Theological Thursdays: Juan Luis Segundo—“Is it still possible…”

Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1996) was a Uruguayan Jesuit priest and theologian. He is one of the essential voices in Latin American liberation theology. He believed that theology should be transformative in people’s lives.For a theology to be transformative in human lives, it must connect with existence. He explores this connection in a short essay called “Christian Existentialism.”

Is it possible to speak of Christian existentialism?

Almost everything Segundo wrote fell within the world of the Roman Catholic Church. So, he puts his question about existentialism up against the Vatican encyclical Humani Generis. Some hold the idea that existentialism is not compatible with Christianity.

Segundo asks the question “Is it still possible…” rhetorically. He distinguishes between “names, titles, or signs” and “actions and opinions”. In this way, he interprets “Humani Generis” to condemn certain heretical actions, not the word existentialism.

Reject Some Parts

If pathologists do not study diseases, they cannot find a cure. If doctors do not get close to sick people, they cannot treat them. Segundo draws on this logic by quoting from Humani Generis, but he does not base his engagement on the negative side of the Pope’s case. For Segundo, existentialism occupies the same realm as faith and subjectivity, as distinct from ideologies which complement faith. 

What can we learn? 

Ask questions. Explore. Do not be afraid of concepts or ideas. Segundo’s “Is it still possible…” suggests a positive response. In other words, the answer is yes. Yes, it is possible to have a Christian existentialism. And, a Christian existentialism might not be the same as other philosophies that bear the title existentialism.

Segundo’s little, unpublished essay presents us with a warning similar to the proverbial saying, “Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.” 

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