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Our Caribbean word about God

Q: Archbishop J, why a theological conference in the Caribbean?

Catholic Theology in the Caribbean Today celebrates 25 years of theological reflection in the Caribbean region. This is a significant milestone. It represents a body of work that is dedicated to the God-human relationship in this special region called the Caribbean.

Like Israel, we have our history and understanding of bondage and salvation. Like others we began with acts of will and violence, and this has not just been our history after our encounter with Columbus. Before the Europeans arrived many families of the first nations were multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural. A past that it seems, we are destined to repeat.

Hybridity—fusing together opposites, was a social driver, a deep social structure that consistently influenced the inhabitants of the Caribbean before and after its encounter with Europe. From the first peoples to today, hybridity continues to shape the social, cultural and religious experiences of the people of this region.

In the region we call hybridity ‘mongrelised’ or ‘bastardised’. Nobel laureate Derek Walcott in his reception of the Nobel Prize for literature saw this feature of hybridity as part of the genius of the region. For Walcott it makes us a “writers’ heaven”. For theology, it shapes the way we understand God and the very structure of the God-human relationship.

The God-human relationship, by definition is complex. In the Caribbean, this theology has pivoted either towards articulating what Caribbean literature professor emeritus Gordon Rohlehr names as ‘the shape of that hurt’ — that wound that is the foundation of our region with forced migration slavery and, to a lesser extent, indentureship.

Our theology pivots towards what cultural anthropologist Professor Jean Besson has documented as the “creolization-culture building within a region with no autonomous actors in the modern sense of the word.” Against all odds, our ancestors managed to build culture and civilisation with human values and with God at its centre.

This impulse to create in the face of extreme brutality demonstrates the bold unwavering faith that was at the heart of the Caribbean person. They created culture, family structures, religious traditions and some unique albeit heterodox understandings of God.

Space for reflection

The Christian tradition was reshaped into a hybridity of universes. Firstly, African and European, then East Indian and European, and then many variants which moved more towards one of the several poles of tension.

This plurality, or rather hybridity, provides the rich impetus for ongoing refashioning of the deepest expressions of the soul of the Caribbean person. This is a source of theological reflection in our region.

God does not change, but rather the multi-layered cosmologies (understandings of the universe) form the backdrop for reflection upon God in this region. This backdrop provides the enquirer a rich space in which to do theological reflection.

This reflection requires patience and humility. Peeling through layer after layer of interpretations of God that were socially constructed to keep slaves docile or women as subservient or one race as privileged and others as subservient. These layers of interpretation mask how we see God and how we understand each other.

Some aspects of the drama have been named—like in Caribbean theologian professor Gerald Boodoo’s ‘forced context’. Freedom in the region has always been a slender space where the human was faced with difficult choices and little space to manoeuvre, hence the term the “forced context”.

In 2000–2002, when the Conference focused on ‘Caribbean Personhood’, what emerged was the indomitable spirit of the Caribbean person, in the face of globalisation, slavery and indentureship. Both are ways to name the reality. Both are valid paths to articulate the rich religious experience of our people. The limited sphere of influence and the human capacity to transcend are two parts of a paradox.

Patience is required also because the reflection is still in its early stages. It is only in the 1970s that theologians came together through Dr Idris Hamid to begin the awesome task of naming the contours of the God-human relationship in this region.

That was short-lived because of the untimely death of Idris. That this initiative, continued through the theology conference, and sustained for 25 years, is a significant achievement for all the people of the region. It has given a space to articulate and shape the religious drama in the lives, hearts and souls of Caribbean people.

Becoming a tradition

There were times that these articulations seemed to be stammering and stuttering using images and notions that were in themselves unfinished sentences. This is the challenge of naming what could not easily be named.

Other times, it was brilliance, naming what everyone already knew but never had the language to articulate. Each attempt to name, to describe, to give expression, is part of the theologian’s endeavour. As Paul Ricoeur says: “Tradition lives by grace of interpretation and it is at that price that it continues.

For this movement to become a tradition, a second level of reflection is now needed. What are the consistent burning questions that have been wrestled with over and over from 1994 in our first Conference to today? Is there any convergence in methodology over the last 25 years? Are there two or three approaches that have emerged that now need a deeper enquiry? This could be the scope of a graduate project. Most importantly, is there a definition of theology that is emerging 25 years on?

“Faith seeking understanding” is St Anselm’s gift to the Church. Starting with faith and seeking to understand the human reality from this perspective, is one valid way into the theological enterprise.

In our region, the New World, theology has been articulated more consistently as “a critical reflection upon Christian praxis, in confrontation with the Word of the Lord”. Reflection on the actions of the Church and her people become the focus of theology.

This one begins by looking at the effects of faith on the lives of Christians and how they receive the Word of the Lord in their lives. This begins from a different point of departure. The later approach gave birth to much of the theological fervour in the New World including the 1968 CELAM Conference in Medellin, Colombia and the 2007 Conference in Aparecida, Brazil and some of our work in the Caribbean.

This conference has given our region a foundation, a beginning of a tradition for the interpretation of the God-human relationship. It is an important part of our contribution to scholarship in the region and the world community.

Key Message: Theology is a word about God. This word is articulated by a people who have a unique history and thus a unique way of seeing the world.

Action step: There is a magazine published for the 25th anniversary of the conference —“Confronting the Waves” available at the Liturgical Commission Bookstore at the Catholic Centre, across from the Cathedral. Purchase a copy and read it.

Scripture Reading: Acts 15:1–21