Laxy Praxy: Doing vs. Learning in Liberation Theology

Given that I recently reviewed Anthony Bradley’s Liberating Black Theology, I thought this video would be a valuable follow-up to the discussion. Although Bradley’s book focuses specifically on black liberation theology, this is only one manifestation of a larger theological trend among oppressed minorities.

In the video, Acton Institute’s Michael Miller interviews other Acton thinkers (Samuel Gregg, Anielka Munkel, and Jordan Ballor) on the history of liberation theology, as well as its recent resurgence among evangelicals.

You can watch the video here:

What I find most noteworthy is the overarching discussion about liberation theology’s emphasis on doing vs. learning.

As Gregg puts it:

One of the things that liberation theologians talked about was this idea of praxis — you have to act, you have to do things — to which the response of people like John Paul II or then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was, “Yes, action is important, but it has to be informed by correct thought.” In other words, orthodoxy, which means right thought, has to inform orthopraxy. Orthopraxis in itself would not give you a coherent reason for doing what it is you’re doing. So theologically, and even just in terms of its own logic, I think liberation theology was always destined to fall apart.

As far as where exactly liberation theology is resurfacing, Ballor provides some good insights:

I believe among mainline ecumenical groups like the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches and others it is not too simplistic to say that it’s a version of liberation theology coming to expression. Some people are more explicit about it than others…You’ve had people in the leadership of the WCC recently say, “Yes, it’s liberation theology and it’s good and we’re embracing it, and others I think probably don’t really recognize that what they’re advocating is a form of liberation theology.

Ballor provides some concrete examples of where this is taking place in “mainline ecumenical groups,” but he doesn’t get too specific on where it is surfacing in the evangelical sphere.

From what I have observed in evangelical circles, it seems that this type of thought flows abundantly from the emerging church, or what is now being called the missional church movement. It is certainly playing out in an increasing number mainline evangelical churches, but on the whole it seems to be a trend stemming from those who are on the “cutting edge” of evangelicalism.

Speaking of which, I’m currently reading Brett McCracken’s book, Hipster Christianity, in which he devotes a chapter to both the emerging church and the missional movement. While watching this video, I was immediately struck by the parallels between the liberation theology of old and that described by McCracken.

For example, here is McCracken’s summary of the praxis component of the emerging church (page 142), which seems strikingly similar to Gregg’s description of liberation theology:

One final assertion of the emerging church — and a very important one — is the idea that praxis (the living out, daily embodiment) of Christianity should be as or more important than the way that we think or even talk about it. How do we live out the gospel? What does the church look like in practice? These are important cues for emergents.

Marxist Jesus

Gregg notes that liberation theologians put "a Marxist face on the person of Christ."

McCracken goes on to explain how the emerging church is often critiqued for relying more on culture than Scripture, “looking at the world and its various needs and fashioning the church around that.” This is indeed a risk, because as Gregg indicates, thoughtless action will eventually prove unproductive and unsustainable.

Alas, it should be no surprise that many of the emerging church’s conclusions resemble those of “traditional” liberation theology — namely, a rash promotion of economic materialism and a general orientation toward political salvation. There may be no explicit application of Marxist theory (though it would not be surprising), but there is an explicit focus on an oppression-based Jesus who has come primarily to save us from earthbound tyrants.

Why are we prone to repeat such theological errors? What is so appealing about culturally driven or need-based theology that the Church finds it so necessary to continuously revive it and rename it?

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