Christian Traditioning in the American Global South

Oscar García-Johnson

Those of us involved in Christian theological education today recognize we are living in unprecedented times. The notable Argentinian philosopher, historian, and decolonial thinker, Enrique Dussel, refers to this axial time as “un mundo mundializado,” alluding to the fact that critical knowledge, social capital, and political action have outgrown the West. The de-westernizing (which includes post-American, post-Christian, and post-colonial) trends in thinking, sensing, believing, resisting, and imagining futures are undeniable, despite cognitive empires’ attempt at managing any cognitive revolt against Occidentalism.

In the same breath, I often refer to this time as a “new world,” which has epistemic, theological, and geopolitical connotations with colonial modernity and the global designs that began in 1492 (see Oscar García-Johnson, Introduccion a la Teología del Nuevo Mundo: El Quehacer Teológico en el Siglo XXI [Editorial CLIE, 2022], 14–20). The beginning of the twenty-first century, some argue, truly originated during the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This new world, post-COVID-19, evidences the transformation of various local and global spaces of public life through an ungovernable health crisis, a series of protests, and world revolutions against racism, sexism, and colonialism, triggered by the systemic abuses of the US police and legal apparatus against the African-American, black community, Latinxs, Middle Easterners, women, and Asian Americans. The new post-COVID-19 world has forced the state, the private sector, and the religious sector to place themselves squarely on the virtual platform, solidifying once and for all the informational society and informational capitalism (info-capitalism).

Indeed, it is a new world, and in this new world we have two axial problems in theological education in the American Global South. The first problem relates to the theological failure to shape the structures of continental life with a life-giving (self-developmental) version of Christianity. The second problem relates to the lack of relevance of the theological work itself. While the first points to a theological external deficiency (sociopolitical), the second points to an internal theological incoherence (epistemic) sourced by a lack of incarnational and indigenous vision of the evangel as part of the American Global South. But then, this is the very kind of problem western theology is facing in the context of world Christianity. The peripheries of Christian theology are manifesting (mirroring) the crisis of the core centers of hegemonic Christian theologies.

The crisis of the Christian religion, in its positive and negative expressions, can be better understood as we situate Christian traditioning. So, what are the most notable theological traditions and themes emerging for centuries in the American Global South? Why should global Christians be aware of those traditions and theological conversations today? The answer to these questions is simple, on the one hand, and complex, on the other. The Peruvian anthropologist Manuel M. Marzal may help us focus on the founding issues giving birth to both, the American Global South and global western theologies:

The founding evangelization [in the Americas] produced a popular Catholicism, which was an Iberian transplant reverted by American indigenous forms. This was due to the inculturation effort of the missionaries attempting to adapt the message to the indigenous cultures and the syncretistic effort of Indians attempting to keep their own religion or give indigenous content to Catholicism, which they ended up accepting (syncretism is the other side of inculturation). (Tierra Encantada: Tratado de Antropología Religiosa de América Latina, Colección Estructuras y Procesos [Pontifica Universidad Católica de Perú/Editorial Trotta, 2002], 268; quoted in Oscar Garcia-Johnson, Spirit outside the Gate: Decolonial Pneumatologies of the American Global South, Missiological Engagements [IVP Academic, 2019], 73)

Marzal’s theological and anthropological conclusion does not apply only to Roman Catholic missions in the context of colonial history in the “New World,” but also to the case of Western Protestant and Pentecostal missions in the context of the neocolonial modern world constantly emerging as the American Global South. “Whatever kind of people we have become and continue to be in the American Global South culturally, religiously, politically, and otherwise,” I have said elsewhere, “is the product of both the western empires and their various forms of civilizing missions and our own creation of life and faith in an effort of ‘subversive hope’” (García-Johnson, Spirit outside the Gate, 172). Theologically expressed, the peoples of the Americas have been recipients of various traditions (the West included) as well as traditioning communities. Some of the traditioning communities of the American Global South have participated with western Christian traditions in processes seeking the full-occidentalization of faith and life. Other traditioning communities of the American Global South have participated with western traditions in anti-occidentalizing processes, namely, decolonization projects. And yet a third stream of traditioning communities have endeavored a more autonomous and indigenous approach to faith, sociopolitical life, and eschatological imagination by delinking from occidentalocentric logics and discourses on the conservative and progressive side of things. We can call this final stream the transoccidental and decolonial shift in theological imagination.

Why, then, should global Christians (which include western Christians) be aware of the traditioning communities and themes emerging for centuries from the American Global South? First, western theological approaches around the world are suffering a decentering crisis in the church and the academy. Second, the subaltern emerging voices sharing colonial/modern/imperial subjugations in the American Global South (and around the world) are becoming agents of cultural, theological, ecological, and political innovation (García-Johnson, Introducción, 19). There are several theological new paradigms emerging from these epistemic and ecclesial imaginations pointing to the infectiveness of westernized theological discourses (Oscar García-Johnson, “Nuevo Mundo Theology: Doing Theology Otherwise in the American Global South” [Unpublished paper, October 2022], 19). And since the vitality of Christianity continues to migrate from the North Atlantic to the Global South, it follows that it becomes indispensable to understand how the Spirit has been at work as emerging groundbreaking theological frontiers have shaped the global sphere.

I suggest a rhizomatic theological vision to capture the trajectories of these traditioning communities, rather than a systematic theological one. In this essay, I name five prominent theological discourses rooted in traditioning communities that are shaping the global theological epistemological landscape. They are, by no means, representative of all that is happening on the ground. Like a rhizome, they suggest entry points leading to multiple branches (visible and hidden), many of which are untraceable by our current theological cartographies, historic memories, and eschatological imaginations.

Traditioning Latin American Liberation Theology

Liberation theology is perhaps the most prominent theological movement emerging from Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, predominantly from Roman Catholics spheres involved in pastoral practice and critical reflection. Names such as Gutierrez, the Boff brothers, Ernesto Cardenal, and Jon Sobrino enlist the contributions and limitations of the foundational stages of this traditioning community. It is easy for some of us today, from a distance, to analyze what happened when the ecclesial-based communities gave theological content to and shaped the discourse known as Latin American Liberation theology. But indeed, many things were happening on the ground we cannot account for, so reducing Liberation theology to categories such as pastoral commitment with the poor, epistemic autonomy, [neo]Marxist historical critique of power structures, male theological normativity, ethnic discourse neglect, etc., will not do justice to the full story of this traditioning community from the American Global South.

Nevertheless, the relevance of liberation theology resides in the epistemic relocation of its discourse from abstract Western categories to contextual, historical, and practical ones, evidenced in the daily political and praxis of the people. I have mentioned elsewhere that liberation theology “represents a reversal of conquest theology and provides an alternative reinterpretation of the cross: the movement from a colonial legacy where Christ is assumed as a victim of the historical tragedy to the option of Bartolomé de Las Casas and his solidarity with the poor” (William A. Dyrness and Oscar García-Johnson, Theology without Borders: An Introduction to Global Conversations [Baker Academic, 2015], 59). Regardless of its critiques, Latin American Liberation theology gave birth to numerous theological expressions embodied locally and globally, challenging capitalism and colonial modernity. (The Spanish Liberation theologian, Juan José Tamayo, offers us a clever picture of how liberation theology has been parsed around the world to give birth to a constellation of theological discourses beyond the traditional Christian space. The liberationist variants are intercultural, interreligious, inter-epistemic, inter-political, and intersubjective, and include neglected theological subjects such as blacks, women, peasants, indigenous communities, LGBTI communities, Mother Earth, and the like. See his Teologías del Sur: El giro descolonizador [Trotta, 2017]).

Traditioning Misión Integral

In his speech in 1974 at Lausanne, the Ecuadorian theologian C. René Padilla, along with other Latin American missiologists, challenged the church to redefine evangelism beyond a merely eschatological experience of the soul (C. René Padilla, Mission between the Times, 2nd ed. [Langham, 2013], 50). The father of Misión Integral (integral mission) intended to intertwine evangelism with social action as inseparable axioms of the gospel. It is an understatement to say that western missionary agencies and personalities received integral mission as a radical and “seemingly” unbiblical understating of the gospel. In the simplest form, integral mission affirms “that social action and evangelism are essential aspects of the church’s mission; that proclaiming the Gospel cannot be separated from expressing God’s love in concrete ways” (C. René Padilla, What Is Integral Mission? [Fortress Press, 2021], ch. 4).

Padilla’s contribution to missiology and theological tradition confirmed the emergence of another traditioning community from the American Global South, an evangelical variant of sorts, to use Orlando Costa’s insinuation. (See my treatment of Costas’s imagination in Garcia-Johnson, Spirit outside the Gate, 93.) Such a traditioning community stood as a wake-up call to abandon the unilateral dimension of mission as merely the salvation of the soul via the gospel proclamation. Simultaneously,

Integral Mission was greatly overshadowed by the political and economic tone of Liberation theology. The time was right for such a tone; a historically situated discourse able to problematize the hegemony of neocolonial political and economic powers over Latin America was long due. Because of this fact, the diffusion of the Latin American Fellowship (FTL) and Integral Mission as a Latin American indigenous theology has remained partially in the shadows of theologizing in the West and the world. (Dyrness and García-Johnson, Theology without Borders, 58)

In summary, integral mission responded multidimensionally to the local context and went beyond the inherited and Westernized dimension of the gospel as a preach-to-conquer the lost souls. If we were to take someone like Costas’s articulation of Misión Integral as our guide, we would say that the response included a Christology from the margins, contextuality as a theological method, an incarnational political spirituality, a social ethics oriented by a transformational Missio Dei, and a social location distinctively transnational/outernational (Garcia-Johnson, Spirit outside the Gate, 94–97).

Traditioning Pentecostal Theology

It’s been said before how in the context of the Americas, Liberation Theology opted for the poor, and the poor opted for Pentecostalism. In Spirit outside the Gate, I identify how Western research remains obsessed with making sense of the statistical, missiological, theological, sociological, or political theories to grasp why the God in the Americas is predominately charismatic/Pentecostal. Consequently, they cannot clench “the deep significance of how the religious imagination of the Majority World relates to the Spirit of God in real life and space (lo cotidiano)” (153). Furthermore, Latin America Neopentecostalism embodies a theology of mission-seeking restoration, recovery/humanizing, spiritual deliverance, and economic prosperity (Miguel Alvarez, The Reshaping of Mission in Latin America [Fortress, 2015], part 4). “Interestingly, although many of these churches and leaders are still affected by the colonial wound, their sense of evangelistic achievement and mission accomplishment does not follow the patterns established by Western Christianity. On the contrary, it has influenced Western Pentecostalism” (K. K. Yeo, Gene L. Green, and Walter Brueggemann, Theologies of Land: Contested Land, Spatial Justice, and Identity [Cascade, 2020]). Latin America Neopentecostalism responds to how the gospel takes flesh in and through the Spirit in the here and now. The local experience becomes the center as the Spirit is embraced beyond the canonical imagination of the West.

Traditioning US Latino/a Theology

Immigration’s legacy on the theological and contextual reflection across the Americas is unquantifiable. Locating the theological analysis predominantly in culture, the US Latino/a theology, for example, proposes a cultural resistance to Western monoculturalism. Furthermore, in contrast to Western theologies,

diaspora Latino/a theology does not attempt to deny ambiguity for the sake of “clear” and “distinct” theologizing; instead, it tends to theologize ambiguity, subsuming in alterity corresponding historical memories, present struggles, and future utopias. Latinos/as in the global diaspora are aware of our borderline existential condition in ways that Latin Americans living to the south sometimes are not. Our subalternity is experienced at multiple levels with regard to the dominant Western and Latin American cultures. Our living constantly and subversively at the border has precipitated a way of dwelling and thinking on the border of knowledge and power. This way of life makes decoloniality a language of survival and subsistence for us. (Dyrness and García-Johnson, Theology without Borders, 60)

Fernando F. Segovia, among others, defines it as a postcolonial theology from exile that is identifiable yet varied and diverse (“Two Places and No Place on Which to Stand,” in Mestizo Christianity, ed. Arturo J. Bañuelas [Orbis Books, 1995] 28–43). How can a theology from ambiguity be nowhere and yet someplace? Diaspora theologies give a foundation to the voiceless in exile.

Traditioning Nuevo Mundo Theology

The entanglement of the global space and our daily life as the field of theological praxis can no longer be cemented in a single narrative claiming universality and totalitarian Christian utopias of Western Christianity (García-Johnson, “Nuevo Mundo Theology,” 1). Liberation theologies, Integral Mission, indigenous theologies, neopentecostalism, and diaspora theologies, to name some traditioning communities, are evidence of the ineffective legacy of the West and the emergence of the Global South as a theological force. I am proposing a framing of theological discourse I call Nuevo Mundo theology as a rhizomatic discourse that emerges from the unsatisfied and subjugated communities of the American Global South that includes “atheology as a self-critical mechanism, that is, a theological discourse where the very concept of God and God’s knowledge of creation is interrogated and delinked from colonial modernity” (García-Johnson, “Nuevo Mundo Theology,” 25).

Nuevo Mundo theology claims, in decolonial tones, that colonial modernity sets the epistemological foundation for displacement, oppression, and dominance. I argue in favor of resisting and re-existing theologically by way of relearning lost or neglected knowledge, experiences, and aspirations from our ancestors and our communities in the struggle. The place of enunciation is indispensable for this discourse, which is distinctively the cracks and fissures of empire as people struggle for bien vivir, good living. Said differently, I elaborate on multiple theological conversations from the underside of traditional Christian doctrines. For example, instead of beginning with the patristic or reformer readings of the Bible and Christian history in Europe for the doctrine of the knowledge of God, I discuss the doctrine of the Re-Cognition of God on the basis of God’s story in the American Global South: our stories and knowledge that have been lost, denied, suppressed, and postponed by the projects of civilizing missions and colonial and neocolonial powers of the last five centuries. Indigenous situatedness, therefore, represents a new starting point, the rebirth and reimagination of ourselves in God and of God in ourselves as a functional epistemic horizon.

Elsewhere I elaborate on an indigenous theology of the land-less that I call Trans-Americanity. Trans-Americanity is presented (in line with other border thinkers of the American Global South, such as José David Saldívar and Walter Mignolo) as an epistemic geopolitics of transformation that uncovers the dignity of the lands and peoples of the Americas in a way that makes possible the Zapatista dictum: “a world in which many worlds fit” (Yeo, Green, and Brueggemann, Theologies of Land, ch. 2.). Indigenous theologies in the Global South promise to open the eyes shut by Westernized indoctrinations and extorsions of the people’s lands.

Henceforth, Nuevo Mundo theology, in its indigenous and rhizomatic character, can serve as a response to Jürgen Moltmann’s famous question to Latin American Liberation theologians: But where is Latin America in it all? (“An Open Letter to José Míguez Bonino,” in Christianity and Crisis (29 March 1976): 57–63; cited in Eddy José Muskus, The Origins and Early Development of Liberation Theology in Latin America: With Particular Reference to Gustavo Gutiérrez [Paternoster, 2002]). More concretely, Nuevo Mundo theology asks where God is operating in our lands, histories, indigenous legacies, current emancipatory efforts, and theological imaginations. It takes for granted locality, spatiality, peoplehood, border epistemologies, and indigenous imagination for the elaboration of the theological discourse rather than questioning if indeed God’s wider revelatory presence has been around at all in the American Global South beyond western missions.

Posted Jun 07, 2023