changing circumstances. In reality, this insight is neither original, creative, or innovative. Basic ethical studies have examined and overanalyzed this dynamic for ages.

Much of what Espin purports in this regard has also been established in Latin American theologies as well as US Latino, and Black theologies of the ’70s and ’80s. The late Dr. Orlando Costas often expounded upon the contextualization of the gospel, going back to his 1974 ground-breaking text on The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique from the Third World. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Espin’s assertions of the contextualization of theological propositions, however, he seems to be working with static theological foundational beliefs and constructs, which he does not seem to view as also representing contextual theologies or “traditionings.”

For example, he speaks about the reign of God, with a particular nuance of what that construct meant for the marginalized and elites. Espin speaks of God as a mystery and unknowable, as if these were eternal and absolute truths that had not been subjected to the very process of traditioning. He seems to suggest that his understanding or interpretation of Jesus’ ministry and person was not itself a contextualized understanding from a specific historical moment. Weren’t the writings and teachings of the New Testament itself also part of the traditioning process? If so, how do we tradition the very notion of the reign of God? After all, basic exegetical studies and leading biblical scholars have identified the very term as having a definite political and historical rootage and usage. Espin suggests that “subversive hope” is a fundamental permanent thread in Christian belief. Was not the notion of subversive hope, or simply hope, a specifically contextual response (reframing) traditioned by the early disciples to the crucifixion of Jesus?

It seems to me that there have always been several “traditions” operating simultaneously one with another. However, Espin does not suggest how we are to choose which tradition should be identified as subject to traditioning, and subsequently analyzed through this lens. How is it possible to even think about God as mysterious and unknowable outside of a specific and nuanced concrete historical, cultural, and political context? This is a bit problematic to ignore, yet Espin bypasses the very presuppositions with which he claims to be proposing and offering analytical insight. Espin seems to be acutely aware of these complexities as he states: “No single individual or group of individuals can any longer pretend that a truly ‘general,’. . . ‘worldwide’ or even ‘intercultural’ approach to traditioning (and/or to the contents traditioned) can be valid beyond the always limited cultural contexts and perspectives within which it was proposed. Thus I also make no claims in this regard” (xvi). However, knowledge of an epistemological problem does not provide a solution nor should it allow us to move forward as if it has been resolved.

For the past few decades, I have paid close attention to the intensified work and growing contributions of Postcolonial Studies and Criticism. Some of my work has focused on the value and liberational impact of these weapons of intellectual warfare. If we have learned anything at all regarding this often cryptic and even disparate myriad of interdisciplinary tools of analysis, it is that the very notion of absolutes is up for grabs. At times the argument has gone off the charts and serves to undermine even any semblance of sanity or conversation, but Espin’s point is well taken: social location and ideological formation cannot be ignored and swept under the rug. Even the very words of Jesus that the New Testament witnesses claim are his, are a product of a “traditioning” process.

My suspicion is that Espin’s own “traditioning” has gotten the best of his helpful and thought-provoking analysis. As a Protestant/Evangelical scholar with Pentecostal roots, I am rather sensitive to the overemphasis on “tradition” as in the Roman Catholic experience. In Protestant/Evangelical and Pentecostal communions, while tradition cannot be ignored, the fact remains that most of our churches and professionals still take rather seriously, and front-load, the place of Holy Scripture and the Word of God. The latter is what theoretically places into check the tradition, and not vice versa. However, as many who are on the inside can readily admit, this is not always practiced.

In the Roman Catholic experience, the Vatican speaks authoritatively from within the tradition, not necessarily seeking its declarative basis or magisterial guidance from Scripture. This is not to say that the Pope is unbiblical. The point is that Espin might be working from his own “traditioning,” and failing to consciously recognize that the very notion of “mystery” and the “unknowable” has come out of a particular tradition, cultural context, and historical grounding. There is no mystery without something that we know or assume even before we approach the text, the tradition or the question. Rudolf Bultmann was quite frontal about the “preunderstanding” with which we operate, and Karl Mannheim used the German term Seinsgebundenheit to suggest that all (not just some) our understanding, analysis, and conversations are rooted in a given ideological, cultural, and historical mooring.

While the contribution of Espin is helpful in the conversation regarding “tradition,” I would submit that we need to push the discussion harder and further to include the very notions of God’s reign, and God’s mystery as also part of the “traditioning” process, regardless of orthodox gatekeepers, and more fundamentalist authorities that might find this uncomfortable or even threatening. It was the Latin American liberationist thinker and writer Juan Luis Segundo that pushed this matter to the extent that he challenged Liberation Theology to consider that, at the core of its usefulness and power, is the question of hermeneutics and methodology. During a time when “absolutes” are thrown around with such frequency and intensity, Segundo’s claim that a “hermeneutics of suspicion” might just be the liberating grace for doing theology is more significant and appropriate than ever.

I would invite an open conversation to consider the parameters and various facets of this most important and timely discussion. Dr. Espin has revitalized a fertile course of study and reflection. Let us now continue this work with all intensity and productivity

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    Orlando Espin


    Response to Samuel Cruz

    My thanks to Prof. Samuel Cruz for reading some of my Idol and Grace, and for writing a response to his reading.

    The sum of Cruz’s critique rests on a propositional, doctrinal notion of “tradition,” which he assumes to be typical or standard within Catholicism. Fortunately, the propositional notion of “tradition” has been widely rejected theologically (at least since the first half of the 20th century) and “officially” (since the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council) within Catholicism. Within the long centuries of Catholic history, the “propositional” notion actually had a relatively brief period of “official acceptability” that definitely ended over fifty years ago.

    As I often repeat in the book, Jesus announced (according to the New Testament witness) that God was beginning the transformation of this world, according to God’s will (i.e., the “Reign of God” is dawning). The new emerging world was being built on justice, compassion, solidarity and inclusion. Jesus further emphasized that lives lived in justice, compassion and solidarity were more according to God’s will than lives focused on repeating and following doctrinal (or ritual) orthodoxies. The ultimate reason for Jesus’ emphasis on compassion is God, because the one he called Abba is compassion. The world is changing, and this is inevitable because this is God’s will, and God’s will expresses who God is.

    Was Jesus right? Is God really transforming this world according to God’s compassionate will? And is God’s compassion without limits, conditions or exceptions? Evidently, Christians are the ones answering a loud “yes!” But can they prove it? In Idol and Grace I suggest that faith is the (Christian) wager (i.e., the bet) of one’s life on the (reasonable) hope that Jesus was right regarding the “reigning” of God and regarding God who “reigns.” The hope is “reasonable” because most humans (even those who do not believe) can reasonably understand that a world built on justice, compassion and solidarity (without limits, conditions or exceptions) is the best and most desperately needed future for humankind. Ultimately, it is a life lived in and built on compassion that grants credibility (i.e., demonstrable and reasonable verosimilitud) to the Christian hope that Jesus was right. It is also important to recall Cornell West’s accurate insight that “justice is what love looks like in public”—in other words, compassion needs to be “justice-building” to be Christian.

    Christianity has “traditioned” itself during twenty centuries, in geographic and cultural contexts very different from Roman-occupied Galilee. The usual term Christians have used, since the early centuries, to “name” their traditioning of Christianity has been paradosis (from the verb paradidomi), which translated into Latin as traditio (from the verb tradere). From which we get “tradition” and “to tradition.” Which led me to focus, in the book, on “tradition” as verb and not as immutable content.

    But how can hope be traditioned?

    The driving issue in Idol and Grace (given what I summarized in the preceding paragraphs of this reply) is the inescapable need for today’s Christians to recall Jesus’ core message and to live that message in their daily realities. But . . . this recall will be inevitably filtered through and understood in today’s cultures, linguistic forms, power asymmetries, etc., etc. Furthermore, given that the core message’s credibility rests on Christians’ wager of their lives for compassion because they bear the reasonable hope that Jesus was right, how can Christians “tradition” the core message apart from their hope (a hope clearly subversive for the current beneficiaries of the world, although extraordinarily good news for the present world’s “disposables”)?

    The temptation to “doctrinify” the message is, as I stated in the book, in dangerous proximity to idolatry, because no doctrine could ever avoid being more than a cultural expression of a cultural understanding, both lived in social contexts of power asymmetries, etc., etc. In this context I referred to G. Agamben’s insight that “the only true representation is one that also represents its distance from the truth”—so even the best doctrines cannot pretend to be more than a representation of what is true.

    I repeated in the book that, in Catholic understanding, revelation is first and foremost the self-revelation of God and self-donation of God. Consequently, the definitive revelation of God is Jesus of Nazareth. But given who and what Jesus was, revelation is then the most truly subversive act. So, how can we “tradition” this subversive act and the subversive hope that Jesus was right, without doctrinifying it and without diluting its grip and subversive power?

    Idol and Grace was my contribution to this Catholic Christian conversation. Evidently dialoguing with those who preceded me in theology, I hope to have underlined some important elements that are often diluted or misplaced in the conversation, specially emphasizing the inescapable and perspectivizing existential contextualizations that all theologies and theologians should acknowledge.