A Review of The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought

Building Bridges

by | Oct 3, 2014


The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought by Christopher D. Tirres (Oxford University Press, 2014. 223 pages)

A young boy witnessing a reenactment of the Passion Story in San Antonio, Texas, screams at his mother as Roman soldiers “whip” Jesus: “Mommy, call the police, that’s wrong! They just can’t hit him like that!” The aesthetics of the Good Friday rituals at San Fernando Cathedral evoke empathy and a call for action. Author Christopher Tirres uses the ethnographic description to explore the relationship between beauty and justice in ritual and other religious practices in a critical fashion.

Tirres, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, notes that Latino/a liberationist writings have tended to focus on one to the detriment of the other. Thus, for example, among U.S. Latinos/as aesthetic representations of group pride, solidarity and cultural resistance can hide the need for deeper social transformations, or even become an escape into the world of the symbolic when the harshness of reality becomes too overwhelming. As Tirres avers, scholarship on U.S. Latino/a public ritual and other symbolic representations unfortunately has often mirrored these same relatively narrow emphases.

He makes a significant contribution to scholarly analyses that adopt a hemispheric or global approach, building bridges between Latin America and U.S. Latino/s. The trend to reframe subjects of inquiry in transnational and global frameworks has of course cut across an array of disciplines, including history, literature and religious studies. Ecclesial leaders have participated in such trends, as is evident in documents such as Pope John Paul II’s Ecclesia in America (1999), which notes explicitly that “the decision to speak of ‘America’ in the singular was an attempt to express not only the unity which in some way already exists, but also to point to that closer bond that the peoples of the continent seek and that the church wishes to foster as part of her own mission.” Tirres enhances both the efforts to build greater solidarity across the American hemisphere and to advance scholarship that explores what liberation entails in this context.

He explores in some detail how a number of liberation thinkers in the United States are indebted to the earlier tradition of Latin American liberation theology, often closely associated with calls to action. He spells out two ways of “doing” liberation theology, one starting from a theoretical basis and another with a more practical intent that concerns concrete “social phenomenon that touches the entire social and historical reality lived by the oppressed,” as expressed by Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff.

To establish the dialogue between aesthetics and ethics, Tirres takes a critical look at pragmatists, especially John Dewey, and Latino/a liberationist theologians from Latin America and the United States, most extensively Ivone Gebara and Roberto Goizueta. Tirres draws on Dewey’s model of reconstructive education to set forth a dynamic understanding of ritual. He recognizes that some readers might object to his interpretation, especially those who employ Dewey’s strict pragmatic method with its deep suspicion of institutional religion as a force that undemocratically imposes the tenets of dogma. But Tirres contends that Dewey also used a developmental approach that allows for a more incisive reading of his corpus. Thus he avows that Dewey’s most noteworthy work on religion, A Common Faith, “is most fruitfully read. . .when Dewey’s strict pragmatism is placed in the context of his broader aesthetic and educational commitments” (192).

Such an approach leads Tirres to an innovative interpretation of Dewey’s contribution to analyses of religious ritual. He notes three bases for human engagement in ritual. The naturalistic basis is the precariousness of human life and the fear of nature that give rise to ritual and religion. Ritual also provides an aesthetic means to imagine an alternative world and to enact the dramas of life without the risk of harm. Finally, the ethical basis of ritual is that it initiates participants into group customs and mores, though it can also generate what Dewey considers a higher level of moral development: the formation of individual conscience that leads to voluntary moral action. For Dewey, the negative side of ritual is that it can merely be a fearful response to perceived danger or, worse, become so habitual that it imposes authoritative norms and inhibits individuals from developing as responsible moral agents. But if intelligently guided, ritual can advance personal development and moral progress. Tirres underscores his interpretation of Dewey with a passage from Art as Experience in which Dewey argues that the three bases of ritual can function together effectively. Dewey concludes that “Each of these communal modes of activity [rites and ceremonies] unite the practical, the social, and the educative in an integrated whole having esthetic form” (184).

Like Dewey’s insights on human experience in general, this understanding respects the complexity and fluidity of religious experience in ritual. In his ethnographic analysis of the Passion scene, Tirres shows how rituals like the graphic enactment of Jesus’ way of the cross are aesthetic because they are sensorial dramatizations, but also because they engage the imagination of participants. At the same time, the rituals address ethical concerns like human suffering, violence, and the call of believers to solidarity and conversion of life. References to such concerns are verbally explicit in the preaching and prayer texts of San Fernando’s Good Friday rituals. But they are also evident in more symbolic ways, such as the collapsing of the past and the present in ritual performance. For example, the blurred distinction between Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago and devotees’ lives today as the crowds accompany Jesus through the streets of San Antonio links the visceral reality of the crucifixion with the challenge of how to respond to the plight of one’s neighbor. Tirres’ persuasive example of a ritual enactment that interweaves aesthetics and ethics could be further enhanced in future studies that explore the limits and obstacles to such a cohesive interweaving.

Tirres completes his dialogical circle by presenting the ways Latino/a religious experience and scholarship can enrich pragmatists’ treatment of religious faith. Most importantly, Latin American and U.S. Latino/a thinkers have consistently highlighted the social dimensions of faith. They insist that the essence of the human person is not the autonomous individual, but a being in relationship to others. Indeed, these thinkers contend that “community is the birthplace of the self” (99). While Dewey’s focus on the formation of individual conscience and moral agency is important, it is equally important to bear in mind that human lives and moral responsibilities are inherently relational. Thus the social dimension of rituals is not necessarily autocratic and coercive, but can be a positive force for forming participants in solidarity with their fellow human beings. This possibility undercuts the generally antagonistic stance toward institutional religion in the writings of Dewey and other pragmatists.

Latino/a theologians of the Americas have certainly been critical of institutional religious structures and practices. However, they do not dismiss them outright since they recognize that churches are comprised of communities of faith and not just organizations run by hierarchical leaders. Moreover, many pastoral leaders in Latino/a communities link faith practice with critical pedagogy in a manner similar to what Dewey considers the role of a teacher in the developmental process of learning. A number of Latin American and U.S. Latino/a theologians present reflections on pastoral leadership intended to develop faith communities in a manner akin to what Dewey advocates vis-à-vis the developmental process of education.

Some readers may dispute Tirres’ reading of particular claims in the thought of Dewey, Gebara, Goizueta, or the various other thinkers he examines. Nonetheless, he has clearly demonstrated that “popular ritual as a form of faith-in-action is not simply an expression of institutional religion, somatic engagement, or emotional stimulation. Rather, at its best, it is also an enculturated form of social praxis that widens the moral imagination through dialogical and prophetic forms of pedagogy” (198). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith admirably advances the significant conversation in liberationist thought and pastoral praxis about the relation between beauty and justice. Tirres has laid a solid foundation for what this reviewer hopes will be his ongoing exploration of this vital theme, and, above all, for his continuing scholarly investigations in religion and theology that bring important thinkers from across the American hemisphere into critical and mutually enriching conversation.

Fall 2014Volume XIV, Number 1

Timothy Matovina is professor of theology and executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church (Princeton University Press, 2012). He can be reached at matovina.1@nd.edu

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