Within the framework of an international debate on formation and religious diversity held at Esade ("Jesuit Student Formation and Religious Diversity"), Do Better had the opportunity to explore the perspective of Ignacio Sepulveda, Director of the Department of Philosophy and Humanities at Loyola Andalucía University. In this interview, Sepulveda shares his reflections on Religion & Democracy, Challenges of the SBNR.
DoBetter: Religious freedom is growing today in Latin America. What types of diversity are emerging?
Ignacio Sepulveda: I find it interesting that today Latin America can be said to be quite religiously diverse. If we had taken a snapshot of the region fifty years ago, we would have found that most people understood and defined themselves as belonging to the Catholic Church and, obviously, as believers in Catholicism.
Of course, at its base, this belief in Catholicism from fifty years ago had certain components of what we would call “folk religions,” as well as indigenous religions and other religions brought from Africa.
If we were to take a snapshot of the state of affairs in Latin America today, we would find that there is great religious diversity. While not all countries are the same, and the same things are not happening everywhere, certain features could be considered common to the region as a whole.
The first is that, over the last thirty or forty years, Catholicism has been on the wane. The percentage of the population identifying as Catholic Christian has been shrinking for years. In the case of Chile, a little more. In the late 1980s, early 1990s, when democracy was restored in the wake of the Pinochet dictatorship, about 80-85% of the population identified as Catholic. Today, only around 50% of Chileans consider themselves denominationally Catholic.
In parallel to this decline of the Catholic Church, there is another trend: an increase in Pentecostal Christians. The Pentecostals arrived in America around the turn of the 20th century, mainly settling in the poorest sectors of society.
When we talk about Evangelicals, about Pentecostal Christians, we often think of families with very few resources, very humble families, but, obviously, most of the population remained Catholic. The turn-of-the-century Pentecostals were thus largely minority groups. However, and this is something to be heeded, they have experienced enormous growth in the last 30-40 years. Today’s Pentecostal Christians can be found not only in the poorest sectors of society but in all sectors. This growth in Pentecostal Christianity is a global phenomenon: it is registering the highest growth of any religion, and that is something worth considering.
In addition to these two trends – the decline of Catholicism and the rise of Pentecostal Christianity – there are other important elements. One is that some societal groups seem to be returning to certain ancestral beliefs that have to do with indigenous religions that predate the arrival of the Europeans. For example, the Mapuches are returning to the worship of Chaw Ngenechen, to celebrating the indigenous New Year, which I believe is June 21, and to rituals having to do with Pachamama or involving the consumption of ayahuasca, not as a drug, but as a way of connecting with the divine.
However, although there is a return to these religions from before the Spanish or European conquest, many of them have already undergone a process of cultural loss and inculturation with the West. For example, when the Mapuche people celebrate their religious rite, they do it in the regüe, a space presided over by a cross. And the very figure of Chaw Ngenechen, who would be the father god, is quite similar to what today we would understand as Yahweh.
The last trend is that many people believe “in their own way.” There is thus a broader spirituality that does not necessarily have to do with belonging to a church, whether Pentecostal or Catholic. These are people who say, “Well, I have faith in a transcendent being, and I experience my faith in a personal way.”
DoBetter: What challenges does Latin America’s growing religious diversity pose for Latin American countries? How can spirituality contribute to dialog between these diverse individuals and groups?
Ignacio Sepulveda: If we look at the current lay of the land in Latin America with regard to religion, we can see that there is a strong pluralism in terms of the different ways of understanding and experiencing religion found in the population.
Fifty years ago, most Latin Americans considered themselves Catholic, and it was the Catholic Church, obviously, that was strongest. Today that is no longer true. Instead, we find very diverse situations. Although the situation is not the same in all Latin American countries, in general, the Catholic Church’s influence has waned and the percentage of faithful in each country’s society has shrunk.
Alongside this decline of the Catholic Church, we are seeing very strong growth of Pentecostal Evangelical groups, whose origins, as noted, can be traced to the turn of the 20th century among the poorest layers of the various societies. But according to some studies, after 50, 60, maybe even more than 100 years of presence in the Latin American population, their impact has greatly increased. For example, David Martin notes that Pentecostalism is the world’s fastest growing religion, far outpacing Islam, a trend that is of great interest to many scholars, especially sociologists.
One interesting fact is, again, that today’s Pentecostalism is no longer found solely among the humblest and poorest populations of each country, but rather is professed by people in the middle and upper-middle class. It also exerts a strong influence on politics, as can be seen in Central America or Brazil. It is worth recalling that Brazilian President Bolsonaro, who was once Catholic, is now a Pentecostal Evangelical.
In addition to the decline of the Catholic Church and rise of Pentecostalism, there is also the aforementioned recognition and return to indigenous religions, which have to do with nature and the indigenous peoples of Latin America. The best known religion in this regard may be that of the Mapuche communities. These are people who have moved from rural areas to urban ones and who, from the outset, sought to practice their own religion. They began to do this not in nature as they had done in the countryside, but by looking for suitable urban spaces, such as fields or other open areas in the city, to practice their ancestral religions.
Of course, it is worth noting that this Mapuche religious practice has already passed through the “Christian filter”: 500 years of colonization leave their mark.
Along with these indigenous peoples, we also find many people who define themselves not as religious, but spiritual. A large percentage of the population in Chile, in Uruguay is today starting to say that they do not identify with a religion, with an institution, although they do ascribe and feel linked to a certain spirituality.
The problem or challenge thus becomes how to understand this concept of spiritualism. Much is being written on the subject, but the concept remains very diffuse and unclear.
Some sociologists, such as Paul Hilas, have approached the phenomenon of spirituality and found that it has to do, above all, with something more individual, more subjective, further removed from what an institution would be. The Catholic Church or the Pentecostal Church are religions in that they have a strong community, an institution, and certain dogmas and, thus, are a less individual reality. In contrast, spirituality is something much more individual, much more subjective, less attached to an institution. Obviously, these definitions are complex and do not fully satisfy everyone.
How can we understand spirituality? I think it can be understood as a fundamental and founding dimension of the human being that opens him or her to transcendence. And this transcendence can be transcendent or immanent. It opens the human being to contact with others, to the relationship with others and with nature. Under this definition, ultimately, the spiritual is not something added to the human being, but something essential to it, a fundamental part of the human being. It is an openness to the relationship with others and to transcendence.
From this perspective, what is the challenge facing Latin American society, Latin American countries? The challenge of living in what could be understood as post-secularism. In other words, there is no longer a need for a space of plurality, nor is it necessary to seek to remove religion from the public space. Instead, religion and spirituality could contribute within this public space, could be something common in the public space.
I stress the word plurality, in the sense that there are many voices in society engaging in dialogue, speaking, and meeting. The religious phenomenon can be found in this chorus of voices. As we said, it can be a contribution to the development of the common good.
And how can spirituality contribute to the dialogue between different groups and individuals? I think there is an important element at work here that is increasingly recognized: the spiritual dimension is a fundamental and founding dimension of the human being. For instance, the new Chilean constitution, the one being proposed that will be voted on in a few months, already includes elements having to do with spirituality, broadly understood. A spirituality – I repeat – conceived of as this fundamental and founding dimension of the human being. The new constitution acknowledges that this is an important aspect of the person and that no religion has a monopoly on it.
That is why I believe that the experience of spirituality may be recognized as a contribution to society, one that cannot remain solely in the private sphere of the human being but must try to be experienced in the most public space.
DoBetter: Chile, your country of origin, is one of the most secular countries in Latin America. What differences do you see between Chile and Spain?
Ignacio Sepulveda: I assume you are referring to differences with regard to the religious phenomenon in general. In terms of religion, historically, the Chilean Catholic Church was closely linked to the defense of human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship. When democracy was restored in the country in the 1990s, in a certain sense, society gave it a blank check: the people trusted this Catholic Church for what it had done during the dictatorship.
In Spanish society, in contrast, the institution of the Catholic Church seems to have been associated with national Catholicism and the Franco regime. In this regard, in Spain, the Catholic Church seems to have been perceived as a rather conservative institution, an institution on the side of the dictatorship.
What is happening today in each of these realities with regard to religion? On the one hand, it seems to me that both the Chilean and the Spanish Catholic Church have lost credibility and power in their respective societies for various reasons. Many of the leaders of the two churches also seem to miss the societal influence they once had.
And what about the people? In general, the people of both countries seem to feel alienated from Catholic institutions. If you look at the figures, the number of people who do not feel they are part of the Catholic Church in Chile, who do not define themselves as Catholic in Spain, is already larger than the number of those who do consider themselves to belong to it.
Now, one interesting phenomenon is that many people, despite feeling alienated from and mistrustful of the Catholic Church in Chile – and even broadening the focus to include other religions and Evangelicals, who make up 17-20% of the population in Chile – do feel like they experience, or acknowledge having, a certain spiritual belief, whether in a superior being, God, a spirit, a connection, etc., and accept that they experience a certain type of spirituality. So, it is not that people simply cease to believe and become materialistic, but rather that they stop adhering to an institution, but continue to experience a certain syncretic spirituality that blends many different elements.
Interestingly, the word spirituality is barely used today in Chile. This week, I had a meeting with some colleagues from Alberto Hurtado University. They said to me, “Look, talk about spiritualities is slowly making inroads, but the concept is not as strong as it is in the Spanish context.” What is happening in Spain? I think something similar to what is happening in Chile, although here the idea of spirituality is a bit more established, more recognized. People no longer live according to a sociological religion, with specific rites (first communion, marriage, etc.), but neither have they entirely stopped believing and become atheists or agnostics. Instead, many are beginning to transform and seek these spiritualities.
In short, when we look at this phenomenon in Chile or Spain, we see that religions are starting to lose the followers they once had, not because religion is disappearing, but because it is undergoing a transformation. The new believer is a “seeker” in different traditions, a person who engages in quite a bit of syncretism and is characterized by his or her pursuit of a personal, individual search, in which authenticity, listening to one’s own voice, is essential, as well as by a shift away from dogmatism or dogma in favor of engaging in their own form of religiousness.
DoBetter: Another challenge for Jesuit organizations – and for any religious group in general – is the integration of non-religious spiritual people. What can such people contribute? How should religious organizations adapt to make them feel welcome?
Ignacio Sepulveda: I think this is related to what I mentioned earlier. When we talk about spirituality, it is important to recall that it is a fundamental and founding dimension of the human being, one that opens him or her to transcendence, others, and nature. And this is something all human beings experience. Again, the spiritual dimension is not the sole prerogative of religious people, whether Catholic or Pentecostal, belonging to a religion, church, or religious community, but a fundamental experience of all human beings, which can take place within a religion or otherwise. This spiritual dimension is fundamental: spirituality can be experienced through appreciation of art, a good painting, or music, through experiencing nature, encounters with others, with family, etc.
What would I try to do? I think this is a contribution because, ultimately, it broadens the register of what we understand as spiritual, and we are capable of welcoming people who experience other dimensions of spirituality. And it should be stressed: this is a dimension that some people have and others do not; it is not an accessory dimension but is fundamentally there.
Can such people contribute within Jesuit institutions? Of course. They add to the institutions. We can work at universities, schools, or NGOs that have a concern for the human being, for opening human beings to others and to nature. These are openings to transcendence, even if immanent transcendence. Obviously, the Society of Jesus aims to use this spirituality, this fundamental and founding dimension of the human being, to also open human beings to transcendent transcendence. That is where the Society can welcome people with the aim of cultivating their spiritual dimension – because, like any other dimension of the human being, this spiritual dimension must be cultivated. And to show that this dimension can also be opened to transcendent transcendence, although not everyone will accept that path. Some will say, “Look, I’m not going to take that path. I don’t accept it.” But the mere fact of recognizing one’s own vocation, of cultivating the spiritual dimension, of asking questions and being able to work in relation to it are steps that I think can help and are already being taken.
DoBetter: What is the relationship between spirituality and training?
Ignacio Sepulveda: In the previous questions, I stressed that the spiritual dimension is a fundamental and founding dimension of the human being that opens us to transcendence, whether immanent or transcendent, that opens us to others, to other human beings, and that opens us to nature, to fundamental experiences, that go beyond us: hence, its sense of transcendence.
However, I think spirituality needs to be trained. As early as the 5th century, Saint Augustine spoke about listening to one’s inner voice; in the late 19th century, the Romantics talked about the inner voice. In the end, to be able to hear this inner voice, one has to train and be able to silence many things in order to live. In this regard, the training should also open us up to increasing and developing this spiritual capacity.
To this end, some authors say that we have a logical intelligence, which is what we use to solve problems at work, mathematical problems, philosophical problems, etc. But we also have emotional intelligence, which is key to working with each other, and spiritual intelligence. It is essential for us to be able to recognize our spiritual intelligence.
Francesc Torralba has said that this spiritual intelligence also needs to be developed. To this end, we must help with this not only at universities, but also in schools and through the education we provide to children. We need to make sure that they develop not only emotionally and logically, but also with this openness to spirituality.
And that will require training. We will need to find ways to do it, to develop it. We will need to look to other religious traditions to find the way to do it within what we know, within religion and spiritualities. This is not to say we have to make children complete religious training, but that we have to be able to train children and young people, as well as adults, in this dimension of spirituality.
In that regard, I think spiritual exercises can be a tremendous source for training people in the sense of spiritual intelligence. We will have to see how to adapt them. Some actions have already been carried out, for example, in Germany, aimed at young people and entrepreneurs, consisting not only of going to pray, but also of training one’s own spiritual capacity in order to discover and shape this dimension.
I think there may be some potentially interesting keys there.
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