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  • Liberation and Spirituality
  • Roger Haight

These reflections on liberation and spirituality respond to a precise question. There is no better way to begin than in stating it clearly. People committed to action in behalf of liberation need a spirituality. What spirituality does Christianity offer them? The issue is not why Christian spirituality needs to be attentive to the demands of the poor and other victims of discrimination. The reasons why Christian spirituality must be liberationist have been made convincingly over the past forty-five years. It should be taken for granted that Christians are to be concerned with liberation. A slightly different issue is at stake in the question of what spirituality, present in Christianity, is summoned forth when people who are dedicated to the project of liberation turn to Christianity and ask about its spiritual resources. This question comes from a different audience, one made up of those who are not sure that Christianity or religion generally has anything to offer to the commitment to human liberation. In addressing that question the goal is to respond with some clear convictions about what Christianity has to offer and how it may affect the lives of liberationists.

Because this has to be done in a short space, the response will appear more like an outline than an argument. But both those familiar with Christianity and those less so will be able to understand the basic elements of the spirituality that is proffered. The presentation moves forward in three parts. The first explores the language of liberation and spirituality. The second and substantive part brings forward four classic witnesses to Christian spirituality and allows each to highlight a particular element of an integral Christian spirituality. And the third emphasizes the dimensions of ultimacy and finality.

liberation and spirituality

The words “liberation” and “spirituality” are familiar to everyone, but they do not bear the same meaning in everyone’s usage. The discussion, then, has to begin with a brief definition of the meaning of these terms as they are used here. These definitions [End Page 135] do not have to be developed at length. What follows simply stipulates aspects of these terms that are crucial for the logic of the position presented here.

The term “liberation” is used very broadly because human repression takes many forms. In these reflections “liberation” refers to the process of attaining or assisting others to attain freedom from various obstacles to human flourishing. There can be no doubt that since the nineteenth century social oppression has provided a focal point for understanding liberation. Humanity in the West has gradually become more and more conscious of social and historical conditioning of individual human beings. We have learned that societies are human constructions; that they favor some and neglect, marginalize, and positively subjugate others; that no society has to be the way it is; that it can be changed; that some people encourage and others resist change; and that human beings can have a less or more conscious role in the process. We have the potential to be agents of social liberation. But other forms of liberation need not be excluded from the concept. It does not make any sense to neglect some forms of repressed human freedom in favor of others, even though some forms of human deprivation are more serious than others.

One problem with such an open view of liberation is that it seems to give every liberationist concern an equal voice. It may even open a door to competitive interests. It is one thing to say that every human diminishment requires attention, but in a limited economy of human energy, time, and resources we cannot, either as individuals or societies, attend to all problems with equal vigor at the same time. We need some criteria for measuring importance. To this question a scale of values offered by Bernard Lonergan has some relevance. He begins to rank from below in an ascending scale the needs and values that lie open to human commitment.1 The denial of any basic human requirement like food and shelter calls out for liberation. But a scale of values measures relative importance of various human needs and opportunities for freedom’s development...