By: Grace Vargas
October 21, 2015
Opting-in involves reflecting and expanding upon the theological contributions of Latinos/as, not just as learners but also as leaders.
Growing up in my Latino/a church1 I would often hear, “ese sabe mucha teología pero poca biblia” (“he knows a lot of theology but little about the Bible”). This backhanded comment simultaneously challenged the theologically trained on their true knowledge of God and uplifted theologians trained through informal means, namely the Bible and lo cotidiano2. Prior to my own theological training, it always struck me as a peculiar type of insult, one filled with insecurity. Now, with a newly-minted M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in progress, I perceive a type of holy resistance. That is to say that the problem lies not in theological training (or lack thereof), rather in the inherent exclusion of the Latino/a thought and experience making theological education irrelevant.
Historically, theological education both in Latin America and in the Latino/a immigrant community in the US, has been accessible to only a relative few and its content has emanated from the center of power, not the periphery. Recent developments in theological education in general, and the emergence of Liberation Theology in particular, created an opportunity to bridge the gap, inviting voices from the periphery to partake in conversation. Nevertheless, theological education remains largely exclusive because institutions privilege eurocentric discourse about God. Theologies of inclusion are labeled “contextual,” serving both to isolate them from the larger conversation and to determine their value as of secondary importance.
This is why my church community resisted (and arguably still does) with, “ese sabe mucha teología pero poca biblia.” We decided to ‘opt-out’ of the conversation that chose to ignore us. For us, theological education must be accessible and reflective. If we couldn’t talk about it or see ourselves reflected in it, then theological education was not for us. The Bible, on the other hand, was tangible, we could see ourselves in it and thus it invited our interpretation. However, as a theologically-trained Latina, I know that when we ‘opt-out,’ the chasm deepens and widens. When we opt-out the Latino/a church leaves room for those who are outside of the community, to step in and tell our story. This is precisely what we need to avoid.
By contrast, I hope to challenge my community to ‘opt-in’ and be part of the conversation of theological education. Opting-in involves reflecting and expanding upon the theological contributions of Latinos/as, not just as learners but also as leaders. When we opt-in, we cease to be mere objects of study and become the agents we have always been. I’m inspired by the opting-in of Latino/a religious scholars before me. The fruits of their faithful labor are beginning to grow and theological education, albeit begrudgingly, has had to account for what it chose to ignore.
As a member of FTE’s 2015 Doctoral Cohort3 , I am grateful to be in the company of many others who are opting-in. My experience during this summer’s Christian Leadership Forum connected me with colleagues who use their voices to tell the stories of their diverse communities, richly texturing theological education. Granted, I’m not so naïve as to think that it only takes our choosing to opt-in to make the difference. As Dr. Eric Barreto powerfully laid out in his recent blog post, the systems of oppression that remain are real and change requires a reciprocal coming to the table. Even so, I hope to encourage you, fellow laborer, that despite the obstacles, we must keep opting-in in order to tell our own story.