I write as a poet… Being a poet, I don’t know how to talk scientifically about Christianity. I can only talk about it as it is reflected in the mirror of my body, through time…Today, the central ideas of Christian theology, in which I used to believe, mean nothing to me… They don’t make any sense…Even more curious is the fact that I continue to be linked to this tradition. There is something in Christianity that is part of my body. (Rubem Alves, Transparencies of Eternity, 2010)
The purpose of this text is to offer a perspective on the changes that marked the development of Rubem Alves’s thought throughout his life. In the process of identifying the factors that contributed to those changes in Alves’s intellectual work, I identify the situation of exile as a key motif in his work. Alves’s experience of trying to make sense of his life and identity in the process of developing his intellectual work exemplifies the conflicts faced by a number of Latin American theologians who have sought to break free from a hegemonic colonial logic.
Contrary to perspectives that stress radical ruptures in his thought, I sustain that, informed by his biographical experiences, Rubem Alves underwent an ongoing radicalization, a return home, in his intellectual life. From the very beginning of his career as a thinker and a writer, Alves already showed signs of being uneasy and dislocated in the dominant context of the academia. Later on, he began to break free from what he increasingly perceived as an intellectual cage. He allowed himself to move from having and controlling ideas to being possessed by ideas. This experience gave birth to new expressions and perceptions in his writings, which took the form of poetry and short chronicles. Alves’s ideas at this stage, though, were not totally new. They represented the expansion, deepening, and transformation of insights that had already appeared in embryonic forms in his earlier thinking.
In 1987, eighteen years after its publication in English, Alves’s classic A Theology of Human Hope was finally published in Portuguese, his mother language. Alves wrote a new preface for the book, introducing it to his Brazilian readers. He called that essay “Sobre Deuses e Caquis,” (On Gods and Kakis). Alves’s reference to kaki, the Japanese name to persimmon, has profound connection with a story he heard about the Kaki tree in Japan.
After the bombing that killed 200,000 people in Hiroshima and burned all living things to the ground, there was a tree that survived. It was a persimmon or kaki tree. This persimmon became then a symbol of triumph of life over death. The Japanese took care of it, reaped its fruits, planted their seeds and spread their seedlings to many cities in the world.
Alves’s words in the preface of Da Esperanca were carefully chosen. His love for kaki—which he often said, should have been the fruit of temptation in the Eden Garden—symbolized the endurance of his soul living in exile. The resistance of the kaki tree mirrored his own. “Sobre Deuses e Caquis” thus is one of the most revealing autobiographical texts Alves wrote, particularly with respect to his relationship with the U. S. academy. In this preface for the Brazilian edition of the book that made him known in the U.S., Alves apologized for having written such a “boring” academic text. He says, “I did not want to write like that, because I am not like that. If I have written in this way it is just because I have been obligated to do so in the name of academic rigor.” He goes on with his critique of the academia by saying that the most beautiful things ever written in philosophy would never be accepted in the academic circles today.
Rubem Alves’s doctoral dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary (1968) was the first full treatment of liberation theology. Published in English a year later, and three years prior to Gustavo Gutierrez’ A Theology of Liberation, it had its title changed by the publisher to A Theology of Human Hope. 
In the period of one year Alves had gone from barely having his dissertation approved to being considered a brilliant and creative emerging theological voice from the Southern hemisphere. In the foreword of Alves’s first book, Harvey Cox , an already known young North American theologian at the time, highly praises the sophistication and refinement of Alves’s work, describing him as a ringing theological voice from Latin America that challenges theologians in the North Atlantic to stop talking “about the Third World theologically,” and begin to listen to them.
In 1985, Richard Shaull, who had taught Alves first in Campinas, Brazil, and later became his mentor and friend, referred to him as “one of the most outstanding and best-known Third World theologians;” someone with “a brilliant mind” and “an extraordinary capacity to articulate his thought.”
In fact, in order to better understand Alves, one must consider Richard Shaull’s impact upon him and other members of an “extraordinary new generation of ministers and lay men and women,” which were challenged by Shaull to think theologically from the perspective of their social and cultural location, as Latin American Protestants. Alves’s A Theology of Human Hope became the most articulated expression of that emerging theology at the time. This is how John H. Sinclair describes the Protestant situation in Latin America prior to that time:
Protestant Christianity in Latin America often was thought to lie outside the purview of Christian history; it was seen merely as an extension of Protestantism from North America, Britain, and Europe.
The absence of theological voices in Latin America prior to the late 1960s can be understood in light of the condition of coloniality of power, which inhibited autonomous thinking. Rubem Alves was one of the first Latin American theologians to rebel against that situation of suppression of the “different”. Enrique Dussel has rightly affirmed that the existence of the Latin American ‘other’ has been historically eclipsed since the conquest, which he prefers to call “the invention of the Americas.” This eclipse has impacted Latin America on several levels, including our intellect. As Dussel points out, for centuries Latin Americans were led to imitate and repeat Western philosophy and theology, since we were told that the only way to think right and to exist before the developed world was thinking like Europeans, following the same patterns of their logic. Our universities and seminaries until fairly recently did not stimulate their students to think as Latin Americans. Instead, we had to comply with the European philosophical and theological categories and structures in order to be accepted by the academic world. Such an oppressive context has made brilliant non-conforming minds, such as Alves’s, not to feel at home in academia because they do not operate in accord with the dominant rules of that particular game. Many of us, Latin American theologians, think with our minds and hearts together, bringing emotions and reason together, and developing our thoughts in concrete and contextual ways.
The development of Alves’s life and thought, which is the focus of this essay, illustrates the conflicts faced by Latin American thinkers who try to break free from that colonial logic.
The Periodization of Rubem Alves’s Thought
In seeking to understand the evolution of the trajectory of Rubem Alves, scholars like Leopoldo Cervantes-Ortiz and Antonio Vidal Nunes have developed periodization models to identify changes in emphases and method in his thinking and writing in the course of his life. It is not in the scope of this essay to do an in-depth analysis of these models. However, it is important to engage them to the extent that they can help to prevent generalizations about what Alves thought or wrote in a particular period of his life. For example, in the forward of his book Teologia da Libertação em suas Origens—which is the translation of his 1963 masters’ thesis at Union Theological Seminary—to a Brazilian audience, Alves warns his first-time readers against possible generalizations about his thinking made from the content of this book. For him, the significance of that book lies not in its content, which is outdated, but in its biographical role. He sees the text of his youth as a frozen picture in a photo album. “This text is a picture of things that I thought many years ago, which I no longer think.” The value of looking at frozen images from the past is to imagine the path taken by one’s thinking over the years.
Leopoldo Cervantes-Ortiz highlights the transformation Rubem Alves’s work underwent, as Alves moved from being mainly a liberation theologian to becoming a poet. He identifies the book Tomorrow‘s Child (1972) as the moment when Alves’s imaginative mind begins to become more prominent in relation to his more analytical vein. According to him, such a conversion from reason to imagination would reach its fullest with the discovery of poetry by Alves in the early eighties.
In the preface to the Brazilian edition of his book on the theology of Rubem Alves, Cervantes-Ortiz cites a conversation with Alves in which he said that the only writer who he envied was Gaston Bachelard. Bearing that conversation in mind, Cervantes-Ortiz compared Bachelard’s lifestyle with Rubem Alves’s career as a writer. The correlation made by Cervantes-Ortiz is this: while Bachelard used the daylight hours of his regular days to produce his philosophical work and the night to write poetry—being thus a daytime thinker and a night “feeler”—Alves produced a more intellectual work (his daytime work) earlier in his career, later abandoning the logic imposed by the academy to become a poet and a chronicler, seeking to paint with words his fantasies, “images modeled by the desire” (his night time work).
The periodization put forward by Cervantes-Ortiz emphasizes a break with the theological and academic discourse clearly perceived by the reader of Alves’s work, which began in the early 1970s and radicalized in the 1980s. It was in that spirit that when he published his masters’ thesis in Portuguese Alves urged his new readers to go beyond just seeing the picture of the young Rubem Alves, to also read his most mature work.
The Rubem Alves who was initially known as a liberation theologian through his first two books originally published in English, and who later, back in Brazil, wrote widely-read texts in the areas of philosophy of religion and philosophy of education, also turned into a storyteller (having started to write for children after the birth to his daughter Raquel). Later he became also a poet and chronicler of everyday life. By embracing this new persona, Alves not only broke with formal discursive theology, but also broke away from academic discourse as a whole. This movement of distancing himself from both formal theological discourse and academic/scientific language should be perceived as a natural move by the attentive reader of the autobiographical narratives found scattered throughout the work of Rubem Alves. Just as Alves had had difficulty to keep his relationship with the church—which led him to break with the Presbyterian Church in 1970—he also admitted his uncomfortableness at the academy.
He explained his turning away from discursive theological language by saying, “I know nothing about God—I am not a theologian!” Likewise, to explain why he no longer saw himself as an educator or a scholar he would say, “I am no longer a professor. I have no lessons to give, no knowledge to communicate … I know nothing about the world—I am not a scientist. I know only this little space, which is my body, and even my body I only see as a dim reflection in a dark mirror.” At the end, he declares, “Not theology. Poetry!”
But how did Alves define the poet whom he so strongly identified with? “The poet is the person who speaks words which are not to be understood; they are to be eaten.” The poet is a cook and “his [sic] stove is his[sic] own body, lit with the fire of imagination.” “The poet knows that there is not a universal scientific knowledge to be communicated… Nobody can be universal outside one’s own backyard garden.”
In his rebellion against universal, standardized knowledge, by the mid-1980s Alves was already flirting with insights that would later be more sophisticatedly developed by decolonial and border thinkers. Although one cannot claim any direct linkage, it is possible to say that Alves was already pointing in the direction of intercultural criticism.
Alves, likewise, rebelled against the impersonality and lack of corporeality in academic communication of knowledge, which he saw as ineffective and non-liberating. He saw it as a cage that blocks creative initiatives. That is why in 1987 he apologized to its Brazilian readers for writing such a boring book. It is worthy to note that he said that even at the time he originally wrote that book (1968), that was not how he wanted to have written it. He felt he was forced to write that way in the name of academic rigor:
As Nietzsche observed, the condition to pass a doctoral examination is to have developed a taste for the boring stuff. Thus, I wrote ugly, without laughter or poetry, because I had no choice: a Brazilian student, from an undeveloped country, in a foreign institution, has to abide by the rules if [s]he want to pass …
A confession that certainly deserves attention.
Antonio Vidal Nunes offers an alternative periodization of the thought of Rubem Alves. His proposal is a little more nuanced, emphasizing transitions and alternating predominant emphases, rather than breaks or radical turns. He highlights metamorphoses and predominant features in his reflective journey, without claiming, however, that these phases are rigid or absolute. Nunes suggests three phases for an interpretation of the ways Alves thought and represented the world: the theological phase, the philosophical-poetic phase and the poetic-philosophical phase.
At the time he arrived for his studies at the Presbyterian Seminary of Campinas, in 1953, Alves, in his own words, was a fundamentalist. He defined this term as “an attitude which attributes a definitive character to one’s own beliefs.” “Fundamentalists,” he said, “are characterized by a dogmatic and authoritarian attitude with respect to their own system of thought and by an attitude of intolerance… toward every ‘heretic’ or ‘revisionist’.” The most significant contribution to the profound transformation that occurred in his worldview as a seminarian came from his encounter with Richard Shaull, a North American Presbyterian missionary who had also just arrived at the Seminary of Campinas, after working for almost a decade in Colombia. The influence of Shaull on Alves was invaluable. In different texts, Alves used very vivid expressions to describe such an impact:
We arrived at the seminary in Campinas in the same year, 1953. I was a freshman and was full of certainties. Shaull was a professor and was full of questions. Of course I did not suspect that soon my certainties would fall to the ground, otherwise I would have run away.
I was young and walked on a plane and safe way. I had been taught every detail about the way. It was all signaled with signs to prevent anyone from getting lost. In some signs one could read ‘certainties’. In others, ‘prohibitions’ … I had no moral conflict because the prohibitions had already made the decisions for me …
Then the unexpected happened. A man came by walking in the opposite direction … [As] we approached, we were facing each other. I looked right into his eyes, and saw, reflected as in a mirror, a world I had never seen… One [where] there were neither certainties nor prohibitions. What was there were horizons, directions, possibilities, freedom…
And I can say today that my life is divided into two periods: before I met him, and after I met him. His name was Richard Shaull … If you ask me, ‘What did you learn from him?’ – The answer is simple: ‘Dick Shaull taught me how to think’.
Nunes’s theological-pastoral phase starts right after Alves graduates from seminary, in 1957. According to Nunes, this phase was marked by a theological reflection that “aimed to establish a symbolic network which could motivate Christians to participate effectively in the life of society.” In terms of Alves’s writing, this first phase is represented by his Th.M. thesis at Union Theological Seminary, in 1964.
The second phase, identified by Nunes as philosophical-poetic, starts when Alves has to leave Brazil again in exile, in 1964. It is characterized by the deepening of his understanding of the behavior of religious institutions and the development of his theological humanism in dialogue with various philosophers and poets. According to Nunes, in this phase “there is a philosopher on stage, which will, now and then, be interrupted by the presence of an intruding poet, always trying to embellish the symbolic constellations woven by the former… Religion remains at the heart of his reflection.”
Finally, the poetic-philosophical phase, in Nunes’s words “represents an inversion of the previous one.” In other words,
At first, there was a philosopher who spoke, and a poet always meddling in a speech marked by rigor, inserting, albeit quickly, elements of a lighter and different language from the hegemonic discourse. Now the tables are turned. The poet steals the show, takes over the stage, and replaces the philosopher. The philosopher, though, will not go away; he only retracts, following silently the poet who speaks.
Such distinctions in the reflective path of Rubem Alves are understood as metamorphoses that occurred in the context of his inevitable historical existence, and are linked to concrete events and experiences. Among the facts that contributed significantly to the third metamorphosis in Alves’s trajectory was the birth of his daughter, Raquel, in 1975. In Nunes’s words, “this was an event that deeply marked Rubem Alves, releasing thus definitively the poet and mystic who up to that point had been in the background.”
The birth of Raquel leads Alves to rearrange his priorities. Among other things, he decided that from that point on he would only do things that were really important for him. Thus, he opted for the beauty of poetry as his preferred language to “convey the image of a special world to Raquel.” Apart from the impact that Raquel’s birth itself had on Alves, little Raquel also had to undergo surgeries very early. The desire to tell stories that could ease her pain contributed to turn this father into a fabulous storyteller.
In all his narratives Rubem Alves highlights events, encounters and experiences that deeply impacted his way of seeing the world and of using language. In a way, these narratives suggest a kind of continuity in his thought, a creative restlessness that marks Alves’s intellectual path from beginning to end, regardless of the emphasis that predominates in a given moment of his life.
If this impression is correct, one can speak, then, first, of a methodological continuity, which sees the theological thought of Alves always as emerging from its historical and existential circumstances. This can be said of any of the phases or turns identified above, including the apparent abandonment of theology, which can instead be perceived as the abandonment of a way of doing theology, which reflects Alves’s engagement of particular lived realities. At a conference in Albuquerque, in the early 1990s, speaking to an audience which still expected to hear the Rubem Alves known for his liberation theology, Alves explained the changes in his thinking, tracking the existential dimension of his change from an emphasis on doing to one on beauty: “In my own experience, I have been able to face tragedy only by the power of beauty.” Elsewhere in his work, he recalls Marx by saying that the human being is not an abstract being; “biography and history belong together.”  Likewise, he will say, “It is this personal story that compels me to do theology…Theology and biography, thus, belong together.”
Such continuity can also be seen in a thematic approach. The historicity of language; the emphases on desire, the senses, and the body; his continuous interest in religion, which in one way or another remains to the end in his writings; and even the frequent theme of hope, despite its variations; all can be perceived as lines of continuity in the Alvesian thought.
The experience of exile deeply affects one’s perception of the world. Home sickness, rejection, struggle to redefine one’s identity, longing for belonging, living in between, nostalgia, all these things are experienced in one way or another by people who are uprooted and forcibly moved into a different place. I would like to argue that more attention should be paid to the experience of the exile as a motif in Rubem Alves’s work. This motif, which has often been overlooked, can shed new light into the understanding of metamorphoses in Alves’s thought.
Rubem Alves experienced exile on at least three dimensions. As a young pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Brazil, a denomination at that point led by people who used God as an “ideological weapon…to preserve the power structure,” Alves was deemed a dissident, a subversive, a communist, and a heretic. In the context of this institutional exile, Alves asked, “how is one to survive in solitude, far from any community?”
Ostracized in the context of his church, Alves was also forced to leave his home country to avoid the destiny of some of his friends: prison, torture, or even death. When referring to the experience of leaving Brazil, Alves spoke also in exilic terms: “It was the beginning of a great loneliness!”
Finally, it is also possible to talk about his life in the academia as a sort of exile. Alves described his work on his doctoral dissertation in exilic terms as well.
This book is a rude meditation about my own body: its space, its time, its values, its hopes, its struggles. If we go through seemingly so distant paths from the flesh that laughs and cries it is because the academic rigor forbade the body to speak… I needed to find words that would help my body to regenerate, now in this sad condition of exile 
Referring to his time at Princeton Theological Seminary Alves recalls repeating Psalm 137 (which refers to the Babylonian exile), as never before. As Alves associated his academic work with his condition of exile, such a condition informed his writings. At the same time, his writings became a tool through which he tried to make sense of the experience of exile.
Let’s quickly review these three dimensions of exile.
As for his relationship with the church, Rubem Alves was raised as a member of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil. I have already mentioned his immersion in a fundamentalist piety in his youth and his decision to go to the Seminary of Campinas, where he experienced a profound change in his theology. Among other things, assisted by Shaull and other theologians whom he met in those years, he discovered that the sacred “slipped from the religious greenhouses we had built, and invaded the world.” Now that the whole world was made sacred, “the whole world is a cloister—making unnecessary the construction of other cloisters.” This understanding of a faith fully immersed in human history put Alves on a collision course with the Presbyterian Church in Brazil. His questions and concerns were perceived as threats that had to be suppressed. He was denounced to the Supreme Council of IPB (Presbyterian Church in Brazil) as a subversive communist, and also to the authorities of military regime. He felt betrayed by the church he loved, and was forced to rush and leave his beloved country.
When Alves returned to Brazil after his doctorate, he was still a member of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil. However, in 1970, he decided to break with the church that had marginalized him. For Nunes, such a decision contained an element of protest to a church that Alves described as “the very inversion and denial of the Gospel…[where] authoritarianism triumphs over community; structures over people; the past over the future; law over love; and ultimately, death over life.”
Another element that stands out in this period is that in spite of the relationships and friendships he made during his exile, Alves never felt totally at home in the U.S. He described his first stay in the U.S. for a one-year master’s degree program as “a year of suffering.” He had traveled alone, and terribly missed his wife and children who were waiting for him in Brazil. In the course of that year he packed his stuff to return to Brazil several times, and put a countdown calendar on his bedroom wall to count the days to return home.
His return to Brazil, however, as indicated above, coincided with the fateful Military Coup d’etat. Fleeing to avoid prison, he returned to the U.S. for his Ph.D. studies. The feeling he had during his abrupt departure from Brazil was ambiguous. Afraid of being arrested, he felt the euphoria of freedom when the plane took off. However, that euphoria was tempered with the sadness of exile. In reference to the return to the U.S. he says, “That was not my world.”
Considering all these facts, I argue that Alves’s move from logical reasoning and academic rigor towards poetry was a movement back home to his own soul. The academy had also become for him a symbol of exile. This argument does not devalue the invaluable contributions that Rubem Alves offered through his academic work. But it points to the fact that the academy, with its strict rules, and search for accurate truth, was never Rubem Alves’s world. In many ways, it was also a place of exile.
From the beginning, Alves struggled to adjust to the rules of academic rigor, and to the goals of the Academy. He refers to that difficulty when recalling his doctoral work:
What the doctoral work required of each of us was the mastering of a field of knowledge… It turns out, though, that I dreamed of a world I had lost. And was shocked with the questions that other students had chosen as those to which they would devote four or five years of their lives. For me they were fantastic abstractions, which I could not connect to anything.
In this odd context of exile, Alves could only contemplate one alternative: resignation. “Exiled people have no option but obey the laws of the country that hosts them. I would have to learn to play the game that everyone else played.” But for Alves, this also meant the determination to find alternative ways for his body to be able to speak. Despite the rigorous academic formation he received at Princeton Theological Seminary to take control of ideas and possess them, Alves knew that things work a little differently.
Ideas: how strange they are… At first, they are tame, domesticated things, dwelling in our minds, obeying our commands, our property, and we say: “I have a good idea…”
But suddenly a magical transformation occurs: the tame things begin to flap their wings — is it not strange that they have wings? We had never suspected that they could fly by themselves, without our command… and it is only then that we realize that we had never had them.
Now they are like wild birds, flying to unknown lands, and we go with them, because they are stronger than we are…
Yes, my ideas took me in a direction different from the one I had envisaged at the beginning.
Rubem Alves identified himself with those wild birds. He never felt comfortable in the academia despite his immense skill to use the written and spoken word, and the sophistication of his intellectual articulation. Despite his attempt to play the game that everyone played, his game was another one. He “wanted to reinvent words.”
Exiled from the church he once loved, and from the homeland which he missed, the expectations that Alves had about his academic work were nowhere to coincide with the expectations that the academy had for him. From Alves’s point of view at the time, he had to deal with the concrete, existential and political dilemmas of his time.
A careful reading of A Theology of Human Hope shows the presence, even if in embryonic form, of some of the things that marked Alves’s reflective journey. A full blooming of a new language would come as his thought matured in conversation with life events which contributed to open his eyes, like the birth of Raquel. The discovery of poetic language contributed to Alves’s fuller expression of ideas that were already moving within him like wild birds. Among other things, he realized that theological discourse should make an anthropological turn . This is how Alves explains how he got the title of his thesis, Towards a Theology of Liberation, when, in 1968, there was no theology with this name:
I had completely abandoned the illusion that theology could be a kind of knowledge of God. God is a great and unspeakable mystery and I can only refer to what happens within me, when confronted with what Rudolf Otto called ‘The Wholly Other’, the ‘Mysterium Tremendum’. Theology is anthropology; to speak of God is to speak about us (Feuerbach). No I am not turning man[sic] into God. I am simply saying that God is a name that is only pronounced in the depths of the human body.
The Ambiguous Reception of Rubem Alves’s Work in North America
The work of Rubem Alves received mixed reviews in the U.S. His sweeping criticism of both fundamentalists and scientific critical theories put him in an uneasy place at the time. Both of them believed in the possibility of reaching the true meaning of the text, and thus finding truth. Alves already thought in terms of other categories, which valued the poetic language of Scriptures and understood revelation as the unveiling of human desire. Scriptures should be read as a mirror to ourselves. Alves began to imagine theology as an exercise of witchcraft, in which the word becomes flesh. This was difficult to understand, particularly in the context of his doctoral dissertation.
A doctoral dissertation, first of all, is written for a specific audience, a small group of scholars who assess its scholarly qualities. The first readers of Alves’s work in the United States were the professors who examined his dissertation. And the response he got from those readers was not positive. In Alves’s view, they could not understand the meaning of his work. He was not interested in scientific truth. He wanted to think his own destiny. Alves describes his oral defense as “a battle.” He takes responsibility for that, though, by saying that he decided to write “what he wanted”.
They said I could not write a dissertation like the one I intended to write. A PhD dissertation, they claimed, must be an analytical exercise, pure demonstration of technical mastery. But I proposed to think my own thoughts. My dissertation was constructive. And that was forbidden.
It turns out I was living in exile, waiting for the time to go back home, and had to think about life. My pain did not allow me to do something else. It is always like that: our thought is located in the place of suffering.
In response, there were those who did not want to approve Alves’s dissertation. His old friend and mentor since the days of Campinas, Richard Shaull, once again played a key role in negotiating an alternative. Alves, tired of his exile, had made it clear that he would not stand another year at Princeton to rewrite the dissertation. Eventually they approved it with a minimum grade. In a correspondence with this author in 2006, Alves referred to this contradiction. “I was approved…with the lowest possible grade—and in the following year my dissertation was published and became a bestseller.”
This is very representative of the ambiguity in the way Alves’s work has been received in the U.S. over the years. And, as Alves’s narrative makes very clear, one of the difficulties for some of his professors to understand him was the fact that they had very different understandings of what he was doing, and conflicting expectations of what he was supposed to do. His experience of exile could not go away. It was an integral part of the process of developing his thinking, which had to be historicized, connected on different levels to his living experience. Again, the academy was his place of exile, of anguish, where he longed for returning home.
The turning point for him happened when a Catholic editor showed interest in publishing his dissertation. Finding the title of the dissertation a little odd, he suggested a change. The foreword was enthusiastically written by Harvey Cox.
Cox’s foreword, accompanied by a photograph of “Dr. Alves,” appeared in the journal The Christian Century, under the title “Rubem Alves: Hopeful Radical.” The text begins with an unprecedented call to the affluent world thinkers to take note and hear the ringing voice of a brilliant theologian of the “third world.” The eloquent appeal made by Cox had deep theological meaning, and is still very current, in light of the World Christianity turn in recent decades, which highlights non-Western voices, narratives and identities.
Soon after the publication of his book, Alves was launched in the midst of important theological debates, bringing to them a unique and challenging perspective. His critique of Jurgen Moltmann’s theology of hope, for example, initiated an important conversation between the German theology of hope and Latin American liberation theology. For Alves, the problem with Moltmann’s theology of hope was that he had based such hope on a transcendent future rather than taking as its starting point the resistance to present injustice. Alves’s constructive proposal thought to offer a new language as an alternative to Moltmann’s humanistic messianism. He proposed a conception of hope that could not be dissociated from history. Alves’s proposal rejected both hope without history (European theologies of hope) and history without hope (Christian realism). The historic hope set by Alves rebelled against present dehumanization, seeking to build a new future starting from a concrete historical situation.
The strong ethical orientation that is seen in Alves’s first book was abandoned in later writings. However, in this first and most classic book by Rubem Alves, one can already see the seeds that informed his later reflection, especially some indication of the growing place of imagination in his work. He claims, for instance, that the creation of an open future is both an act of human will and a gift that is offered in favor of human beings.  Joseph Williamson’s comments in his review of the book The Theology of Human Hope are revealing:
Alves lures me because his primary epistemological method proceeds by appealing to the imagination rather than to the canons of critical rationality. He is a myth-maker. On occasion, he does slip into the thesis writing footnote syndrome, but time and again he goes beyond that to cross the threshold of the imagination which allows him to move into the world of imagery and poetic power. Rubem Alves affirms that the present anticipations of liberation are a kind of “aperitif” which hold for us the foretaste of our future freedom. My taste is whetted. I await the coming meal. 
The theme of hope remains prominent in Alves’s second book, Tomorrow’s Child (1972). This book resulted from his lectures as a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary (1970-71). The theme is still hope, but there are new contributions and nuances as for how Alves understands it. This time, there is a more explicit emphasis on imagination, on the logic of the heart in contrast with the logic of the mind. Also, he begins to take a more critical stand in relation to some understandings of liberation theology and Marxism. The ambition of his liberating project now is much humbler. The task is no longer to create a new future, but to sow the seeds for it.
In an articlepublished in 1974,Alvesexplainedthese changes by stating that he belonged to afrustratedgeneration thatspeaksout of anexperienceof unfulfilledpromises. Hecriticized themerelydeconstructivefocusof the revolutionary process, denouncing its limits.
Negation may expel an evil spirit, but it cannot create a positive reality … For lack of a positive vision, the tactics of negation condemns itself to repeat in another form what was negated.
It is clear by now that Alves’s work is not about negation, but about creation of new possibilities. In spite of the aforementioned frustration, he is not ready to give up. Hope then is not only reaffirmed but redefined:
It is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is the hunch that the overwhelming brutality of facts that oppress and repress is not the last word. It is the suspicion that reality is much more complex than realism wants us to believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual, and that in a miraculous and unexpected way life is preparing the creative event which will open the way to freedom and resurrection.
Alves categorically affirms that human beings cannot generate the creative event. For him, after the frustration with the illusion of revolutionary movements, there remains the realization that we are in a time of bondage, a time when seeds of hope are sown, and signs of hope are experienced in contextual and bodily ways.
Once again, Alves seeks to overcome frustration by tweaking his understanding of hope. In this movement of resisting, expanding and rethinking, more room is made for the inclusion of new strategies and languages, including art, poetry, and songs to express alternatives to hegemonic and uncreative thinking. In his continuous homecoming Alves contributes to new creative ways of thinking theologically.
The book The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet, was the first more extensive expression of Alves’s theo-poetics available in the English-speaking world. A more recent work available in English is Transparencies of Eternity. Both books have attracted the attention of English-speaking thinkers interested in Christianity and literature. Alves’s theopoetics has been perceived as a language with potential to renew inter- and cross-disciplinary conversations on religion and theology. Craig Nessan, reviewing Transparencies of Eternity, affirms that by introducing literature, songs and poetry in his writings, Alves provokes the imagination and invites an eruption of the transcendent in the space-time coordinates of this world, without attempting to categorize or capture it .
Katelynn Carver draws on Alves to propose an interdisciplinary theopoetics. Theopoetics, as she highlights, is an invitation for conversation rather than an assertion. It is an invitation to intercontextual dialogue. Drawing on Alves’s use of the Portuguese word saudades, which refers to the presence of an absence, combining longing and nostalgia, Carver suggests a spirituality of absence, which gives positive meaning to the void inside ourselves. This void is not perceived as emptiness, but as a space of resonance, where we can hear the echo of the sacred once again.
We are a void on the inside, but we are not empty. As we live and engage ever deeper in relation—toward beauty—we encounter the resonance, the magical words that hold sacrality in them, the sweetest and most achingly satisfying fruits of our gardens: we are voids, saudades, and the more we speak these words, the more we hear the echoes in the void, the more we remember, the more we recall our keys, the closer we come to restoring that glorious, transparent rainbow of absences, of darkness, of the places where we overlap, find newness, make harmony. 
Some of the Alves’s contributions as a theopoet reside in his contestation of ontological discourses about God. In his move from theology to theopoetics he has affirmed that in order to know God one must forget God. In other words, we must “let God be God.” Alves, the poet, is not an antithesis of Alves, the theologian. On the contrary, the former radicalizes some of the insights of the young bright theologian of whom Cox so enthusiastically spoke in 1969. The later Alves fully embraces beauty, defining his knowledge of the world in terms of his body. Believing is no longer significant. He sees no need to question the presence of transcendence in the world. However, the proper language to relate to it is through the arts, not through reason.
It is necessary to understand, once and for all, that to believe in God is not worth a broken penny…Please, don’t be angry at me. Be angry with the apostle James, who wrote in his sacred epistle: ‘You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder (James 2:19).’ In other words, the apostle is saying that the demons are in a better situation than we are, since they do not only believe but also shudder.
The highest form of believing is in fact sensing:
Of course I believe in God, the same way I believe in the colors of the sunset, the same way I believe in the perfume of the myrtle, the same way I believe in the beauty of the sonata, the same way as I believe in the joy of a child at play, the same way I believe in the beauty of the gaze that falls silently upon me. All these things are so fragile, so non-existing, but they make me cry. And if something makes me cry, it is sacred. It is a piece of God.
The problem with theology is that it has traditionally taken the opposite direction, moving from beauty to reason.
For centuries, theologians, cerebral beings, had devoted themselves to transforming beauty into rational speech. Beauty was not enough for them. They wanted certainty, they wanted truth. However, artists, beings of the heart, know that the highest form of truth is beauty. Now, without any shame, I say: ‘I am a Christian, because I love the beauty that lives in this tradition. What about the ideas? They are the screech of static, in the background.’ Therefore, I proclaim the only dogma of my erotic-heretic Christian theology: ‘Outside of Beauty there is no salvation.’
For most of his life, Alves struggled with the experiences of his past. Autobiographical narratives are scattered throughout his work. The triple experience of exile undoubtedly left deep marks on him. His work represents a journey back home. After his return from exile in the U.S., Alves overcame the earlier experiences of displacement, loneliness and even rejection to become one of the most read and most beloved writers in Brazil. He certainly found ways to return home on the different levels of displacement. His choice to stop writing for his peers and start writing for children and ordinary people certainly played a role in that process.
When Rubem Alves died in July 2014, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff hailed him on her Facebook page as one of the most respected intellectuals of Brazil. Admirers from all over the world honored him. Many of them never thought of him as a theologian. It was as an educator, a writer, and a poet that Rubem Alves became best known by a larger public. Quotes from his poems and chronicles can be easily found in the lips and social media pages of a huge number of Brazilians. As an educator Alves has been almost as acclaimed as Paulo Freire among Brazilian teachers.
In spite of his frustration with the church, and with theology, the themes of God, eternity, and religion kept returning to his writings to the end. For some time, Alves talked about himself as an ex-theologian, and did not know what to make of his relationship with Christianity. Towards the end of his life, however, he came to embrace his connection with Christianity, now in totally different terms.
Today, the central ideas of Christian theology, in which I used to believe, mean nothing to me…They don’t make any sense…Even more curious is the fact that I continue to be linked to this tradition. There is something in Christianity that is part of my body. 
Although Alves moved away from formal academic language, his insights continue to have meaning to theological conversations. However, despite some interest among some younger writers for Alves’s writings on theopoetics, in the field of religion and theology as a whole the interest in his work, at least in the United States, does not reflect the enthusiasm with which Harvey Cox Rubem Alves announced him to the American Academy in 1969.
Given the number of disciplines his work has touched upon, and in light of the creative insights that marked his intellectual life, I urge scholars of religion to rediscover Rubem Alves’s work, this time in a more comprehensive manner—considering all its phases, and the contexts that informed his trajectory as an intellectual and an artist. Such a move can potentially generate new waves of renewal and creativity in theological research and in the study of religion, particularly in the context of emerging theologies from different parts of the world, which might find a good conversational partner in Alves’s rebellious and creative freedom.