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A Song for Rubem Alves: In Memoriam

Note: First published on Homebrewed Christianity July 20, 2014.

While much of the US media concerned itself this weekend with the heightening conflict in the Gaza Strip, the questions surrounding another lost flight from Malaysian Airlines, and Weird Al’s “Word Crimes,” the Brazilian world mourned the loss of Rubem Alves, a public figure in education, psychology, theology, and – in his last years – an author of children’s books. Though largely an unsung hero here, Alves is one of the pioneers of liberation theology and one of the single most important writers in the discourse on theopoetics. When I heard the news Saturday night I felt mixed. On the one hand I knew that he was ill and aging (he was 80 this year), and yet on the other I had had hopes that I might someday be able to make a pilgrimage to Brazil and connect with him before he went: I wanted to be able to tell him how vital his work was to my own and to the birth of my faith…

Born in Boa Esperança, Minas Gerais, Alves took his bachelors of theology at the Presbyterian Seminary of Campinas Brazil in 1957, then joining the Advanced Religious Studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City where he received his masters degree in sacred theology in 1964. After his masters degree, the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état wrested control of the government from the elected leadership and placed it in the hands of a military regime that lasted until 1985. After completing his work at Union, Alves returned to Brazil. His homecoming was less than welcoming… Rather than being reunited with wife and children, he was forced into hiding. As the regime came into power, an attempt was made to purge the country of communist supporters and left-leaning thinkers and writers of all types. Wanting to escape further persecution, the Presbyterian Church of Brazil gave forward six names as scapegoats which the newly formed government could detain. Alves — who had not been living in Brazil while at Union — was on that list. When he arrived home he was a target.

According to the formal declaration, Alves and the others were charged with more than forty accusations that they preached that Jesus had sexual relations with a prostitute, rejoiced when their children wrote hate phrases against Americans, and that they were financed by funds from the Soviet Union. Writing about the charges, Alves later noted that “the positive side of the document was that it was so virulent, that not even the most obtuse could believe that we were guilty of so many crimes… but that was the tragedy: the people in the church, brothers, pastors, and elders, did not have a minimum of ethical sense, and were so willing to denounce us.” Plunged into fear and running from the government, Alves managed to escape Brazil only through an underground network of Brazilian Freemasons and the support of the Presbyterian Church in the US, which convinced the President of Princeton to invite Alves to begin his doctorate there. Less than two months after returning home, he was headed back toward the north and what he called “the delicious euphoria of freedom.” His flight from Brazil, however euphoric, only brought temporary relief: Alves felt exiled and alone.

The doctorate required that each one of us mastered the field of our chosen segment of learning: “to dominate the field,” this was “scholarship.” I was dreaming, however, of a world that I had lost… But I had no alternatives: it behooves the exiled to obey the rules of the country that receives him. I would have to learn how to play the game that everybody played.

Alves was informed by his department chair that he could not write as he wanted nor use the methods he desired. Consequently, he wrote his dissertation “as required” and was barely successful in its defense, receiving “the lowest possible grade” needed to pass. The year was 1968 and the dissertation was originally submitted entitled “Toward a Theology of Liberation” three years prior to Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation. Alves’s advisor and a publishing house’s editor both agreed that the title should be changed, as “liberation” was ” a name without theological respectability,” and “hope” was much “more of the moment.” Eventually, published as A Theology of Human Hope, his work was made available, but – as he later noted in a foreword to another edition of the book – he wasn’t pleased.

I wrote uglily, without smiles or poetry, for there was no other alternative: a Brazilian student, underdeveloped, in a foreign institution, must indeed submit himself, if he wants to pass… Today I would do everything in a different way. I would begin by informing my readers that theology is a play… knowing that God is far ahead of our verbal ploys.

 

Theology is not a net that is woven in order to capture God in its meshes, for God is not a fish, but Wind that no one can hold…Theology is a net which we weave for ourselves, so that we might stretch out our body in it.

Without another apparent alternative, Alves progressed in his scholarship, continuing to be dissatisfied with the “required” modality of academic theology. Indeed, he even began to become dissatisfied with liberation theology, noting in an interview that “it has little to say about the personal dimension of life. If a father or mother comes with their dead child, it’s no consolation to say, ‘In the future just society there will be no more deaths of this kind.’ This brings no comfort!” Personally disengaged from its overly political focus while simultaneously acknowledging that it is “absolutely essential,” Alves had another vision for how it is that he could contribute: “The origin of my liberation theology is an erotic exuberance for life. We need to struggle to restore its erotic exuberance, to share this with the whole world.” It was this exuberance – a genuine desire for all of creation to be whole – which eventually lead him away from theology to what he called theopoetics. His books and essays — most notably The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet — are vital texts for those whose passions fall at the intersection of embodiment, imagination, theology, and the poetic. And it was that same exuberance that eventually pulled him and towards public advocacy and the encouragement of critical thought and imagination in education.

He was fond of reminding those who would listen that in eating the Eucharist we eat death so as to live. And for Alves we lived to dance and love and eat our lives into love. Into love-making… Steps and sorrows and songs consumed and consummated. He said that artists are sufferers who produce beauty to stop the suffering…

Though we never met, I’ve never had an author so powerfully speak to my condition. Alves cared for the world and told the story of God without ever trying to force it. He convinced me that I have to forget the names of God that religions have invented so that I can find it without name in the awe of life. More than that though, he convicted me: hope in that which is to come is indeed beautiful, but it is not complete. “Hope is hearing the melody of the future,” he wrote, “Faith is to dance to it.” Our whole being brought into movement to the melodies of a time not yet arrived…

Stories are like music. One does not ask of Brahms’ First Symphony: “Did it ever happen?” No, it did not. The symphony is not a portrait of something which happened once and for all. That which happened once and for all is forever lost. The symphony: every time it is played its magic happens again. The beautiful wants to return… Its time is sacred; it is reborn every morning; it is the time of resurrection. But chronological time is the time which devours its children, it is the time of the “never more”, the time of mourning without remedy, the time of death.

In your death I sing you, Rubem. May you be reborn in the morning.

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