Mestizo Spirituality: Notes from a Latino and Lutheran Perspective
by Nelson Rivera (September / October 2000 • Volume 16 • Number 5)
Drawing from Luther and his work with the Lectio Divina, as well as Latin mestizo spirituality, the author outlines the face of a Christian spirituality
Spirituality is one of those concepts that everybody seems to understand at first, but that most are unable to define. It may be that the very assumption that we make that we understand all about it renders the task of defining it tedious. In any case, spirituality does not have to be a "dirty word." At its most basic, every person has one sort of spirituality or another.
Broadly defined, we call spirituality the set of positive and negative assumptions about life itself. It is our worldview, the way we look at, and understand, human experience, the whole of one's experience. The way in which we answer questions about life and death, or the way in which we cope with life and death issues, says a lot about our own spirituality.
And yet, it cannot be reduced to just one issue or two, no matter how important they are. Spirituality, like religion, is the result of long held beliefs, culture, and education. Moreover, it is an attitude toward life, others, and God.
Christian spirituality, whether Evangelical,1 Catholic, or Lutheran, is defined by faith, especially by the communal experience of that faith. It does not matter how isolated, or how individualistic, that experience can sometimes be. Spirituality is in any case more than just an individual's choice. It is actually a given, albeit an experience that can still be reshaped, challenged, studied, andwhy notcriticized.
Spirituality has not been a traditional locus in Lutheran circles. It was (and still is) considered a synonym with "self-righteousness," "self-made religion", or simply "law." There have been more than enough reasons to think that way. Just take a look around you. See what is it that people call their spiritual experience, or spiritual center, or just spirituality. It will be enough to give anyone the chills.
Indeed, what many call spirituality is no more than a euphemism for all sorts of innovative or creative forms of religiosity, ways that distract people from the simplicity of a gospel-oriented faith and life.
There are many self-serving ways of following Jesus Christ in a way that does not offend anyone, or in a way that will not challenge our most stubbornly held fascination with ourselves, viz., my spirituality, my faith, my Jesus, and the like.
When I have been asked to talk about Lutheran perspectives on spirituality, I have used as a starting point Luther's comments on the tradition of Lectio Divina,2 as he inherited it (and transformed it) in his own day. I believe that they are still worth considering, especially in light of new challenges, and of a renewed fascination with things "spiritual."
In the preface to the first edition of his collected (German) writings (1539), Luther suggests a critical reflection on the study of Scripture, and on the workings of the theologian. This piece of writing is self-critical, at times sober, and yet humorous when needed. It is actually based upon Psalm 119, which is an exaltation of God's Word, and in which Luther finds confirmation for these three principles (in Latin): oratio, meditatio, and tentatio.
The tradition of Lectio Divina, even to this day, has taught believers a way of reading the Scripture. It all starts with prayer. We ask that the Holy Spirit open the Scripture before our own eyes. Luther could not agree more. True light and understanding are gifts of the Spirit. Through prayer, we ask humbly for guidance; we want to be spared an over-reliance on our own initiative and reason. Scripture is not to be subjected to our mere musings and pleasure. It is God's instrument. It can speak to us in its own powerful way.
Meditation follows prayer. We read and re-read the Scripture. It will have to be done as many times as possible and necessary. We recite its words, repeat them aloud. In this way, we listen to the Word, and meditate upon its very words. Then we reflect upon its message. It does not matter how long it takes. There is a message there; there is a word for each one of us.
To paraphrase the way in which Lutherans have defined the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements, the Word of God is there, in, with, and under the written testimony. Luther sees no limit to the possibilities of the Word speaking in and through the text.
Finally, tradition has it that the pattern or movement is completed by contemplatio. The movement is inward. One contemplates, seeking light inside oneself. Communion with God is its goal.
But Luther then brings a twist to this understanding. Now he speaks of tentatio, a difficult word to grasp. In this context, tentatio seems to mean different things. First, we may think in terms of temptation: we are tempted to think that we have got it, i.e., that we truly understand, that we have actually reached the real meaning and, therefore, that we have grown spiritually.
But here lies precisely the problem for Luther, in the "I got it!" Whenever one thinks that one truly has got it, well, one is already missing the point. The point is that, in one sense, we never actually get it; any light comes strictly by God's grace, the action of the Spirit in us and for us.
The Devil's Attack
Which leads me to the second view: tentatio is none other than the devil's attack. It is the equivalent of the German Anfechtung, of which Luther speaks about in many of his other writings.
For those who receive grace, and trust the Word, the devil is always prompt to attack. The evil one cannot remain neutral toward those who are God's own. However, the devil's attack is usually something else than what we might expect. The point here is to make us feel that we got it, that we have finally reached light, that our efforts have finally paid off, that we have trusted God.
The result, however, is pride, and very little appreciation for God's grace.
In speaking about tentatio, Luther has brought the movement outward, i.e., now one does not look to oneself (internally), but out of the self toward God, who is the only one worthy of all faith, trust, and praise. God is the one who always gets it for us. If the human condition can be better described (as Luther did) as incurvatus in se, viz., that we are "curved in upon ourselves" (that we look to ourselves first and last), then there is but one solution: looking to God. This is the kind of spirituality that puts God in the center.
Lutheran spirituality is catholic and evangelical in the best sense of the terms. It is catholic, because it relies on the canonical Scripture for reflection and guidance. It asserts the work of the triune God, as one who creates, reveals and sanctifies.
And it makes use of long-held traditions, albeit transformed in their understanding and practice, which makes it truly evangelical at the same time, since the one criterion for its reflection and action is the very gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is also evangelical because it is critical of any human efforts to substitute love and good intentions for faith and trust in a relationship with God.
My exposition would not be complete without some words about Latino perspectives on spirituality as a complement to what has been said thus far. But first let me point to the fact that what I am intending here is not merely a comparison.
There is a sense in which a comparison between my own Lutheran and Latino perspectives is not a fair one. Lutheranism is a church movement as well as a theological system. Being Latino is a way of being, an ethnic identity, and a set of cultural legacies and traditions.
I was born, first of all, Puerto Rican, and have become Latino by an increasing awareness of my Hispanic roots. I became a Lutheran by conviction and "conversion." There is a sense also in which these dimensions of my one and only being have attracted each other (like magnets), and now co-exist together in a harmonious way. Otherwise I would be a schizophrenic.
In any case, the more I dig into the resources of my own tradition(s), the more I discover the benefits of what can be called a mestizo spirituality. Mestizo/a, or mestizaje, is the way that many Latino/a theologians are using to describe the very diversity that characterizes our cultural being(s).
Mestizaje represents our racial diversity as well as the diversity (or mixture) of our cultural roots. The mestizo/a has received from different worlds (and worldviews), and has developed his or her unique views of life (and death), viz., his or her own spirituality, and always in a dialectical way.
Catholicity is a given element of Latino spirituality. But it is also something that we claim. It is not enough to acknowledge our common faith heritage, but it is necessary to know it and to act in it. Catholicity is of the essence of the Christian faith, in Scripture, creeds, worship and liturgy, prayer, and the belief in the sanctity of life.
Latino/as have also been evangelical in faith and practice. For example, the "priesthood of all believers" is not a new development among us. In quite a few of the rites coming out of popular religious practices, the laity have usually had a leading role. In ritual celebrations like communal rosarios, novenas, posadas, or quinceañeras there is no need for clergy. Lay leaders know well their roles.
With the growth of comunidades de base, which are first and foremost hermeneutic groups (with a focus on communal praxis), biblically oriented reflection and action have acquired a central role. This is, I believe, a strong evangelical element.
Moreover, there have been Evangelical Latinos for many generations. It is not a new phenomenon, as many in this country believe. Evangelical Christianity has been part of the Latino experience both in this country and in the countries of origin for generations.
There are other elements of the Latino culture and soul that are important to consider in order to understand Latino people. It is appropriate to underline that these are generalities. They do not necessarily describe in detail the experience of each Latino/a. Yet I do believe that this picture is accurate (surely more accurate than many of the caricatures portrayed in the U.S. media).
Latino spirituality has a festive character. Life, despite its adversities, is worthy of celebration. Introspection is important, but it will not do alone. Real celebration is joyful and makes life worth living it. Beside, there is so much to be glad about, the many blessings with which the God of life has entrusted us.
When Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez enters into dialogue with Latin American poor, and asks them to describe how they conceive of God, there is a metaphor that usually dominates all others: God as el Dios de la vida (the God of life).3 Nothing speaks stronger about faith in the Christian God.
Latino spirituality also has a communal dimension.4 Whenever we gather as a congregation or as a family or among neighbors, there is a strong sense of the ties that unite all. In the Christian assembly, the culto (worship) is everyone's servicio (service). The culto is a fiesta, not a performance of the few, as Cuban theologian Justo González has argued.5
Whether in Catholic, Protestant, or especially in Pentescostal experience, worship is what we all do together. Even time acquires a different meaning, i.e., chronological time is not what matters, the focus is on the One who is being celebrated — the triune God. The gathering takes as long a time as necessary. We could even say that there is elasticity to time. The awareness is on the event, the everlasting moment, what God has in store for us, now and ever.
Nevertheless, prayer and meditation are essential elements of Latino spirituality. This we learn from the parental home. Devotional life, in different forms, is emphasized. Time for sharing is always there. God-talk is all over the place. There is a strong popular dimension to Latino spirituality, something that I have related before to a manifestation of the priesthood of all believers.
For Latinos, faith, devotion, prayer and piety are learned in community. They are very much part of one's upbringing. You learn by participation. The family, viz., parents, grandparents, other relatives, and neighbors are the models to follow.
You learn by imitation, so that what you learn becomes integral to your own being. Popular religiosity, the set of all of the above beliefs and practices, is at the bottom of Latino spirituality. It is precisely this popular identity that Anglo religiosity so often misunderstands or regards with bias.
Popular devotion makes Latino spirituality non-elitist.6 The individual does not invent spirituality for him- or herself. The cultural and personal elements are very much interwoven. Tradition, as that which is received, the given, is dominant.
In an opposite direction, it often happens that many other forms of (and teachings about) spirituality, or piety for that matter, are directed toward an educated, mostly sophisticated public.
Here in America, it becomes another commodity, something that one can assume, buy into, and put in practice at one's convenience. Even theological approaches to spirituality, Lutheran or otherwise, tend to suffer the same kind of fate.
This brings us back to Luther on prayer, meditation, and the Christian life, and to my final comments. I learned from a former teacher, Edward Dufresne7, that Lutheran spirituality can be termed a "borrowed spirituality." The emphasis is on the received, in this case, the work of the Spirit, through Word and Sacrament. Latinos can agree with that. Theirs is a strong sense of the sacramental aspects of the Christian experience.
In addition, there is a fleshly view of the spiritual, avoiding the old tendency to separate the "natural" or "material" from the "spiritual."8
There is a passion to the Christian life and witness that cannot be mitigated by purely intellectual definitions of the Christian life. I see much of the same in Luther. His is an incarnational emphasis. Faith and experience cannot be separated; they go hand by hand. Here "experience" is not to be understood in merely individualistic terms. It is the communal experience that mostly shapes the faith of the individual, as well as his or her spirituality.
A perspective on spirituality that is both Latino and Lutheran dialectically combines catholic and evangelical elements in its own self-understanding. It points out to the source of all true spirituality: God's Spirit. It points toward the spirituality of the communal celebration of Word and Sacrament, not playing one against the other.
It does not exclude devotion or the practice of true piety, a faith that is active in love, in the love of God and love for the other.
It acknowledges the elements of the received and the given, while being self-critical of its own tendencies toward work-righteousness. From Luther it can learn of the dangers of what I call an I got it! attitude.
In any case, it is not afraid of either celebrating or passionately witnessing to the gifts that it has received. Its mestizaje of theological tradition and innovation can also be seen as a gift for the whole church.
Nelson Rivera is an instructor in Systematic Theology and Hispanic Ministry at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
1. In this essay I use Evangelical (with capital letter) to represent a Christian movement or set of denominations that claim the name, and evangelical (with lower key) as a gospel-oriented theological principle.
2. See the "Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther's German Writings", in Luther's Works, American Edition, vol. 34, ed. Lewis W. Spitz and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), pp. 283-88.
3. Gustavo Gutiérrez, El Dios de la vida, 2da. edición (Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 1994), p. 12.
4. See, e.g., the arguments supporting this point by Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, "Hispanic Protestant Spirituality" in Teología en conjunto: A Collaborative Hispanic Protestant Theology, ed. José D. Rodríguez and Loida I. Martell-Otero (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 137.
5. Justo González, "Hispanic Worship: An Introduction", in ¡Alabadle! Hispanic Christian Worship, ed. Justo González (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 21.
6.. On the non-elitist and popular dimensions of Latino spirituality, see Allan Figueroa Deck, "The Spirituality of United States Hispanics", in Mestizo Christianity: Theology from the Latino Perspective, ed. Arturo J. Bañuelas (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995), p. 229.
7. Dr. Dufresne has taught sporadically a course on "Lutheran Spirituality" at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
8. See, e.g., chapter 11, "Life in the Spirit", in Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), pp. 157-167.