Espin Review of Valentin New Horizons in Hispanic Latinoa Theology

Valentín, Benjamín, ed. New Horizons in Hispanic/Latino(a) Theology. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003. Pages, x + 261. Paper, $19.00 ISBN: 0829815422

Reviewed by: Orlando O. Espín

This volume is a collection of twelve original articles by Catholic and Protestant authors who belong to the scholarly generation some have come to call the “third wave” of U.S. Latino/a theology and religious studies. Most of these authors are already members of faculties at universities or seminaries, and a few were still in the process of completing or defending their doctoral dissertations when this book was published. A dedication to the members of the “first two waves” of Latino/a theology and religious studies opens the volume, followed by the list of contributors, “acknowledgments” and the editor’s introduction. The articles are divided into three thematic sections: “Experiences, Representation, and Critical Religious Discourse” (Part One), “Culture, Political Theory, and Theological Hermeneutics” (Part Two), and “Agency, Community, and Religious Practice” (Part Three).

Valentín’s introduction requests that the reader not expect in this volume a comprehensive guide to U. S. Latino/a theology or religious studies; instead the reader should see this collective and internally diverse volume as an attempt, by “third wave” scholars, to: (1) address some issues left unexamined (or insufficiently examined) by members of the preceding two waves;” (2) bring out the theoretical implications of the new themes, concerns, sources, epistemology, and methods retrieved and/or explicitated by the authors of the “third wave,” and; (3) reflect on the implications of these new themes and concerns for the overall ways of “doing” Latino/a theology and religious studies. The editor further clarifies that the reader should not expect the themes, methodologies, and insights introduced in this volume to be the same across the texts collected therein, or even to be in mutual agreement. Rather, the diversity conveyed in this book is intentional and expresses the growth, maturity, and increasing internal variety of U. S. Latino/a theology and religious studies.

Part One opens with an article by Francisco Lozado (“Encountering the Bible in an Age of Diversity and Globalization: Teaching toward Intercultural Criticism”). Lozado challenges professors of biblical studies (and others in theology) to take seriously in their teaching contemporary theories that shed light on our increasingly diverse and globalized world, and after examining alternatives the author clearly espouses and focuses (via very solid arguments) on the “reading across” pedagogical strategy. The second text in this part is by Zaida Maldonado Pérez (“Visions of Hope: The Legacy of the Early Church”). The author re-reads the early Christian history of martyrs who stood against oppression, finding in their history and visions a model for today’s Latino/a Christians’ struggles and new visions. She convincingly argues that her contribution is especially relevant for Latino/a Protestants, who she urges to claim early Christians as part of their own faith heritage. In the third paper (“Dis-covering the Silences: A Postcolonial Critique of U. S. Religious Historiography”), Hjamil Martínez exposes and critiques the colonialist agenda that has permeated and still permeates the works of U.S. religious historians. Martínez suggests ways of deconstructing and reconstructing historiography from a postcolonial perspective that goes beyond merely updating or reforming “standard” U.S. religious history. This is significant, he argues, for the inclusion as agents (and not as marginal or as “addendum”) of U.S. Latinos/as and others who have been marginalized from the “standard” U.S. historical narrative. The fourth and final article in Part I is by Mayra Rivera (“En-Gendered Territory: U.S. Missionary Discourse in Puerto Rico [1898-1920]”). She offers a postcolonial feminist reading and critique of Protestant missionaries’ discourse in Puerto Rico during the first twenty-two years of the U.S. occupation of the island, tracing the connections between the misssionaries’ ideas of themselves, their work, and their preaching (and its colonizing assumptions and content) with the implied subordination of women and of all lands and persons who did not “fit” the imperial Protestant ethos of the time. Rivera forcefully critiques the past and calls for a move toward a more liberating and inclusive vision that must in time systematically reflect on and critique basic Christian doctrinal assumptions.

Part Two opens with an essay by the volume’s editor, Benjamin Valentín (“Oye, ¿Y ahora qué?/Say, Now What? Prospective Lines of Development for U. S. Hispanic/Latino[a] Theology”), where he focuses on culture, identity and teologia de conjunto as method, suggesting that it is time for Latino/a theologians to incorporate a wider variety of cultural sources into their theologies, “complexifying” their discourse on identity, and expanding the notion of teologia de conjunto – all in order to build broader social and cultural coalitions and promote wider intercultural dialogue. This part’s second essay (“Unearthing the Latino/a Imagination: Literature and Theology, Some Methodological Gestures”) is by Michelle González, who examines the role of aesthetics in Latino/a theology by applying to the latter the lens of literature (and categories derived from theologian H. U. von Balthasar), thereby proposing literature not only as a theological source but, more emphatically, as theology, and aesthetics as a worthy contributor to Latino/a theology. Christopher Tirres’ text (“’Liberation’ in the Latino/a Context: Retrospect and Prospect”) focuses on what he sees as the ambiguous use of the term “liberation” in Latino/a theology. Tirres argues that the notion of “integral liberation” can move forward and connect the main notions of “liberation” in use among Latino/a theologians (i.e., the ambivalent use of “liberation” Tirres gleaned from the works of Andrés Guerrero and Roberto Goizueta). The last paper in this second part is by Manuel Mejido (“The Fundamental Problematic in U.S. Hispanic Theology”), where the author suggests that Latino/a theology is caught in the tension between two distinct views of theology: as either a historical-hermeneutic science or a critically oriented science, or as understood by the dominant European (and European American) academy or by Latin American liberation theology. Mejido suggests that Latino/a theologians, always facing the risk of assimilation, must re-define what they believe theology is, which he understands to be both a critically oriented theological hermeneutic of liberation and a set of scholarly practices that reflectively resist assimilation. According to Mejido, by way of a very reasoned argument, U. S. Latino/a theology must rediscover and redefine itself as the theological articulation of the Latino/a history of mestizaje and of popular religion, to the degree that the latter is the key religious category to an understanding of Latino/a reality as mestizo/a. Although not without problems and lacunae, the article by Mejido is arguably (for this reviewer) the most suggestive in this entire book.

Part III of the present volume starts with an essay by Alex Nava (“On Tragic Beauty”), wherein he addresses the challenges that evil and suffering pose to aesthetic theologies, beginning with a reflection provoked by the deaths of immigrants in the U.S.-Mexico border desert region. Nava suggests that a lament of/for survival; resistance, and hope, as well as a poetics of love can allow us to affirm the faith in a God who is hidden in ambiguous and suffering life. The second article by Samuel Cruz (“A Rereading of Latino/Pentecostalism”), argues that—contrary to popular perceptions and some literature—Latino/a Pentecostalism (and more specifically, Puerto Rican Pentecostalism) is more firmly grounded in concrete social, cultural, and political reality than most other forms of Latino/a Protestantism. Cruz argues well that the “typical” theoretical studies and understandings of Pentecostalism need the enhancement analyzing Pentecostalism as vehicle of political resistance and rebellion. In the third paper in this part of the volume, Lara Medina (“Transformative Struggle: The Spirituality of Las Hermanas”) examines the work and religious discourse of Las Hermanas and discovers in them a counter-discourse to patriarchy and Eurocentrism in the U.S. Catholic church. Medina suggests that this organization of Latina Catholics can serve as a model for women living at the intersection of the religious and the political, as well as provide an epistemology to enrich Latino/a theology. The last text in this section and in the entire volume is by Rudy Bustos (“The Predicament of Nepantla: Chicano/a Religions in the Twenty-First Century”), wherein the author explores “extra-church” religious experiences and expressions. Bustos offers the category of nepantla as hermeneutic lens through which to read and analyze these “extra-church” experiences and expressions, further suggesting that nepantla could help negotiate what might (or might not) be religiously acceptable in Chicano/a cultures, breathing new life into old stories and ancient knowledge beyond the control of the scholarly, theological authorities.

This is an impressive collection of essays. I learned more from some of the texts than from others, as can be expected, and I agreed with some arguments and not so much with others. I found, in spite of the editor’s warning to the contrary in his introduction, an unacknowledged recurring note throughout the entire volume – i.e., the explicit (and at times implicit) appeal to postcolonial and post modern theories as (most, not all, of) the different authors’ diverse argument were constructed. This might indicate the scholarly generation to which the authors belong. But this might also suggest the need for further systematic reflection on some unexamined assumptions of postmodern and postcolonial thought. The recurring note does suggest to me two other important points: 1) these scholars have had the freedom and academic qualifications to discover and employ the theoretical tools they deemed most apt for the future of U.S. Latino/a theology and religious studies (which further suggests that they have correctly considered themselves to be not bound by whatever the preceding “waves” of Latino/a religious scholars might have proposed), and 2) there is a discernable growing internal diversity within U.S. Latino/a theology and religious studies (not necessarily found along generational lines but around theoretical and methodological options) given that, for example, some Latino/a theologians have found in intercultural and aesthetic theories the methodological and theoretical assistance that others seem to have discovered in postmodern and postcolonial thought. But I hasten to add that by no means do I consider the methodological/theoretical alternatives to be limited to intercultural, aesthetic, and postmodern/postcolonial theories, as many of our colleagues would rightly and quickly observe. The growing internal diversity (and the mutual critique this does and will continue to imply) can only enrich Latino/a religious scholarship, and thus it is most welcome as necessary. I might add, however, and as the most serious critique of the present volume, that a few of its authors seem to “de-complexify” and “de-contextualize” the contributions of the first two “eaves” of Latino/a theology – which might imply a somewhat reductionist misreading of these earlier contributions. Furthermore, the texts presented in this book would have been immensely enriched if their authors had engaged them in conversation and mutual critique – but the editor had warned the reader not to expect this.

All of the articles in this volume are worth reading because each has something important to contribute. These “third wave” scholars have individually and collectively again proven their academic abilities, and the maturing of U.S. Latino/a theologizing. I recommend this book to anyone interested in theology and religious studies (Latino/a or not).