Saturday, 8 April 2017

Liberation Theology after the End of History, by Daniel Bell

Daniel M. Bell, Liberation Theology after the End of History: The refusal to cease suffering, 2001 Routledge

I don't care for Radical Orthodoxy. They mostly seem to combine a rather fey Anglo-Catholicism with a romantic Champagne drinking socialism and tend to write with a rather arrogant tone. They are also very nostalgic and I hate nostalgia almost as much as I hate socialism. Nevertheless, they sometimes have interesting things to say, so I read this Radical Orthodox critique of Liberation Theology. Given that I substantially disagree with both the author and the theologians he critiques, it felt rather like watching a Jehovah's Witness debate a Mormon.

Bell starts from a position of hostility to capitalism. In this he is at one with his Liberation Theology opponents. However, he argues that the Liberation Theology movement has some significant flaws. He argues that it falls short in seeing politics as 'statecraft,' thus leaving the political sphere as a religious neutral zone, to which the Church does not participate. He believes that a truly Christian politics should be instantiated in the Church. In Liberation Theology, the Church is left as a sort of supportive cheerleader for liberation, leaving actual political change to secular movements. Our author traces back this shortcoming to the ideas of 'New Christendom' in social Catholic thought in the early Twentieth century. He goes on to look at Liberationist thinking on the concept of justice and finds them problematic. Finally, he argues that Liberation Theology has a problem in the area of forgiveness and the concept of suffering with Christ. Perhaps the discussion on the subject of forgiveness might have benefited from considering the more straightforward question of whether one is bound to forgive an unrepentant person, which seems rather pertinent to the question of forgiving oppressors.

Bell's nostalgia for Medieval Christendom might suggest he is advocating some sort of ecclesiastical theocracy, but it seems more like he is in favour of something like Rod Dreher's 'Benedict Option.' However, rather than St. Benedict, he looks to the St. Bernard and the Cistercians for a model. I'm a bit sceptical for how useful this is. The Cistercians were people comitted to the strictures of a religious life. Can Christian lay people use such a lifestyle as a model for their communities? What is more, the Cistercians co-existed with the Medieval lay rulers of their day. Bell provides no clues as to how the Church can engage with the machinery of the state.

Our author views capitalism as an abominable evil akin to Sauron the Dark Lord. He does not engage with literature which offers a more positive evaluation of capitalism. He references Novak's critique of Liberation Theology, but does not offer any engagement with Novak's Christian defence of capitalism in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Bell wants to destroy capitalism, but he offers us no clues as to what economic arrangement would replace it. Thus, he wants to see society torn apart and re-shaped without any kind of plan or vision. This is a kind of nihilism and suggests a somewhat juvenile mindset. He has no liking for 'welfare-state capitalism' and he suggests that Liberation Theologians are rather too willing to accept such a compromise. If so, I am closer in my views to the Liberationists, which is a little scary.

Most of this book seems utterly irrelevant to real world politics. The author is clearly a creature of academia. I always feel frustrated by theologians talking about politics. They have big ideas, but they show little understanding of economics, they have no experience of the world of business and commerce and they have seldom been involved in campaigning for a political party and canvassing ordinary voters.

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