A TRIBUTE TO VITOR WESTHELLE
Vitor Westhelle, the professor of systematic theology at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, is known for his innovative theological engagements through which he interstices theology, philosophy, and politics. Being immersed in the traditions of the church, at the same time allowing it to listen to the voice of the other and the cries from the margins, Vitor envisions an ‘in-breaking’ within the systematic framework of theology. For Vitor, theological framework has to be deconstructed and re-constructed in order to attend to the alluring and enigmatic silences of the subaltern. Traversing through the formative discourses of Christian doctrines while re-reading them in dialogue with their own heresies, Vitor re-positions himself as the most innovative theologian and a visionary poet in the contemporary postcolonial theological school of thought. It was my privilege and honor to be his advisee in the PhD program at LSTC and to travel along with him into the political-poetical world of systematic theology (Thank you George Zachariah for introducing me to Vitor and to LSTC).
Ordained in the Lutheran Church in Brazil (IECLB), Westhelle served several congregations and was the coordinator of the Ecumenical Commission on Land (CPT) in Paraná where he was an enabler and a companion with those struggling for land and justice. Westhelle is a highly-acclaimed speaker throughout academic circle and the Church. He has been the advisor to the Executive Council of the Lutheran World Federation from 1990-97 and lead various committees and programs for LWF. Westhelle currently serves on the editorial council of Dialog, Lutheran Quarterly, International Editorial Council of Margens: Revista Brasiliera de Estudos sobre Pós-modernidade, Estudos Teológicos (EST-Brazil), Cuadernos de Teología (ISEDET-Argentina),Numen: Revista de Estudos e Pesquisa da Religião (UFJDF, Brazil), Bulletin of Contextual Theology, South Africa, Bibliografia Bíblica Latino-Americana (São Paulo, Brazil). Westhelle authors many books including The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross (Fortress, 2007), [in translation, O Deus escandaloso: Usos e Abusos da Cruz, trans. Geraldo Korndörfer, (Sinodal, 2008]); Word in Words (CSS, 2009), The Church Event: Call and Challenge of a Church Protestant (Fortress, 2010), After Heresy: Colonial Practices and Post-Colonial Theologies (Cascade Books, 2010), and Eschatology and Space (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Vitor's students define his theological framework as Churrasco—a Latin American dish which is a beautiful mix of various ingredients and tastes. Locating himself in the Liberation-postcolonial-subaltern theological stream, Westhelle defines history as the ‘place of transcendence’ where God and humanity/ creation collaborate. for him, history is the place of theopraxis. It is in this theopraxis, that life in ‘fullness’ is envisaged and the displaced-the disenfranchised- the colonized experience apocalypse. It is a liminal place -a non space- of weak epiphany. The God in this weak epiphany is not a God of power and order; rather, it is a God of vulnerability and disorder. Meditating on the crucified God, Westhelle affirms “what the cross does is precisely this re-orientation of our gaze to this limit, the eschata.
Westhelle emphasizes the epiphany of God within the historicity and the materiality of bodilyness. God is encountered within, never outside the complexities of life. Salvation is not an eruption from outside but within the materiality of life. Historicity is not enclosed within; rather, it is open and eschatological. History is the im/possibility of the reign of God that makes the prophetic challenges against injustices possible today. Taking his cue from Walter Benjamin’s ‘chips of Messianic time,’ Westhelle’s methodological point of negativity embodies a hope against hope- a faith that endeavors to allow the rupture of the eschatological moment in everyday life with its rules, expectations, systems and institutions.
Theology of Cross
Vitor has written widely on the theology of Luther, and on the themes of Liberation, Creation, the Apocalyptic and Eschatology. The cross-theme, in particular, theologia crucis, defines who Westhelle is as a theologian. For him the theology of the cross is not a doctrine but that which you live by, a usus passionis. It is the cross-ing that arrests his attention and through his writings he tries to find categories to name and cross differences without suppressing them but rather lifting them up: liminality, chora, stasis, hybridity, adjacency,eschata, margin, borderline, chiaroscuro, etc. He strives to convey that the gospel is the transgression of “legal” domains, semantic fields with their protocols, or régimes of truth, while being neither and both the abolition and the completion of the law.
Church that Happens!
While discussing the role of theology to define church as a sign, Vitor Westhelle brings the qestion of re-presentation in to the debate. By drawing on the ideas of Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, and Spivak on poiesis and praxis/ economia and politia, he asks the pertinent question whether church represents or re-presencing or not presenting something. Here, Westhelle exposes the inherent dilemma embodied in the definition of church as a sign. It is an important question with regard to the authority and validity of the sign- the church. According to Westhelle, the ecclesia does not stick to a particular locus in its engagement with economia and politia; rather it finds itself in a ‘third space’ in between them. Church is not just given or produced; rather it is an event. Thus according to Westhelle, church happens! Following the Reformed tradition, Westhelle contends that church is non-essential but lives in its functional features. For him, church exists in its signifying practices of proclamation of the Word of God and the sacraments which necessitate interpretation and appropriation. At the same time, he is hesitant to fix ecclesia in its functional locale alone. Drawing on the Derridean concept of ‘Gift,’ Vitor argues that there is a divine ‘secret’ in the tradition of the church which is interpreted and passed on to generations as ‘constitutive memories’ in many ways and thus those ‘imitations’/ ‘performances’/ ‘significations’ constitute the contemporary experiences of church event.
Creation and the Right to the Land
Westhelle engages with the theology of Creation from the perspective of the displaced in Latin America. According to Westhelle, the term ‘created order’ that is used in the story of creation in the book of Genesis is an ambiguous concept, since the category ‘order’ is an ideological disguise for domination, repression, and persecution. He explains: “order becomes the moral parameter to speak about God’s will in the midst of the cosmos, justifying the organization of the state. Where order is granted by the head of the state, where order is the result of the demiurgic work of the “invisible hand” of capitalism, where order is the patriarchal hierarchy, the stability and control of the whole society is granted.” Westhelle argues that the question of ‘order and progress’ was the colonial agenda established in Latin America by the colonizers. ‘What lacks order, lacks goodness.’ ‘Lack of order is evil.’ Here the logic of order becomes a tool for annihilation and marginalization. In this sense, a resistance to this ‘order’ is a ‘disorder’ or chaos. Unlike the process theologians who approache creatio ex nihilo as a pre-biblical cosmogony, Westhelle argues that it has been used in the Bible especially in Pauline letters and Maccabees in terms of doxology. For him, creatio ex nihilo is a doxological affirmation of the resurrection of the flesh of the oppressed. Westhelle, for theology of creation for the displaced people of Latin America is nothing but a question of place/ space or non-space.
Eschatology and Space
The question of place or no-place in the theology of creation is well explained in Westhelle’s recent book Eschatology and Space. He argues that the spatial dimensions of the eschaton have been glaringly absent from western theological discourse. Alluding to Enrique Dussel, Westhelle contends that eschatology is the final realization of the proximity of the origin. Eschaton is the location in which the reversal of the order occurs. For him, “the eschatology of the theologies of liberation is not about the order and progress, which suggests a longitudinal paradigm, but about limits, borders, and margins. Its attempt is to make these margins visible, for they are the turning point to another world, a world that can only be devised by those who dare to stand at its threshold and remove the veil that hides the truth beyond it. And herein lies the meaning of ‘apocalypse.’”
Westhelle makes use of the Derridean notion of khora to explicate this apocalyptical content of non-space, or the question of displacement, as he defines khora as “the space produced in the rupture of space that in itself is no space.” These experiences of displacement or non-space are the breaking points, transitions, or new beginnings that are hard to fathom. It is the non-space of the weak epiphany through which the kairos meet khora and the displaced people meet the crucified God. Westhelle’s God is a marginal God-a subaltern God as it re-imagines the location of margin as the non-space of eschaton. His notion of eschatological space redraws the western notion of transcendent God and invokes the marginal and alluric.
Y. T. Vinayaraj