Interview: Nichole M. Flores on Guadalupe and the Aesthetics of Solidarity

Managing editor Kyle Trowbridge interviewed theologian Nichole M. Flores about her recent book The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy.

Kyle: The first chapter of your book lays the groundwork for the book. Can you explain the varied uses of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a symbol in political organizing? Second, how would you compare your framing of political theology of Guadalupe and Juan Diego as distinct from other approaches to political theology, be it Schmittian, Metzian, or other forms of political theology?

Nichole: Guadalupe as a symbol is fascinating to me because so many different people employ her symbol as one of justice and empowerment. In the United States, her symbol has inspired political and social movements as diverse as the United Farm Workers movement, immigration justice movements, and the pro-life movement. The diverse range of movements that employ her symbol makes it a difficult one to interpret, especially as it concerns the symbol’s capacity to make justice claims in pluralistic and purportedly democratic societies such as this one in the United States. For this reason, one of my central interests in this work is to provide an interpretive framework for Guadalupe’s appearance to Juan Diego on Tepeyac that allows for evaluation of the myriad theological, ethical, and political interests that attempt to lay claim to her symbol. Building on Roberto Goizueta’s theological reflection on the relational theological anthropology suggested by the encounter between Guadalupe and Juan Diego, I argue that both the consoling and empowering dynamics of their relationship are central components of an ethical interpretation of this symbol and its associated narrative.

To your second question, my engagement with political theology is not to associate Guadalupe with a particular nationalist project—though her symbol has been deployed as one of national identity in Mexico, the United States, and beyond. Rather, my framework makes claims about how the relationship between Guadalupe, Juan Diego, and Archbishop Zumarraga unveils power dynamics at play in a variety of political systems and arrangements. Some features of my account emphasize the ethical features of participation, mutuality, and equality in their relationship; these features align the project more closely with political liberalism (albeit a chastened liberalism) than to nationalist appropriations of the symbol.  

Kyle: Your book engages two representative accounts of the liberal tradition: John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum. Before we get into your criticisms of their approaches, what, if anything, do you think is still promising or necessary about the liberal approach to democratic practices?

Nichole: While I do not fall in the “liberalism has failed” camps on either the left or right, I do think that it has fallen on hard times. While there is much to criticize about liberalism in general as well as specific liberal thinkers (and I do engage in these critiques in my book), it is unfortunate that so many participants in the public life of our society have rejected it so thoroughly. Political liberalism offers a way of thinking about political norms that, at its heart, is interested in defending pluralism in a democratic society. While its pursuit of this end is flawed and incomplete, liberalism’s assertions of an enduring common humanity, the importance of personal autonomy, and the necessity of political norms that discourage disenfranchisement of those who do not share our views are each crucial to defending and strengthening democracy in our tumultuous times.

Kyle: What are some of the deficits of the liberal perspective on difference, including religions difference? Why is Rawls’s account on this score so wanting, in your view?

Nichole: Whereas liberalism offers a necessary account of individual rights and autonomy—an account of the right to run one’s own life that I appreciate as a cis-gendered woman who values autonomy in the realms of health, sexuality, faith, and self-expression, among other areas of life—it often struggles to offer an adequate account of the value of difference in community, including religious difference. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to address the challenges of difference by arguing that they should remain behind the “veil of ignorance” in considerations pertaining to society’s basic structure. While the veil of ignorance is invoked as part of an abstract thought experiment as opposed to either an actual historical state or a concrete policy proposal, the image has influenced how we relate to difference in our common life. But it is precisely the invisibility of religious, cultural, and racial differences that makes it more difficult to identify injustices—enduring histories of white supremacy or economic inequality, for example—that hinder the broader liberal goals of promoting liberty and equality.

Kyle: How does Nussbaum’s account of liberal aesthetics improve on Rawls’s account? In what ways does it reinforce Rawls’s view of justice and public reason?

Nichole: Nussbaum views herself as the inheritor of Rawls’s arguments for the need of political stability in society’s basic structures.  Nonetheless, she improves on his method by pursuing her argument via engagement with the arts: literature, opera, and the visual arts. Her aesthetic awareness allows her to overcome some of the weaknesses of Rawls’s original position and the veil of ignorance while still maintaining a commitment to protecting society’s basic structures from imposition of laws and policies that undermine authentic pluralism and vibrant democracy. Despite this aesthetic awareness, however, Nussbaum still views the religious dimensions of art and aesthetics (even of properly religious aesthetics such as the homiletical rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.) as needing to be bracketed in public life. She evacuates religious art of its religious meaning by calling it “civic poetry,” even when its author or creator views its religious dimensions as central—perhaps essential—to its meaning. Gutting the religious dimensions of religious speech and art risks undermining the robust pluralism that liberals would otherwise strive to cultivate. A more adequate framework is necessary for engaging religious pluralism in democratic society in a manner that neither imposes a particular comprehensive doctrine on society nor demands that these differences remain hidden from view in the life of democracy.

Kyle: You use Alejandro Garcia-Rivera’s work as a counter to liberalism’s aesthetics. First, for those who are unaware, please introduce us to Garcia-Rivera’s work. Second, how does Garcia-Rivera’s work help to bolster and improve on the liberal account? How does Garcia-Rivera’s work help us understand how particularity, including the deep differences found within religious difference, helps us to move towards democratic participation and stability?

Nichole: Alejandro Garcia-Rivera (1951-2010) was a Cuban-American theologian who helped to elaborate Latino/a theological aesthetics; his work continues to influence the broad and deep engagement of theological aesthetics in subsequent generations of U.S. Latine theologians. In addition to engagement with Latine and Latin American theologies, his work draws heavily from the pragmatist philosophies of Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce.

His book Community of the Beautiful provides a helpful account of difference influenced by these sources, one that can both acknowledge and interpret difference without unjust subjugation of the other. Drawing on Royce’s conception of loyalty, he argues that difference invites an encounter with the other through an act of common interpretation. But such encounters across difference necessitate reconciliation with those who have been disempowered and relegated to the margins of society. He suggests the aesthetic method of foregrounding, which involves lifting up that which has been relegated to the background—or “lifting up the lowly” (Luke 1:52)—toward fostering a community that both sees and values differences, especially those differences that have hindered the fostering of community.

Like all outstanding theological works, Garcia-Rivera’s work has important limitations. Although his framework helps to articulate an approach to pluralism that more adequately values both particularity and relationship, it doesn’t offer a positive account of justice that anchors his ethical commitment to “lifting up the lowly” and cultivating the “community of the beautiful.” This lacuna in his work is one area where my book strives to offer a constructive theological and ethical contribution.

Kyle: Your last chapter helpfully illustrates three intertwining approaches to solidarity: intellectual solidarity, practical solidarity, and, finally, aesthetic solidarity. Can you explain how these three forms of solidarity interact with each other? How should sensory experience inform political theology?

Nichole: My identification of these three dimensions of solidarity emerged through my engagement with Catholic social thought and tradition. Both during and after Vatican II, this tradition has articulated a robust appreciation for the importance of discursive encounters across difference; David Hollenbach calls the conversational and argumentative activities of encountering different perspectives “intellectual solidarity.” In addition to the exchange of ideas, Catholic ethicists have emphasized the necessity of practical actions across difference towards fostering solidarity; this accent on action is what I call “practical solidarity.” Aesthetic solidarity thus adds another dimension to these distinctive manifestations of solidarity. Building on Garcia-Rivera’s community of the beautiful, aesthetic solidarity attends to the role of the sensory dimensions of experience in forging relationships of solidarity characterized by mutuality, equality, and participation. Not all aesthetic engagements necessarily foster justice (imagine, for example, the aesthetic experience of an arena awash in a sea of red trucker hats where angry attendees mock immigrants). Nonetheless, aesthetic experiences are crucial to political formation that acknowledges universal human dignity and the social conditions necessary for human flourishing.

Kyle: The Western political tradition, since the French Revolution, has identified liberty, equality, and fraternity as three characteristics needed for a free and democratic society. You have chosen mutuality, equality, and participation. Can you explain the importance of this change?

Nichole: It is not so much a change as evidence of my influence by recent works in Catholic social thought and tradition, specifically the so-called “social Trinitarianism” of theologians such as Catherine Mowry LaCugna, Mary Catherine Hilkert, and Michelle Gonzalez-Maldonado and Catholic ethicist Meghan Clark. Each draws upon the Trinitarian dimensions of human identity (imago Trinitatis) to describe the relational conditions that make human flourishing possible. It is significant, however, that these conditions so closely mirror the ones that have shaped liberal political thought. This correspondence might suggest the wisdom of both traditions as well as the limitations of Western systems of political, social, and theological thought. Nonetheless, I do find these characteristics of relationships to be resonant with the liberative goals of grassroots communities organizing for justice and democracy whom I have encountered in my own work for social justice.

Kyle: This issue’s theme is “Theologies of Belonging.” Why are cultural pluralism and particularities necessary for understanding how to live both within communities that have a strong understanding of who they are and also within societies of deep difference?

Nichole: One of the things I value most about U.S. Latine theology is that it is able to hold in tension the desire for particular cultural identity and communal belonging with a desire for inclusion and belonging in broader society. While this theological conversation (really, it is a community more than a discourse) asserts aspects of Latine cultural and theological particularity that have been ignored or disvalued in broader social, academic, and ecclesial realms, it does so with an eye toward cultivating a broader sense of belonging. I think this is one reason that so many people are enticed by Latine popular religious symbols (such as Guadalupe), art, literature, poetry, and film—at its best, it expresses its own particularity in a way that invites us to acknowledge our own identities while drawing us closer to others across our many differences. I think this is a highly desirable contribution to our contemporary cultural, political, and religious situation so long as these encounters are committed to justice and flourishing for all and not just for the members of specific in-groups.

Kyle: Finally, in looking forward to our next theme, how do you think your work can respond to the far-right? Particularly, as a Catholic ethicist and political theologian, how does your account offer a counter to the integralist approach that is popular in some quarters?

Nichole: This question brings this conversation full circle! As I mentioned at the outset, there are myriad appropriations of Guadalupe’s symbol for various movements and causes, including far right Catholic causes that assert her image as one of conquest of difference rather than “lifting up the lowly.” For Catholic social thought, my work seeks to disabuse the church of the notion that Guadalupe can be correctly interpreted as a symbol of conquest and rejection of difference.

Nichole M. Flores
Nichole M. Flores

Nichole M. Flores is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Kyle Trowbridge
Kyle Trowbridge

Kyle Trowbridge is a managing editor of Theology and Society.