Global Perspective

November 23, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 29

Gemma Tulud Cruz
Gemma Tulud Cruz is a doctoral student in feminist theology at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Her email address is



It helped a lot too that I took my courses in a lay theology program. Even if it cost me my Saturdays and summers, studying theology with mostly lay people became very fruitful. It was an experience of listening to and sharing with a policeman, a lawyer, a teacher, a mother, a woman old enough to be my mother, etc. -- people from all walks of life who took the initiative to learn more deeply about their faith.

Faith seeking empowering understanding

By Gemma Tulud Cruz

Editor's Note: This is the sixth and final article in a Global Perspective series, Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories. Join us as we hear women describe their experiences of doing theology in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

NIJMEGEN, The Netherlands - My journey into theology started early. I was a volunteer catechist in a remote public elementary school in the Philippines, my home country, at the age of 15. I remember well how our Irish parish priest and school director would drive us once a week over dusty roads pitted with potholes and nearly impassable in the rainy season to get to a far-flung barrio where the school was.

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It was quite a challenge juggling the demands of being both a student and a catechist, but it was here that I first experienced how poverty haunts the rural areas of my home country and how religion can also be the crux of one's alienation.

The latter came to me in the person of a 10-year-old girl who always peeped into the windows of the Grade 4 classroom while I taught catechism to her classmates. I found out later that she belonged to another Christian denomination and that while she very much wanted to join the catechism class, her non-Catholic parents forbid her from doing so. While I have now come to understand and respect the integrity of other people's religious identity, at that time I could only think of how unfair it was for the girl. As a child she probably couldn't care less that she was a Protestant; she only wanted to be with her peers.

I went on to study to be a teacher and specialize in teaching English and religious education. Understanding of poverty and the other ills of society began to be woven more significantly into my education through the extra-curricular activities required by my college scholarship. I again taught catechism, this time in a national high school, At Christmastime, my classmates and I would go around town singing Christmas carols to cheer the sick and the aged and organize programs for prisoners. We made our presentations inside the jail where there was no delineation between minimum, medium, or maximum security. We not only experienced being in the midst of petty thieves and murderers, but we also saw for ourselves the sorry state of my home country's jails. Most of all, we got to hear the prisoners' stories -- stories that taught me how fragile life could be and how injustice is a reality in our society.

At this time, however, I was not yet able to make a deep connection between the situation and religion, between poverty and injustice and Christianity.

The defining moment in my theological journey came when I studied theology itself in a progressive theological school while simultaneously teaching in a Catholic school that had a well developed social involvement program, e.g. immersions among the marginalized sectors in Philippine society. For the first time I saw life and Christianity in a different light. I saw the human condition in its rawest form and how this puts into serious question Christian discourses on justice and compassion.

At the same time, my moral theology and scripture classes, where I had good mentors, helped me see Christianity as a religion that has a human face, a religion that is in touch with the human experience, and a religion that could make a difference in a world where poverty and injustice seem to put the future of humanity on a precipice.

It helped a lot too that I took my courses in a lay theology program. Even if it cost me my Saturdays and summers, studying theology with mostly lay people became very fruitful. It was an experience of listening to and sharing with a policeman, a lawyer, a teacher, a mother, a woman old enough to be my mother, etc. -- people from all walks of life who took the initiative to learn more deeply about their faith.

Read More
         Learn more about this new series starting on Global Perspective: Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories.
         Part One: Theologians issue call to 'to fulfill the vision of Jesus' and create 'a discipleship of equals.
         Part Two: Women theologians in India are reclaiming space.
         Part Three: Forty years of theology in Latin America.
         Part Four: Eventually everybody adjusted to who I was: My experience as a woman theologian in Africa.
         Part Five: From the option for the poor: A personal journey.
         Part six: Faith seeking empowering understanding.
For the first time I learned about and came to embrace the link between theory and praxis, primarily because, for the first time, my education in the faith went beyond abstract discussion and beyond the four walls of a classroom. It spilled over and deepened, taking meaning and inspiration from daily human angst and realities. Moreover, my education was enriched through concrete experiences with the differently-abled, peasants, fisherfolks, factory workers, slum dwellers and their leaders, indigenous communities, abused women and children, women prisoners and many others whose living conditions raised questions about the very vision of all religions: the well-being of every person.

From the streets to the factories, from shelters to NGO centers, from prisons to mountains, from the pavements to the halls of government, theology for me became living theology. It became something that I do not just read and discuss in the classroom.

I also was challenged to "do theology." I decided to volunteer with church-based groups working for street children and women. As a teacher in an exclusive Catholic school for young women, I tried to do my share in "educating for social transformation." I tried to integrate social issues into classroom lessons and expose my affluent students with immersions experiences in the very places where these issues happened.

While liberation theology struck me in general, the woman question (ironically introduced to me by a priest, my moral theology teacher) caught my theological imagination and passion in particular. It became my main area of interest.

I went through some difficulties trying to "do theology" with my volunteer work and earn my bread and butter with my job, but the positive experiences outweighed the negative. I once heard indirectly a parent's criticism of the "stuff" I was teaching her daughter. But besides some smirks and the occasional condescending deference from some people -- particularly men who were allergic to the word "feminist" -- I found that introducing my students to liberation theology, especially feminist liberation theology, to be one of my most profound experiences as an educator.

It was a joy to see young women awakening to and embracing the possibilities life could offer them as women without forgetting the other women whose lot was worse. I know that I also was able to help my students to know a world outside of their own, and teach them to dream not just for their welfare but for others as well. I gave them, in other words, an education with a conscience.

Today, my theological journey continues to traverse women's realities. As you read this, I have just finished attending the second international conference of Ecclesia of Women in Asia* held Nov. 16-19 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Moreover, the dissertation that I am writing is on Filipino women domestic workers in Hong Kong. My theological journey is charting new territories literally and figuratively. My doctoral studies took me to Europe and my research and mentors have allowed me to attend international conferences in Asia, Europe and North America.

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And though my journey is far from over, I have been able to draw some conclusions.

One thing my theological journey has taught me is that if theology is to participate in his/herstory and if it is a true reflection on life in the light of faith, theological education must have a strong pastoral thrust and orientation.

If theology is to address the issue of the day or the "signs of the times," theological education must move beyond abstract discussions on dogmatic and doctrinal questions. It must also be about finding relations, making connections, and engaging in critically constructive analysis of the tenets of the faith in the light of contemporary realities.

A theologian, as they say, must have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

For this to happen, theological education must not just be within the four walls of a classroom. It must have the world as its classroom. It must encounter people, especially people at the margins of society. In prisons, shelters for victims of violence, hospitals and juvenile delinquents centers, the theologian meets people who can eloquently teach about the destruction of the human condition but also its reconstruction.

Theology cannot be monopolized by the clergy and the religious, nor by theologically-trained lay people like me.

Theology lies not only in the carefully worded propositions of erudite theologians but also in the songs, poems, stories, testimonies and reflections on the day to day struggle of ordinary people by ordinary people themselves. Much of the Filipino contextual theology called "theology of struggle", for instance, is expressed and embedded in these forms.

The diverse, complex, and immense problems we face today impel us to expand our theological imaginations. A theology that inspires hope must learn to speak not just about the metaphysics but the aesthetics of existence. Just as Jesus' story ends not with his death but with his resurrection, theology must insist that the Christian's final experience in God's great economy of salvation is love and life not suffering and death.

The classic definition of theology is "faith seeking understanding," a highly rational endeavor. I would suggest that today we need a more prophetic stance, such as "faith seeking empowering understanding."

*Editor's Notes:
  • This concludes our series: "Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories."
  • A report and additional reflections on the conference Ecclesia of Women in Asia will appear in Global Perspective in the near future.
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