Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In Memoriam: Beverly Wildung Harrison and Tissa Balasuriya

 Two very important Christian theologians have died in recent weeks, and I'd like to take note of both of them and their contributions. In mid-December, ground-breaking feminist ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison died. At Religion Dispatches, Mark Hulsether offers a fine eulogy of Harrison, noting that she was integral to the move of Union Seminary in New York in the direction of liberation theology in the latter decades of the 20th century--a move decried, as Hulsether notes, by neoconservatives and centrists alike. But one consonant, as he also points out, with the heritage of the institution, which has been home to such illustrious political theologians and social ethicists as Reinhold Niebuhr, John Coleman Bennett, Paul Tillich, and Robert McAfee Brown, followed by James Cone, Dorothee Sölle, Larry Rasmussen, Gary Dorrien, and Cornel West.

Amidst this array of powerful religious thinkers, Harrison made a distinctive contribution: as Hulsether notes, in now-classic works including Making the Connections and Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion, Harrison taught several generations of students a new way to think about ethical issues, to do moral theology, a method that brought hitherto invisible connections between issues to light:

Although Bev’s interests ranged widely, this book is a good example of how she taught her students to frame issues—to think concretely about what is going on, using the best social theory and evidence from history, public policy, medicine, law and so on—and then to clarify from whose perspective, and with what particular groups exercising agency based on what set of priorities, a course of action is being proposed. Guided by this method, she became one of the most important people in the world for forging alliances among various branches of liberationist Christianity.

As this summary also indicates, central to Harrison's thinking is the need for ethicists to root their analysis of abstract issues in real-life experience--to ask who benefits from this or that way of framing the issue, why this group frames the issue this way and that group frames it the other way. This way of doing Christian theology, a method that refuses to permit abstractions about issues to obscure the grounding of those issues in concrete lived experience and real human lives, has now become well-nigh mandatory for most theologians of all religious stripes outside fundamentalist enclaves--and Beverly Wildung Harrison's ground-breaking work is an important reason for this turn in Christian theology.

The second significant theologian that we've lost in recent weeks is the Sri Lankan priest-theologian Tissa Balasuriya, who died on 17 January (see Dennis Coday at National Catholic Reporter). Balasuirya wrote a number of important books, including Eucharist and Human Liberation, Planetary Theology, and Mary and Human Liberation. When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the present pope as Cardinal Ratzinger, demanded that Balasuriya sign a written profession of faith composed by the CDF renouncing positions he took in the latter book, and when Balasuriya signed, instead, Pope Paul VI's profession of faith, he was excommunicated by John Paul II.

The excommunication was subsequently lifted. The profession of faith written expressly for him by the CDF sought to force him to sign a statement saying that he adhered "with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings of the Roman pontiff," even when these had not been infallibly declared.

Balasuriya was influential in a movement that is reshaping the face of Christian theology in the East: this is the ecumenical movement, which in its manifestation in Eastern cultures emphasizes the need for respectful dialogue between Christianity and the traditional religions and religious philosophies of the East including Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Shintoism. In 1975 Balasuriya founded the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.

A number of moving tributes to Tissa Balasuriya have been published since his death, including Leonard Pinto's eulogy at the website of the Asian Human Rights Commission, which notes that in his theological work, Balasuriya "opened the boundaries between secular socio-economics and sacred theology in his intellectual pursuits and in their application to the society," and that  "[h]e tried to bring the Church in Sri Lanka closer to the Buddhist majority and other denominations and identified himself with the poor, marginalized and the down trodden in his writings and projects."

To my mind, perhaps the best tribute of all to Balasuriya and his crucially important theological contribution is his blog site "Tissa Balasuriya, Towards a Planetary Theology," maintained by Lieve Troch. Under its "Writings" tab, the site makes Balasuriya's theological books and articles accessible to anyone who wants to read them and has internet access--and this strikes me as a splendid way of remembering a theologian who places such a strong emphasis on letting the gospel message be heard by everyone, including those with the least access to power and education in the various societies of the globe.

(For a previous Bilgrimage reflection on the theological work of Tissa Balasuriya, see "Reforming the Catholic Church from Margins to Center: A Response to Michael Sean Winters.")

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