Lina Boff, Pontifical Catholic University, Rio De Janeiro
delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil
The third millennium opens the door to the era of the spirit, peace, joy and love, the same spirit that unites us here today. Today’s hope, joy and anxiety of the masses of the poor, the oppressed and the abandoned, as well as of those who suffer, will be the same as for all off us who are participating in this conference sponsored by the International Coalition for Religious Freedom. The central theme of discussion at this conference is open dialogue on religious freedom in Latin America. I’m sincerely grateful for the invitation extended to me by this respected organization. I offer my contribution as a woman, ally of the poor and the abandoned, as a woman of faith and theologian by vocation and mission.
Freedom of religion is not exactly a theological issue. Rather, it is a human right. The freedom of religion is a human right that is a political and social issue. Faith is not imposed; it is a human right that any person ought to live according to his or her own conscience. At the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, freedom of religion was treated in documents having in consideration the human rights of persons and communities to social and civic freedom in the matter of religion. This freedom particularly deals with respect for the conscience and human soul, and the free exercise of religion. We hear that humankind today wishes to freely practice their own religion in private as well in public. Also we hear that freedom of religion is recognized in many national constitutions as human right and is solemnly recognized by international documents.
The spirit that unites us in this significant conference makes us all people of a single human community with a common origin: the Absolute, the Transcendent—let each religion, creed or doctrine freely choose the name which they attribute to their God. When the Transcendental Divine permeates our lives within and without it will make every human being live up to the same goal. This plan of salvation embraces all confessions of goodness, in which light we walk in the same direction.
Luke, in describing Peter’s first speech at the Pentecost, describes him addressing the men of Galilee, and I want to add here the women as well as the Israelites, that probably were there. According to the prophet Joel,
It will happen in the last days that I will pour out my spirit over all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophecy, the young will see visions, the old will have dreams, and I will pour out my spirit over my male and female servants. They will be prophets in those days. And everyone that calls my name will be saved.
Inspired by this spirit, I want to give my contribution in the context of my faith and my sharing of the profound mysteries of human condition, which mysteries have today as in the past intimately distressed our spirits.
The most original theology of our continental Church is defined around the great and complex issue of justice and progressive poverty on one side, and by the slow process of an integral liberation on the other side. This theology arises from a deep experience of the Spirit and the encounter of the created spirits. The Spirit commands the entire cosmological process as the human spirit that lives in the masses of the poor and abandoned. Theology comes out of our people’s spiritual life experience.
According to what I have said, we can understand the reason that the main production of spiritual literature in recent decades comes from those parties—individuals, male and female theologians, groups, societies, movements and other basic organizations—that are most involved with the practice and theory of the serious matter of the poor, the oppressed, refugees, and the homeless. These individuals are the most spiritually involved, the most prayerful, and the ones who nurture the passion of the Spirit, which is manifested under different shapes in the spiritual experiences of the poor and the abandoned.
When the masses of the poor or the abandoned join a religion, for this huge number of human beings religion is not the problem. Rather, it is the solution. For these masses of people, the Spirit of God is not a mystery; it is evident. It is not an enigma; it is Light, because they live the religion literally and spiritually. For these masses of people, religion is an area for breathing, humanization, consolation and feeling of the Supreme. In the midst of great abandonment, faith and the strength of the spirit gives a hidden and ultimate identity. Anyway, we also are sons and daughters of God whose Spirit comforts us. Religion is the expression of greatness, of the last help. Faith is the awareness that the masses of people have being moved by the Spirit. The Spirit is their anchor, their way of salvation and what is moral.
Not understanding the religion of the poor and the abandoned is the same as not understanding the poor or poverty itself. This is the religious and cultural universe of the poor and the abandoned: They know that they are a problem to the normal and immediate order of the things. They have very low self-esteem and feel useless. They don’t like violent solutions. They are anti-revolutionary in order to survive, and they have to save the energies of life and strength so that they may live and breathe. Their dreams are wisdom that arises from their suffering as they have to confront the habitual way of life, the dreadful way of life, as well as their work, children, the Church, and thinking that they need to avoid confronting the police. They trust the justice that emanates from life, the life of the Spirit that washes the soul each day, because they live a life with meaning, which is the life of the Spirit.
We joyfully witness the manifestation of the Spirit through those experiences, the manifestation that transcends the metaphysical with which the Spirit is a process. There is nothing static in Latin America, in the world and the universe. In Latin America, from the standpoint I am expounding, the Spirit was felt and experienced in the person of Paulo Reis.
In a dirty shantytown, a society of the oppressed, the first moments the garbage was thrown out, many others would scavenge primarily for what they could eat, and then the municipal workers would burn the leftovers and the fire would last for several days. Then a woman would tell me, "Sister, we are that trash that is burning, but the spirit within us is like that fire that never extinguishes, that is burning day and night. It brings the flame of eternity which never extinguishes." This is an example of the image of the Spirit that the poor maintain. They are trash but their spirit is that fire that is always nurturing them.
Resistance is movement and advancement in the life of the Spirit. It transforms the unjust, evil and sinful situations into situations of life and goodness as in the community sharing. Without a theology that arises from this spiritual foundation, meaning from the Spirit, there will be no dialog or ecumenism, for only the Spirit transcends the differences and therefore can bridge the divergence among the plethora of religions which separate us. It is the Spirit that allows the unity among the differences and the communion in the respect for each religious entity in open dialog. We live in the era of the Spirit without excluding the era of the Logos. We are not living the era of much talking, of many words. Rather, we live in the era of abundance of Spirit.
Here we want to affirm the freedom with which each individual must make his own religious synthesis. It is in this synthesis that there should be unity, within the supermarket of religions in which we all live. It is very important to give space to all those identities, which are open to the Spirit that blows where it wants and nobody knows where it comes from and goes. And don’t forget that the Spirit is female.
We are going to start here as it has been the tendency in Latin America, mainly from the masses of the abandoned, the poor and the oppressed who make their spiritual experience within their own religion and within the supermarket of religions.
Since antiquity until today there have been peoples with the destiny of persecution by the Spirit which dwells in the cosmos as a force and as a mysterious kindness directing the flowing of all things and events of human life. Understand "cosmos" as reality, as energy fields with complex relationships, and place yourself inside that experience which will cause the category of the Spirit to emerge in each and every cultural tradition of mankind. It is called espiritus to the Latin people, (pneuma) to the Greeks, (ruach) to the Hebrews, chi to the Chinese, etc. The names are not important. What we have to look at is how life and the universe emerge as a measurable organism.
The world is full of the Spirit which arises from the spirits of the bridges, mountains, trees, wind, people, houses, cities, heaven and earth. The category of the Spirit as we know in the western Christian-Judeo tradition, helps us to understand the acquisitions of modern cosmology and enriches us with spiritual experiences and with the Creator.
Words contain experiences within themselves. Let us look at the etymology of the word pneuma, which means spirit in Greek. The reality of the spirit came out from the depth, from its etymological meaning, but the word maintains within itself the primary meaning, which is its original meaning. It is its etymology that guides us to the meaning of the word. The Hebrew word for Spirit is the female word ruach, which appears 389 times in the Old Testament alone. Recent studies have demonstrated that in all semitic languages, Syrian, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc., the root of the word ruach is fire. Also it means the atmospheric space between the sky and the earth which can be quite or turbulent. Another interpretation is the expansion of living space. Its true meaning is therefore the vital environment, that which we are feeling now, that which spiritually unites us now. The environment which exists here now is the ruach, the fire. In its true meaning, it is also the environment where all living beings dwell, not only the human beings. According to today’s terminology, ruach is the energy that fills the cosmic space in expansion. Closest to us is the biosphere, the vital environment that embraces all the living beings and creates the condition for any form of life. As the biosphere does not exist by itself, but exists intimately related to the hydrosphere, and the geosphere, we can conclude that ruach fills the entire universe, as mentioned in the Christian scriptures.
Yes, the Spirit of the Lord fills the Earth, and as it contains the spirit of knowledge of each sound, the Spirit knows and recognizes the voice of each living being from every species that dwells in the Universe and the Cosmos. The most real form of life’s experience is breathing. Therefore, the Spirit is like a supernatural mind. The Spirit’s breath is the wind either in the form of a breeze or of a storm. Wind, also called ruach, is original cosmic force and that pervades and enlivens everything. From this original meaning comes such distinct manifestations of the Spirit all abundantly differtiated among themselves. This Spirit dwells in all the Universe.
The human spirit is part of that Spirit, and it is through the human Spirit that we relate to the Spirit, the Divine Spirit. It is from here that the religions today feel the need of spirituality, as to relate to the Spirit with religion. Because religions live from the Spirit, then each raises its own spirituality. Underneath, religions live more from the spirituality that bursts from the Spirit, that originates them, than from the dogmas, moral doctrines, or discipline. The conventional spirituality of the churches and majority of the historical religions has been refined into models of life, interpretations of the world, and cosmologies which no longer respond to the present sensitivities. This raises the need for all of us to join together, offer what unites us and work together to define a spirituality that springs from the Spirit that dwells in the Universe and in the human being, and that will connect us to the Divine Spirit.
More than an ethical code, a ritual, or a body of doctrines, a religion implies an attitude through which a human being connects all spheres of the reality—conscience with non-conscience, masculine with feminine, individual with society, and God with the world. Through religious reconnection a person is able to see God in everything and to see everything in God. The spirit of the Religion makes us creative people. For this reason, institutionalized religions lead people to be spiritual and mystical.
Prophetesses and prophets do not invoke religious authority to legitimize their convictions. Instead, they appeal to the authority of God Himself experienced in their own life. They don’t speak of what others said, but as Job expressed, "Now my eyes have seen." As male and female theologians, we learn about this from the masses of the poor and the abandoned. These experience the Spirit through their religion, and we cannot say it is the Christian religion only. Through their own religion, through the internal synthesis that each person reaches about the Spirit, they codify, through their gestures and manners, the distinct forms the Spirit assumes and communicates to us. What I have been talking about here is secondary to the experience of the Spirit that the masses of the poor and abandoned from Latin American have and teach us. Thank you very much.