Humanism and liberationist theologies

In a recent comment on a post I wrote about Cornel West, Kim Hampton makes a statement that I quite agree with:

I agree that the biggest reason that West is not talked about [among Unitarian Universalists] is the fact that he speaks from a liberationist standpoint … but I think you may be downplaying the fact part of the reason he is such a liberationist is that he is a forthright Christian. And Unitarian Universalism is still trying to figure out its relationship to Christianity.

This raises another interesting issue for me. In the contemporary theological landscape, socialism is almost exclusively associated with either a Christian liberationist theology perspective (e.g., Cornel West), or a Neo-pagan liberationist theology perspective (e.g., Starhawk). Humanists, by contrast, tend to be associated with a more moderate political philosophy. So humanist William Schulz, former director of Amnesty International, sounds like pretty straightforward natural-law human rights advocate and political liberal; and humanist Sharon Welch, ethicist and theologian, sounds to me like a pretty straightforward second-wave feminist and political liberal. Of put it this way: while I can think of some prominent Christians and Neo-pagans whom I would call socialists or leftist councilists, all the prominent humanists I know of seem to accept late capitalism without making a serious challenge to it.

In addition, it seems to me that much of humanist dialogue in recent years — at least, among the humanists I know — has largely divorced theology and religion from social justice theories. This is not to say that humanists aren’t concerned with social justice; indeed, the opposite is true in my experience, as the humanists I know tend to be strongly committed to social justice and political action. But most of the humanists I know seem to remove ethics from religion, and their theology focuses on ontotheology almost exclusively. Sharon Welch is an excellent example of this: over the years, the trend she has followed has been to remove explicit religious concerns from her ethics, to the point where I would not longer call her a theologian and instead I’d call her simply an ethicist (without a qualifier).

Any thoughts on this from you, dear reader? I’m willing to hear counterexamples that disprove my hypothesis, but I’m far more interested in a broader analysis: are humanists tending to move to the political right of socialist Christians and Neo-pagans? and is there something inherent in the trend of humanist thought today that is moving humanism in that direction? and aside from William R. Jones, is there such a thing as a liberationist humanist thinker?

3 thoughts on “Humanism and liberationist theologies”

  1. The Social Gospel, and then later Liberation Theology, were Christian responses to Marxism’s charge Religion the opiate of the people. Marxism’s gone now, so were left with answers to a dead movement’s charge when we listen to today’s Liberationists/Social Gospel preachers. That can sound weird.

    Humanism today sounds pretty much the way it did to me in the 1960s as a young ‘old left’ Marxist. These were folks who understood science but didn’t quite grasp the class struggle and history’s dialectic i.e. middle class social democrats.

    When the UU PeaceMaking listserv was active and arguing about “Just War”, I mentioned the real conflict and turmoil seemed not around notions of “Just War” but around the understandings of the United States, our culture, our history, our meaning: “Just War” criteria made no sense if everything the USA touched was the work of Evil Empire (flipping a Bushism here). The only “Just War” logic needed was oppose the United States and you’d be good.

    Dan McKannen bought into this and suggested starting another group to reflect on this but that’s as far as the idea went.

    Revolution grips the Middle East now. Arabs, Persians, Kurds, and others trying to come overcome 20th century ideologies of Nationalism (Baathism) and 20th century implementations of Socialist command-economies. Trying to reconcile these badly failed experiments with their traditions, tribalisms, and Sharia.

    This is Liberationism with blood flowing in the streets all available on Youtube. I can sit at my desk at translate tweets in Arabic from folks on the streets of Damascus and Dara’a as they dodge Assad’s bullets.

    The UU list peacemaking listserv goes silent, Bill Schultz has one good post on Egypt, Sharon Welch gave us a good SOC that fits neatly with SecDef Clinton and Powers talk on events; but there are plenty of lose ends, and no response to the powerful criticisms from the Tea Party neo-isolationists (echoing pacifists too).

    I’d say the Humanists and Liberationists really aren’t going anywhere fast. They seem way to perplexed by events, stuck with 20th Century ‘isms, and perputually ill-at-ease with their 21st Century USAmericanism and its comforts. Plenty to be examined there. Oddly, you find more hard thinking these days in the Persian and Arabic speaking worlds on what to build upon all of this rubble from the past.

  2. Bill — While I agree with some of your critique of liberationist theologies, I think it’s really important to remember that the term is plural, and lumps together several different theologies that may not have all that much in common. For example, second wave feminist liberation theology was aimed at middle class educated North Americans and allied with classic liberal politics that wanted to change but not overturn the existing government, while South American liberation theology was aimed at poor uneducated communities in that part of the world and was allied with Marxist politics and sometimes aimed to overturn existing governments.

    I am not aware of a strong theological component to the various revolutions in the middle east, although this may simply be a blind spot of our Western media, which tend to downplay any religious component in politics except when fundamentalism is involved. However, I definitely would not say that any of these movements involved liberationist theologies, since that would be imposing Western Christian and post-Christian categories on Islam, and Islam has a very different history and trajectory of religious philosophy/theology.

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