The American Religion and the Latin American Evangelical World

Syringe. Source:
Interviewing José Luis Avendaño
By Jonathan Morales

In this exclusive for our magazine, we spoke with the Chilean theologian and pastor José Luis Avendaño, whom at present is residing in his country for the presentation of his most recent book, a detailed investigation about the religious and cultural influence of protestantism in the United States in the Evangelical world of Latin America; the process, its gaps, contributions and challenges.

José Luis Avendaño Manzanares
, Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), took his undergraduate course on Theology at the Evangelical Theological Community of Chile (CTEC, for its initials in Spanish) and was awarded with a Biblical Science Degree by the Latin American Biblical University of San Jose, Costa Rica. At present, he is studying a PhD. on Systematic Theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. His interests are driven to the history of the synoptic gospels –especially St. Mark’s gospel–, the theology of the Cross in Luther, the investigations about the historical Jesus, and modern theology. He is at present an Associate Member of Razón y Pensamiento Cristiano (RYPC).

What led José Luis Avendaño to start a career in the formal theological practice?

When I assumed an already mature and responsible commitment regarding my faith, when I was about the age of twenty, almost instantly I started to have an insatiable –so to speak– appetite for the study and reflection on theology. Such appetite could not find the right streams to feel satisfied, for we must understand that at the beginning of the 90’s, precisely when I was starting my theological studies, there were not many spaces and opportunities for developing a formal theological career in Chile; there are not many either these days, but in those days obviously there were fewer. The majority of the Evangelical churches did not promote the theological study as an important thing; there were even lots of suspicion about the theological practice itself as being irrelevant to the “purity and practice of faith.” But, as I was saying, I always had a great intellectual restlessness that, I think, managed to overcome that. Even before I enrolled to study theology formally, I was already developing a rising interest for the humanistic disciplines: philosophy, literature, etc. Now, my contact with the theological practice, at first, occurred basically through the “re-orthodoxies”, as I refer to this movement in the course of my investigation. Such movement is, in a few words, not an original Evangelical orthodoxy, but a re-elaborated one under the influence of the cultural and religious character of the United States. On the other hand, it is needless to say that to study theology within the Evangelical context, that is, here in Latin America, turns to be a rather complex thing, because we cannot count on the same motivations that America or Europe have –for obvious reasons: the very same means or certainty or seriousness from the institutions that teach such theological studies.

Studying theology in Latin America is, even today, almost a gamble on faith, because such studies are generally not recognized by the ministries of education of the corresponding countries in which they are taught, and, because of this also there is no future projection regarding postgraduate studies and people live in constant fear that these seminars or theological institutions might cease to offer their courses as a consequence of lack of founding, bad administration or that very lack of future projection that I mentioned earlier. However, I believe that once you have bitten the forbidden fruit of the theological practice, and despite all the obstacles that I have mentioned and the same-old warnings from one’s family –who always advice you to choose what is safer and economically more profitable–, it is very hard to go back.

José Luis Avendaño,
longside a friendly dog

In which way do you think that your theological studies influenced your motivations for this investigation?

I have had the privilege to study in many places, and of diverse theological trends, even some openly at odds with each other, which, at this stage of my life –although I did not always hold the same thought– I consider it a plus, rather than a defect, regarding my theological education. I began my career in institutions that were positioned around a harsh re-orthodoxy, either Reformed or Lutheran, and I learned, without any doubt, a lot from both experiences; above all in regards to the confessional fund that happens to be the essential resource of both schools. Later on I turned towards houses of studies linked to the Liberation Theology and to the Genitive theologies. Then, I migrated to the United States and later on to Canada, where I developed a great deal of my pastoral and educational activity. In fact, as you are aware of, at present I am doing my PhD studies at the University of Toronto. However, and apart from the singularity of all these educational experiences, I have come to discover that there is a common element that, at the same time, is hoisted by them all: the undeniable influence of the cultural and religious character of the United States, in the way that every expression of protestantism from that country has made itself present in each of them, in what we could well define as the American Religion. And this is as such, as much as in regards to the re-orthodoxies (many of them almost close to fundamentalism itself), as in regards to even those Genitive theologies that would seem to be antithetical to the latter.

Further, and apart from the theological-academic disquisitions, it is impossible to understand as well the Evangelical reality of Latin America, its everyday routine, its emphasis, gaps and contributions, without paying attention to the missionary influence of protestantism in the United States –basically since the Second Great Awakening– and then going through the missionary fundamentalism, until we arrive to the new movements of the present, which are also American, as it is the case of neo-pentecostalism, the emerging churches and postmodern progressivism itself. In this sense, I would like to cover with my book that area in which, I believe, there is an enormous gap and a not minor confusion reigns; that is, to reflect about the influence that the protestantism of the United States has had –or, if you want, the American Religion– in the configuration of the mindset and character of evangelicalism in Latin America; about its contributions, but also about what needs to be endorsed to it as flaws and gaps. Such influence, as obvious to the researcher as it might seem, has not always been sufficiently recognized by the majority of the Evangelical world, for as I intend to demonstrate in my book, the open vindication, for instance, that some ecclesiastical lines make many times, of being heirs and followers of reformists’ thinking and of the historical movement of the Reformation does not pay much attention to the undeniable fact that, actually, they are in fact an expression of that re-conversion of primitive protestantism to the light of the religious and cultural character of the United States, the American Religion, and which, for the most part, it was such religion the one that arrived though the missionary effect to Latin America. This is something that must be assumed with sufficient seriousness, so that we make its respective evaluations; if not, that is, if there is a renouncement first of that exercise of recognition and then of evaluation, we will continue falling into the same vicious behaviors that have characterized in a great deal the history of Latin American protestantism.

As subtitle to your work we read, “The Influence of United States Protestantism or the American Religion in the Evangelical World of Latin America”. What do you mean with the words “Identity” and “Relevance” that you have used for your title?

In regards to the terms “Identity” and “Relevance”, I must say that these are terms used for the most part by Jürgen Moltmann, even by many contextual theologies, but I collected them directly from Paul Tillich, and specifically from his Systematic Theology. Tillich, as the great theologian of culture that he was –and no less knowledgeable man of the American Religion–, expresses openly, right at the beginning of the work mentioned above, that the most important task of the church is, on the one hand, to preserve the value of the irreducible truths of the faith –what we call by the name “Identity”–, but, at the same time, to make the effort of translating such truths to comprehensible categories for each new generation –what we could define as “Relevance”. Certainly, no one could deny that the Christian faith lives around the exercise of this harmonic dialectics, Identity and Relevance. A Christian faith that suffers from the absence of an identity runs the risk of quickly evaporating into mere political discourse, sociological analysis, ecclesiastical activism, that is, into a mere horizontal movement. But, in the same way, a Christian faith that renounces to all efforts of trying to stay relevant for each new generation, it could endure as a matter of academic interest, worthy on its own, but at the price of depriving itself of really being a message of the Cross, light to the Earth and salt to the world. Maintaining both insoluble functions of the faith, identity and relevance, in a healthy dialectical relation is fundamental for the development of Christian faith and its lucid insertion into the world. Well, my understanding is that the American Religion, far from maintaining both functions in dialectical harmony, has always tended to, by the effect of its cultural character, the tearing and splitting of both dimensions, and perhaps this has been his greatest contribution to Latin American evangelicalism.

In effect, from the first pages you describe the theological scenery of American protestantism being teared apart by a polarizing exacerbation of the functions of the Christian faith (identity and relevance). You keep pointing out that the tendency to postpone contextuality on behalf of Truth, as well as to condition beforehand the truth criterion with contextuality as an imperative, obey, these two, to a same root –which is a peculiar form of protestantism, an exception, re-converted according to the American culture and religious spirit. My question is: How do you explain your proposal that positions so different from each other such as biblical fundamentalism and theological progressivism, express the same spiritual and religious character?

Without a doubt, this is quite interesting. But I have to go back a bit to another subject: when one observes and analyzes, for instance, the works that have been carried out in Latin America about protestantism, the way they deal with the influence of United States protestantism, beyond, of course, the historical events, is quite shallow, if not brief. One can see mentions to this influence not in connection with the definition of American Religion and its implications, but in connection to the liberal tendencies, as it was made clear in some works and articles by Míguez Bonino and Rubem Alves, for example, and some other authors closer to the Liberation Theology. Of course, this has been important, especially in relation with the distance drawn from fundamentalism; but to conclude that before this subject of interest the mentioned influence is no more is nothing more than an enormous reductionism. Now, when we talk about American Religion, we are referring to, without going into too much depth here, a construct that has been useful to historians and sociologists of religion, as well as to theologians, for defining the Christian exceptionalism that was forged in the United States and that even today is found unmistakably to the eyes of the researcher, and that it could well be dated back to the First Great Awakening of such country and the resulting decline of puritanism; a process of profound re-elaboration that ancient Christianism in general terms, and the Reformation movement in particular, experienced since their arrival to the United States, in light of the cultural and ideological forces of such country, and that considers the profound tearing apart of that primitive Christian and Reformist remains as one of its most important characterizations; and, as counterpart, has an almost transversal subordination of this christianism to the cultural character of the said nation. An evident devaluation, as consequence of the above, due to the history of Christian and philosophical thinking; attached to an extreme anti-intellectualism that, by having a lack of appraise for the historical heritage of traditions, the methodological, it has granted in turn an excessively large role to anything that shows itself as pragmatic, new, progressive or of factual utility. If one pays attention to this with more diligence, one can see that the cultural impetus or the habits of the heart from which the American Religion feeds are present as much as in fundamentalism as in progressivism, even though they appear to be antagonistic.

In the book, you place American Religion in a cultural environment of greater importance, that you name the American way of life. Could you explain that?

As the expression says, it is about the American way of life, and expressed in a clearer way, about the U.S. American way of life. As authors Barnet and Cavanagh had already pointed out in a book from some time ago, Global Dreams, which still undeniably discusses current issues, the biggest exportation product of the United States to the world is no other than, precisely, its popular culture. The latter could basically be defined as the American way of life; let’s say, if you want, as a “secular” dimension of the American Religion, and whose general characterization is the idea of a lifestyle that contains in itself the absolute realization of life. This means to participate in a cultural model that draws us into the fireproof experience of the new, the fast, the fun, and the un-traditional. Now, even if it is undeniably true that the upper dimension in which the American Religion is founded as such is precisely this American way of life, there is no doubt that such a debt of continuity and dependence acquires in the religious phenomenon of neo-pentecostalism a truly radical symbiotic level. Of course, that intimate connection between the American Religion and the American way of life is nothing more than a recent thing, because, as Arturo Piedra has backed up with documentary evidence in his excellent work about evangelization in Latin America, to many of the American missionaries that arrived in Latin America at the beginning of the missionary undertaking, the American way of life was the one that reflected with more authenticity the notes about the Kingdom of God. Hence, when this way of life was been promoted, its political, economic and cultural visions, it was thought that the more fundamental values of Christian faith were been preserved.

If you allow me, I will take you to other matters. In your investigation you also deal with the theological research of the rather “progressive” mindset, or, if you want, of a “postmodern” christianism. Do you link this phenomenon (contextuality conditioning the truth criterion) with the reflection at the heart of another important mass of Protestant Christians in the United States? I am referring to the named mainline churches, ecclesiastical communities that at first glance appear to be following the historical movements of the Reformation. Taking into account your experience as a Minister, how would you describe the reality of those churches in the United States?

I believe that the mainline churches have been experiencing since several decades ago an evident de-confessional process that has placed them in a rather dangerous position in relation to the affirmation of Christian identity in general and Protestant identity in particular. De-confessionalism, on the one hand, but at the same time an excessive over appraisal towards the figure itself of institutions as such, if not towards their organized system. Maybe this is a rather strong thing to say, but I perceive that these churches have accomplished to develop an existence more as a religious dimension of the cultural Left. Clodovis Boff has said something which is certainly true, even if he says it in relation to the Catholic Church: people at present ask themselves this question, “why should I keep going to this type of church, if the same things that they offer me can be found in a Left party’s agenda, without having to give licenses to religion?” Besides, the mainline churches are churches that have also abandoned almost every vertical dimension of the faith, reducing the Christian discourse to a mere horizontal movement. Of course, these churches have many attractive elements from a social point of view, such as service agencies for immigrants, recreational activities for the youngest, programs of awareness towards the minorities, etc., and this is something that, of course, we should value, but in relation to the vertical dimension of the Christian message and its irreducible specification, the gap cannot be disregarded.

What is your opinion about the way in which we, Latin Americans, have understood the modern theological developments, many times labeled as “liberal theology”?

I believe that it is necessary to make here an important emphasis –even if a brief one. The U.S. American missionaries that arrived to Latin America, especially those belonging to the great fundamentalist missionary movement, arrived to the continent bringing with themselves their most typical enemies: liberalism, humanism, communism, etc., and later on they convinced us that they should also be our irredeemable enemies –even if, in light of our own context, they were adversaries absolutely out of our times. I suspect that even the very same American missionaries did not overdue, now in the realities of their countries, the mere caricaturization of these movements. Of course, one of these irredeemable enemies was no other than liberal theology, source of all the bad things, to their judgment, about Christianity. What were the more immediate consequences of this transference of enemies to the Latin American Evangelical world? They were the fact that we rejected, under the epithet of “liberal”, and therefore, of anathema, many works of extraordinary theological, philosophical, and literary value, just as consequence of a biased understanding of the liberal. Actually, in the Evangelical context of Latin America there was never a real presence of a liberal theology, and yet, in virtue of such an absurd prejudice incorporated through the American missionarism, we were deprived of receiving and appreciating the great contributions of a theological world that would surpass the narrow borders of the American Religion, and that, in a way, would question such religious and cultural world views. Thus, for example, in our Latin American Evangelical environment, and through the direct influence of such prejudice, it was a frequent thing to accuse Rudolf Bultmann or Karl Barth, just to cite some names, of being liberals –even when they themselves were precisely outstanding figures in the struggle against such movement–, or even that their works were anathematized without ever having been understood, let alone read. Now, and I think this is something I should have laid clear earlier, I do not want people to interpret that the entire legacy of American Religion is, therefore, absolutely dispensable and useless. In fact, I dare say that if we compare this evangelicalism that arrived from the United States in the form of the American Religion, with what had been settled in Latin America through a rather colonialist Catholicism, one can discover a great number of comparative advantages: the centrality of the Scripture, the inclusion of lay labor, the missionary zeal, the calling to the ethical life of the individual, etc. By the way, the Gospel is always transmitted through an ideological and cultural frame, which is held by the person that professes it –it is impossible that this is not the case–, and the protestantism arrived from the United States was no exception.

To conclude, what advice would you give to the youth, the new generations that would whish to cultivate the professional theological practice in Latin America?

The first thing I would advise them is to buy my book! (Laughs) Actually, I believe that in Latin America there are very few theological institutions at present capable of offering a healthy dialectical relation around those two insoluble dimensions of the faith, identity and relevance; rather, the tendency is to, quite dangerously, be polarized around just one of them. I believe that it is necessary to search for spaces that manage to reconcile this overly important dialectics for our faith: to restore the history of classical and Christian thinking, while having sensitivity for the contextual reality; to be open to the valuable problematics that at present need to be dealt with urgently, but to do this from a background of identity. Besides, the translation of great theological works to our language is something not to be disregarded. When one realizes that there are many youngsters with great hunger and conditions for theological knowledge, and, on the other hand, one observes that in Evangelical libraries almost 90% of the books are from American authors who promote this very same American Religion –with all its gaps that we could just start to visualize–, one cannot stop feeling how little we have advanced in terms of expanding our theological horizons. I believe that we ought to make an effort to try to translate important theological works, and not only from protestantism, but also about the history of Christian thinking in general. And, together with this, we should also bet for Latin American writers that can articulate the problematic of context in our countries, in our continent. Both things, far from excluding each other, are mutually required.

This article was translated by Nicolás Manfredi and reviewed by Fernando Bernal, under the grant “God's Evolution” awarded to the Science and Faith Centre (Spain) by the BioLogos Foundation (USA)

For the Chilean readers, José Luis Avendaño’s interesting and provocative investigation is available at the libraries of the CLC, Librería Peniel, and at Librería Universitaria. To the interested readers residing in other countries, you can contact the author directly through his e-mail:

Nota importante: El objetivo de la sección de comentarios, es facilitar a los lectores un espacio para compartir sus propias opiniones. Por lo que, para garantizar una adecuada interacción, le pedimos encarecidamente que todo comentario lo realice dentro de un marco de respeto, se remita únicamente al tema publicado, y que no supere las 500 palabras. También recomendamos evitar una cantidad excesiva de comentarios en un solo tema, para así no "monopolizar" la discusión. Gracias de antemano.