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Indian Theology: Between Religious Syncretism and a Return to Paganism (1)

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Therefore, far from abandoning their worldview, the Indians should work “for the re-appropriation of a heritage permeated by ancestral wisdom. Such a legacy advocates a harmonious relationship between nature and the Creator.”[2] Moreover, the document presents such beliefs as a model for other cultural areas, citing the words that Pope Francis addressed to the indigenous people in Puerto Maldonado during his apostolic visit to Peru: “Their worldview and wisdom have much to teach those of us who do not belong to their culture.”[3]

According to the preparatory document, the Church itself is called to “deepen her identity” by listening to the “the wisdom of her peoples,” and in this specific case, is “invited to find new ways of developing [its] Amazonian face.” [4]  This implies “the ability to discover the seeds and fruits of the Word already present in a people’s worldview.”[5]

In fact, this whole peroration is nothing but a synthesis of what promoters of so-called Indian Theology have advocated for thirty years — ever since this current emerged in the ecclesial panorama of Latin America. That is what we will study in this article.

Two events favored the emergence of Indian Theology. The first, in 1984, was the publication by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the “Instruction on some aspects of the Theology of Liberation”, condemning its use of Marxist categories, which discredited it the eyes of the vast majority of Latin American Catholics. The second, five years later, was the fall of the Berlin Wall which revealed to the whole world the abyss of misery in which the Soviet empire lived and confirmed that communism was “the shame of the 20th century,” as Cardinal Ratzinger had pointed out in that Instruction.

To get Liberation Theology out of the rut in which it was stuck, its theologians had to recycle their ideology without renouncing their basic postulates. Thus, explains the theologian of religious pluralism José María Vigil, there “appeared those who were called ’emerging new issues’: blacks (oppressed race), Indians (oppressed culture), and women (oppressed gender).” Ecotheology should also be added to these new paradigms, the author says, since the earth “is also poor, oppressed and mercilessly exploited, needing to be freed from this oppression.” Obviously, also added should be his Theology of Religious Pluralism, since “there were not only many poor people, but also many religions…”[6]

According to Fr. Vicente Zaruma, Ecuadorian theologian of the Cañari ethnic group, “Indian theology emphasizes the ‘people’ category not so much as a synonym for the mass of the poor, but as a community of people who share a common land or territory, a culture, a religiosity; that is, a life project.” While Liberation Theology “has emphasized ‘social class'” and “has been concerned with the material part of the human being,” Indian Theology “cares for the spiritual part of the people …. The arena of struggle is above all culture and religion.” However, he insists, “the two concerns are not opposed but complementary,” and “we must work so that they go hand in hand, because Indian theology cannot be done without liberation.”[7]

The pioneer of that evolution of Liberation Theology – who changed its emphasis from “social class” (with a traditional Marxist connotation) to the primacy of culture and religion (with a Gramscian connotation) was the Argentine theologian Lucio Gera, the greatest exponent of the so-called People’s Theology and inspirer of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.[8] In fact, “in its day, the so-called Argentine School did a great job systematizing the theological status of popular religiosity and praxis, discovering a ‘sapiential logos’ in the popular culture and religiosity that shaped the Latin American identity. In this sense, Lucio Gera’s reflections on the religion-people-culture relationship were very important.”[9]

The Latin American Bishops Council followed the path opened by the Argentine School and, lowering the profile of the “preferential option for the poor” set at their Medellin conference (1968), switched their emphasis first to the cultural sphere (Puebla meeting, (1979)[10] and finally to indigenous populations. This last move was done at their conferences in Santo Domingo, 1992,[11] highly marked by polemics over the Fifth Centenary of the Discovery of America and its evangelization, and in Aparecida (Brazil, 2007).[12]  During the latter, whose final document was drafted by a commission chaired by then archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a motion to reinstate an explicit reference to Indian theology was rejected by only a handful of votes.

This evolution of the Latin American episcopal body was impelled by its Department of Missions, which, since its foundation in 1966, promoted a theological evaluation of indigenous cultures. In the following decades, it also founded several regional centers to encourage anthropological and theological indigenous studies mainly in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, countries with greater indigenous concentrations.

“The two institutions that had greater prominence In the development of Indian Theology,” says Bolivian indigenous theologian Juan E. Gorski, are Mexico’s CENAMI (National Center for Assistance to Indigenous Missions) and Brazil’s CIMI (Indigenist Missionary Council), as well as “the Missiology Department of Missiology of the Universidade da Assunção de São Paulo Brasil,” whose founder and coordinator is Fr. Paulo Suess, an eminent member of the coming Pan-Amazon Region Synod’s preparatory committee and one of the drafters of its Preparatory Document.

The remote origin of the postulates of Indian Theology is the theology that inspired some of the main documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Salesian missionary Juan Botasso makes a good synthesis of that preparation:

“Cardinals Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, and Urs von Baltasar elaborated the theory of ‘finalization’: The different religions represent the human being’s intimate aspiration to unite with the deity. In this way, all religions have a positive value and can be recognized as salvific mediations. That is to say: through the Spirit, Christ becomes present in the non-Christian believer, beyond the visible church (sic), both individually and in different religions.

“Karl Rahner went a little further: for him the different religions are carriers of salvific values, that is, through them the presence of Christ is manifested. God’s self-communication is offered to all men insofar as he (sic) wants ‘all men to be saved’ (1 Tim 2:4). The ways of God, according to Rahner, are wide and numerous (theory of ‘anonymous Christians’).

“The heat of the debate helped to rediscover affirmations that had already resonated in the early centuries, such as the presence of the ‘seeds of the Word’ in all cultures.

“The decree Ad Gentes [of Vatican Council II] on the evangelizing activity of the church (sic), made this doctrine its own. At first glance, it would seem to be a small detail, but in practice it radically changed missionary praxis. While for centuries the latter had been inspired by the image of the sower and the field, now this comparison became unacceptable. … In order to preach the gospel (sic) it was necessary to extirpate all pre-existing forms of religion, understood as superstitions and false beliefs. On the other hand, if the Word is already present in the midst of all peoples as a ‘seed’, the first activity of a missionary should be to discover this presence…. The ‘other’ cannot be seen as a simple recipient of an indoctrination, but as a counterpart of a dialogue. Now, people have shaped their worldview on mythologies: knowing them is something essential to undertake this dialogue.[13]

According to the aforementioned cañari priest Vicente Zaruma, in that dialogue, “however much Christianity could suffer all kinds of influence, it could not and cannot silence ‘the seeds of the word’ (sic) in traditional peoples; because those peoples have preserved their values, their rites, their cultural practices, in short, everything that has constituted centuries of wisdom that the spirit (sic) has given them, which are still wisdom of God, man and the cosmos despite having ‘another flavor.’” That being so, he adds, “we can no longer sustain a Greek-Hebrew religion [Christianity] as the only valid foundation.”[14]

What the new missiology seeks is to achieve a symbiosis: “Indian theology seeks to recover the religious thought of indigenous peoples before their encounter with Christianity, but also the Christian experience of these peoples — not always an easy task, as Eleazar Lopez says: ‘The issue is still shocking because we [indigenous peoples and particularly indigenous priests] are internally split by a double love that does not let us live in peace: We love our people and believe in their life project. But we also love the Church and believe in her plan of salvation. These two loves have coexisted in us but have turned our hearts and consciences into a battlefield. We are children of peoples who, to survive, have had to dig very deep holes where they keep their treasures or had to wear masks that hide their first identity. We are also children of churches whose missionary practices have been extremely intolerant towards the beliefs of our peoples, calling them diabolical or simply childish.”[15]

In another writing, Fr. Eleazar López analyzes the solutions that the indigenous populations of Latin America developed to solve the dilemma engendered by Christian evangelization. According to this author, they were four:

“Fight of the gods”: “While the newcomers affirmed that the indigenous God was not God but Satan, who had deceived us by presenting himself in a divine form, with the same stubbornness, our people replied that, in view of the works of the Spaniards, in reality their god was Gold.” There were indigenous uprisings “motivated by despair [that] were placed in the perspective of a fight to the death between the gods: either the Christian God came out victorious with the death of the indigenous God or the indigenous God triumphed with the death of the Christian God. And of course, the final balance was terribly disadvantageous for our people.” According to the Mexican theologian, in our days, “intolerant attitudes appear again on the scene both within the Church and in Indian sectors critical of the Church. “Those who choose to be Christian must abandon their indigenous faith or purify it in such a way that it only assumes that which is fully compatible with Christianity, so that the revealed truth of which the Church is faithful guardian prevails. The indigenous counterpart affirms that those who decide to be authentically indigenous must free themselves from churches and return to the original forms of faith of our fathers.”

Religious juxtaposition: “As they placed the newest ways of understanding and living the experience of God from the agricultural and urban stage side by side with the oldest expressions of the nomadic world [indigenous populations], the Christian God was immediately seated in the backpack of the people’s faith, next to Huehuetéotl, Ometéotl, Zintéotl, Quetzalcóalt, Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli…. Seeing the Indians so respectful in acts of Christian worship and hearing that they all said yes [the conquistadors and missionaries] believed this acceptance of the Christian faith entailed the abandonment of their ancient beliefs. That is why they build Christian temples next to the indigenous temples. And they accepted that people continue making their own religious manifestations along with the official worship. But what our people were doing out was to open spaces for the sum of those two streams of spirituality that made up their life at that moment made….

“This has been until today one of the methods most used by the people in the experience of their faith…. They go to church and pray to Christ and the saints; but with the same devotion they go to the hills, caves, springs or sacred sites proper to implore the help of the Owner of life that is in each of those places.”

Religious overlap: “The same missionaries of yesteryear promoted this a lot: Rather than razing and tearing down indigenous temples and religious manifestations, what they did was to baptize them by placing above or in the first place some markedly Christian expression (a new temple, cross, or some saint). So what was done there from then on would no longer be directed to the indigenous deity but to the Christian God. The indigenous peoples very soon learned the lesson and accepted this methodology with great satisfaction as it facilitated their preserving their old sanctuaries and religious symbols by covering them with Christianity. It was enough to put on something Christian for them to stop being pagans “.

The methodology of substitution: “Little by little, the juxtaposition … lead to the replacement of some symbols by others. Given the conviction that there is no intrinsic opposition between the Christian faith and the indigenous faith, the same symbol was taken by both sides. And since the indigenous was questioned by the missionaries, it was best to adopt the Spanish symbol, and so they did. The saints and especially the Virgin were the most used symbols….

“What they previously asked for or did before the indigenous deity they now ask or do before the Christian God or his intermediaries…. This resulted in an indigenized Christianity, that is, lived in indigenous molds, and a Christianized indigenous religion, that is, within Christian schemes.”[16]

What Eleazar López fails to say is that the proportion of natives who adopted the four positions he described during five centuries of evangelization was gradually changing thanks to the efforts made by the missionaries to purify the faith of converts and their culture from remnants of superstition. That effort was favored not only by divine grace and apparitions of Our Lady (which are many throughout Latin America), but also by miscegenation and growing urbanization, which distanced lowered the Indians attraction to their “sacred places”.

It can safely be said that until the 1960s, the majority of the indigenous population practiced Christianity in an authentic manner, and few still lived with parallel spiritualities. Only a tiny minority remained entirely pagan or returned to paganism.

Over the last few decades, the devastating action of the new missionaries caused the beginning of an inverse process, i.e., a re-paganization of Christian Indians. Anthropologists and agents of leftist parties and movements, generally Marxists, promoted a parallel process to raise “awareness” among indigenous peoples about their state of cultural, economic and social “oppression”.

CELAM - AparecidaIn his speech at the inaugural session of the Fifth General Conference of CELAM in Aparecida, Brazil, on May 13, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI warned against this attempt to artificially re-paganize indigenous cultures. He also objectively described the reality of religiosity popular in Latin America:

“The Utopia of going back to breathe life into the pre-Columbian religions, separating them from Christ and from the universal Church, would not be a step forward: indeed, it would be a step back. In reality, it would be a retreat towards a stage in history anchored in the past.

“The wisdom of the indigenous peoples fortunately led them to form a synthesis between their cultures and the Christian faith which the missionaries were offering them. Hence the rich and profound popular religiosity, in which we see the soul of the Latin American peoples:

“- love for the suffering Christ, the God of compassion, pardon and reconciliation; the God who loved us to the point of handing himself over for us;
“- love for the Lord present in the Eucharist, the incarnate God, dead and risen in order to be the bread of life;
“- the God who is close to the poor and to those who suffer;
“- the profound devotion to the most holy Virgin of Guadalupe, the Aparecida, the Virgin invoked under various national and local titles. When the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to the native Indian Saint Juan Diego, she spoke these important words to him: “Am I not your mother? Are you not under my shadow and my gaze? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not sheltered underneath my mantle, under the embrace of my arms?” (Nican Mopohua, nos. 118-119).

“This religiosity is also expressed in devotion to the saints with their patronal feasts, in love for the Pope and the other Pastors, and in love for the universal Church as the great family of God, that neither can nor ever should leave her children alone or destitute. All this forms the great mosaic of popular piety which is the precious treasure of the Catholic Church in Latin America, and must be protected, promoted and, when necessary, purified.”[17]

This is the true face of the Catholic Church in Latin America, to which the efforts of the next Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon region should be directed, rather than trying to revive moribund superstitions of witchdoctors, masters, wayanga and shamans hand in hand with the Indian Theology promoted by Fr. Eleazar López and his coreligionists. Their postulates and doctrinal errors will be analyzed in more detail in the next article.

[1] “Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” Vatican City, 2018, n° 6 (https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/06/08/180608a.html).

[2] Ibid. n° 5.

[3] Ibid. n° 3.

[4] Ibid. n° 12

[5] Ibid. n° 15.

[6] Escritos sobre Pluralismo – Cruzando la Teología de la liberación con la teología del pluralismo religioso, Libros Digitales Koinonia, 2012, p. 508, 509, 510 (http://www.servicioskoinonia.org/LibrosDigitales/LDK/Vigil-EscritosSobrePluralismo.pdf).

[7] Wakanmay (Aliento sagrado): Perspectivas de teología india – Una propuesta desde la cultura Cañari, Ed. Abya Yala, 2006, p. 155.

[8] V. Guzmán M. Carriquiry, Teología del Pueblo en el Magisterio Pastoral del Papa Francisco, Pontificia Comisión para América Latina, 2018 (http://www.americalatina.va/content/americalatina/es/articulos/la-teologia-del-pueblo-en-el-magisterio-pastoral-del-papa-franci.html)

[9] Patricio Merino Beas, “Diversidad religiosa y teología desde Latinoamérica: visión panorámica”, in Reflexiones Teológicas, n. 6, 2010, Bogotá, p. 64.  .

[10] The Puebla document speaks about indigenous peoples as “the poorest of the poor” (n° 34). “It is known that Father Lucio Gera was the one who had greater responsibility writing the remarkable chapter on ‘evangelization of culture’ in the Puebla document…. It is no wonder, then, that in 1985 Father Bergoglio, being Rector of the Faculty of San Miguel in Buenos Aires, organized the first International Congress on the evangelization of culture and inculturation of the gospel to be held in Latin America,” writes Guzmán Carriquiry (ibid., previous note).

[11] According to Fr. Eleazar López, a leading figure of Indian theology, the Santo Domingo conference “echoes new approaches that emerged in the Indigenous Pastoral in recent years and that had never found space before” in documents of magnitude such as that of CELAM: poverty is no longer the dominant characteristic to define the indigenous, who are considered “as true people and nation”, possessors of “innumerable cultural riches” that are “living traces of a centuries-old culture” and drivers ” of a specific project of life” that contains “human values ​​of great significance” such as the “preservation of nature as an environment of life for al;” the religious convictions of natives “are the fruit of ‘the seeds of the Word’ that were already present and worked in their ancestors,” so “the inculturation of the Gospel … entails the recognition of [those] evangelical values;” such inculturation requires “indigenous ministries” and “its own theology, or Indian theology”(Caminar de la Pastoral Indígena y de la Teología India en América Latina, CENAMI, México, 2006 –  http://www.curasopp.com.ar/web/es/teologia-india/77-caminar-de-la-pastoral-indigena-y-de-la-teologia-india-en-america-latina)

[12] “In my view, Aparecida manifests a kairotic moment within our Church that may be the beginning of a new ecclesial stage, especially in regard to the indigenous cause…. The official document of Aparecida looks like the typical costumes of our peoples in which, in addition to their polychrome coloring, one can make out the many hands that made it. The special threads of the indigenous perspective are notorious not only because they deal with issues of indigenous content but also because they include the indigenous perspective on other topics” (Eleazar López, “La Teología India en la Iglesia. Un balance después de Aparecida”, Revista Iberoamericana de Teología, núm. 6, enero-junio, 2008, pp. 89 y 107 – http://clar.org/assets/teologiaindia.pdf).

[13] Los Salesianos y los Shuar, Ed. Abya Yala, Quito, 2011, p. 91-93.

[14] Op. cit. , pp. 161 y 157.

[15] Ibid. p. 165.

[16] Espiritualidad y Teología de los pueblos amerindios, http://www.curasopp.com.ar/web/es/teologia-india/76-espiritualidad-y-teologia-de-los-pueblos-amerindios.

[17] http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2007/may/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20070513_conference-aparecida.html.

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