A collection of his papers presented at national and international theological conferences, Grace and Humanness: Theological Reflections Because of Culture represents Orlando O. Espín’s conviction that “All theologies and all theologians are culturally bound, and there can be no exception” (ix). Enacting that conviction within the complexity of the Latino/a humanness that he claims as his own, Espín explores the breadth of Latino/a culture in dialogue with Catholic tradition, non-Christian religions, black and Latino/a LGBT communities, and the Afro-Latino heritage. In Espín’s candid style, this collection reads as a mandate to Latino/a theologians to embrace the graced reality of Latino/a humanness with its multiplicity of formative and transformative historical, ethnic, cultural, and religious influences and insights, as well as its biases and blind-spots.
While intentionally written for those engaged in Latino/a theological reflection, the wealth of insights throughout this brief book is valuable for any theologian engaged in contextual theology – and a necessary wake-up call for those who recognize no need to do so. Furthermore, it is a valuable resource for theological dialogue with Latino/a theology and culture. This is particularly so in Espín’s lucid and critical reading of the documents from Medellín, Puebla, and Santo Domingo and his noteworthy discussion of the concepts and terms popular religiosity, popular religion, popular piety, and popular Catholicism, frequently but imprecisely used as synonymous with each other.
His chapter on the construction of an intercultural theology of tradition is particularly incisive and leads the reader to wrestle with the question of the possibility of remaining truly contextual and yet attempting to articulate truths that may be recognized as universally relevant. In his discussion, Espín sets forth his guiding understanding of tradition as “the present interpretation of the past in reference to the future” (3). As such, it is thoroughly historical and contextualized and cannot presume to represent “universally relevant truth” (21) without intervening processes of dialogue and self-critique within and between cultures. Only through such processes can “multiple historical, cultural, human universalities” be drawn beyond the contingency particular to each and “into solidarity with others” (21). While Espín’s proposal certainly implies the possibility of reaching universally relevant truths, nevertheless, one wonders whether, within a postmodern paradigm of particularity and difference, such universals can be embraced experientially, even if they receive assent propositionally. Dialogue, as Espín contends, is truly the path to solidarity, but can it promise intracultural, let alone intercultural, universal claims?
This process of dialogue is equally important to Espín’s theology of religions. However, unlike the dialogue that ordinarily takes place between Christianity and the non-Christian axial religions, Espín indicates that dialogue in a Latino/a theology of religions must expressly take place with non-Christian religions present with Latino/a cultures themselves, specifically native or African religions including Lukumí. According to Espín, such dialogue “can unexpectedly and uncomfortably challenge some naïvely held beliefs about both Latino/a identity and about non-Christian religions” (93) as a whole. The impact of Africanness within and upon Latino/a identity, however, has not been sufficiently acknowledged. Espín challenges theologians to acknowledge the impact of Africanness upon culture, memory, and history – an acknowledgement that must include a heritage of slavery, violence, and racism – that can contribute to a more comprehensive communal identity.
Espín identifies another significant lack of attention on the part of Latino/a theology in his chapter on theological anthropology in which he raises the significance of the “humanitas” of Latino/a and black LGBT persons. In this section, Espín indicts Latino/a and Black theologians for being “mostly silent on the topic” (58) of heterosexism and homophobia in apparent contradiction to the inclusiveness that characterizes Latino/a and black communities and cultures. Does this inattention to the importance of the humanitas of LGBT persons by Latino/a and black theologians, Espín asks, indicate a “fear of provoking our own repression” (59)? Further, does it “seem to be telling black and Latino/a LGBT persons that they are not quite as equal or important in rights, in humanitas, and in our priorities as other oppressed communities are…that on the scales of suffering, theirs does not weigh much” (59)? Clearly the questions Espín lifts up speak to a lacuna in the Latino/a and black theologies that he pointedly confronts with his call to action concerning theological discourse on the full humanitas of LGBT persons. Nevertheless, there is no less scandal in the uneasy hush concerning the oppression of LGBT persons that emanates from all quarters of the Christian theological tradition. Nonetheless, this is but one of the many silences in Christian theology that promises to be shattered by a thorough and honest reading of Espín’s fine contributions because of culture.