Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Elizabeth Johnson and Images of God (Part I)

Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ.

When I was a teacher at Sts. Peter and Paul’s Primary (elementary) school in Australia, by far the subject I enjoyed teaching the most was Religious Education. I remember creating and teaching a series of lessons that looked at different images of God. This particular series provided students with opportunities to discuss qualities of God experienced by people throughout history, to examine the diverse range of images of God found in the Bible that reflect these qualities, and to explore and express an image or images of God most meaningful to them.

Years later and on another continent, I incorporated this exploration of images of God into the Human Religious Experience class I taught at the Minneapolis campus of the College of St. Catherine. An insightful resource I used to help facilitate this exploration was the documentary film, Goddess Remembered.

I was recently reminded of all of this when, while riding the 21 bus from St. Paul to Minneapolis, I read an interview with Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ in the latest issue of U.S. Catholic.

A sister in the Congregation of St. Joseph, Johnson has served as president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society. She is the author of numerous books, including the groundbreaking She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. Currently the Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, Johnson’s latest book is Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God.

The interview of Elizabeth Johnson conducted by the editors of U.S. Catholic is fantastic. Her responses remind me of why I’m so drawn to study, talk, and write theology! I find her words hopeful, energizing, and inspiring. For me, they comprise spiritual thoughts and writings that nourish the soul and enliven the spirit. I also appreciate the historical perspective she provides - one that is so important for any understanding and embodiment of a living faith and church.

Following is an excerpt from this interview. Enjoy!


U.S. Catholic: We’re hearing a lot from atheists today who want to persuade us that God doesn’t exist. What do you as a theologian think about that?

Elizabeth Johnson: Atheists are rejecting the old images of God that don’t really work that well even for Christians anymore. Just who is the God in whom Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin), doesn’t believe? I found a great quote from a review of his book, in which the reviewer said that Dawkins envisions God “if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized.” This is not the Christian God.

Also, a lot of the atheists writing today are scientists who just want to clear the deck of God so they can do their science. They’re primarily opposed to the fundamentalist approach.

U.S. Catholic: You’ve said that Christians today have many “stale, worn-out images of God that no longer satisfy.” What are they?

Elizabeth Johnson: We might be a bit beyond Michelangelo’s image from the Sistine Chapel of the old man with the beard, but nevertheless, God is too often still a “chap.” It’s just assumed that God is this single individual with more power than anyone else, who intervenes now and then to get certain things done, and whom you need to satisfy on a number of levels. Again, this isn’t the God of Christian revelation. When you hear talk radio or people in the press talking about God, this is the God they’re talking about. This image is so unworthy of us. . . . Both in this and other countries, I see a terrific hunger for a mature faith, but that’s not being fed by much of the preaching that people hear, most of which also uses this stale idea of God.

U.S. Catholic: Where did this image come from?

Elizabeth Johnson: In the Middle Ages, or even at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, ideas about God were drawn mainly from scripture and sacramental practice and from people’s spirituality. Once the Enlightenment started in the 17th century, as Western philosophers began to throw off authority and to sort out ideas on their own, theologians adapted that method as well. They began to reason toward the fact of God’s existence on the basis of natural phenomena, and they came up with the idea of a superior being at the apex of the pyramid of being. We call it the God of theism.

What is forgotten in this image is that this God became incarnate, that God is everywhere present in the Spirit, that God is filled with compassion. It became a much more distant God, while, at the same time, ironically not distant enough because God became just a more powerful player than we are.

This theistic God is also in competition with the world. It’s a zero-sum game: more of God, less of me; more of God, less of the natural world; more of God, less of my own freedom. That is an aberration from the Christian understanding of God, which is that God set the world up in its own integrity and gives us our freedom. The more we have of God, the freer we are. All of this got lost after the Enlightenment.

. . . The Enlightenment didn’t touch the East in the same way. Even today if you read Christian Orthodox theologians, you get a much different sense of the fullness of God’s Trinitarian life, inviting the world into communion. It’s so different from this monarchical, solitary ruler God that we have, the God about whom we ask questions like, “Why is God letting this illness happen to me? What did I do that’s wrong?”

U.S. Catholic: What is attractive about this idea of God?

Elizabeth Johnson: This all-powerful God can bless you or curse you; therefore you better please him to get the blessing and not the curse. That’s a pattern of relationship that people have with their parents. It’s familiar. It brings a certain measure of security. Also, many people don’t know any other God. They haven’t been exposed to any other understandings.

There are some exceptions: You see some wonderful renewed parishes, for example, where people are living a more biblical approach to God. And this image of God is not widespread in the Hispanic community, where people have the sense of God walking with them. Their home altars and other expressions of their popular religion all indicate the closeness of God, a whole different sort of relationship.

Hispanic theologians today say that their community did not go through the Enlightenment. Conquistadors brought with them to the Americas late medieval Catholicism, which blended with indigenous religion. While Europe went through the Enlightenment, the believers in the Americas did not.

But in general, I think the image of the theistic God is very widespread in our country. You hear it in sermons. And it’s not just me saying this: The U.S, bishops have said that preaching in our country is in a very bad way in terms of the Catholic tradition. The late German theologian Karl Rahner, S.J. was saying the same thing back in the 1950s and ’60s. He said that the words of the preacher fall powerlessly from the pulpit “like birds frozen to death and falling from a winter sky.” I sit and listen to some sermons and I think, “Come on, think of all the wonderful things you could say with this text.”

U.S. Catholic: How does one’s theology of God affect one’s everyday life and faith?

Elizabeth Johnson: If you’re a believing person, you draw your deepest values from that. How you make moral decisions and vocational decisions, how you treat other people – it all flows from how you see God working.

None of the newer theologies of God are innocent in politics. Every one of the ideas I explore in my [latest] book has political implications. They are concerned with power and who uses it and the powerless and how they are affected. So if you let any one of those theologies get into your understanding, you’re going to vote differently, you’re going to volunteer differently, you’re going to use your money differently. Theology, I think, can be very powerful as a tool. It’s my conviction that we all have a theology, so how it shapes your life depends on what it is.

For a second excerpt from this interview, click here.

To read U.S. Catholic’s interview with Elizabeth Johnson in its entirety, click here.

Recommended Off-site Link:
Fordham Scholar Driven to Seek Answers to the Eternal Question of Faith and Reason - Julie Bourbon (Inside Fordham, October 9, 2007).

For other Catholic theologians highlighted at The Wild Reed, visit:
Hans Küng: Still Speaking from the Heart of the Church
In the Garden of Spirituality: Uta Ranke-Heinemann
John Allen on the Censuring of Jon Sobrino
Paul Collins and Marilyn Hatton
“The Non-negotiables of Human Sex”– An Interview with Daniel Helminiak
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Timmerman
Mary Hunt and Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”

Image: Ken Levinson.


Frank Partisan said...

Interesting interview.

There is a social group of liberal bloggers from the Twin Cities called Drinking Liberally. I'm a tea totaler myself. I have never gone to meeting.

This is the last email I received from them:

After a modest turnout that yielded some St. Paulites interested in starting up a
second Twin Cities chapter of Drinking Liberally (we really do need two of them, you now),
we return again this week to The 331 Club in Nordeast.

Thursday, 6:00-9:00 pm
331 Club
331 13th Ave NE
(13th and University, one block north of Broadway)
Northeast Minneapolis

Unlike Robin who's caught up in this new baby thing, I'm still promoting Drinking
Liberally on my blog, Norwegianity.com (not generally worksafe or for the cursing averse).
As the current ad (top right corner) points out, this Thursday is the 2057th anniversary
of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Which has nothing to do with Drinking Liberally,
but is still kind of cool to know.

The Rubicon was a river. I think. We can talk about it at Drinking Liberally if you

Sent by Drinking Liberally (http://drinkingliberally.org)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Michael.

Thanks for the interview with Elizabeth Johnson. I need some clarification though. She is talking about "theism" arising out of the Enlightenment? Wasn't the old superchap with the beard a biblical image? Is it the difference between experiencing God in the world and theorizing about Godness in rational categories? I think there is religious experience, experience of God in the world, in the West because of the European Enlightenment. It might not yield images, but many people have found ways to describe it. Is there a suggestion that some religious experience is superior to other religious experience in her view?

Why is religious experience better if it is based on the Jewish and Christian scriptures? I guess I'll have to read the book, eh?