Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Elizabeth Johnson and Images of God (Part II)

The Wild Reed’s sharing of excerpts from U.S. Catholic magazine’s recent interview with theologian and author Elizabeth Johnson continues with Johnson discussing her understanding of “the living God,” her perspective on revelation, and her thoughts on the use of feminine images for God.

(Note: For Part I, click here.)


U.S. Catholic: You frequently use the term “the living God.” What does that mean?

Elizabeth Johnson: It’s a term found all through the Bible. I love it. The living God is always ahead of us, always surprising, always calling us to come ahead. Wherever “the living God” is used, it indicates a life of fullness, of flowing water, new reality, new justice, new peace. The different theologies I studied use different words for it: getting back to the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of life.

U.S. Catholic: These new theologies of God start with human experience. What’s the significance of that?

Elizabeth Johnson: When I was writing She Who Is, it dawned on me that our original approach to God, where God first reaches us, is through our experience – and that’s the Spirit. The Spirit is present in nature, in our human interactions, in the depths of our own soul, at the end of our reaching out in love.

Take the Catholics of Latin America. Where did they get the idea of God as liberator? They didn’t just say one day, “Let’s have a new idea of God.” It started in the struggle for justice, for a well that had clean water so babies wouldn’t die before their first birthday. In that work, and in their prayer and reflection over that work, people said, “This is what God wants us to do.” Then when they read the Book of Exodus, they read it with new eyes because of their new experience.
In every single one of these theologies, it is experience that opens the door, that leads the way in. Then theologians come along and think about it, but they couldn’t do that without the experience of the Christian people first. We believe, as St. Anselm said a thousand years ago, that theology is faith seeking understanding. You have the church—the community—and theologians reflect on what the community’s faith means. The experience is there as a primary source.

U.S. Catholic: What is revelation then?

Elizabeth Johnson: In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, revelation became highly intellectualized. It came down to doctrine: We knew certain truths, certain beliefs. You’re a Christian if you believe this. I would say Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, The Constitution on Divine Revelation, changed all that. Its opening sentence says, “In his goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will.” In the gift of God’s own self comes understanding something of who God is, so revelation becomes much more experiential right from the start. That experience is then articulated in words and finally it is written down. We call it revelation.

I always regret that word, revelation. It sounds like an object, but it’s a relational dynamic that has brought to birth wisdom in the Christian community about God and fidelity in the way people live.

What we are called to believe is actually a mystery, God’s own giving self. Rahner uses the image of the horizon: You see it, but you never get there. You can’t control it or comprehend it, because then it wouldn’t be God.

U.S. Catholic: How can different images of God all work together and still be Catholic?

Elizabeth Johnson: There can be many theologies among people who still believe in one Creed. Theology is simply an articulation of what faith means in this time and place for this people, so that will change over time. The Creed is a point of unity. We come together over the heart of the confession of faith and the reception of the Eucharist that unites the community.

U.S. Catholic: Isn’t there the potential for so many different theologies to get out of control?

Elizabeth Johnson: Yes, but whose control, exactly? Certain theologians who wrote in every one of these theologies have been criticized by Rome. This approach can be threatening to a hierarchical power structure, because it says that truth also resides among the baptized, that those who are filled with the Spirit have a wisdom.

I don’t mean to knock the institutional church. Rahner wrote that the church has its charisms and its offices, and that often there’s tension between the two. Theology is a charism, and the office is often in tension with that. The good function of the church office is unity; it keeps everybody from losing the heart and soul of what we believe, from falling into fads and trends and that sort of thing. I would never not want to have a central authority that functions as a uniting factor.

U.S. Catholic: Let’s talk about “God acting womanish,” as you call it. Where does this theology stand today?

Elizabeth Johnson: There are major images of God in a female form in scripture and in our mystical tradition especially. Maternity is the main one, but the wisdom texts about Sophia are another. Some theologians make the case, too, that the Spirit has a female name in Hebrew and acts in feminine ways.

Then come the questions of why aren’t we using those images of God in our liturgies, why aren’t we teaching young people that this is an approach to God that can be used as well? The three major words for God are still Father, King, and Lord in Christian hymns, prayer, and liturgy. What that sets up unconsciously, whether you want it to or not, is the assumption that men have more in common with divinity than women do. Those three particular images also are very patriarchal because they refer not just to a male but to a ruling male, somebody who is dominating or being father in a patriarchal sense. Now that isn’t, of course, what scripture means or what Jesus meant when he called God Abba.

If you combine Father, Lord, and King with the God of theism, then you’ve got a problem. That’s one of those static ideas that does not feed the souls of a lot of people, men as well as women.

U.S. Catholic: Why?

Elizabeth Johnson: It’s very simple. Women are no longer relating to men in their lives as lord and king, and father no longer has that sense of control and domination that it had in a previous era. Women are no longer relating to their own fathers that way, let alone marrying men who act as fathers that way. Look at the partnership concept in marriage. Fathering is much more nurturing than it used to be.

There’s little that women then can bring into a relationship with God who is going to be their lord and king or their father. It goes blank, and not only that, but women are very uncomfortable with it. It’s not just neutral, it’s negative. Women think, “I don’t want a dominating man: Go away until you grow up and learn how to treat me like a human being.” When that comes into the religious life of women, it becomes the heart of this crisis. You can have all the dictums in the world, but the old images just don’t work anymore.

U.S. Catholic: What does it mean that we call God by male terms?

Elizabeth Johnson: I have this sentence that I quote over and over again: The symbol of God functions. The male symbol of God functions to privilege a certain way of male rule in the world and to undercut women’s spiritual power, women’s own sense of themselves as made in the image of God.

We women have to abstract ourselves from our bodies to see ourselves in the image of God if God is always depicted as male. It has serious ramifications for spirituality and for the identity of believers and for the community.

U.S. Catholic: Why is there so much resistance to using feminine images of God?

Elizabeth Johnson: I think the rejection of the inclusive language lectionary, which the U.S. bishops applied for in 1992 and which was rejected by the Vatican, was a clear recognition that once you start making room for even nonsexist language about humanity, let alone feminine images of God, there’s a fear that women will want to move in socially and politically, and then you’ve got a challenge to church structure as we know it. I think there’s a great deal of fear of women’s power.

U.S. Catholic: Can you imagine a church that took female images of God to heart?

Elizabeth Johnson: Let me say, I think women and men are equal in sin and grace. I don’t think women are going to be the salvation of the church or of this country. I think we can all get on power trips. I’m convinced of it, maybe because I’ve been in a women’s religious community, and I have six sisters. I am disabused of this romantic notion of women’s greatness as compared to men.

At this moment in history, women have figured out what’s wrong with the current pattern and how their experiences have led to different ways of relating, organizing, and running things. Given the chance, they would bring that pattern into the church and let it play off and see what develops.

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”

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