Theology as Metaphorical Meat

Recently, I read the account of a Spanish-speaking conference held at Boston College.  The focus of the conference was the Liberation Theology movement associated with Central and South America.  I know something about this theological way of making sense of God, humanity and our world.  That theology came on the scene about the same time I was in college and graduate school.  It grew out of the political and economic situations of the Americas that in some ways I could say I knew about, but didn’t really know. 

Liberation Theology has not always been kindly looked upon by the officials within the Catholic Church.  This is not surprising, since the Church often was implicated because they sided with the power structures in Latin America.  Too often through the later part of the twentieth century, the political power structures of various countries had policies that oppressed the poor and marginal folks.  Women were too often harassed and other minorities suffered as well.  The original Liberation theologians took the side of the poor and marginalized and claimed that is where Jesus also would be found.

Fast forward to the Boston College conference---held entirely in Spanish---and we see the same concerns that fed the original movement.  And this time there is an Argentinian Pope Francis, who certainly knows about Liberation Theology.  He would have been not only aware of it, but would have been influenced by it as Archbishop in Buenos Aires.  Indeed, there were a couple papal representatives in attendance.  And everyone had in some fashion become aware of and shared the “worldview” of the Pope.

The first day of the conference presented an iconic name in Liberation Theology.  Peruvian Dominican Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the original thinkers within the movement---and one I read decades ago---set some of the agenda for the theological meeting.  Gutierrez used an image that I liked and that forms the idea for the title of this inspirational piece.  We are told he “discussed poverty and the importance of the pastoral, quipping that "theology is like frozen meat: everything you need is there, but you can't eat it." 

I was fascinated by that image of theology.  Since I also have spent time doing pastoral ministry, I felt like I could resonate.  I have read a fair amount of theology in my time.  It can be fascinating and it can be quite complex and highly academic.  While I am glad to have that kind of theological knowledge, I also was quite aware I could not use it directly in many pastoral settings.  Picture visiting an elderly woman in a hospital who wants someone to pray for her.  She is not looking for complex theological ideas.  She wants God to come and be present to her.

That is why I think Gutierrez quips that theology is like frozen meat.  It is fine and it is nourishing.  But you can’t eat frozen meat.  It has to be thawed and cooked.  It has to be prepared.  That is when the meat---the theology---can be useful to the average person.  Liberation Theology attempts to make theology appropriate to the suffering poverty and oppression that is still found in many quarters of Latin America.  It also seeks to make theology applicable in that economic context.

I like the way Gutierrez carries the imagery forward.  He states, "If I'm hungry, it's my problem," he said. "If my neighbor's hungry, it's my soul's problem."  In much of Latin America (and I daresay parts of North America, as well) there is hunger.  Some of the hunger is literal---people do not have enough to eat.  Some of the hunger is figurative---people do not have religion presented in a way that makes any difference.  Many younger folks feel this kind of hunger.  People need to be fed---fed food and meaning.  This is something the Church can do.  But often it does not fulfill this mission.

To this point I appreciated the thinking of another bishop attending the conference.
“Bishop Raúl Biord Castillo of La Guaira, Venezuela, one of two papal delegates who are to present the group's work to Francis, reminded those attending the conference that "the church doesn't have a mission; the mission has a church."  This is profound.  The mission precedes the Church.  The Church exists to carry out the mission.  But whose mission”  And what mission?

It seems to me the answer is clear.  The mission is the job Jesus gave to the early followers and all the disciples after.  It is the same mission he had: to incarnate the Presence of God in the world and to feed, free and heal.  He called this Kingdom proclamation, but it is more than words.  The Kingdom is deeds---actions that brings everyone into healthy, healed lives.  As Bishop Castillo notes, “Mission isn't even about having more people enter the church. It's about being witness to God's love that includes all people."  I love this.

The way I see it, it is not only the mission of the Church.  It should be the mission of each of us.  Or to put it like the Bishop, the mission should have us.  When we make a commitment, we get the mission---or, better, the mission gets us!  But it sometimes comes as frozen meat---or frozen theology.  Our job is to prepare and then present the good news to a world sadly in need of food, freedom and healing.

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