Friday, November 06, 2009

In the Garden of Spirituality – Elizabeth Johnson

“We are not on earth to guard a museum,
but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

– Pope John XXIII

The Wild Reed’s series of reflections on religion and spirituality continues with an excerpt from Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God.

In this particular excerpt, Johnson explores the practical implications that arise from our recognition of the triune God as “a communion of overflowing love enfolding the world with gracious compassion.”


In its own singular way, religious belief in the triune God sums up the experience that, far from being an isolated monad, the unfathomable mystery of God is a communion of overflowing love enfolding the world with gracious compassion. “God is love,” penned an early Christian letter writer (1 John 4:8), summing up in this brief phrase the experience of salvation coming from God through Jesus in the Spirit. Anyone who talks of Trinity talks of God as Love in an idiom particular to the Christian story. Conversely, the symbol of the Trinity safeguards this Christian experience of God.

A rationalistic Trinitarian theology, dysfunctional and divorced from Christian life and ethics, has little practical effect. A revitalized Trinitarian theology, however, has strong down-to-earth ramifications. The opening sentence of Catherine LaCugna’s influential study, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, articulates this surprising claim with vigor: “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life.” The logic of this assertion is clear. God lives as the mystery of love. Human beings are created in the image of God. Therefore, a life of integrity is impossible unless we also enter into the dynamic of love and communion with others.

What practical pattern of life best enables us to do so? La Cugna proposes that the key resides in the reign of God, which Jesus preached and enacted. As glimpsed in his parables and practices, the reign of God is a gracious rule of saving love and communion. As a place where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, it sets up a new kind of community where “the least of these” brothers and sisters are included, a gathering where the Samaritan woman, the tax collector, and the leper are equally at home. In this community tyranny is countermanded in the light of God’s self-giving ways; male and female are equal partners, as are Jew and Greek. Justice, peace, and the well-being of all creatures are the goal. If we are not living out the types of relationships that serve this pattern of the truth of the reign of God, then we haven’t got a clue about who God is. Knowing God is impossible unless we enter into a life of love and communion with others.

To say that the Trinity is inherently practical is not to imply that this belief gives immediate solutions to war and violence, blueprints to eliminate hunger, or concrete remedies for inequality. Rather, it functions as a source of vision to shape our actions in the world, a criterion to measure the fidelity of our lives, and a basis for resisting every form of oppression that diminishes community.

Deeply harmful attitudes and practices have arisen in church and society because one group imagines itself superior to another. The resulting stratification of power, with some dominant, some subordinate, shapes institutions of racism, sexism, ecclesiastical clericalism, and ruination of the earth, among other pernicious sins. The revitalized idea of the Trinity makes clear that, far from existing as a monarch ruling from isolated splendor and lording it over others, the living God is an overflowing communion of self-giving love. The practical importance of this notion lies in the way it exposes the perversion of patriarchy, racism, and other sinful practices.

Because such breaks in community totally oppose God’s very own way of relating, people of faith have compelling reason to behave otherwise.

The church’s identity and mission pivot on this point. Called to be a sacrament of the world’s salvation, the church is to be a living symbol of divine communion of equal persons related in profound mutuality, pouring out praise of God and care for the world in need, only such a church corresponds to the triune God it purports to serve.

Revitalized Trinitarian theology makes it clear that a God conceived of as an individualized monarch or as a self-enclosed, exclusively inner-related triad of persons, a God who watches from a distance as an uninvolved, impartial observer, a God who needs to be persuaded to care for creatures – such a God does not exist. This is a false God, a fantasy detached from the Christian experience of salvation. Rather, “God is Love,” related to the world in a threefold pattern of communion. Assimilating this truth we gain fresh energies to imagine the world in a loving way and to act to counter the self-destruction of violence.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
No Patriarchy Hierarchy, No Rigid Conformity
Conversing and Arguing with the Theology of Philip Pullman

For more of Elizabeth Johnson at The Wild Reed, see:
Images of God (Part 1)
Images of God (Part 2)

Recommended Off-site Links:
Liam Sullivan’s review of Quest for the Living God (Panorama of the Mountains).
Jill Riatt’s review of Quest for the Living God (Catholic Books Review).

Opening Image: Michael J. Bayly.


Paula said...

Thanks for this Elizabeth Johnson excerpt, Michael. It hits the nail on the head. Or, in a less violent metaphor, it gets to the heart of the matter.

Phillip Clark said...

I need to check this book out! :)

Michael J. Bayly said...

Yes, I'd highly recommend it, Phillip.

Good to hear from you, by the way. I hope you've been well and happy!