Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading a fascinating little biography of Augustine of Hippo by Justo L. González called The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian between two Cultures. Born in North Africa in the 4th century to an African mother and a Roman father, González argues that Augustine is what Latino/a culture describes as a mestizo, a person of mixed culture.
He writes, To be a mestizo is to belong to two realities and at the same time not to belong to either of them. A Mexican-American reared in Texas among people of Euro-American culture is repeatedly told that he is a Mexican—that is, that he does not really belong in Texas. But if that Mexican-American crosses the border hoping to find there his land and his people, he is soon disappointed by being rejected, or at least criticized, as somewhat Americanized.
Though the condition of mestizaje is often considered “inferior” by those who claim a single culture, González points out that it is “a fertile field for creativity, and quite often points to the future.”
For instance, it’s a helpful lens through which to view the conflict between the followers of Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem. “Those in Judea,” he writes, “would think they were the true Jews and that Galilee, whose culture and traditions were mixed with traits of Gentile origin, was not truly Jewish.” And yet, “to those who claim that ‘nothing good can come from Nazareth,’ God responds precisely by offering them a Savior from among those despised people in Galilee.”
The mestizo approach to faith didn't end with Jesus. González points out it’s likely that not a single writing from the New Testament was written in Jerusalem, the center of the primitive church. These writings instead come from the mestizaje periphery of the mission to the Gentiles, “in that intermediate space in which the early Christians, even though most of them were Jews, were not considered true Jews, while Romans and their authorities did see them as Jews.”
There’s much more to comment on than this space will allow, but for now I submit to you three brief reflections:
- This is yet another example of how the Christian faith is best understood from the position of one on the outside. We see this time and time again in the words of Jesus in Scripture, whether he’s instructing us to receive the Kingdom like a child, or reminding us that the first will soon become last and the last first and that the poor will inherit everything. The challenge for those of us who are in so many ways on the inside (and I’m about as “inside” as it gets), is to listen to those who are not, and remind ourselves that we’re repeatedly called to learn from and become like them, not the other way around.
- So much of theology is autobiography. Many have noted this before, but it is so true. So much of how we understand God and Scripture is shaped by our life experiences: where and when we live, who we have or haven’t met, what we have or haven’t seen or heard or done. Which is why anything we say about God is so utterly and laughably incomplete. We can only speak from what we know, and we know so little.
- And yet when we come together and share our stories we find that we know so much more than we did before. Our faith can only grow as much as we allow our God to. And our God often grows with our neighbor. So let’s keep talking, church, and watch as our God keeps getting bigger—as big as our hearts and imaginations and neighborhood will allow.