For advanced readers interested in ways to integrate pluralistic philosophies with contextual and/or liberative theologies, DePaul University’s Christopher Tirres’ The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith provides a good example. Tirres reconstructs John Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy of religion as found in A Common Faith to engage liberation theology, focusing on the categories of the ethical and the aesthetic. By focusing on these perspectives, Tirres re-informs and re-invigorates the theory and practice of liberation theology in “faith-in-action” (7). This entails two diverse trajectories in liberation theology. The first is the ethical and political, a praxis-oriented theological framework that emphasizes issues of power, institutional sin, and God’s preferential option for the poor as found in Latin American Liberation Theologies. The second lies within U.S. Latin@ theologies that have taken an aesthetic turn, focusing on the marginalization of cultural identity. Tirres believes that there cannot be an either/or option; rather, liberation theology needs to focus on the relational aspects of each, how one relates to the other in an interplay of praxis and intelligence. Tirres thus integrates these liberative theologies and resolves two issues in relation to Liberation Theology: 1) the critique of Marxist analysis for liberation thought, and 2) its somewhat narrow focus on the issue of the ethical and the political. How Tirres does this, and with such success, is through a reconstructed pragmatic philosophy of religion from John Dewey’s text A Common Faith.
Tirres looks at the aesthetic and ethical dimension of faith through the via crucis, the Good Friday event, coupled with the siete palabras (seven words) and Pesame. These rituals, prayers, and symbols have both a sensorial as well as epistemic and imaginative quality to them, engaging both the body and the mind. The aesthetic qualities found in ritual produce ethical qualities, as realized in new moral sensibilities. The aesthetic, as embodied in ritual, subverts and collapses dichotomies of the event: the past and present, the space of the via crucis and their community, as well as how the death of Jesus in Mary’s weeping reminds them of the present life of the community. The aesthetic movement of ritual opens up the imaginative and provides the space for an ethical response. This leads to an interesting insight that Tirres introduces through the pragmatic understanding of non-reductive empiricism (90): aesthetics and ethics are not two distinct categories of experience that must be pieced together; rather, human experience itself contains aesthetic and ethical qualities within it. They are already related within experience itself.
The value of this reimagining of aesthetics and ethics as qualities of experience is important, as it takes seriously human life and all its experiences in a non-reductionistic way, realizing its fluidity, porosity, and it complexity (97). That complexity also allows for the interrelation of these qualities of experience, thus showing how they work together to develop what Dewey considers central for the process of self-transformation: knowledge.
Although this interrelationality of aesthetics and ethics and experience and intelligence is important for liberation theology, what may thwart its possible alliance is John Dewey’s rather narrow definition of religion as institutionalized religion. To widen the scope of Dewey’s notion of the social dimension of faith, Tirres provides an alternative approach to defining religion, reconstructing it from Dewey’s other texts that provide a more consistent use of pragmatism, namely Ethics, and Human Nature and Conduct. Taking Dewey’s reconstructive model of education, Tirres applies similar rules to the social dimension of faith that identifies institutionalized religion as a place of social progress that provides a “loose” structure for experience to be meaningful (169). Thus religion and religious practice “adds meaning to present experience and may serve as a springboard for better ways of living (188).
The strength of Tirres’ work is his use of pragmatism as a philosophical framework from which to integrate the various perspectives of liberation theologies. Pragmatism becomes the sustaining and integrating hermeneutic for interpreting human experience, providing richer and more meaningful experience in and through the formation of knowledge in the individual as well as community through ritual. A struggle that Tirres highlights is how liberation theology can be done in a new way while still holding on to the same epistemological foundations from which the problems arose. His use of pragmatism is key as it has no religious affiliation and yet provides the epistemological framework that grounds liberation theology in experience, leading to the formation of knowledge and meaning in and through reflection, which therefore leads to action.
Yet I am left asking: How effective is this pragmatism for Latin American liberation theology? How much of a radical difference does it make between institutions of power and its effect on the poor? Dewey positions himself in the same space as the Latin American liberationist theologian, even if superficially: institutionalized religion, when it abuses its power, stagnates the ability of the community to experience richly. By softening Dewey’s notion of religion, Tirres also softens Latin American liberation theologies’ position, since he holds that institutions are necessary places that provide structure for identifying these problems in the first place. Tirres maintains the ecclesial structure of the institution while negating its epistemological foundation.
Claremont School of Theology