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In previous columns, we have been considering the need and possibility of a Latin-American Adventist cultural reframing, based on categories such as “Gullibility, Disorder, Feasting, and Laziness. These particular and atypical categories are the cultural expressions of some more classical theological topics such as Rationality, Ethics, Space, and Time. However, the Latin-American cultural contribution to Adventism through these categories would be incomplete and unilateral if we stopped here because so far only a “centripetal” perspective has been considered, that is, from the perspective of “others coming to us.” No cultural or theological project would be organic and balanced if we did not add to this a “centrifugal” perspective, i.e. the perspective of “us going to others.” And we will try to articulate this “centrifugal” cultural dimension through the categories of “translation” and “hybridity.”
To tackle this concept, this column will consider the category of “translation.” Being a mixed-culture, Latin-America has always been accustomed to translation since the very beginning of its history. But there is a second kind of translation—that of “outside-in” and “inside-out”. Outside-in represents the effort to be part of the broader international cultural scene by incorporating, into our own language, what others have produced elsewhere. We Latin-Americans have done this since the 16th century. We have imported, through numberless cultural translations, almost all the ideas, categories, initiatives, and proposals that the Western world has produced in these past five centuries. But we will remain unaware of what “to translate” really means if we do not also add, to this first type of translation, the challenge that “inside-out” implies and represents.
But a paradox emerges because the long and suffered process of discovering our own precious cultural heritage risks the seductive temptation to postpone, and even avoid, the “inside-out” translation by considering it simply insignificant and thus unnecessary. But what we would then superficially forget is that the “inside-out” translation makes a crucial cultural requirement: expressing “what we do” and “what we are,” not in our own language but in the language of others. This is the cultural value we Latin-Americans still do not fully incorporate in our structural profile. And this is a pivotal value because it acknowledges the limitedness and unilateralism of our own culture. Latin-America is part of the “world” but not the “whole world.” Unfortunately, this cultural difficulty in welcoming the “inside-out” translation is a necessary passage in the formation of a community’s identity. And further, it is not corrected by Adventism but reinforced by it because Adventism itself has the same difficulty. The final result is the emergence of a fervent but intransigent Latin-American Adventism whose compact, homogeneous profile remains impermeable to inter-cultural dialogue and to a positive cultural infusion. Unfortunately, for the majority of Latin-American Adventists today, inter-cultural, as much as ecumenical or inter-religious dialogue, has become synonymous with culturally untenable treason to eternal Truth.
But not all Latin-American culture has been stuck in this anomaly. The best example of cultural openness and willingness to be involved in an “inside-out” translation experience is visible in its literary production, particularly in the Latin-American literary “Boom.” This was a literary movement of the 1960s and 1970s when the work of a group of relatively young Latin American novelists became widely circulated in Europe and throughout the world. The Boom is most closely associated with Julio Cortazar of Argentina, Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru and Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia. In a significant way, the members of the Boom made Latin American literature cosmopolitan because they were able to tell Latin-American specificities in a universal language—the language of others.
To the same spirit belongs Peruvian Literature Nobel Price Mario Vargas Llosa’s last book, The Call of the Tribe (La llamada de la tribu), just released this month. A Fish in the Water (1993) and The Call of the Tribe (2018) are two similar autobiographical books. The first one narrates Vargas Llosa’s “existential and political” journey while the second is his “intellectual” biography. In this book, Vargas Llosa has mapped out the liberal thinkers who helped him develop a new body of ideas after the great ideological traumas of disenchantment with the Cuban Revolution and alienation from the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre—the author who most inspired Vargas Llosa in his youth. He revisits the writings of Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset,Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper,Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, and Jean-François Revel, and to each of them he dedicates one chapter of his book. In this, Vargas Llosa broke definitively the spell of the radical leftist, state-centered paradigm.
For decades this radical paradigm imprisoned a large part of the Latin-American intelligentsia and population. This fact is transversal to the entire continent, starting with Cuba and Mexico in the north, going down to Brazil and Argentina in the south. And, its passing through Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia left devastating cultural, political, and economic effects, unfortunately still visible these days in Venezuela’s dramatic humanitarian crisis. That crisis is not only “humanitarian” or “economic” but especially a cultural crisis. It is of a “self-centered” and “self-destructive tribe,” as Vargas Llosa would say, which is unable to allow its individual members to think for themselves. And it is also allergic to measuring itself against outside reality. The Call of the Tribe is an ideological cry to solve the anomalies and distortions of the community by exonerating its members from their own responsibility, attributing it instead to elements outside the community. The solution proposed by the “tribe” is an “identitarian” solution which is even more insular. Vargas Llosa, in this book, calls on Latin-Americans to wisely reject the seducing and short-sighted call of the “Tribe,” then, daring to go beyond, enter into the broad cultural stream of human thought which can help us break the rigid symmetry of our own internal coherence.
1. Overcoming Narcissism
Narcissism emerges when the external reality is identified with one’s own self. Primary narcissism, though, is physiological because it is the natural way a dependent being, as a baby, has to deal with reality starting from its own body. Every process of personal growth and development tries to overcome this narcissism and to open up the individual to an honest relationship with external reality. Sometimes, after reaching personal autonomy, an individual is still afraid of external reality for various reasons and, in an effort at protection, experiences an involution. This is a kind of psychological regression where the individual denies the hurting outside reality and self-identifies it. In this way the suffering is dismantled but at a big price—escaping from reality. This is “secondary narcissism.” And what happens on an individual level can happen also with a community. Thus, we could say that a kind of “primary community-like narcissism” could be physiological and part of a normal process of community building. But when a cultural or religious community is no longer in its initial formation, then, by defending of its own identity and presupposing that this is the only reality that matters, it enters into a social pathology that the social analyst Elena Pulcini calls “Endogamous Communitarianism”. As such, it represents a serious temptation for cultural and religious groups to feel besieged by an external, deviant reality.
2. For a “Relational Incommensurability”
Parallel to this secondary narcissism exists a complementary cultural closure, “cultural incommensurability.” In his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962), Thomas Kuhn uses the term “incommensurable” when competing paradigms lack a common measure to be assessed by. They use different concepts and methods to address different problems. The same term is used in the description of cultures, meaning the impossibility of really comparing them because each culture is “incommensurable” with others. The introduction of this category represented progress in the sense of affirming, against a false universalism, the possibility for each singular culture to have specificities and particularities no other cultures share.
On the other hand, if all the cultures were absolutely incommensurable, we would be facing two disrupting anomalies: first, the impossibility of creating a shared human space of common values and experiences; second, the impossibility of correcting harmful anomalies every culture necessarily creates. Thus, while a healthy cultural and religious community needs to defend its own incommensurability, it must not do it in an absolute way. Otherwise, we would create isolated communities. We need to instead create what I call a “relative inconmensurability,” or even better, a “relational inconmensurability.” This allows us to preserve our uniqueness (Sabbath, Sanctuary, Life-Style) but also obliges us to translate, with an “inside-out” mindset, our essentials in a language and space that is not our own. This should be the perspective Latin-American Adventism embraces with trust.
Where do we find a theological paradigm to all this? In the Bible itself because the Bible is the ultimate “outside-in” and “inside-out” translation exercise. God accepts us and seeks to establish an alliance. The Gospel is thoroughly a translation exercise that overcomes the “psychological” (secondary narcissism) and “cultural” (absolute incommensurability) closure that every community fights with. God seeks to build up a “relational incommensurability” that allows us to flourish—not in isolation but among and with others.