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Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy

By Robert McAfee Brown
- a Book Review

Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988 158 pages.

Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) taught initially at his alma mater Union Theological Seminary before accepting an appointment as Professor of Religion at Stanford University in 1962.  There he became an international leader in civil rights, ecumenical and social justice causes.  Brown campaigned against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and was a co-founder of the group Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam.  He left Stanford in 1975 to return to Union as Professor of World Christianity and Ecumenism, but quickly found his new post unfulfilling.  He resigned and moved back to the Bay Area, where he taught at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley until his retirement in 1984.  He was the author of 29 books. (source, Wikipedia)

First things first.  Buy this book and read it.  You will have a wonderful time and consider your money and energy more than well spent.

Now.  What is in it for you?  The subtitle tells all. Brown attacks the “Great Fallacy,” namely, the all pervasive and demonic idea that there is some difference between Christian spirituality and Christian action for the liberation of the oppressed.  The former is too often called withdrawal from the world.  Others take ”the outer way,” i.e. being “in the world.”  Brown insists that these differentiations, and all dualistic formulations for that matter, are inherently a Great Fallacy. His book “…is to provide an approach through which spirituality and liberation can be seen as two ways of talking about the same thing, so that there is no necessity, or even a possibility, of making a choice between them.”

Brown systematically attacks the Great Fallacy, demolishes it, and brings the reader to a challenging understanding that piety and feeding the poor are together one act of spirituality, that the inner life and community life of the faithful are, in the end, the same thing.  Further, in a very well-handled paradox, he shows that neither is meaningful without the other.

Okay.  We know all this.  At least we ought to if we are reviewers for and readers of En Christo.  But no one—absolutely no one—can say this the way Robert McAfee Brown can.  The sheer virtuosity of his performance adds special looks at our own back yard.  The reader’s reaction is, “I knew that. Why didn’t I think of it?”

The book is suitable for a wide audience.  It seems to be aimed at the college sophomore reading level.  Therefore, virtually anyone who is literate can handle it.  But the content of the work is not kid stuff.  Use it in your parishes, distribute it through the seminaries, sneak it onto the shelves of fundamentalist libraries, and send it to George Bush.

Now for some quibbling.  Sometimes Brown’s writing achieves an overly cute status.  He will once-in-a-while play with ancient history as if he were a stand-up comic.  It is obvious (and is confessed) that his anecdotes and illustrations are overwhelmingly weighted toward “third-world” experience.  His examples of inspirited/liberation-courage are virtually always about those who witness as victims or who demonstrate spiritual power by non-violent acts.  He therefore misses one of the burning questions of liberation spirituality.  Can the politics of violence be a spiritual act?  If so, in what way?  (Brown does mention Camillo Torres, but only in passing.)

This little book answers a great number of the questions which folk raise about the meaning of spirituality: see “Unanswered Questions in Christian Spirituality” in this issue of En Christo.

David R. Cartlidge, reviewer

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