Entre (Otros) Conocimientos and the Struggle for Liberation: Remembering the Legacy of Otto Maduro (1945-2013)
Se nos fue Otto con su cargamento de preguntas –¡desconfiaba de las respuestas, sobre todo si nos las tomamos demasiado en serio…!–. La gustaba interpelar: “dime qué te preguntas y te diré quién eres”. Y soñaba: “Imaginemos a alguien que se interroga constantemente, por ejemplo, “¿qué podré hacer para hacer más hermosa la vida de la gente a mi alrededor?”
To write about Otto Maduro’s life and academic legacy is easy: he was well-liked by his peers, colleagues, and friends, and was known as an exceptional scholar. At the same time, it is very difficult: he had his hands and mind on so many debates and was involved in so many struggles for liberation, so a short article cannot do justice to the multiple sides of who he was. Otto was and will continue to be one of my academic role models. I came to know Otto because of my dissertation advisor, Lee Cormie, who was one of his many good friends. I was all too happy to approach Otto and tell him that I had a connection to his circle. To my surprise, he quickly extended his friendship to me, and from then on every time we saw each other we spent a couple of minutes getting updated about each other’s lives and work.
Personal and Academic Background
Otto was born in Venezuela in 1945, the son of two lawyers of working-class origins, and the eldest of five children. And in 1984, he married Nancy Noguera. Their dear son Mateo was born in 1995. Otto often described being raised in an intense intellectual atmosphere, but one with at best an ambivalent attitude toward religion. He considered becoming a priest and did eventually go to seminary, but soon left to get a philosophy degree. In his Mapas para la fiesta, he wrote that he briefly contemplated atheism. He was disenchanted with Catholicism but soon realized that conservative Venezuelan Catholicism was just one strand of an extremely complex tradition. As part of his own personal and intellectual journey, he went to study philosophy and sociology at the Catholic University of Louvain, where he received a Master’s degree in the sociology of religion, as well as a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion. Among his intellectual influences one finds Friedrich Engels, Pierre Bourdieu, Paulo Freire, and Enrique Dussel, as well as Karl Marx, on whom he wrote his dissertation. No ivory tower intellectual, Otto was conscious that intellectuals hold “a special kind of power” and moral responsibility. He called on intellectuals to exercise epistemological humility and to recognize the intimate connection between individual’s ideas and the ideas of other peoples. For him, knowledge and power were ethical issues. “How do we use that power, with whom, for whom, [and] what for” were central intellectual questions for him.
Otto resisted academic strictures that hindered fluid conversation across disciplinary boundaries, and his work crossed multiple fields of study (Marxism, sociology, epistemologies, sexualities), religious traditions (Catholicism, Pentecostalism), and disciplines (sociology, philosophy, theology). He often preferred casual conversations to more restrictive academic engagement; “para él era más importante sentirse como una persona que sabía disfrutar de la vida.” With his eclectic taste for music and the arts, he enjoyed “listening and dancing to folk music traditions from around the world—jazz, salsa, bluegrass, klezmer, blues, tango, zydeco, Celtic and country music among these—preferably while chatting, drinking and eating among good friends!”
After brief teaching stints at the University of Southern California’s School of Religion, Union Theological Seminary, the University of Pittsburgh, Candler School of Theology, and at his alma mater of Louvain in Belgium, in 1992 he accepted a full time position at the Drew Theological School, Drew University with his wife Nancy (who is now an Associate Professor of Spanish at Drew). There he served as The Professor of World Christianity and Latin American Christianity.
Intellectual, Teacher, Mentor
While at Drew, Otto collaborated with Ada María Isasi-Díaz in establishing a major Latino/a presence in a theological school. Together, they started the Hispanic D.Min. program and the Hispanic Institute of Theology. He also began to focus on the social and religious situations of U.S. Latino/as, actively mentoring in the Hispanic Theological Initiative (now Hispanic Theological Initiative Consortium or HTIC) housed at Princeton Theological Seminary. He also directed the Hispanic Summer Program (HSP)—an independent program for enhancing the education of Latina/o graduate students studying religion and theology in the Unites States—from 2006 to 2012. According to current HTIC director, Joanne Rodríguez, Otto played a crucial role as director of HSP: “During his tenure, the consortium went from 30 member schools to over 50 today….during his tenure, Otto re-instituted Through Hispanic Eyes for non-Latina/o faculty and deans from member institutions to better understand the Hispanic culture.”
Otto sought social transformation for the poor, for women, for people of color, for LGBTQI, and for all of those whom both the powerful and the ordinary mainstream society silenced, ignored, and left aside. He yearned for “liberation among the economically, racially, culturally, and/or sexually oppressed peoples (Latin American and U.S. Latinas/os in the first place).” He was an activist, “within the academia, the churches, and community organizations, advocating, funding, and directing many initiatives on behalf of Latina/o priests, pastors, religious workers, community activists, and of course students. He fit the profile of an organic intellectual, or, as Fernando Segovia put it, “he was a classic intellectual of the “Third World,” “with a wide knowledge of world affairs, a command of several fields of studies, a wide repertoire of cultural knowledge and a commitment for the have-nots.”
Eduardo Mendieta reminds us that “Otto was preeminently preoccupied with how suffering, subaltern, marginalized and disempowered subjects produce knowledge.” Otto’s vision was in stark contrast with those positions that viewed knowledge as a commodity purchased by the wealthy, the privileged, and the educated. That type of commodified knowledge “is what we have when we stand back from the world, and dispassionately objectify it and ourselves in the process of observing it.” Instead, Otto was preoccupied with the commodification of knowledge as a type of self-alienation and separation from the world by reducing it to its lowest common denominator of capital. The connection between those suffering and knowledge was clear for Otto, claims Mendieta, as he (Otto) “believed intensely that knowledge is a form of power, a power of hope and resilience.” He argued that it is the suffering ones, the poor, los desechados who produce a knowledge that “traces a map out of an unjust society, a society of dispossession, towards one in which we come to a “fiesta”—to the carnival of peace and justice…out of their destitution they produce knowledge.”
A polyglot teacher, for many of his students Otto was a rigorous teacher-mentor. Deeply committed to popular forms of education à la Paulo Freire, Otto saw himself as “a sort of agent provocateur in the classroom; not so much transmitting knowledge as eliciting doubts, questions, and quests.” Consistent with his own personal commitments, he challenged his students to be deeply engaged and cognizant of the social implications of his ideas. At the celebration of his life at Drew, and in online comments, his students spoke of how much he encouraged them, welcomed them, and challenged them. At Drew, he was also “awarded twice for his outstanding teaching and lectures, often given from 3 x 5 cards covered with minute handwritten notes.” I recall participating with him on a panel in 2006 at which he spoke from a series of handwritten Post-its.
Otto always pushed students to see the messy complexity of social settings when studying all issues, particularly religion. The outstanding line-up of Latinas and Latinos who studied under his direction and obtained their Ph.D. degrees, such as Mayra Rivera Rivera at Harvard Divinity School, Benjamin Valentín at Andover Newton Theological School, Elaine Padilla at New York Theological School, and Samuel Cruz at Union Theological Seminary, attests to his broad commitment for empowering and working with Latinas/os.
Incisive Author and Prolific Writer
Otto was a world-traveling lecturer and prolific author; he wrote five books in five languages and over a hundred articles published in a dozen languages on five continents. His first major book, Marxismo y Religion, was published after his 1977 return to Venezuela and grew out of his interest in a more complex understanding of the Marxian perspective on religion. It was quickly followed by Religion and Social Conflicts, which was published in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. “Together they received much attention for his analysis of the role religion plays, both positively and negatively, in social and economic development.”
Much of Otto’s writings were geared toward engaging “other” voices that are not often found in mainstream academic debates. He sought to empower lay people and ordinary citizens in the struggle for justice in the various social, political, and academic structures. He was an active scholar who served on the councils of several disciplinary societies (where he was known for being an early member of any women’s caucus). He also contributed as an editor to journals and as a member of editorial boards. Due to his reputation. he was nominated to run for the presidency of several social science disciplinary societies, such as the Association for the Sociology of Religion. In 2012 he was elected president of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) at a critical time of important labor disputes. He was the first Latino to hold that office in the history of the AAR. His commitment for the oppressed was shown during his presidential address in which he called on us researchers, teachers, academics, and scholars of religion to hear the cry of the oppressed and to respond to that cry; to confront the reality of misery, poverty, and precariousness that migrants face and not pretend that it is not part of the study of religion. He called on us to respond “with our power, our ethical responsibility, and our role in the production and dissemination of knowledge, in any and all forms within our reach.” He was very clear that in the study of religion and theology, we must dismantle the fallacy of being able to be or being called to be “objective” and “uninvolved.”
In terms of religious affiliation, Otto also crossed traditional boundaries. He described himself as Christian but not only Christian, Catholic (a convert in his teens, he was raised atheist) but not only Catholic. He challenged others to embrace, or at the very least be open to, the possibilities of having multiple religious identities.
Over the years, I came to know Otto more closely. One time he told me he was studying Latina/o Pentecostalism in the Newark, New Jersey area. I had been looking for ways of connecting my liberationist perspectives and intuitions with my Latina/o Pentecostal side, so he seemed like a great interlocutor to have. During another of those “update” conversations we had, he told me that he would gladly share with me his findings on Latina/o Pentecostalism.
At first, I was a bit suspicious of what a religious scholar with Catholic affiliations would say about Latina/o Pentecostals. It almost seemed counterintuitive for a liberationist such as Otto to study the development of Pentecostalism among Latinas/os in the New Jersey area. When I came to read his material, I was prepared to find a long list of familiar criticism of Pentecostalism, criticism to which I have become accustomed coming from other non-Latina/o and Latina/o Catholic scholars I have read, with the exception of Orlando Espín. His writings were not only refreshing but insightful. In them I found an uncompromising spirit of justice, and his intentional effort to tease out the liberative aspects of Pentecostalism.
Otto’s uncanny ability to connect the dots and discern the direction of social and religious movements uncovered for me multiple points of intersection between liberation theology and Pentecostalism. He helped me reorient my understanding of Pentecostalism, for his research directly contradicted stereotypical notions of Pentecostals as disembodied hyper-spiritualized and socially uninvolved people.
He connected the ongoing “Pentecostalization” of the Latina/o population to several important insights with which I have been wrestling. Besides the compatibility between the Latina/o cultural ethos and Pentecostalism—something Pentecostalism and Latina/o popular Catholicism share—he highlighted the fact that the Pentecostal leaders reflect the population of the subaltern communities which they serve. Among Pentecostals, he stated, it matters little to the Holy Spirit if the chosen person shares none of the traits that make somebody “respectable” in the eyes of the world. Most important, he notes how in Latina/o Pentecostal migrant churches people are transformed and welcomed.
De ser un ‘extranjero’, un ‘ilegal’, un ‘cualquiera’, un ‘sospechoso’ o, peor, un ‘don nadie’, la persona inmigrante, al cruzar el umbral de una iglesia pentecostal hispana, pasa a ser más que simplemente ‘alguien’, para convertirse en una persona absolutamente importante, escogida, llamada, empujada, bendecida y protegida por Dios; una persona con una misión más importante que la de cualquier estrella de cine, millonario, doctora, presidente, ejecutiva o profesor: la de mostrar a quien no lo conozca el verdadero camino de la salvación eterna.
Otto insisted that a look at the on-the-ground practical dimension of Pentecostalism reveals the emergence of a new face of Pentecostals, ones who are conscious of their social role. Indeed, Tetsunao Yamamori and Donald Miller call it “progressive Pentecostalism,” yet they insist that Pentecostalism is filling the void left by the death of liberation theology. Flippantly, many have said that liberation theology made an option for the poor but that the poor opted for Pentecostalism. But my sense–and Otto’s findings confirmed this–is that among Latina/o Pentecostals liberation theology is being reconfigured and rearticulated. In fact, and in light of his work, I can confidently say that what is being forged is the material content for the articulation of a type of “Pentecostal liberation theology” that finally closes the circle by emphasizing the involvement of the Spirit in the process of liberation. While some see opposition between these two currents, what we are finding is that both are “powerful manifestations of the Spirit.” Indeed, José Comblin had already hinted at this from his Catholic perspective in Latin America and Juan Sepúlveda echoes this from his Latin American Pentecostals perspective, but Otto with his on-the-ground engagement with Latina/o Pentecostals makes the point all the more obvious and unavoidable.
In my view, his work on Pentecostalism also opens the door for a fruitful conversation between Latina/o Catholics and Latina/o Pentecostals that is long overdue, and which the dominant culture and media are bent on preventing from happening. Ecumenical conversations among Latinas/os have already begun in some important measure, so a conversation between Latina/o Catholics and Pentecostals is the next step. Lately we have been bombarded by broadcasts and publications that pit Latina/o Catholics against Latina/o Pentecostals and Evangélicos, but as Latinas/os we cannot allow that to happen. We must turn the traditional urge to “divide and conquer” on its head and work toward finding ways to work together and learn from each other. In Otto’s words, “ ‘anybody’ can do, be, build and lead church.” Otto’s work invites us to see the possibilities for this conversation to take place, and if it were to happen, such conversation will have to be included as part of his larger legacy.
Otto’s religious versatility went beyond his work on Pentecostalism, of course. He taught and practiced liberation theology, and encouraged the Catholic prophetic voice. He was conversant with various other religious traditions. Marc Ellis—with whom Otto edited a volume in honor of Gustavo Gutiérrez— writes how Otto supported his own development of a Jewish theology of liberation. Dealing with these questions Ellis asked himself “Could Jews and Christians go prophesy together?” And in Otto’s characteristic way we find a resounding “Yes, we can!” As part of his own continuing conversation with Judaism, he later edited Judaism, Christianity, and Liberation. He had a personal motivation to do so since his father was of Jewish descent, his family driven from Spain by the Inquisition.
Otto was planning to retire from Drew in May 2013. But he intended to continue his work, this time as faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary as the new Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Christianity and Society. His struggle with cancer abruptly shortened his life, “y se nos fue” on May 8, 2013,” just six days before a special celebration of his life was held at Drew. We will remember him as a rigorous scholar, incisive author and writer, public intellectual, dear friend, and a loving husband and father. May we learn from his rich life and like him work for justice and on the side of the poor and the oppressed peoples in our communities.