The book version of a doctoral dissertation generally offers both advantages and disadvantages to the reader. The positive values of such dissertation-into-book efforts include introducing a new author, providing extensive review of the existing literature, and offering fresh research on relevant themes. To achieve these gains, however, there is a price to be paid. Such first books often ask readers to find their way through endless sidebars on hot-house debates and endure the obfuscating academic formalisms required of the rite of passage that dissertations have become. This book certainly delivers on the advantages, but unfortunately has not escaped the disadvantages of this genre of a scholar's first book.
Readers of this modestly-sized volume from Orbis Books will be introduced to Michelle A. González, now an Assistant Professor of Theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angles. She shows evidence of becoming an important voice in the new cohort of Latino/a theologians aided by scholarships from the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI) and participation in the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the United States (ACHTUS). Her topic is the writing of the 17th century Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Sor Juana has long been recognized in Spanish-American literature as one of the leading authors produced by the Ibero-American Baroque. In Mexico, she has acquired a special place as a national icon. Pensadores such as Octavio Paz have located Sor Juana as an early exponent of a proto-nationalism, while feminists pictured her as a pioneer protester against male-domination. Most recently, Sor Juana has been presented as a theologian in books by Pamela Kirk and George Tavard. González cites all of these sources in her bibliography and extensive footnotes. Persons familiar with these literary, nationalistic, historical and feminist works will find familiar the summaries provided by González as she describes the achievements of Sor Juana. Unfortunately, González is not an expert in Spanish-American literature, nor does she address the complicated issues of Mexican nationalism, nor is she a professional historian. The reader is asked to accept the young author's interpretations in each of these fields, with only long footnotes to justify the choices. Morever, the jargon borrowed from these fields can become smothering. How many times do we need to be told that "gender" is a "construction"?
As an irenic junior scholar, González seems reluctant to reject any of the perspectives gleaned from her extensive research, even if maintaining all of them simultaneously leads to contradictions. Thus, for instance, we are told that some commentators view Sor Juana as a "repressed lesbian" (pg. 27). This is certainly a crucial issue for evaluating the poetic references to love made by Sor Juana, and would undercut some of the claims made by theologians about the sublimity of Sor Juana's spirituality. González prefers repeating all claims, whether about sexuality or about spirituality. While this is fine for a dissertation intended for microfiche, it leaves a less specialized reader with a host of unresolved issues.
The purpose of the book, however, is theological. González can be pardoned for reproducing so many unassimilated opinions about Sor Juana because these form the backdrop for her theological effort, which she calls a "Latin American ressourcement" (pg. 196). While Kirk and Tavard were demonstrated that Sor Juana's literary and apologetic writings contained theological ideas, González goes further into comparison of these theological ideas with current theology. She uses premises taken from the Theology of Liberation on the one hand, and from the seven-volume Glory of the Lord by Hans Urs von Balthasar on the other. González' main argument is that beauty and justice are interwoven themes in the writings of Sor Juana. On that premise, she has linked together a theology of aesthetics (von Balthasar and García Rivera) with a theology of liberation (Guitérrez, et al.). This is not an easy book to read, but this study of Sor Juana as theologian is a useful addition to the growing body of Latina and Latin American theology.