Liberation Theology and a Theology of Hope (Part I)

Liberation theology is a school of thought focusing on the poor and marginalized of society and their liberation from poverty and oppression, though it is more appropriate to speak of liberation theology in the plural, for liberation theologies are to be found amongst various peoples around the world. The most notable and lucid expression of liberation theology to date is found in the Catholics of Latin America, the impetus behind this movement being the idea that the underclass of Latin America has been exploited and victimized by capitalism, colonialism, and corporations.

The theology of hope movement—which is more so a confederation of related proposals than an actual school of thought—is comprised of theologians such Wolfhart Pannenberg, Johannes Metz, Dietrich Ritschl, Walther Zimmerli, Carl Braaten, and Jürgen Moltmann. As one commentator has said: “The school of hope is not a religio-philosophical derivative of a previous epistemological or metaphysical orientation. It is an aggregate. Its basis is a mood” (Walter Capps, “Mapping the Hope Movement,” in The Future of Hope, 1–42, quote from 10).

The unifying thread among theologians of hope is a concern to relate the thoroughgoing eschatology and futurism of the Bible to contemporary human experience in a time where the liquidity and velocity of modernity needs to be kept in mind. Hope theology finds its framework in the eschatological thrusts of the Old and New Testaments, with the role of the “future” playing a crucial role in the theology, being found under the rubric of the kingdom of God. Linked to this utilization of the “future” is the role of “hope” in the present. In short, one can say that a “theology of hope” is a criticism of any form of Constantinian Christianity that attempts to find Christianity’s definitive answer in the present rather than the future.

Ostensibly, liberation theology and a theology of hope may seem to have much in common, yet there are actually considerable distinctions between the two theologies. While it can be said that the emergence of liberation theology and a theology of hope were contemporaneous to one another, there is no causation accompanying this correlation; one did not birth the other. Notwithstanding, the theology of hope school did have an impact on some liberation theologians, though the ideas found in it were not taken wholesale, but were instead selectively chosen and adapted freely. In other words, the relationship between the two theologies is best described as dialectical rather than hierarchical.

The next few posts shall examine this relationship by looking at the quintessential theologian of hope, Jürgen Moltmann, and the founder of liberation theologian in Latin America, Gustavo Gutiérrez. Each of these two figures occupies the role of being a pioneer in their respective theology movement, for the theology of hope school owes its existence in large part to Jürgen Moltmann’s work, Theologie der Hoffnung (1964; English translation, Theology of Hope, 1967), and likewise, the key work in the beginnings of the liberation theology movement is Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Teología de la Liberación (1971; English translation, A Theology of Liberation, 1973).

The value of a Moltmann-Gutiérrez comparison as a heuristic device for understanding the relationship between these two theological movements is established when one reads that Gutiérrez lavished praise upon Moltmann and his Theology of Hope, declaring the book as “one of the most important in contemporary theology” (A Theology of Liberation, 125). Moltmann has likewise been influenced by liberation theologians, saying that he found his theology of hope in Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation (see Moltmann’s Experiences in Theology, 217). In the same book (217–48), Moltmann discusses Cardinal Ratzinger’s criticisms of Latin American liberation theology, effectively coming to the defense of Gutiérrez. It must be kept in mind, though, that while the theme of liberation is of paramount importance for Moltmann, he himself is not a liberation theologian, at least not in the normative sense of engaging in critical contemplation upon theological praxis within a particular community of beleaguered and oppressed people.

The next few blog posts will focus upon two key areas in these two theologies: (1) the role of Marxism in their political theology; and (2) the role of hope. By focusing upon these two themes found in hope theology (through Moltmann) and liberation theology (through Gutiérrez), I hope to shed a little bit of light as to the relationship between these two important twentieth-century theological movements.

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