1.The roots of a new theological language
Father… Mother… of tender eyes,
I know that you are invisible in all things.
May your name be sweet to me, the joy of my world.
Bring us the good things that give you pleasure:
a garden, fountains,
bread and wine,
tender gestures, hands without weapons,
bodies hugging each other…
I know you want to meet my deepest wish,
the one whose name I forgot… but you never forget.
Bring about your wish that I may laugh.
May your wish be enacted in our world,
as it throbs inside you.
Grant us contentment in today’s joys:
bread, water, sleep…
May we be free from anxiety.
May our eyes be as tender to others
as yours to us.
if we are vicious,
we will not receive your kindness.
And help us
that we may not be deceived by evil wishes.
And deliver us
From the ones who carry death inside their eyes.
- First step: origins and contrasts
In May of 1968 (what a chronological reference!), no one would have imagined that the same pen that wrote a dense and provocative dissertation, Toward a theology of liberation: an exploration of the encounter between the languages of humanistic messianism and messianic humanism, would also write, two decades later, these words, a mixture of poetry, prayer, mysticism, and theology. Refusing to be a strict or academic theological exercise, Rubem Alves expressed in these words all his pilgrimage in reaching, with texts like this one, the climax of a style dominated by poetry and a completely anti-dogmatic deepening, something that had been announced quite dimly in his first works. Here one can perceive the way in which he had read Nietzsche, Guimarães Rosa, Cecília Meireles, Octavio Paz, Fernando Pessoa, Paul Valery, Adélia Prado and tens of authors, men and women, who marked him forever. Before coming to Princeton, “next to the rivers of Babylon” (in Union Seminary, New York), in 1964 (the year of the military coup against João Goulart), Alves had drafted a theological interpretation of the revolutionary processes of his country, a work that was only published in the twenty-first century, forty years later. With this work, he introduced and brought into theological reflection the polemical theme of revolution, a topic that his mentor Richard Shaull was engaging at the time, precisely when the movement Church and Society in Latin America was surfacing. Alves was forced to return to the United Sates because he was being persecuted by both the military and his own church.
To be sure, Alves’s background did not suggest, not even in his dreams, that something like this would happen given that he had been born in a rather conservative Presbyterian family. Only his theological studies, next to another Princetonian, Richard Shaull, could offer a glimpse of what Alves was going to accomplish with such quality and exuberance. Alves is one of the greatest figures of contemporary Brazilian literature, in addition, of course, to the place he reached in the theological and intellectual realm. As a young man, Alves embraced and fought for an ideological militancy that led him to write notable texts, essential in understanding the spiritual climate of those days. The young Alves would become someone who, without thinking that he had lost time, came late to poetry, even though many of his essays, in reclaiming the human body, imagination, eroticism, and magic, were already opening the door to a new form of expression, one that he himself did not suspect. A frustrated pianist, the music of poetry and literature waited for him until they possessed him in body and soul. As a member of a generation of Latin American Protestant intellectuals, among which we must include José Míguez Bonino, Emilio Castro, Hiber Conteris, Jovelino Ramos y Julio de Santa Ana, among others, Alves undertook a revolutionary commitment that placed his theological work in a new arena for the subcontinent, in the forefront. In this respect, Luis Rivera-Pagán explains:
Liberation theology was the unforeseen enfant terrible in the academic and ecclesial realms of theological production during the last decades of the twentieth century. It brought to the conversation not only a new theme —liberation— but also a new perspective on doing theology and a novel way of referring to God’s being and action in history. Its project to reconfigure the interplay between religious studies, history, and politics became a meaningful topic of analysis and dialogue in the general theological discourse. Many scholars perceive in its emergence a drastic epistemological rupture, a radical change in paradigm, a significant shift in both the ecclesial and social role of theology.
Rivera-Pagán consistently underscores Alves’s participation in the origins of liberation theology and the foundational role of his doctoral dissertation, including also the role of his mentor, Richard Shaull. Rivera Pagán refers to some aspects of his work that have become classic, for example, the change of title when Alves’s dissertation was published by a Jesuit publishing house:
In fact, the first extensive monograph that focused on historical and social liberation as the central hermeneutical key to conceptualize the Christian faith was the doctoral dissertation of Rubem Alves, a Brazilian Presbyterian. In May of 1968, Alves defended successfully his dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary. […] Alves wrote it under the direction of Richard Shaull, who for a good number of years had been working in theological education in Latin America, first in Colombia and later in Brazil, and who was crucial for the development of a liberationist theology in Protestant Latin American circles. […]
Alves’s dissertation is a powerful text, written in a splendid literary style. It was published as a book in 1969, two years before Gutiérrez’s, but with a significant change in the title: A Theology of Human Hope. Apparently, the publishers believed that the concept of “hope”, with its obvious connotations to the writings of Jürgen Moltmann, would be more commercially attractive or relevant than “liberation.” Yet, despite the change of title, Alves conceptualizes the temporal dialectics proper to theological language in terms of a historical politics of liberation.
Harvey Cox, in the prologue, welcomed Alves a new, refreshing, and rebellious voice for the context of his days: “Beware, all ideologists, theologians, and theorists of the affluent, so-called ‘developed’ world! The ‘Third World’ of enforced poverty, hunger, powerlessness, and growing rage has found a ringing theological voice. Rubem Alves […] speaks with an authority we cannot avoid noticing, not just in discussions about development and revolution, but wherever we assess the place of Christian faith in our convulsive contemporary world”. In this book he dialogues sharply with the theologies of Barth, Bultmann, and Moltmann, criticizing them because they are not rooted in concrete human circumstances and because they do not adequately express the liberating discourse needed by popular communities. The fundamental ethical principle, which he takes from Paul Lehmann, is “how human life can remain human in the world.” In this way, he engages in a creative dialogue two kinds of discourse which lead to human liberation: messianic humanism and humanistic messianism. Both point to a project of liberation which includes not only the material but also the spiritual and corporal realms. The last part of the book explores the possibilities of a new language for faith and theology, which vindicates joy and play. In this line of refection he follows very closely Bonhoeffer’s concept of polyphony. With this work, Alves established himself as one of the founders of liberation theology, for in many ways he anticipated the future works of authors like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Hugo Assmann. He met the former in Switzerland in 1969, at a conference on Theology and Development, and they agreed that was not the correct formulation, since the conditions in the continent depended rather on the dynamic of oppression-liberation, the discussion of which was very much in vogue in those years.
Of course, we cannot omit referring to the “Princetonian flavor” of the first moments of that theology, an aspect that Bruno Mattos Linhares has carefully addressed. Linhares, for example, says: “Alves prefers life be judged not by the way it fits into the social system or as a function of the structures of social organization; rather, he seeks to follow the example of Jesus, who was ‘a master in the art of subverting the rules of sanity and insanity.’ He seeks, in other words, to imagine the birth of a new culture. Since the world is not yet complete because God is still exercising creative powers, the present time of captivity is not a time of birth but a time of the conception of a community of faith”.
Others, of course, have assessed and reassessed his work: in Mexico (Roberto Oliveros Maqueo, maybe the first complete study on his theology), Central America (Juan Jacobo Tancara), Brazil (Saulo Marcos de Almeida, António Vidal Nunes, the author of an extensive bio-bibliography, Iuri Andreas Reblin, among others), in the United States, Netherlands (Tjeerd de Boer) and Sweden (Ulf Borelius). A personal testimony of the Rev. Sonia Gomes Mota, Alves’s disciple, summarizes Alves’s trajectory within and beyond various church traditions:
Rubem Alves was part of a group of pastors, male and female leaders, who reflected and organized different ways of being a Reformed church. This process led to the creation of the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPU), now a member of the WCC. With his erudition, his ecumenical and social commitment, he helped draft the founding documents that are a basis of the IPU. He was not interested in giving us moral lessons or transmitting the absolute and indisputable truth. As a good theologian, philosopher and educator, he was more interested in making us think, reflect and question the immutable truths of theology and urged us to envision new possibilities and new ways of living our faith. Rubem led us to deserts and invited us to be gardeners and planters of hope.
Alves was one of the chief participants in the renewal of Latin American theology. The stages of his thought are distinguished first by a search for the activity of God in history and then by an investigation of the ludic and erotic possibilities of human life in the world. In several occasions Alves made an attempt to explain its biblical and theological roots, as well as the way in which he moved to the other style, particularly in the re-editions of his former books. In 2010, he attributed this shift to his change in audience: “Mine was an academic education. However, there came a time when I ceased to find enjoyment in writing for my peers. I began to write for children and ordinary people, playing with humor and poetry. That’s what the following short texts are all about. They are like snapshots, rather than reasoning”. If he formerly sought to appeal to the conscience of his readers, convince them to join his ideological struggle, now his purpose was different: “I don’t want to prove anything. I just want to portray. There is a thread that assembles them as pearls in a necklace. Yet each text is a complete unit. Through them I try to say what I have come to feel about the sacred. I don’t ask the readers to agree with me. I only ask that they permit theirselves to promenade through unknown woods. […] What really matters is not what I write, but what you will think when provoked by what I write”. He suggested something quite similar when in 1990 he was invited to speak to an audience that was expecting to listen to the pioneer of liberation theology without knowing that he had reivented himself entirely: the orientation of his trajectory had changed and was in search of a deeper change from the perspective of another sense of being: “The Rubem Alves of the theology of liberation, the one who spoke about action, changed. I became different. I believe God has strange ways of doing things. One of them is turning them upside down. I decided to accept the risk of playing the role of the jester. […]”. For this reason, Alves must be recognized as one of the initiators of theopoetics, even though this concept was born in another environment and was created from another perspective.
- Second step: conversion to imagination
The imaginative emphasis of the theology of Alves began to stand out with clarity in Tomorrow’s Child (1972; Hijos del mañana, 1976, Gestação do futuro, 1986), a transitional book which was the fruit of a course on ethics that he gave at Union Seminary. This book was largely misunderstood by his colleagues, since in it he carries out an imaginative analysis of the dominant technological system, beginning with its own cultural premises. One of his metaphors consists in comparing the present world with the large dinosaurs, whose voracity prevented them from surviving, as opposed to lizards which survive until the present time. Back in Brazil, he resigned his membership in the church in 1974 and began his career as university professor. In that year he published “From Paradise to the Desert” (original title: “Confessions: on theology and life”), a profound self-critical confession about his ecclesiastical and theological experience. There, Alves emphasized his vital situation midst the social and ecclesiastical context. His words are hard and sensitive:
Horizons become different according to the vantage point from which we look at them. The new vision of our space, our time, and our lives unveiled to our eyes a Bible that had been hidden hitherto. What a discovery it was for us to see that the Bible is at home in the world! We began to perceive that from its beginning to its end there is an unfaltering celebration of life and its goodness. It is good to be alive, it is good to be flesh and blood, it is good to be in the world. Suddenly the Calvinist obsession with the glory of God seemed to us profoundly inhuman and anti-biblical. Is not God himself concerned with the happiness of man? Is not man His ultimate concern? Is not God a humanist, in the sense that man is the only object of His passion? Bonhoeffer became our companion. We read him with amazement […]
And he concludes:
So what? Is there any way out of this situation? One thing I know for sure. In the business of living, one must not live by certainties —but by visions, risks, and passion. Maybe this is what Paul had in mind, when he said that we are saved by hope, i.e., by that which we do not see. The tragedy of our decadent civilization, it seems to me, is due to its fear of losing itself. This is the sin of both nations and individuals. It is tragic to see the sin of nations —their arrogance of power— being reenacted in the sphere of individuals, the absolutization of one’s own experience. And when we are entrapped in our heart which is bent upon itself, can we have any hope of rebirth and new life?
Later he studied psychoanalysis in depth. The enemy of realism, who fought intense battles, unknown to many, was far gone. Alves came to embrace the theological and poetical insight that God fixes human lives, his in particular, like someone who plays with glass beads, a metaphor that he took from the novel The Glass Bead Game by the German writer Hermann Hessen. The image that he developed in several occasions is that of those beads (his torn life and personality) submerged in the water that God takes and returns in the form of a new and wondrous necklace: “This is why I need God, to heal my nostalgia. This is how I imagine him: like a fine nylon thread that looks for my lost beads in the bottom of the river and then returns them to me in a necklace”.
The late but enriching encounter with poetry
It’s been a number of years since I lost my academic respectability. No one took it from me, but one day, for reasons unknown to me, something happened to me. I don’t know what happened, but suddenly I found myself absolutely incapable of thinking, speaking, and writing analytically. I was possessed and remain possessed by the poetic form whenever I write. I don’t like it because it creates a lot of problems in scientific and academic circles; those people do not believe that poetry is something serious; I believe, however, that it is the most serious of things: I believe God is poetry. If I could offer a new translation of John’s text: “And the Word became flesh”, I would say, “And a Poem became flesh”.
Certainly, Rubem Alves’s access to poetry occurred late in his life, but it became a definitive, enriching, and rather pleasing encounter. His previous lines attest to how, at a certain point in his life, Alves experienced a “poetic turn” that impacted the totality of his thought, in every way. Even the way his writing was oriented, without looking to write poems as such, implied a new break, but in this case the “coup” of the “poetic form” became decisive because it allowed him to channel in it the richness of his theological and educational legacy. Side by side to his permanent concern, poetry accompanied him constantly and never left him; on the other hand, the knowledge of the authors that had marked him enlightened his new work profoundly.
It is difficult to date the moment of the encounter, but by the late 1980’s, he had made clear his new situation and time reaffirmed that inner process of change. He written about it in a brief chronicle from Quarto de badulaques (Room of trinkets; 2003; Spanish: 2009, my translation, a really musing about many themes where he practices a very personal journey. First, the shock of what happened is manifested: “I discovered poetry lately, after having forty years. What a shame! So much lost time! Poetry is one of my greatest sources of joy and wisdom. As [Gaston] Bachelard said: “Poets give us a great happiness of words…” I could say that after an entire life poetry arrived to him too late, but he didn’t feel that way.
Immediately afterwards he directs the hypothetical reader: “Because of this I ask you, Do you read poetry? If you do not, try to do it. Change the television programs for poetry.” And he adds a series of creative observations about the extensive prejudices about its comprehension. “If you tell me that you do not understand poetry, I will applaud: Good! Only fools believe that they understand it! Only speakers have the pretensions to understand poetry!” Afterwards, he vehemently exposes what he understands as its purpose through several examples and a concrete proposal: “Poetry is not for that. It is to be seen. Read the poem and try to see what it paints! Do you need to understand a mole? A cloud? A tree? The sea? It is enough to see it. Seeing, without understanding, is happiness! Read poetry so that your eyes open.” For Alves, reading a poem is like learning to watch; it is an initiatory experience, almost mystical. And at that point, he offers his specific recommendations, some of the names that resulted in being significant in his path as a poetry reader. The order in which they appear is not random in any way, though in this occasion he only mentioned Portuguese speaking authors: Cecília Meireles (1901-1964) and Adélia Prado (1935) in first place, authors whose work he cited persistently. Alberto Caeiro, a heteronym of the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), with whom he identified a great deal for his lightness and pantheistic tendencies. Mário Quintana (1906-1994), Lya Luft (1938), Maria Antônia de Oliveira (1964), whom he read during an earlier period. This is a list already filtered through the years and enriched by long periods of reading in which he was accompanied by many friends at a weekly gathering in Campinas. “Read poetry in order to see better. Read poetry to be calm. Read poetry in to beautify yourself. Read poetry to learn how to listen. Have you thought, perhaps, that you speak too much?” In this way he concludes the chronicle, using an inviting tone, kind and firm at the same time.
In a memorable lecture from 1981, Alves bitterly complained of the null protestant presence in the literature of his country, something inexplicable given the antiquity of the historical churches and the acceptable level of culture that had characterized them. His words were sharp/punctilious and hard:
I might have hoped that Protestantism should have made some contribution to Brazilian literature. I look for a great romance, a great novel… in vain […] It so happens that literature cannot survive this didactic obsession, because literature is aesthetic, contemplative. Its value is in direct relationship to its capacity to produce structural paradigms through which the hidden fractures and daily links are seen.
Protestant literati cannot escape the witchery of their habits of thought. Their novels are disguised sermons or Sunday school lessons. In the end the grace of God always triumphs, believers are rewarded, and impiety is punished. There is no need to read the last chapter.
From there, when he finally transformed his style, approximately in 1983, a little after publishing La teología como juego (Theology as Play) y Creo en la resurrección del cuerpo (English: I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body), he apparently himself assumed the work of overcoming his previous style in order to fully enter the literary field. In his first books, poetry was totally absent and it is not until ¿Qué es la religión? (What is Religion?) (1981), and above all Poesía, profecía, magia (Poetry, Prophecy, and Magic) (1983), that he finally made the jump towards a disctintive poetic expression in a definitive form. In ¿Qué es la religión? (What is Religion?), Alves cites texts and poems by Archibald McLeish (United States, 1892-1982), Cecilia Meireles and the visionary English writer William Blake (1757-1827).
From Archibald McLeish, referring to those who build things through words, he remembers the following phrase: “A poem should be palpable and mute like a round fruit; it should not have words like the flight of the birds, it should not mean anything but rather simply…be.” From Meireles, he includes this quote: “On one hand, the eternal star, and on the other the uncertain vacancy…” speaking about the search for the meaning of life. And from Blake, there are these verses: “To see a world in a grain of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand / and eternity in an hour”, which he would take up again many times (up to using it as a title for two of his books)¸concerning “the ineffable sensation of eternity and infinity, of communion with something that transcends us, that surrounds us and contains us, as if it was a maternal uterus of cosmic dimensions.” In that book it is still notable the shyness with which he refers to the poets, perhaps because he still did not feel totally comfortable when he tackled them.
In 1990 he was invited by the University of Birmingham, England, to deliver the Edward Cadbury Lectures. The little book (80 pages) that was published the same year, and whose title was The poet, the warrior, the prophet (El poeta, el guerrero, el profeta), would become the base for those lectures. The lectures became the beginning of a work that evolved over time and became Lições de feitiçaria. Meditações sobre a poesia (Lessons of Sorcery. Meditations about poetry) in 2003, after the publication of the Portuguese version in 1992. That book contains the quintessence of what the author developed in his whole life about human realities influenced by a poetic perspective. He was about to discover T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), a great poet from the United States, but raised at United Kingdom, Nobel Prize winner in 1948, who would shake him up even more, and Octavio Paz, who would complete his esthetic panorama through his ideas exposed in the book El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre).
Theology and poetry in strong dialogue: The poet, the warrior, the prophet (1990, 2000)
The poet, the warrior, the prophet is a magnificent mix of attitudes towards life that, in the writing cauldron of Rubem Alves resulted in an stupendous stew, because on top of everything else, it is illustrated with the works by M.C. Escher. The first chapter, an inquiry about the presence of the word, emerges from the contemplation of a whitmanian spider, wandering through the Variaciones Goldberg (Goldberg Variations), of Bach, encountering Mallarmé, and landing in the very human need (and practice)of unlearning; all this irradiated by the influence of the pessimist poet T.S. Eliot and his vision of the hidden Word by the contemporary uproar in the “Choruses from The Rock” (1934), which is a dramatic poem in which he puts his finger in the wound:
The endless cycle of idea and actions
Endless invention, endless experiment
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Verb.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us closer to death,
But nearness to death does not bring us nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The heavenly cycles in twenty centuries
bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
Alves writes, in the same tenor, “[It is easy to distinguish the Word from the words.] When that word makes itself palpable, the entire body reverberates and we know that the mystery of our Being spoke to us, outside of its forgetfulness… […] That is the essence of poetry: returning to the founding Word, which emerges from the abyss of silence”. And it attests to its encounter with the new mentors of his gaze: “I also love the darkness that dwells within the deep and beautiful forests of the poetry of Robert Frost, and the light breaking through the restless waters of the poems of Eliot, and the colorful shadows of the Gothic cathedral, which reminds me the entrails of the whale in the sea: a sunken cathedral”.
Alves, who was always a teacher, stresses the need and even urgency, to forget whatever is not significant for the body and be willing to learn whatever it is. As in the words of St. Augustine, the body just wants to enjoy, and enjoy infinitely. Words are bridges (in which he agrees with Octavio Paz) and objects to reach the joy that can lead to poetry. Because of the words, insofar as creators of new worlds, sacred rituals are performed in the transfiguration of reality: the Eucharist (cannibalistic phenomenon), Pentecost (“Wisdom emerges from foolishness.”), and the encounter with Paz and Cummings is almost mandatory, since they, like all other poets, have always known the magical power of words. Unlearning is a necessary step for gaining wisdom: “One must be reborn on the unpredictable power of the Word, to be able to enter the Kingdom. One must be a kid again …”.
His way of talking about silence is very illuminating; based on a story by Gabriel García Márquez (“The World’s Greatest Drowned”), he sees in silence the source of words, and some words are “creatures of light” that live “among the reflections on the lake’s surface.” “Other words are mysterious entities that live hidden in the deep sea or in the shadows of the woods. […] Most of the time they are heard but not understood, as if they had been enunciated in a foreign language. There are not many. Poets and mystics have suggested that they are a single Word, the one that contains the universe.” These are the words that free us from platitudes and empty rituals. Psychoanalysis has been able to listen to the silence that lives in the interstitium/gap of words, which is something that poets had already accomplished: “Poetry is a dive into the mysterious lake, it goes through the mirror, into the depths where words are born and where they live…”. In this regard, Alves’ Brazilian fellow Carlos Drummond de Andrade, agrees: “[Poetry] penetrates silently in the realm of words / In that place, there are poems waiting to be written / They are paralyzed, but not in despair, / there is calm and freshness on the intact surface / [poetry] comes closer and contemplate the words / Each one has a thousand secret faces under a neutral face and asks you, without interest in your poor or terrible answer: / Did you bring the key?” (“In Search of Poetry”).
The general tone of this book is one where the beauty unfolds and produces a transparent aesthetic spell, aimed at rediscovering the magical power of poetry, through which words are good to eat, as in the biblical accounts of Ezekiel and Revelation (Durer’s engraving is a must): “We are what we eat …”. Word replaces the food because its flavor does not abandon us, hence its intense symbolic power: “The symbols that are born from the eyes live in the distance and in separation. Those that are born from the mouth express reunion and possession.” Hence also the proximity to the culinary arts, which is a sorcery and alchemy space.
As for the poetry and magic, the influence of the very Protestant Danish film Babette’s Feast is crucial: that is the door to theopoetics, which is capable of invading territories that are as refractory as the politics that came to derail a wonderful achievement of the Reformation of the sixteenth century:
Protestant theology was born when the magical-poetic power of the Word was rediscovered and democratized. Each individual should read the Scriptures in the same way a poem is read in solitude, without intermediate voices of interpretation. The interpreters should remain silent so that the voice of the Stranger could be heard: The inner witness of the Holy Spirit. It was believed that the forgotten words written in our flesh and the Word coming from the past would encounter each other and would make love -and so the miracle would happen. If, by sheer grace, the Wind was blowing and the absent melody was heard, the dead would be raised.
In all this, the ancient title (Poetry, Prophecy, Magic) became a real vital and existential program to Alves, who never depart from these three realities in everything he did.
Lessons of sorcery: the open door to poetry and aesthetics
Beauty is infinite;
she is never satisfied with its final form
Every experience of beauty is the beginning of a universo
The same theme is repeated,
each time in a different way
Each repetition is a resurrection,
…an eternal return of a past experience
that must remain alive.
The same poem, the same music, the same story…
and meanwhile, it’s never the same thing.
for in each repetition, the beauty is reborn new fresh
like water gushing into the mine.
Perhaps the work that best represents the evolution experienced by Alves from theology to poetry is that which would be called Lições de feitiçaria. Meditações sobre a poesía (Lessons of Sorcery. Meditations on Poetry, 2000, 2003). And this is so if we consider that in an earlier work, Poetry, Prophecy, Magic. Mediations (1983) it was possible to see the ever closer approximation to a language and literary style that would eventually dominate his writing, highly academic and activist, once marked by liberation theology, which he helped found in the late sixties. The intermediate stage is captured in the book whose title was very similar in both languages, English and Portuguese: The poet, the warrior, the prophet (1990, O poeta, o guerreiro, o profeta, 1992). The Edward Cadbury lectures, that Alves delivered at the University of Birmingham, England, in 1990, served to channel the metamorphosis though which he realized that poetry was waiting for him for a long time until he found it and never let him go afterwards.
In that earlier and brief book of 1983, published by the Ecumenical Documentation Centre (CEDI), Alves’ intention to express himself through resources from other linguistic field was very shy. At that time, he did not feel in full control of those resources. He weighted possibilities, exercised his pen, and he allowed himself to be taught by new teachers. Around those years, Alves had begun contributing for Tempo e Presença, led by his friend Jether Pereira Ramalho, who in a humorous way warned his readers about what they were about to find in those pages: “From this number on, Rubem Alves will have a page in our journal to do what he wants: to deface, to play or to make precious reflections like this one, which was conceived while preparing a bacalhoada [cod stew]. Our only concern is that he starts thinking about quieter places, like Luther, and then he would start having revelations, theses … That’s the risk we are taking.”
Alves himself explained (in the 2000 edition) the change of the second title and also the provocative character of the new one as part of a creative cognitive process, which was inevitably linked to theology:
I was afraid to tell the truth. I chose the first name thinking of the stomach sensitivities of the people. […] I figured that if I spoke about witchcraft, many readers would be horrified and refuse to try the dish that I prepared. That happened in the village where Babette would enchant her/his guests with food. They attended the banquet, but they swore that they did not feel the taste of the food.
What happens is that what I want is to be a sorcerer, because I find that biblical faith is a blend of sorcery and wisdom. I know that modern theologians would curse me and say that I went crazy. I understand them. A long time ago we stopped understanding each other. I say one thing and they understand a different thing. I embrace the lament of Zarathustra: “I’m not a mouth for those ears.”
Poetry possessed Alves and caused a revolution in his thinking and in his theology: never again he went back to be the same person and he regretted a lot what he had written before, and he even wished that others forget about those writings (this never happened, specially among those of us who studied them). Thanks to Ludwig Wittgenstein, from whom Alves learned that science is a linguistic game, he situated himself for a long time on the side from which language and words do things, many things, something that was clear for him since he wrote Hijos del mañana (Tomorrow’s Child (1972, 1976). but he failed to develop poetically until 20 years later, even despite the attraction that he felt towards the characters of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. And then he quotes and paraphrases Guimarães Rosa, referring to the magical powers of poetry: “Alchemy, sorcery, magic: the sorcerer makes his potions with the blood of the human heart …” Alves identified himself with the character of a Jester when he wrote Theology as a Game (in Portuguese: Variations on Life and Death, 1981), but now the best transfiguration he found for himself as a theologian-poet (and vice versa) was a Warlock, a magician, a sorcerer. In the 2000 preface he tries to distance himself from science and technology, due to their inability to change things, even though they also use words. His long affiliation with the notion of attachment to the body as the center of human existence came to rescue him: “What the body desires does not have to do with knowledge. The body seeks tools that allow it to enjoy more and suffer less.”
Sorcery is a word game in which theology and poetry hide: God himself is a sorcerer because he created the universe with the power of his word. “The sorcerer is in search of the power of God.” If the contemporary mind, like Alves himself, refuses to believe this as a matter of fact, there is a place where things happen in that way: the body. “The body is the magical center of the universe. The body is magical because it is made of words: ‘… and the Word became flesh …’ The body is born out of a marriage between the flesh and the words.” The sorcerer is one who seeks the melodies forgotten by the body to make them resonate within it. This is why he says firmly: “I affirm that this is the only question that interests theology: Which (musical) word has the power to make love to flesh? Which word is capable to raise the dead?” That is why he abandoned theology as “claim to know God,” the mystery of God: “God is a nameless void. You can not catch the Wind with a sieve made of human words. The knowledge/science of God is heresy.” Words themselves are a mystery in this divine-human labyrinth: “There are words which grow out of ten thousand things and words which grow out of other words: endless… But there is a Word which emerges out of silence, the Word which is the beginning of the World. This Word cannot be produced. It is neither a child of our hands or of our thoughts. We have to wait in silence, till it makes itself heard: Advent… Grace.”
Here’s how Alves arrived, finally, to his encounter with poetry, disbelieving the “scientific” pretensions of theology: “Poets are sorcerers. They know that only beauty has the power to awaken the sleeping beauty within our bodies.” Forgetfulness and silence are the real adversaries. They must be overcome by way of tracking the human depths in which poetry is immersed and where is located. This is Alves’ own recommendation to read Alves in a new key: the theopoetics.
This book is about lessons of sorcery. I am looking for words that make flourish Paradise, which forgetfulness transformed into a desert inside us.
Salvation is the return of beauty. For individuals and for the world. […] The melodies of the body are dreams.
I wish theology were about that: words that make visible dreams, and then, when they are pronounced, they could transform the valley of dry bones into a crowd of children.
This is the suggestion I make: that the word theology be replaced by the word teopoesia (Theo-Poetry), this is, nothing about knowing, all about beauty.
- Third step: From religion to a new theological expression
In the decade of the 1970’s he produced a series of critical works on Protestantism and religion, and in Dogmatism and Tolerance (1982), he attempted to recuperate nostalgically the values of the Reformed tradition. In Variations on Life and Death (1981), Theology as Play (1982) and I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body (1982) he at last mines his ludic, erotic and poetic style. Since then he has begun to write in a very free style what he calls chronicles, a kind of essay in which he gives free reign to his theological, pedagogical, and every other type of idea; also children’s stories, in a vein that is very close to psychoanalytical research. Our Father (1987) and The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet (1990) give witness to his literary and poetic maturity. At the same time, he has gathered in other volumes his reflections on education, which are followed with much interest by scholars because of his audacious pedagogical proposals. Lessons on Sorcery (1998, 2003) and Transparencies of Eternity (2000) bring together some texts of theological nature which are written from a perspective that is completely anti-dogmatic. These are another examples about it:
Saudade is a word I often use. I believe it is the foundation of my poetic and religious thinking. Translators with expertise in several languages say that there is no precise synonym for it in other languages. It is a feeling close to nostalgia. But it is not nostalgia. Nostalgia is pure sadness without an object. Nostalgia has no face. Whereas saudade is always saudade “of” a scenario, a face, a scene, a time. The Brazilian poet Chico Buarque wrote a song about saudade, in which he says that saudade is a piece of me wrenched out of me, it’s to straighten up the room of the son who just died.” It is the presence of an absence. […]
Mystics and poets have known that silence is our original home… There is a Word which can be heard only when all words have become dumb, an eschatological Word which makes itself heard at the end of the world. Pure grace, no encaged bird, a wild bird which flies with the Wind. […]
Poetry is the language of what it is not possible to say.
Pleasure: theme and variations
I do not want news. I am not going to buy apartments nor lands. I do not want to travel places I do not know. Eliot: “And at the end of our long explorations we will finally arrive to where we started and then we will know it for the first time…” That’s it. Back to my roots, to the things about Minas that I love so much … the kitchen, the clover gardens, the mallow, the pomegranates and the manaca, the mountains, the streams, the hikings…
When Rubem Alves turned 80, several of his readers and friends from different countries put together a small tribute that can be read online. We did something similar on another occasion, to which Rubem reacted with great surprise when he noted that in many Latin American evangelical churches his name is not unknown and that his work is read with admiration and great benefit. This is so because after his “institutional alienation” from Protestantism, he was supposed to stay out of any contact with those communities. But fortunately that’s not the case, as his followers are counted in legions in several places and even there are several groups in social networks that share their texts and books, noting how “the new Alves”, not necessarily the pioneer of the “liberation theology,” who in his role as a “chronicler,” feeds them with his free and highly creative literary style.
In fact, the years in which the thinker and scholar wrote in a flat manner or “flat”, as he said, were left far behind, because the time came when he decided open up himself to literature in general, and poetry in particular; This helped him to re-discover himself as a renewed author, willing to talk about the things of life with a simplicity and beauty that he never imagined.
In the 1960s, Rubem Alves dreamed of “making revolution” and he devoted much of his writings and dreams to that utopia. In 1974, as part of a process of intense introspection that led/took him to the “couch of psychoanalysis,” he wrote a text that released him forever from all the ideological and moral burdens that had imprisoned him for so long. “From paradise to the desert” (“Confessions: on theology and life”) is the title of these autobiographical reflections where he describes the experience he went through and prepared him for what almost 10 years later, in 1983, he was going to discover, namely, the advantages of playing and the goodness of the body and beauty. I must say, though, that from the beginning, in Alves’s first books, there were hints of the direction that his reflections and life would eventually took.
Without denying his Protestant tradition, to which he devoted several memorable texts collected in Dogmatism and Tolerance (1982; Mensajero, 2007) in which he explored the bright and the dark side of that heritage, he kept away from churches. He continued doing theology, but a kind of theology that does not recognize limits or boundaries, because it is founded on the freedom that comes from imagination. His words are diaphanous,
I am a Protestant. Today, very different from what I was. No returns. I’m so different that many will refuse to acknowledge my citizenship in the Reformed world. Some others will characterize me as a spy or a traitor. Others will allow my presence but will require that I keep silent. Which makes me doubt about myself and suspicious that maybe, I am in fact an apostate. However, Protestants from other places affirm me, listening to me holding hands, and giving me bread and wine…”
I would argue that he took liberation theology to its ultimate consequences by becoming a “distributor of Happiness.” He did that through the “literary cannibalism” that he practiced and promoted through the textual sacraments that he distributed everywhere and through which he entered into communion with millions of people.
Alves was a full time educator and over the years he refined his observations, resulting in a playful writing and in a one hundred percent dedication to exploring the interstices of life in all of its manifestations, and in the process, he splashed poetry all over everything he experienced and interested him. An example of this is his book with the title Book Without End (2002), in a new and beautiful edition with the title Variations on the pleasure (Variações sobre o prazer. Santo Agostinho, Nietzsche, Marx y Babette). This book is one of the most representative because it reflects the freedom he has achieved as a writer and because it gathers many of the issues that he has obsessively developed over the last thirty years, which is also the period time since his rebirth as a person and a storyteller of imaginary worlds (imaginary but not less truthful), and this is so because, as the writer Paul Valéry has said time after time: “What would we do without the help of things that do not exist?”.
In the preface of this book he explains his reasons for creating this book that is so personal, full of quotations deployed in the margins and even a bibliography that recalls his youth, when he displayed an exquisite, thoughtful, provocative and uncompromising art. Alves said that this book, Variations on the pleasure is the result of the awareness of the end and of the certainty that his time was up, and therefore that is necessary and required to stand before the language and force it to speak “the things of the soul,” which have always been there, waiting to come out. “I felt then that I would not like to see that what I have written ended up buried. After all, what I write is part of me. But I knew at the same time that my efforts to finish the book would be useless. I played then, with the idea of publishing the book as it was, unfinished. That is like life. Life is never finished. It always finishes without us been able to write the last chapter” (13). In this way, this great master on full use of his capability “abandoned” this lucid and playful exercise in order to leave a testament of his loyalty to writing, which he received from his favorite poets and authors.
So, this is how this book ended up unfinished, even though in its more than 180 pages one can perceive the gushing breath of someone who is squaring accounts with his favorite authors and also with his most beloved influencers, as announced in the subtitle: Saint Augustine (in spite of everything), Nietzsche (a faithful nightstand companion, always at hand, specially the book entitled The Portable Nietzsche by Walter Kaufmann), Marx (to whom Alves read and reread in a peculiar way, —to prove is Alves book: What is religion?, that does not age with the passage of time) and Babette, the French chef who opened other vital windows to those Lutheran women… All this to say that Variations on the pleasure is a book without the slightest waste, and shows an Alves who is honest with all and embraces memory with variations theology (in first place), philosophy, economics and culinary art, which was another of his great passions.
A literary transubstantiation
The ideas of the thinking ego
self are caged birds – they belong to the realm of the ego
self that does with them what it wants.
The ideas that live in the body are wild birds
that come only when they want.
They have will and ideas on their own.
Since 1981 (more than 30 years ago) Rubem Alves decided to change forever his writing style and inquire into the affairs of life in a differently way than the way of the theology he learned and developed so well (I must say). He managed to refine his style and he continually renewed himself through tireless immersions in his own personal abyss and in everything around him. A person who helped for such transformation in Alves to take place in a more formal way was his friend Jether Pereira Ramalho, who invited him that year to write free texts for the ecumenical journal Tempo e Presença. The first article published there was the starting point of what became Dogmatism and Tolerance, after fierce reckoning with the Presbyterian Church of Brazil, which was to topic of his book Protestantism and Repression (1979, new title: Religion and Repression, 2005. When Alves moved away from resentment and hard feelings, he transfigured himself into a writer who gradually achieved a powerful and concise prose, all with a personal and endearing touch. That job led him to join the Academy of Letters of Campinas. A similar move was taken by his colleague Gustavo Gutiérrez (the founder of the Latin American Catholic liberation theology) who became a member, in turn, of the Peruvian Academy of Language.
A few years later, he testified to his transformation, but without the clarity and certainty that would him to better understand authors such as William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Fernando Pessoa, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Cecilia Meireles, Gaston Bachelard, Octavio Paz or Adélia Prado, to name just a few. The nineties were the stage of the new thoughtful and literary deployment of Alves as a theologian (he never stopped being one, reluctantly though) who now moved like fish in water, free of doctrinal ties that had once gripped his creativity. The Book without End, now renamed as Variations on pleasure is a gateway to his “intimate literary production shop” because it exhibits without shame nor regrets how the ideas that come out of his body posses him through an inspiration that is not ethereal, that is sensitive, but it remains without a logical explanation.
After an explanation of what happened to him internally and the experience that provoked his desire to write this volume, Alves mixes in his new method of research, all the elements that served to advance his writing. In this way, Tales of Miletus and Nietzsche come together, who along with others bombard the reader from the margins to spur the imagination with multiple paths of interaction and search. The first chapter, a wide digression, outlawed in academic texts, shows this clearly: “The texts of knowledge prevent the authors to confess the struggles they go through before they reach their destination to knowledge. What is required of a text of knowledge is that the author makes a rigorous depuration of their writings. Anything that does not aligns with the straight-line leading to a conclusion of the initial problem, it should go to the trash can.”
With this background, Alves undertakes the literary transubstantiation of all that he has swallowed up in his condition as a “customary cannibal” and he turns into a new sacrament everything that springs from his pen. This is the topic of the brief second chapter, “Hoc est corpus meum”, that is, the sacramental words of Jesus of Nazareth. The author now writes with his blood and his very person, and each text is portrayed on the eyes of the reader: “The things I say, like the fabrics of Arcimboldi and writings of Borges, draw the lines of my face.” The art “seeks communion” and its flesh and blood are given to us in an aesthetic and liturgical act that actualizes the life of those who produced the texts. Each reading is an act of tasting. And again the “cannibalistic ritual” occurs, as expressed in a language that comes from the “cannibal Manifesto” by Oswald de Andrade, who belongs to the very distant Brazilian poetic vanguard of 1928.
The following chapters, with their modified titles, are rich in reinterpretation and in incorporating the tools of Alves’s new pathways. In this way, the chapter “After being old I became a child” was changed to “The metamorphosis of old age”, the chapter “I forgot what I knew to remember what I had forgotten” became “The Oblivion: Barthes.” In “From Knowledge to Tastes” and “The Knowledge of the body,” Alves reinvents world apprehension, now in a gastronomic and extreme sensorial way but without reducing the experience only to the sense of taste. That is why the next chapter is called: “The Body: He/She Knows Without Knowing” (formerly “For a Pedagogy of Unconsciousness”). Again, like he had done before in Children of tomorrow and the Enigma of Religion, he analyzes the function of language, but now from a perspective different to that of his friend Paulo Freire. Education has always been disrespectful to the body, to its desire to learn only what it likes and finds useful. This is why science has failed to prevail: after all, science books are “recipe” books.
This is the origin of “Variations of pleasure” (formerly, “Reason, servant of pleasure”), a piece in which he reassess Bishop of Hippo, and does not deceive himself: “The experience of pleasure, so good, always places us in a great vacuum [the “door of mysticism,” I would add]. San Augustine built his theology upon the vacuum that follows pleasure. (He does not forget Heládio Brito’s poem on the caquis, gostosa fruit…) After pleasure is exhausted, a kind of nostalgia for something indefinable remains in the soul”.
Pleasure is not equal to happiness. For this reasons his “variations” follow the same path: San Augustine in theology; Nietzsche, in philosophy; Marx, in economics; y, to close the circle, Babette, the cook, accompanied by Tita, the character from Like Water for Chocolate. That variation is definitive; everything is redefined almost entirely: his approach to the form of knowing of the cook is emphatic. “The banquet begins with a decision to love”. The flavors dominated by these women control the world because, unlike a nutritionist, master and lord of quantities and calories: “The head of the cook functions in a reverse way. She does not consider vitamins, carbohydrates, and protein. Her imagination is full of flavors. What she desires is to make love with those who eat through flavors. When hunger is satisfied, the festival of love is comes to an end […] I hope the evangelical text said: ‘Blessed are the hungry because they shall be even hungrier’. The cook wants her guest to die of pleasure!”
Alves’s passion for food was greatly influenced by the Danish movie Babette’s Feast (1987), to the extent that, when he decided to open his own restaurant, he used that same name. At some point, he referred to that movie with words that continue to resonate with insight and empathy:
Cook is sorcery, alchemy. And eating is to be spellbound. Babette knew this , an artist who knew the secrets of producing joy through food. She knew that, after eating , people do not remain the same . Magical things happen. The hardened inhabitants of the village were suspicious about this and that’s why they were afraid to eat the feast that Babette prepared for them. They believed she was a witch and the banquet was a ritual of witchcraft. And they were right. That was sorcery, just that. Just not the kind they imagined. They believed that their souls would be lost. That they would not go to heaven. In fact, sorcery happened: turtle soup, tripe sarcophagus, wonderful wines, pleasure softening feelings and thoughts, the hardness and wrinkles the body being smoothed through the palate, the masks falling down, the hardened faces becoming pretty through laughter, in vino veritas…
For Alves, this is now the great metaphor of life, of knowledge, and pleasure: food and kitchen, because the eyes of the cook “are just like the eyes of a poet”. And then he explains that poetry is culinary, culinary is philosophy. “Poetry is good words to eat. A poet is a wizard alchemist who cooks the world through verses: the universe fits in a simple verse”. Pleasure, wisdom, poetry, and kitchen: spaces to enjoy existence and time. That was the new Alves, always a theologian and poet.