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Indian Theology: Between Religious Syncretism and a Return to Paganism (2)

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In the previous article, we briefly described the emergence of Indian Theology as a cultural recycling of Liberation Theology. We concluded by pointing out that this theology aims to recover the traditional religious thought of indigenous peoples favor a synthesis of that thought with Catholic theology.

The Zapotec priest Eleazar López Hernández, a “midwife” of Indian Theology, defined the child he helped to be born in this way: “Indian Theology is the set of experiences and religious knowledge that the Indian peoples possess and with which, from time immemorial to today, they explain their experience of faith within the context of their global world vision and the vision that others have of them. Therefore, Indian Theology is a collection of religious practices and popular theological wisdom that are used by members of Indian peoples to explain the new and old mysteries of life.”[1]

In fact, according to López, Indian Theology has two internal currents due to the intolerance of some people in the Catholic media and in the indigenous environment: “Today the call for a non-compatibility of the Christian faith with the indigenous faith has divided Indian theology into two main areas: Indian-Indian theology, that is, the one that is done without intervention by the Christian element — some call it original or purely indigenous theologies — and Indian-Christian theology, which is done in the context of dialogue between the indigenous and the Christian…. Important sectors of the indigenous people have set out to rescue or innovate theological schemes that allow the peaceful coexistence of both religious and theological forms and, where possible, to lay the foundations for the elaboration of theological syntheses that enrich everyone. This is what is bringing forth the multifaceted range of Indian or indigenous theologies of our day inside the churches.”[2]

In another text, Eleazar López expresses his hope of obtaining the desired synthesis: “This is an existential tragedy for the Christianized Indians. However, we do not stop being optimistic. In spite of everything, we are convinced that it is possible and worthwhile trying to reconcile the two loves, because we know that there is no contradiction between the fundamental approach of the Church, which are the same ones of Christ, and the theological approach of our peoples. The differences are superficial, in form, not in content.”[3]

Achieving his design depends, then, on the possibility of reconciling the approaches of both sides. But is it true that there is no incompatibility between the Christian faith and the pagan beliefs of the Mesoamerican indigenous peoples, as Fr. López says, and that the differences are of mere form and not substance?

Since Lopez is a Zapotec Indian, an easy ad hominem response would be to ask him if his religion is compatible with that of the God of Abraham, who forbade human sacrifices practiced by his tribe according to its ancestral religion. In fact, as he himself recognizes[4], when the Spaniards arrived they still practiced human sacrifice: “The sacrifices are justified because if God dies daily to give us life, so we must be willing to die with Him to give life to the people.”[5]

If we go to the bottom of things, it would be more obvious to any impartial observer that there is indeed an insurmountable contradiction between the theological approaches of the Mesoamerican peoples and the Catholic faith.

Fr. López himself recognizes that “a large part of the current indigenous myths, even of those communities that have been urbanized, are of nomadic origin” and that “in nomadism nature appears as the most important mediation of God; as the sacrament of his presence. It is Mother Earth, the New Fire, the Hurricane Wind, the Water Spring or Waterfall, the Hill Provider of life or Protector of the community.”[6] According to him, this is all about “the diverse names of God [and] the only thing they witness is the rich range of perceptions the people had of Him / Her through nature.”

However, he contradictorily affirms that, “in Mesoamerica God is Cipactli, that is, the Original Energy of life symbolized by Fire, a Jaguar or Serpent in motion. In order for life to exist, Cipactli is sacrificed and the members of its body are transformed into the different expressions of life that exist: They are hills, rivers, caves, trees.” If everything is an emanation of Cipactli, Eleazar López’s statement that “in the religious and theological scheme of nomadism, God is everything, and everything has to do with God” can only be understood in a pantheistic sense.

Therefore we are in the presence of a conception of divinity diametrically opposed to the personal God of the Catholic creed, Who is not only Supreme Being but also the Creator of all other existing beings — “heaven and earth, visible and invisible things,” as the Creed says — ex nihilo and ad extra (out of nothing and outside of Himself) and Who therefore maintains an absolute transcendence in relation to His creation.

Nor is the Genesis account compatible with the nomadic thought according to which “we are not the culmination of creation” and are only “called to maintain the harmony of the cosmos with a respect and a harmonious relationship, within that mediation, of the presence of God and of the divine will, which is nature…. We are not superior to be above it, nor to dominate or exploit it, but are an integral part of it. It is the Divine Abode of the human family.” On the contrary, Catholicism conceives of man as the king of nature and mediator of the divine presence in Creation: “God said: ‘Let us make man to our image and likeness; and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moves upon the earth” Gen 1:26). Furthermore, the true divine dwelling is not this earth but Heaven, where those who are saved by the merits of Jesus Christ go.

Equally incompatible with Christianity are beliefs added to those of nomadic origin after the Mesoamerican peoples ceased to be nomadic and settled down, according to which “before the original chaos, symbolized by the fall of heaven on earth … God Quetzalcoatl and his Cuate [counterpart], Tezcatlipoca … create four human beings” who help them to “raise the sky and place it as it is now.” In this founding myth, “we need [God]. But He equally needs us. … This theological conception automatically elevates man to the category of co-creator. … God is no longer seen as the lonely Almighty but as the Brother in need who asks for solidarity to make life possible.” For the Catholic faith, God is totally self-sufficient and almighty and so He does not need man or any another being. Now, if it is true that man is a co-creator in a limited sense (especially when generating new human beings, whose spiritual soul nevertheless is infused directly by God), it is not in the sense that Fr. López writes. The comparison he makes between the supposed “fellowship” between God and man and the Incarnation of the Word is also wrong. He states, “There is no doubt [that] the quetzolcoatlic ideal has to do with the humanization of God and with the deification of man.” In the context of Zapotec mythology, this phrase has a clear pantheistic meaning.

Nor is the dualism of Zapotec mythology of that period compatible with the Christian conception. Fr. Lopes describes it: “According to the quetzolcoatlic cosmovision, creation has two essential components: Heaven (One) and Earth (Two). The ancient original energy of Cipactli is represented in this stage as two braided serpents. As these serpents are separated by placing one above, which is the sky, and another below, the earth, life becomes possible.”

It is not clear if the original energy was always dual but without initially manifesting a dialectical conflict; or if, on the contrary, it was an undivided energy that at a given moment suffered a kind of catastrophe that divided it in its interior, and all beings emanated from this conflict. Whatever the explanation, this worldview resembles eastern dualisms and is contrary to Catholic theistic monism, that is, the faith in an eternal, whole and almighty God who creates outside Himself by a free act of His will.

Eleazar López adds that this dualism was intensified in the next stage, coinciding with the conflicts provoked by Aztec imperialism during which “the idea of ​​God and of man was linked more and more to the conquest and exercise of power as the basis of the divine and human essence.” Hence, “in this period, the conception of the world focused attention on the centrality of dialectics or the struggle of opposites: life-death; night-day; cold-hot, etc. God is Creator insofar as he has the power to organize these opposing elements for life.” Therefore, creation is not a free act of God but His action is limited to continuously organize a kind of Hegelian synthesis of opposites whose existence cannot be prevented. Such dualism is still incompatible with the theistic monism of Christianity, for which physical and moral evils are to be conceived as a form of deprivation or defect of being, not as a positive entity.

Like to the evil servant of the parable of the talents, we could say to Eleazar López: “Out of your own words I judge you” (Lk 19:22). For his description of Zapotec mythology – shared by the other Mesoamerican indigenous peoples – is the best testimony that it is absolutely incompatible with Catholic theology.

Someone may ask, meanwhile, whether the incompatibility between Mesoamerican mythology and Catholic theology also extends to the worldview of the indigenous peoples of the Pan-Amazon region, which will be the focus of the next Synod and whose Preparatory Document extols as a spirituality of “communion with the earth” lived by “the wise elders, indistinctly called peasants, masters, wayanga or shamans.”[7]

First of all, it is worth noting that, referring to what he calls the “cosmotheocentrism of our nomadic epoch,” Eleazar López begins by stating that “many indigenous today in Aridoamerica, the Amazon, the Chaco and in tropical forests remain nomad or live cultural schemes that are typical of hunting and gathering societies.”[8]  We have already seen above that the nomads’ cosmothecoentrism is only a form of pantheism under the guise of a primary polytheism.

To confirm this analysis, it is interesting to reproduce sections of the letter that Fr. Joseph Goetz SJ, a professor at the Gregorian University in Rome, wrote to the Salesian missionary Juan Botasso in response to his question if he could use words of their mythology to designate God when catechizing Ecuador’s Shuar Indians (formerly known as Jíbaros):

“I do not think it is possible to compare, let alone equate, the Old Testament and the mythical traditions of the Shuar or others…. What in the Old Testament corresponds to the religious traditions of Amazonians is precisely what the Old Testament fights against with prophetic violence.

“The announcement proper to the Old Testament is the irruption of the ‘totally other’ God in the history of a people and, through it, in the history of every man….

“On the other hand, the announcement of the New Testament seems less violent … but it also says that Christ is above everything and that he is the Lord. Thus, it seems already impossible a priori to identify Christ with any mythical figure and even more so in the case of the Shuar, since these mythical figures are also ‘current’ divinities….

“If in the language used [by the Old Testament] there are some provisional concessions, it has no concession at all regarding the ideas: For the Jews, the God of the Old Testament was something new, unique…. A simple Nunkui-God-Christ equation without previous warnings would be a betrayal. …

“These Amazonians are ‘polytheists’ without the idea of ​​the Great Polytheisms of a divinity ‘beyond the gods’. And their myths do not refer to mythical figures of archetypes of man but rather to some ‘Spirits’, actual powers of an animistic type. So, none of these is a ‘mythical archetype’ that could be an anticipation of Christ….

A ‘supreme being’ … (very ambiguous word) is not automatically God for being superior to others. He must be the Creator of others and have an absolute, universal sovereignty above any power, be ‘the Lord’. If this idea is a novelty it cannot be silenced, especially if one uses a name already loaded with other ideas [Nunkui]. And even more so when it comes to Christ. You cannot have a correct idea of Christ where the idea of ​​God does not exist….

 “One should not fall into certain excesses of the theology of liberation when it affirms that any ‘praxis’ of justice and man’s development is realized by Christ. Nor into the excesses of certain theologies of religions when they seem to say that any opening of man to the spiritual world is salvific by itself….

“I wish you to leave Rome with clear ideas, but not with simplistic solutions.”[9]

If all the above were not conclusive enough to challenge the possibility of a synthesis between Christianity and traditional indigenous religions — even those mythologies that have a relativistic aspect because they result from successive juxtapositions – it suffices to question their “wise elders” – witchdoctors, masters, wayanga or shamans so praised by the Preparatory Document of the next Synod.

Telltale in this sense is what happened to another Mesoamerican Indian theologian not from Mexico but from Panama, Aiban Wagua, both a Kuna and a Claretian. “When he returned from his theology studies in Europe with a whole aura of prestige for what he had learned there, his uncle —  a traditional indigenous priest of the community – even called him a ‘traitor’, explaining: ‘God is very big and we can not comprehend him entirely. Each people know a part of him. And it is necessary that this part be kept as different from the others so that, by bringing together all the parts scattered through the peoples, one may arrive at the complete truth of God. As a Kuna, you have had the opportunity to know God from the Kuna part and your duty is to transmit him to others; but you have not done it. Instead, you have gone in search of other parts of God, denying the part He had originally given you.”[10]

Father Aiban Wagua then decided to be initiated by the elders of the tribe for seven years, a fact that later helped him to obtain a university doctorate on the Kuna religion. Yet he ultimately concluded that “It was not so superficial or naive when our Kuna elders told us, until very recently, that the God of the uagas (non-indigenous or ladinos) was not our Paba.”[11] That is why his friend, Brazilian liberation theologian José Oscar Beozzo, comments about Father Wagua: “He is a man increasingly torn apart; for how can he be a Catholic priest and a priest of his people’s religion?”[12]

It is not surprising that Most Rev. Felipe Arizmendi, bishop emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas (Mexico) and one of the leading promoters of Indian Theology, complained that some of his promoters “seem to give more importance to ancient wisdom than to the Gospel.” This is so clear that, when meetings began between bishops of CELAM and from the Mexican Bishops’ Conference, on the one hand, and indigenist theologians on the other, “someone said that if he had to choose between being indigenous and being a Christian, he would prefer to renounce Christianity rather than his indigenous culture.”[13]

The solution for the “existential tragedy” of the Christianized Indians and priests who want to return to paganism can only come from two sources: either from adherence to the Theology of Religious Pluralism, “hence we have to admit other creeds as different,”[14] or to the pantheistic theories of Teilhard de Chardin.

This second way is the one proposed by the Ecuadorian priest Francisco Peralta in the preface to the book by his indigenous compatriot Vicente Zaruma, in which he states:

“The philosophy and theologies of the West had consecrated man as being isolated from God, from the world and from others…. Western theology had extolled individualism and the critique of pure reason, a filter through which men, the world and God must pass…. I think that from Tehilard (sic) there is a turnaround in the way of conceiving man, God and the world as protagonist elements of an interdependent totality, but this worldview is always the patrimony of the world’s great religions; thus, Hinduism already said that we are divine particles on pilgrimage through time until fusion in a return to the whole.

“Tehilard (sic) says that the cosmos is divine and we are the crown of that creation…. The world is a living whole, man is a pilgrim creature in time who, through the energy of the cosmos, seeks to relate to and join the Great Spirit in which we remain existing in time and outside of it….

“In true religion, man is the space of encounter with the creator (sic)…. In true religion, man is the divine being….

“How far the West has gone in its theologies! How far from God and harmonies! How late and slow has been the process to assimilate, respect and admire old theologies, which, called to rescue the oldest and truest cosmovision and harmonies, have not yet been heard. This I have learned from the autochthonous cultures that corroborate the Christ, understand him, consecrate him as the always old and always new teacher to whom we have not listened carefully and sufficiently.

“Vicente Zaruma is one of those beings born in human and community vibration, in whom the atoms of Pachamama cannot die.”[15]

To conclude, it is worth quoting a few paragraphs from the report presented by Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, then President of the Pontifical Council for Health, during the 5th Plenary Meeting of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America in March 2001. Titled “Indian Theology,” it synthesizes the thought of 30 authors, four of whom are specially mentioned: The “more pensive” Eleazar López Hernández and his colleague of CENAMI, Clodomiro Siller, and the “very radical” Aiban Wagua and Paulo Suess (note that the latter is a member of the Committee that organizes the Pan Amazon Synod and editor of its Preparatory Document).

The cardinal affirms that Indian Theology “Is the Theology that springs from the seeds of the Word found in indigenous cultures. It is based on the experience of God they have in these cultures. It compares indigenous cultural elements with Christianity.”

Among the significant contents of the Indian-Christian Theology, Cardinal Lozano Barragán highlights in the first place Revelation and the Sacred Scripture:

“In Indian cultures [according to this Theology] there is a true revelation. Thus, there are two revelations, that of the traditions and that of the Bible. First is the history of the indigenous people, then the Bible comes to support it. Indigenous traditions have preeminence over the Bible. These traditions are the other Bible, a criterion of the Christian Bible. The traditions are the other revelation of God. The history of the indigenous people is their Old Testament.

“These two revelations are not mutually exclusive; If the Bible excluded traditions, then the Bible would be an instrument to kill the culture of the Indian people. The Bible is not manipulated only if it is read from the [standpoint of] traditions and the poor Indian. This is how one reads the Bible as an instrument of liberation in the service of justice and life.  One must make a biblical rapprochement without mixing with Christianity. The Word of God must be read from an Indian context. The Bible is the place where the wisdom of peoples other than the Indians is verified.

“’Indian theology’ seeks ways to use biblical revelation and revelation in indigenous cultures, completing what each one lacks in order to understand redemption.”

As for the Church and the Magisterium, the Mexican cardinal observes that for Indian Theology, “the interpreter of the Bible are the people with their criteria, with their concrete history. It is the ecclesial community that exercises the Magisterium.” Therefore, “we must not announce the Gospel, we must let the indigenous peoples develop their own religion so they discover Christ in their own values: love, solidarity, respect for women, sharing, etc. We must liberate the non-Christian Indian religions so that they deal with Christianity as equals.” In this dialogue, “the Church must recognize that there are several paths of salvation; She must recognize that the path that She proposes is only one of many. Christianity must abdicate its claim to be the only way without this meaning that it abdicates from Jesus Christ.”

Conversely, “the role of the churches is to accompany the indigenous peoples in the formation of indigenous conscience. That is not properly to save man but to form his indigenous conscience. Indigenous culture is in itself a savior.” Therefore, “the institutional Church must stop being a teacher and become a student of the Indian people,” and in this way, from Indian Theology “a new Indian church will sprout with its new values, ministries and institutions.”

Less than twenty years after being denounced by Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, that goal of Indian Theology seems to be in the process of being achieved since the goal of the next Synod is precisely to open “new paths for a Church with an Amazonian face,” as stated in the title to the Preparatory Document’s third section, dedicated to “Action”.[16]

[1] Letter addressed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith through the Apostolic Nunciature in Mexico, 1992, 7, quoted in “Teologías Indias en la Iglesia: Métodos y Propuestas” in En busca de la tierra sin mal: Mitos de origen y sueños de futuro de los pueblos indios, Memoria del IV Encuentro-Taller Ecuménico Latinoamericano de Teología India, Ed. Abya Yala, 2004, p. 272 (https://books.google.fr/books?id=E2EwwrUheooC).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Juan Botasso, Los Salesianos y los Shuar, Ed. Abya Yala, Quito, 2011, p. 93.

[4] “Each generation was committed to leaving its own mark on this process. That is why there was the periodic renewal of all things at the end of every 52 years, which was the indigenous century in Mesoamerica. At the end of it, a kind of Olympiad on the various branches of knowledge was performed to choose the man or woman that best represented the ideal wanted by God. The selected one was treated as the maximum representative of God during four years. At the end of that, he was given as a sacrifice to God and to the community. All fires were extinguished and all the old pots were broken to start over” (E. López, Espiritualidad y Teología de los pueblos amerindios).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. Las siguientes citaciones sobre las distintas fase de crecimiento de la mitología mesoamericana también provienen de la misma obra.

[7] Amazonía: Nuevos caminos para la Iglesia y para una Ecología integral, Ciudad del Vaticano, 2018, n° 6 (https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/es/bollettino/pubblico/2018/06/08/panam.html).

[8] Op. cit.

[9] Juan Bottasso, Los Salesianos y los Shuar, cit. pp. 96-103.

[10] Xavier Albó, “Cruces de caminos con Manolo”, in Los rostros de la tierra encantada: Religión, evangelización y sincretismo en el Nuevo Mundo. Homenaje a Manuel Marzal, S.J., p. 78 (https://books.google.fr/books?id=-gFcCwAAQBAJ).

[11] Los Kunas y el camino de Paba y de Nana, pp. 4 y 3 (http://usuaris.tinet.cat/fqi_sp02/docs/aiban_wa.doc).

[12] Cfr. Conquête et évangile en Amérique latine – Questions pour l’Europe aujourd’hui, Actas del coloquio de la Universidade Católica de Lyon, 28-30 enero de 1992, p. 237.

[13] Eventos del CELAM y de la CEM sobre Teología India, p. 9 (http://www.amerindiaenlared.org/uploads/adjuntos/1490318167_attach19.docx).

[14] Declaration by the Association of Indian Theologians in their 13th annual conference in 1989.

[15] Vicente Zaruma Q., Wakanmay (Aliento sagrado): Perspectivas de teología india – Una propuesta desde la cultura Cañari, Ed. Abya Yala, 2006, p. 13-15.

[16] Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” Vatican City, 2018, n°12 (https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/06/08/180608a.html).

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