Elizabeth Johnson, Reliable Guide

By Deirdre Good and Jane Redmont

Nearly twenty years ago, in 1992, the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna, a Catholic theologian still respected and cherished in the theological academy for her book on the Trinity, God With Us, wrote an essay in the Jesuit magazine America titled “Catholic Women as Ministers and Theologians.” LaCugna noted that a critical mass of Catholic women had emerged with doctorates in theology, scripture, ethics, and related fields, and were now teaching in colleges, universities, and seminaries. While this change in the composition of the theological profession is not unique to the Catholic Church –or to Christianity– LaCugna pointed out that of all professionally trained women theologians in the U.S., by far the majority were Roman Catholic. “Further,” LaCugna added, “the field known as feminist theology has largely been the project of Catholic women.”

LaCugna was under no illusion that the church as a whole had changed, despite the fact that a significant number of clergy and lay ministers, in this country at least, had been educated by theologians who were women. While women in the varied ministries of the church (both volunteer and professional) already far outnumbered men, church leadership remained clerical and less than collaborative, women were still barred from ordination, and feminist theology was treated as a fad.

Today the Catholic Theological Society of America, formerly a male, clerical, and white preserve, is still largely Euro-American, though it has recently seen its first Asian-American, African American, and Latino presidents. It is, however, no longer the preserve of either men or priests. These days, women and lay men make up a large proportion of the society; half of the members of its Board of Directors are women, and a woman president is no longer a novelty. Elizabeth A. Johnson, a former president of the society, is one of many Catholic women theologians who do not shy away from explicit feminist critique of church and theology. She is also, by most accounts, a moderate.

Professor Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God received renewed attention when a letter from the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, dated March 24, 2011 and published on March 30 issued a 21-page statement criticizing the book for “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” which they said “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel.”

Being a Catholic theologian in trouble with authorities is nothing new. Many of the expert advisers at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) were formerly silenced scholars. They are now honored as fathers –they were all men– of contemporary and theological studies, among them the French Dominican Yves Congar and his compatriot the Jesuit Henri de Lubac. Recent history is dappled with Latin American (Leonardo Boff, Ivone Gebara), Asian (Tissa Balasuriya), European (Jacques Dupuis) and North American (Charles Curran, Peter Phan, Roger Haight) targets of criticism by the hierarchy, often at the level of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Indeed, the CTSA’s highest honor –an award which Professor Johnson received in 2004– is named for the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who had his own troubles with the Vatican (he was silenced in 1954) but went on, a decade later, to draft the Second Vatican Council’s document on religious liberty.

Analysts of the nuances of Catholic hierarchical statements may note that a condemnation by the USCCB does not carry the weight of an intervention by the Vatican. But, as the CTSA Board of Directors pointed out in a statement praising Professor Johnson’s work, the bishops did not follow their own rules, which they and a committee of Catholic theologians had set up during a painstaking process lasting nine years, from 1980 to 1989. As both the CTSA and Professor Johnson herself asked in her own brief response, how is it that Professor Johnson was never asked to meet with the bishops to discuss her book?

Professor Johnson began her professional life after entering the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood in the late 1950s. Having first taught science at her order’s request, she has long been interested in science and ecology and their relationship to theology and spirituality. Her book Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit, reflects this, as does the chapter on science, creation, and ecology in Quest.

A Trinitarian through and through, Professor Johnson has focused in particularly eloquent ways on the Holy Spirit, present in history and in daily life, in several of her works. She articulates a christology based on wisdom categories, both accompanying and inaugurating a recent trend.

In a 2008 interview with Tom Fox, former editor and publisher of the independent weekly National Catholic Reporter, Professor Johnson said “I just wanted a book out there, a simple book that people could pick up and read and munch on and feast on and have a banquet… in the theology of God.” Episcopal clergy of the Diocese of New York know the book since Bishop Mark Sisk gave them all a copy of it. It was his “innovative choice” for 2009, selected because it offered “a valuable reflection and overview of modern theological trends.”

Quest for the Living God is a creative venture, exploring ways in which Christians, as theologians of the pew and the street and as the people of God in their faith of many cultures and voices have been wrestling with, naming, and celebrating the presence of God in the world.

The book seeks to write “a new chapter in an ancient story,” as the first chapter indicates. Quest for the Living God begins with a warning: ancient cartographers marked the limit of known worlds by writing “Here be dragons” in empty space at the map’s edge. “There is something frightening about moving into the unknown, which might harm or devour us,” Johnson writes. She invites her readers “to test where the limits of their own ideas about God might be” and to risk a journey through dragon territory to new places “already discovered to be life-giving and true by others in the church.”

Professor Johnson sets up three ground rules to equip readers for the journey: first, the recognition that God’s reality is an ineffable, incomprehensible mystery. God has drawn near in Jesus Christ “but even there the living God remains unutterable mystery…” Consequently, the second ground rule is that no expression of God can be taken literally. “We are always naming toward God, using good, true and beautiful fragments” of our worldly experiences to “point to the infinite mystery who dwells within and embraces the world but always exceeds our grasp.” Every word we speak about God is metaphorical or analogical, namely, that particular notion and more besides. From this, it follows, since no single name is ever sufficient, we need many names for God, each adding to the richness. These three precepts are rooted in the biblical warning against idols. They “free our imaginations from standard cultural models of the divine, the paltry heritage of modern theism.”

In chapters that follow, Professor Johnson explores God-talk emerging out of the crises of human history. How can we speak of God amid human suffering, especially the massive suffering and evil of the last century with its genocides, world wars, nuclear arms race, struggle to emerge from colonialism, and ecological destruction? How can we speak of God in a Christian way –a way advocating Christ’s uniqueness– in a world of many religious and wisdom paths? Professor Johnson probes insights that God who suffers, who liberates, who acts “womanish” in “a symphony of symbols,” who breaks chains of racism and accompanies the poor and colonized and inspires them to celebrate fiesta, a God who is generous beyond our imagining in a world of plural religious experience and belonging, is also the Creator Spirit in an evolving world. She concludes in the Trinitarian God of love as beyond us, as with us in suffering, and as the pervading ways of the Spirit.

By all accounts (and our professional and personal experiences confirm this) Professor Johnson is a thorough scholar, a heartfelt Catholic, a determined and clear-spoken feminist, and a beloved teacher who is also a warm and witty public speaker. Joseph McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, where Beth Johnson is Distinguished Professor of Theology, spoke swiftly and clearly in her defense, as did the Board of the CTSA.

Quest for the Living God is a simple, accessible book with no footnotes. Its wisdom is to examine contemporary insights about God fearlessly and generously so as to detect broader and deeper religious truths. An instructor of Professor Good’s acquaintance who used it in an introductory theology course scheduled it for the end of the quarter, when participants are exploring the future of images of God and the sacred. She found the book highly accessible theologically to an array of students. The writing style presents evocative images and metaphors with which students, both young and older, can play, pray, and engage. The bibliography at the end of each chapter provides resources for further investigation. The professor concludes that the students appreciated this book because it touches on vital concerns that haunt them and about which they wonder: it made theology much more real to them.

Professor Johnson is a firm believer in the church’s mission of reconciliation. At a 2008 gathering of leaders of Catholic religious orders of women and men, many of whom feel anger at the institutional church, Professor Johnson, in a keynote address, invited the assembly to focus on the Holy Spirit’s power to build community in the church and to foster forgiveness. She also minced no words in naming the situation that angers many of her sisters and brothers: “We in this Catholic church continue to live with patriarchal values that, by any objective measure, relegate women to second-class status governed by male-dominated structure, law, and ritual.”

Forgiveness, Professor Johnson said, “does not mean condoning harmful actions, or ceasing to criticize and resist them, but it does mean tapping into a wellspring of compassion that encompasses the hurt and sucks the venom out, so we can go forward making a positive contribution, without hatred.”

Why the condemnation of this particular book? Why now? Professor Johnson has written far heftier works for two full decades. Her book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992), won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award and in many ways was and is far more radical than Quest for the Living God. Professor Redmont remembers wondering at the time why the book did not get Professor Johnson in trouble and answering her own question in two ways: 1) The book, which places in dialogue feminist and classical Christian wisdom, was so exquisitely researched, so deeply rooted in scriptural and patristic study, so beautifully argued and written, that it was virtually impossible to shoot scholarly or doctrinal holes through it. 2) The bishops had not and would not read it, both because of its sophistication and because Professor Johnson was, after all, a woman. Most women theologians have more education in theology than most of the U.S. bishops.

Which brings us to the level of theological sophistication of the Catholic laity, including (for canonically they are lay persons) Catholic sisters. The bishops’ stated concern about Quest for the Living God is that as a book conceived to be popular, it is being widely read and used in undergraduate college courses and that it is leading the faithful astray. Have the faithful no intellectual capacity to discern or no capacity to be taught by their professors and clergy? As the French would say, Un peu de respect! (A little respect, please.) In a follow-up statement issued during Holy Week, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, carefully delineates in doctrinal language the respective roles of bishops and theologians but inserts a sports metaphor. “In any sporting match, football, tennis, baseball, there are referees and umpires. The game can proceed with the supervision of a referee. In a tennis match, it is not the player who calls the ball ‘out of bounds’ but the referee. The player may object that it was not his or her intention to hit the ball out of bounds. He or she may even question whether the ball is out of bounds. But it is the referee who must make the call.”

Not surprisingly, sales of Quest for the Living God have, since the issuing of the original condemnation, shot up to the top of the Amazon.com sales list and in direct sales from Professor Johnson’s publisher, Continuum.

Even as we share the outrage of our Roman Catholic theological colleagues, we should not limit our ecumenical solidarity to complaints about Professor Johnson’s treatment by hierarchs who have tried –unsuccessfully so far– to sully her good name and her credentials as a Catholic theologian. Indeed, we would do well to exercise our ecumenical muscles by learning from Professor Johnson’s theology.

As we celebrate the central mysteries of the Christian year and continue through the season of Resurrection, Professor Johnson’s critiques and constructive suggestions are well worth pondering, not only in Quest for the Living God but in all her works. Professor Johnson began her erudite, thoughtful, and faith-filled book She Who Is with thoughts that apply not only to Roman Catholics but equally to us as Episcopalians. “Inherited Christian speech about God,” she writes, “has developed within a framework that does not prize the unique and equal humanity of women, and bears the mark of this partiality and dominance.” How do we, in our theology and in our common prayer, speak of God and how can we struggle poetically and faithfully to speak of God rightly?

“To even the casual observer,” Professor Johnson writes, “it is obvious that the Christian community ordinarily speaks about God on the model of the ruling male human being. Both the images that are used and the concepts accompanying them reflect the experience of men in charge within a patriarchal system.” Professor Johnson continues: “The difficulty does not lie in the fact that male metaphors are used, for men too are made in the image of God and may suitably serve as finite beginning points for reference to God. Rather, the problem consists in the fact that these male terms are used exclusively, literally, and patriarchally.”

We strongly urge that Christians, catholic and reformed, read and discuss Professor Johnson’s books. Let her teach us. We have much to learn from her.

For further reading:

Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990)

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992)

Tenth anniversary edition with new Preface, 2002.

Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (1993)

Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (1998)

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (2003)

Dangerous Memories: A Mosaic of Mary in Scripture (2004)

Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (2007)

– Elizabeth A. Johnson is also editor of The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue, a book of proceedings of a 2002 symposium, and the author of numerous journal articles.

Deirdre Good is Professor of New Testament at the General Theological Seminary. Her latest book is Studying the New Testament: A Fortress Introduction with Bruce Chilton (Fortress Press 2010). Jane Carol Redmont teaches religious studies and theology at Guilford College and is the author of Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today (1992) and When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life (1999, pbk 2008). She will be presenting a paper on an ecumenical panel inspired by Elizabeth Johnson’s Friends of God and Prophets at the June meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

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