Madrid, 7th-9th September 2018

Towards a mysticism of open eyes, a caring heart and a politically effective love

Juan José Tamayo

General Secretary of the John XXIII Association of Female and Male Theologians and director of the “Ignacio Ellacuría” Chair of Theology and Sciences of Religions of the Carlos III University of Madrid

We inaugurate today a new (annual) Theology Congress, the 38th!, with a subject we had never treated previously : “Mysticism and Liberation”. Its celebration coincides – and this is not casual – with the centenary of the birth of Raimon Panikkar, an itinerant mystic, who knew how to combine in his life and line of thought both dimensions with an extraordinary and reconciling coherence in his personality, mystical experiences of different religions: jewish, christian, hinduist, buddhist and secular mysticism. It coincides with the 90th anniversary of female and male theologians who shone by their own merits, lived and thought mysticism not as an evasion and flight from history, but in the heart of reality with all its contradictions.

I refer to Gustavo Gutiérrez, for whom the method of Liberation Theology is spirituality, to Johan Baptist Metz, who proposes a “mysticism of open eyes”, that leads to suffering with others, to suffering with the pain of others; to Pedro Casaldàliga, who lives mysticism in the aesthetic expression of his poetry, in his engagement with the poor of the land and the defence of the rights of the indigenous and Afro-descendent communities; to Hans Küng, an example of interreligious mysticism that leads to the symmetrical dialogue of religions, spiritualities and knowledge; to Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003), who knew how to harmoniously combine in her life and her theology mysticism and feminism from a resistance standpoint.

This year is also the eightieth anniversary of the birth of Leonardo Boff, who defined male and female christians as

“contemplatives in liberation”, and of Jon Sobrino, witness of the mysticism lived around martyrdom and of “liberation with spirit”, convinced as he is that “without activity, the spirit remains lazy, featureless, and often alienating”.

All these persons have implemented the well-known assertation of Karl Rahner: “The pious person of tomorrow will either be a ‘mystic, or a person who has ‘experienced’ something or will not be anything”1.

But on reaching this point, quite a few questions arise. 40 years ago, Gustavo Gutiérrez queried in his book The historical strength of the poor if there was any point in continuing to develope theology in a world of misery and oppression, if the more urgent task was not one of the social and political order rather than the theological, if it was justifiable to dedicate time and energy to theology in the urgent conditions that Latin America was living and if the theologians were not being carried away by the inertia of their theological formation rather than by the real requirements of a people who struggle for their liberation.

I ask myself and I ask you similar questions, in this case with reference to mysticism. Is there any point in dedicating a theology congress to “Mysticism and Liberaton” in times of secularization, of crises of God and of fundamentalisms? Does it involve the search for a “new spirituality” or, rather, a kind of “drain plug” in a post-religious age?

In view of huge situations of structural injustice, of growing inequality, of aggressions against the earth, against the indigenous peoples, against women, against historical memory: Feminicides, Ecocides, Epistemicides, Genocides, Biocides, Memoricides, can we continue talking of mysticism with a discourse that is not alienating and with religious practices that are not sterile?

The question becomes still more urgent and radical following the dramatic pictures we see daily on television of migrants, refugees and displaced persons who want to reach our coasts or jump over the fences with razor wire defences and die in the intent due to the lack of solidarity of so-called “christian” Europe. Or, following my recent visit, with profound respect and veneration, to the House-Museum in Memory of Medellín, where I have seen the appalling pictures that represent the (official) 8.731.000 victims of the Columbian conflict (the real numbers being much greater). They are the victims of massacres, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, multiple threats, homicides, enforced reclutements, enforced displacements, tortures, dispossession of goods, separations of family members, etc.

Following the Second World War, the Holocaust and the Absolute Evil that was nazism, Theodor Adorno dared to declare “It is not possible to write poetry after Auschwitz”. Can we make the same assertion today with respect to mysticism?

Mysticism has been presented as a prelogical, prerational and even anti-intellectual and anti-rational phenomenon, as if it moved in the purely emotional and passive sphere. However, recent interdisciplinary studies would appear to deny this and show that mysticism combines, without any special difficulty, the intellect and affection, reason and sensitivity, experience and reflection, the faculties of thought and love, theory and transforming practice. The philosopher María Zambrano considers experience of mysticism as a fundamental anthropological experience.

If previously the accent was placed on the ahistorical, stark, purely heavenly and angelical character of mysticism, today we highlight its historical dimension. Mysticism has a lot to do with dreams and it moves in the world of imagination, that is true, but dreams and imagination are loaded with utopia. And, as Walter Benjamin says, utopia “forms part of history”, it is located in the very heart of history, but not to become comfortable with the rhythms of the established order, but to subvert it from its foundations, not to remain at ground level but to go as deep as possible.

Mysticism has been accused of fleeing from reality as if from the flames and of the passivity of contemplation for fear of dirtying its hand in action. But that is denied by the female and male mystics themselves like the discalced carmelite Cristina Kauffmann, for whom mysticism “is the internal dynamism of all creative and solidarity-based activity of Christians. It creates persons of untiring commitment to others, with a capacity for transforming interpersonal relationships,”

Male and female mystics appear, in the eyes of people, as eccentric, prudish, conformist persons, integrated in the system. However, their lives deny that picture. In reality, they behave with a great liberty of spirit and an accused sense of criticism. They are decontaminated persons themselves, frequently committed to the reform of religious and political institutions, and with capacity to destabilize both the religious and political systems.

Consequently, in the majority of cases they are considered troublesome by the establishment which cannot control them and they are suspected of heterodoxy, rebellion and doubtful morality. That explains why they are subject to all kinds of controls of orthodoxy by the controlling inquisitors, controls of institutional fidelity by the members of the hierarchy and controls of moral integrity by the watchdogs of morality. We should not be surprised because this has always been the case.

Suffice to remember some relevant mystical figures of Christianity and Islam: John of the Cross, Master Eckhart, Margaret Porete, Teresa of Jesus, Rumi and Ibn Arabi, amongst others.

This Congress, which follows the trail of our above-mentioned masters and mistresses, pretends to reply to this question in all honesty from a liberating perspective. We will begin with a reflection about mysticism and politics to show that the relationship between each of them is not arbitrary, nor opportunist, but inherent to religions and most particularly to the jewish and christian religions. In the biblical tradition, one of the names of God is “Justice”, as the prophet Jeremias asserts: “This is the name with which they will call: ‘Yahweh, our Justice” (Jr 23,6).

Justice is not only a political or legal theme, it is also theological. It is an inalienable characteristic of the God of the Bible who is revealed in history and in nature by the path of liberation. God performs justice to the victims and is the defender of the dignity and of the rights of nature, perhaps the most illtreated victim of all of them. Speaking of God and asking for God and speaking of justice and asking for justice are interrelated discourses and questions.

I coincide with Metz in that christianity has been historically a religion more sensitive to sin than to the pain of victims. The priorities must be inverted: pain before sin or, rather, the pain caused by sin of causing victims and forgetting about them. You only have to open the Gospel, the first biography of christianity, to verify it in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Christ the liberator, indignant for the injustices and compassionate with those who suffer them in their own flesh, and these today a no exception, but rather the general rule of this “culture of rejection”, to which Pope Francis refers critically.

Christianity is a mystical religion no only as a spiritual experience, but also as a political experience. It is the “mysticism of open eyes” about which Metz speaks, not a faceless mysticism, but a seeker of faces, of the faces of the painful and suffering persons and human groups. A mysticism that has its cornerstone in the authority of the victims, and its strength in compassion, characterized by hunger and thirst for justice.

A nonconforming and non-evasive mysticism of reality, that has a critical-public dimension and incides directly in political life in the service of the common good. A mysticism, in the words of the German theologian J. B. Metz, “of open eyes, that make us return to suffer for the pain of others: those who urge us to rebel against the senseless innocent and unjust pain; those that stimulate in us hunger and thirst for justice, for a justice for everyone”.

A mysticism is, finally, a policy, of effective political love, that is inseparable from revolution, as dictated and practiced by Camilo Torres:

The revolution is not only allowed but it is obligatory for christians who see in it the only effective and encompassing way to express love for everyone...Revolution…, is the way to achieve a government that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, teaches those who lack knowledge, complies with works of charity, of love for our neighbour, not only in an occasional or transitional way, not only for a few, but for the majority of our neighbours.”!“Message to Christians”, Periódico Frente Unido, n. 1º, Bogotá, 1965, p. 3).

After this analysis of the relationship between mysticism and politics, we will present mysticism as the fundamental element of religions and as the necessary path to overcome the fundamentalisms, that constitute today one of the most serious pathologies of religions. We will dedicate a talk to Sufism, the most refined and authentic religious experience of Islam. As I have just asserted, mysticism is inseparable from the struggle for justice. In this way, go the reflections about the contribution of silence to the struggle for justice, spirituality in the working youth and the experience of the French thinker Simone Weil, the example of a compassionate and mystical intellectual in solidarity with the most vulnerable sectors of society. She herself lived a mystical experience working on an assembly line in a car factory.

Mysticism is not uniform, but is characterized by a wide pluralism. We cannot analyze all its manifestations. We have elected two: the oriental and the christian in their different ages. We will finish with the proposal for a mysticism in a feminist perspective, integrating different religious and lay experiences, that respond to the challenges of our time, combining liberating theory and practice, working for justice and contributing in the construction of a brotherly-sisterly society and an eco-human community without exclusions.

These themes will be treated from different disciplines linking them with the practices of liberation in which we are engaged and with the social movements in which we participate. This is, therefore, a Congress open to interested persons and organizations concerned with the proposal for a new religious paradigm that can contribute liberating horizons to our society.

I end with the question that I have been asking from the beginning. Is it possible to talk about mysticism today? Yes, but with one condition! We must take sides with the victims generated by the different systems of domination: capitalism, patriarchalism, colonialism, global terrorism, racism, fundamentalisms, destruction of nature, xenophobia, aporophobia; of the victims of all kinds caused by the very religions that even call for killing in the name of God, which involves converting God into a murderer, as stated by José Saramago. And opting for impoverished persons and groups, as was done by the Assembly of the Latin American Episcopates celebrated in the Colombian city of Medellín fifty years ago.

Many thanks!

Professor Tamayo sent me the following note after the Congress ended:

In the 38th Theology Congress we have broken the isolation barrier with the LGBTI movement, whose Faith and Spirituality group, has prepared, directed and presided the eucharist of the Congress, the central moment of this celebration, using feminine language, the rainbow banner at the front of the table, candles of different colours as a symbol of the diversity of the Universe and with the chant of the "Ruah". 

This incorporation has been, without a doubt, the most important event of this Congress, which reconciles us with a movement that the institutional Church continues to discriminate. From now on they will participate in future Congresses as participants on an equal basis as the other groups.

However, the female and male LGBTI teachers of catholic religion in our schools could not go on stage for fear of reprisals from the ecclesiastical hierarchy on which they depend for their livelihood”.

In the collection we have raised 5610 euros, which will be destinated to support solidarity projects in the Third World.”


Director de la Cátedra de Teología y Ciencias de las Religiones "Ignacio Ellacuría"Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

1 I take this citation from Johan Baptist Metz, For a mysticism of open eyes. When spirituality bursts in, Herder, Barcelona, 2013, p. 182.