xbn .
Catholic Re-Visions

After Certainty: Liberations of Failure

Liberation, caught between queer nihilism and eschatological certainty, must seek an third way beyond the binary of hopefulness and hopelessness through the negation of both. It must transpose itself into an apophatic register as the experience of continual failure, an uncertain endless becoming, that might be called simple hope.

2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the English translation of A Theology of Liberation’s explosion into the English-speaking world. That this text is as provocative in 2023 as in 1973 illuminates the degree to which liberation theology was assimilated into theological discourse without actualizing its full promise. In returning to the corpus of Gustavo Gutiérrez with queer eyes that attend to failure as an artform in the sense of queer theorist Jack Halberstam, I propose that we map the overlapping theological failures of both the history of Latin American liberation and queer liberation. Though, in this failure, perhaps an apophasis in both political and theological registers can open our imaginations to the (im)possibilities of liberation that seem so apparent now. Similarly, the “evidence” of queer liberation since the irruption of queer theory by the persistent homophobia of the contemporary moment in the United States: don’t say gay bills, the looming supreme court threat against Obergefell in Clarence Thomas’ Dobbs concurrence, rampant anti-trans legislation that have become a primary talking point of a resurgent and ascendent Christian nationalism.

I begin by juxtaposing Gutiérrez resolute hopeful beginnings in A Theology of Liberation with queer theories’ conception of hope (Muñoz) and failure (Halberstam). These queer texts illuminate an underconsidered and more measured notion of liberation that emerges in Gutiérrez’s later writings–liberation as a continual struggle for freedom that takes hope less as a certainty and more as a utopian imaginary that is perpetually and necessarily disappointed. If Catholic theological thought is to maintain its distinctive mystical-political prophetic voice, it is well past time that we re-(en)vision liberation after and beyond the eschatological certainty that marked its irruption. Liberation, caught between queer nihilism and eschatological certainty, must seek an third way beyond the binary of hopefulness and hopelessness through the negation of both. It must transpose itself into an apophatic register as the experience of continual failure, an uncertain endless becoming, that might be called simple hope.

In Catholic theology, none other than Pope Francis embodies the duality of liberative hope and the realities of failure. Despite rising to the papacy from the home continent of liberation theology, Pope Francis’ tenure is less the culmination of liberation’s ascendency than the sublimating of conflicts between the Vatican and the liberationists. (Løland 2021) Liberation itself remains elusive. Likewise, Pope Francis’ recent groundbreaking political condemnation of queer criminalization does nothing to dislodge the core theological question of whether homosexuality is a sin. As Pope Francis chants that the Catholic Church “must do this. It must do this” about working to end the criminalization of homosexuality, one feels anew the failure of the Church to assert the full dignity of queer persons. (The AP Interview)

But these failures, these mappings of continual catastrophe, read through the queer art of failure, can remap the Christian imaginary and generate a radical politics. By reading Gustavo Gutiérrez’s hopeful account of liberation alongside queer theory’s queer art of failure, struggles for liberation in both contexts take on a radical present tense, a singular focus on present failure as the detritus filled soil from which any life must grow.

Two intertwined features of Gutiérrez’s entire corpus seem especially striking from my contemporary viewpoint in 2024. The first is the resolute hopefulness that characterized Gutiérrez’s work from the outset, and the second is the underlining temporality that underwrites that hopefulness. In a key section of A Theology of Liberation concerning the relation of liberation and temporality, Gutiérrez adopts the future dominated eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann and Ernst Bloch when he writes:

There is only one human destiny, irreversibly assumed by Christ, the Lord of history… Although there may be different approaches to understanding it, the fundamental affirmation is clear: there is only one history—a “Christo-finalized” history.

Gutiérrez, 86.

This text has been traditionally read in light of A Theology of Liberation’s broad emphasis on Christology as an eschatological Promise of eventual liberation. This Promise, backed by divinity itself, provides an onto-theo-logical center for the universe and a guarantee of Christ’s success as absolute and certain- since there is but “one history- a Christo-finalized history.” All human action is to be understood through the proleptic temporal drawing of the Future into the present. The question is whether this liberative reign of God is, like Moltmann’s eschatology, to be conceived as a zipper toward an inevitable end imposing itself. This eschatological certainty creates an undeniable hope. In returning to A Theology of Liberation on this 50th anniversary, one is struck by the infectious certainty of liberation that is paired with Gutiérrez’s incisive political critique.

But as has happened so often with eschatological hopes, dating back to the earliest Christians’ expectations for Christ’s impending return, the hope of liberation has dimmed from its apex of certainty across these 50 years. A number of queer theologians, for example Patrick Cheng in Radical Love, continue to embrace concrete eschatological futurity as a hope for present liberation. (18) But for those queer theologians who take seriously the critiques of Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman, such eschatological futures undermine the possibility of either queer life or present political radicality.[1] A few thinkers, chief among them the late Cuban queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz and Jack Halberstam, have sought a third way between eschatological certainty and queer nihilism.

On the anniversary that marks this first fifty years of liberation theology, Catholic Theology must begin to reckon with both the pressing need for liberation and the catastrophic failure of liberation theology to ameliorate the material conditions of the least of these. Muñoz writes, in his masterpiece on queer hope, of a “disappointment that is part of utopia—the hangover that follows hope.” (111) In an article written shortly before his early death, Muñoz writes that “hope’s biggest obstacle is failure. Hope falters, we lose hope, but we need hope to think otherwise in the face of odds that are stacked against us.” (207) It is a remarkable article for its unflinching willingness to consider “abstract hope [that] is not much more than merely wishing” and “a concrete hope… an educated hope… that is cognizant of exactly what obstacles present themselves in the face of obstacles that so often feel insurmountable.” Even achieving ‘hope’ requires one to “not only survive but surpass” the obstacles to even managing hope “in the face of an often heartbreaking reality.” Hope, maintains Muñoz, involves “an indispensable excessive reach.” (213) And, since its reach is necessarily excessive, also hope “must be disappointed.” This disappointment is often a reaction to the experience of the failure of liberation. However, the disappointment that we have in liberation theology in its fifth decade is itself an invitation to re-vision; to find a new soil in the ruins of the certainty that Gutiérrez once found in eschatological Promise and the Christo-finalization of history.

Queer theorist Jack Halberstam writes that “Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well” (2-3) and so the experience of queer life creates a:

queer art of failure [that] turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being… We can also recognize failure as a way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and as a form of critique. As a practice, failure recognizes that alternatives are embedded already in the dominant and that power is never total or consistent; indeed failure can exploit the unpredictability of ideology and its indeterminate qualities.

Halberstam, 88.

Failure, in Halberstam’s queer rendering, apophatically opens towards a thinking with Gutiérrez that embraces a more processual and decolonial view of liberation that is already embedded in A Theology of Liberation but tends to be overpowered by his use of eschatological logics. However, I would contend that already within his overarching corpus, Gutiérrez leaves perhaps sufficient opening for a more conditional understanding of liberation–a less certain, queerer reading through the assertion of “different approaches to understanding” the relation between God and history.

Such an interpretation begins from the failures of liberation, allowing the intervening history to recontextualize an often-overlooked passage of A Theology of Liberation, where Gutiérrez even seems to detect the contingent future required of his radical freedom when he writes that “The death and resurrection of Jesus are our future, because they are our perilous and hopeful present. The hope which overcomes death must be rooted in the heart of historical praxis; if this hope does not take shape in the present to lead it forward, it will be only an evasion, a futuristic illusion.” (124, emphasis added) If humans are free in almost any sense, then the one history of the world might endlessly spiral through suffering and infinite deferral that never reaches completion. Salvation and history itself might fail. Gutiérrez continues, “One must be extremely careful not to replace a Christianity of the Beyond with a Christian­ity of the Future; if the former tended to forget the world, the latter runs the risk of neglecting a miserable and unjust present and the struggle for libera­tion.” This prophetic concern encapsulates the queer experience of the corpus, or is it a ghostly corpse, of liberation theology: it replaced and battled a Christianity of the beyond that enabled a capitalistic and hegemonic Christian empire with a Christianity of the Future dissolution of injustice.

In the later phases of Gutiérrez’s career, the perpetual deferral of liberation is occasionally dealt with explicitly and often present in his proto-decolonial treatments of Las Casas and the persistent wounds of La Conquista. In 1999’s The Density of the Present, Gutiérrez emphasizes the processual nature of liberation rather than the seemingly destination-oriented outlook of his earlier writing: in “Latin America we understand freedom as the goal of liberation; liberation is not our end but a process, the journey and not the point of arrival. We have also experienced during this time that this journey towards freedom is not something marked out beforehand.” (143) If liberation is not the endpoint, if it is not the eschatological aim of Christo-finalized history that proleptically pulls time and bodies towards a freely chosen but Promised end, then the hope of liberation retains an open eschatology that does not foreclose the possibility of failure. Rather, the many failures of liberation are the soil of a new vision, a new re/vision growing in the detritus that comes after the euphoria of liberation’s irruption and the lingering hangover of disappointment.

Here lies an embrace of a radical politics for the present that seeks to instantiate Utopia without beginning from its certainty. Such a queer reading of liberation prioritizes the present and understands failure as an opening for thinking beyond the limits that political, philosophical, colonial, or theological discourse artificially construct around what can be thought or imagined. It is hope in the face of heartbreak, a hope that is simultaneous with failure, that destabilizes the hold of the hegemonic over the discursive imagination–a hope for Catholic re-visioning.

Gutiérrez writes in Las Casas that “the present acquires density and substance when it is nourished by the memory of a journey, when the courage is found to identify unsolved problems and wounds not yet healed. Here are gaping maws that hunger still and voraciously consume so many energies today.” (457) These gaping maws that hunger and voraciously consume energies open onto possibilities for tomorrow manifested in the present out of an experience of the past haunting the present. The dense present is, to use Muñoz’s queer analysis, “the temporality of utopia, the way in which the past is used in the service of mapping a future, a place of possibility and transformation.” (112)

If there is to be a future of liberation–both as a theological concept and as a reality for those who desperately need it–those futures will be full of the ghosts and ruins of present and past persons, of infinitely more failures than successes. If we are ever to achieve liberation, freedom, or existential thriving, it will be constructed out of the shards of these present failures that we may forge and forage the impossible as a re-(en)visioned dream, the haunting hope in the face of the heartbreak, and the apophatic possibility amidst the catastrophe that is liberation theology.

[1] Susannah Cornwall summarizes the concern succinctly: “Classically, eschatology is marked by hope for the future, a time beyond death when the present things will have passed away. But some critical thinkers, including Lee Edelman, are suspicious that investing too much in the future tends to have negative consequences for the here and now” (29). Susannah Cornwall, “Constructive Theological Perspectives: What Is Queer Theology?,” Concilium 2019, no. 5 (2019): 29.

In the Absence of a Liberating God – 50 years after A Theology of Liberation

Fifty years after the publication of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, what, if any, relevance does Christian liberation theology and Gutiérrez’s work have for our present moment? Do we still have a memory of a liberating God? And if not, is there a liberative power in grappling with the absence of this memory?

A Spirituality of Liberation and The Destruction of Hope

If we are to hope for anything beyond the end of hope, it is in the incommunicable and incommensurable nature that is the moan.

Liberating Liberation Theology: Notes from the “Non” on the 50th Anniversary of A Theology of Liberation

What if Liberation itself must be liberated? Or maybe, like the nonperson and the nonbeing, it has always been breathed into by the breath of white violence.

After Certainty: Liberations of Failure

Liberation, caught between queer nihilism and eschatological certainty, must seek an third way beyond the binary of hopefulness and hopelessness through the negation of both. It must transpose itself into an apophatic register as the experience of continual failure, an uncertain endless becoming, that might be called simple hope.

Sifting for God’s Will: Sketching Providence in the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez

The question then is not so much: “Can providence be liberative?” but rather, “How might liberation be understood as God’s providence?”

Between Anguish and Hope: A Response to Some Critical Re-visions of Liberation Theology

Compost is a living,breathing site of transformation from death to new life. While the following insights from liberation theology may not be articulated in the same way today or fifty years hence, their molecular substructures live on in their fertilization of theological re-visionings that are born of struggle and affirm the liberating primacy of life, love, and solidarity.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!