Quest found 'crammed with energy, pathos, yearning, celebration'

With Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God under attack by the U.S. bishops' doctrinal committee, it is helpful going back to look at some of its book reviews.

Regina Schulte, a retired theologian living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wrote one for Corpus Reports, the publication of a church renewal group by the same name.

The review follows:

This book is not a “how to” shopping guide for individuals seeking a religious faith or spirituality for their personal lives. Rather, as indicated by its sub-title, it is a survey of contemporary life experiences wherein communities of people are finding God’s presence in new territories.

In it, the author introduces the various theological themes through which people of faith are seeking to connect themselves to the sacred-divine: the mysterium tremendum et fascinas, in the words of Rudolph Otto. It is a timely work because 1) the population of planet Earth is now a global “village” in which interaction with persons of differing cultural and religious traditions is a daily occurrence, and 2) cosmology can no longer accommodate our former working image of a theistic (and largely, tribal) God. Consequently, as happens in the breach between one era and another, many are seeking new religious interpretations that they will find credible and integral for life in the uncertainties of these times.

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In her methodical way, and trademark clarity, theologian Elizabeth Johnson gives readers a guided tour of these “frontiers”, pointing out the peoples among whom God is present and waiting to be recognized—where else but in human experience? Frontiers always precede settlements and remain in the future; therefore, the questing after God is always “a work in progress,” and will remain so forever (perhaps even in eternity? the author muses).

In preparation for the tour, Johnson sets three ground rules for talking about God. “The first and most basic prescript is this: the reality of the living God is an ineffable mystery beyond all telling.” The second follows as a consequence: “No expression for God can be taken literally. None.” The third rule: “we see the necessity of giving to God many names.” Literary tools of analogy, metaphor, and symbol serve to help us say something about God, but they can only point toward and never, ever, capture the esse of God.

In preceding decades, many Christians were able, almost effortlessly, to settle contentedly into their inherited and what they considered to be unchanging doctrines and liturgies. Johnson’s study makes prominent the fact that today’s seekers have generally inverted that order, experiencing the divine in their lives, celebrating it in their rituals, and then formulating statements of their beliefs—or not.

In a brief historico-anthropological sketch of humankind’s awakening to a sense of awe at the mysteries of life in the universe, we note that this was the order of things: experience preceded belief. Today, “people are discovering God again, not in the sense of deducing abstract notions, but in the sense of encountering divine presence and absence in their everyday experiences of struggle and hope, both ordinary and extraordinary.” Johnson’s travel brochure indicates the territories through which she will guide us.

New ideas about God have emerged, for example, from the effort to wrestle with the darkness of the Holocaust; from the struggle of poor and persecuted people for social justice; from women’s striving for equal human dignity; from Christianity’s encounter with goodness and truth in the world’s religious traditions; and from the efforts of biophilic people to protect, restore, and nurture the ecological life of planet Earth.

She begins with the thought of some prominent theologians whose insights became the bridge from neo-scholasticism in the latter half of the twentieth century. There she provides a splendid micro-summary of Karl Rahner’s theology, which contributed mightily to the work of Vatican Council II. Johnson’s premise—that human experience is the starting point of the questing and, ultimately, it is there that people find the living God—is carried along on the current supplied by Rahner. This provides a lead-in to the author’s tour of predominantly experiential questings for the Holy.

In “The Crucified God of Compassion,” Johnson squarely confronts what is probably the most difficult “frontier” of all: the aftermath of twentieth century evil in the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews. It “was an earthquake that cracked open the ground of faith’s confidence in God…that shattered belief not only in God, but also in humanity and its secular projects. Taking the measure of the Shoah, one simply could not go on as before crafting interpretations that would allow this magnitude of suffering to make some kind of sense in God’s plan for the world.”

Naturally, anyone wishing to interpret this horror and find God in it, must quest through the suffering, death, emptiness and despair it unleashed upon the Jewish people. The proper question, Johnson says, is not how God could allow this, but is “the anguished query: ‘where is God, where is God now’?”

She introduces theologians who attempt to answer that cry, and seems to favor the proposal of Johannes Baptist Metz. Metz sees two intertwined steps pointing us in a helpful direction: remembering, and lamenting unto God. Remembering entails burning hope for the future. Ongoing complaining, grieving, lamenting, protesting—a very biblical form of prayer—keeps insisting on God’s promise. Metz holds that, “even though religion cannot answer it, theology should protect the radical question of suffering, clear a space for it, shelter it so it might continue to cry out in history and irritate our thought.”

In “The Liberating God of Life,” Johnson speaks of the injustices suffered by the poor and powerless of the Americas, and of the encounter with God taking place in the church of the poor. “For centuries the Catholic Church, which arrived with the Europeans, was complicit in the conquests, enslavements, impoverishments, and marginalization of captive Africans and of those we call Latinos/as. In the various social justice movements taking place today, these peoples are experiencing a radical realization: “liberation is the signature deed of the saving action of God in history.” The church of the poor is, therefore, finding that “God is the one who protects and defends those who have least life, journeying with them through history, at their side in their suffering, sustaining their struggle, awakening courage and hope.”

Both of these peoples, in their eras of servitude to conquerors-become-masters, found meaning and hope in biblical stories and characters. For black slaves God was in the Exodus from Egypt and in the death/resurrection of Jesus as the “God who breaks chains.” Black women easily identify with the experiences of Hagar, her surrogate role, exploited servitude, sojourn in the desert and subsequent survival to be the mother of a nation.

The complex racial mix in their heritage and the fact that migrant work is the lot of so many Hispanics, attracts them to the Bethlehem experience of Joseph and Mary. Also, because of their marginalization (geographic as well as economic and social) in society, the gospel query, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” resonates with Hispanics and Mestizos. And, of course, there is their intense devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who revealed herself to a poor peasant—one of their own.

Because Christian churches identified with the white, European culture, and because both African slaves and Hispanics were held at bay from that arena (in fact, enslaved by people from just such churches), religious practices of these two groups developed outside the Vatican-based clerical system. Their home altars, local community festivals, rich religious symbols, processions, music and songs, etc., were created and celebrated “from the ground up” and not “the top down” as happened in the churches closely connected with that of Rome. Catholic priest and theologian Virgilio Elizondo approvingly states that “they are truly the faith celebrations of the people of God in which the bishops, clergy, and religious are most welcome, but not missed if they are not around.”

God’s presence is being experienced today in various other liberation movements wherein the poor and the powerless are meeting the liberating God of the Exodus and the One who offers hope that suffering and death will be overcome by resurrection. Johnson separates and points out the differences of emphases and praxis in these causes. At the end of the day, we see that God is busy on the frontiers, clearing the land of poverty and crafting dwelling places out of the materials found in social justice.

In the chapter on women’s liberation, Johnson depicts God as “acting womanish.” Her treatment of this topic cuts across all cultural and racial divisions for the simple reason that women compose at least half the population of the entire world. Yet, she details the ways women have been imaged (and managed) in their distinctive cultures and how, in those social environments they now struggle to claim full equality as members of the human race. If it is true that women are, like men, the image of God, then simple logic must conclude that God doesn’t merely have feminine qualities; God is female. And, therefore, women can experience God in their own lives—as woman. (By the way, Johnson applies this same principle to black people: God is black!)

Pluralism: here the key question is “What has God been up to outside our tribe?” And, the key word for finding out is “dialogue”—inter-religious dialogue in both word and action. This should include differences in praxis, rituals, prayers, sacred literatures—as well as our creeds. But, it can’t be mere “talk.” A kaleidoscope of religious cultures now forms the ordinary matrix of daily life on planet Earth, And we are regularly “confronted with people whose commitments offer a different claim about what is worth believing.” Johnson sees the need to “cross over,” participate with one another, and learn from one another. She sees the burning theological challenge to be “how to remain faithful to one’s own beliefs while making space for the undoubted difference of others.”

Our response, she says, can be fundamentalist, relativist, or dialogic. Standing firmly within the ecumenical teaching of Vatican II, she chooses the dialogic. This option, she says, places God in a new context. “The deep spiritual wisdom, practice of goodness, and undoubted devotion of people of the world’s religions makes clear that, while in Jesus Christ Christians have a unique encounter with God’s ways in the world (who else holds dear such belief in incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection?), we do not have a monopoly on either truth or virtue.” And, certainly not on God’s presence.

This book’s last major topic is that of the Trinity. Here, Johnson demonstrates her agility in adhering to foundational church doctrines while providing interpretations that give them contemporary relevance. With mounting recognition in theological circles of the need to develop a theology of the Spirit, Johnson turns to Trinitarian doctrine—a topic about which “today a great ferment is brewing.”

The triune symbol has, for practical purposes, been non-functional for centuries, in the West, at least—neglected, analyzed conceptually and treated more-or-less, as a religious relic—perhaps maintained because we have been reluctant to piously dispose of it. Johnson has retrieved it from the Church’s attic and put it back into good working order.

Even though it is a daunting task, she bravely gives readers an organized foray into the topic. The difficulty of rendering it theologically relevant is evident by the fact that she provides a string of hypotheses set forth by as many theologians. But, in the end, she hands us a doctrine smartly refurbished, that wraps up this study and ties it with an orthodox bow. The reader can’t but admire this effort.

The point of trinitarian language, she writes, “is to acclaim the living God as the mystery of salvation. Whether found in scripture, creed, liturgy, doctrine or theology, it is Christian code tapping out the belief that the living God made known through Jesus and the Spirit is dynamic Love encompassing the universe who acts to save. At its most basic it is saying, very simply, ‘God is love’.”

A Professor of theology in this reviewer’s acquaintance uses a two-question formula to respond to (often gratuitous) statements by students. “How do you know that?” and the follow-up: “So what?” Johnson easily passes this two-question face-off. First, she traces “how we know” of the trinity. Beginning with the perspectives of the early followers of Jesus, she leads readers through the historical development of trinitarian speech and the loci where esoteric theologizing, performing clinical tests on it, nearly bled it into a comatose state of existence.

In the end, her default position is the unfolding of a sound byte from Karl Rahner: “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa.” She expands: “It is all the one God, but we use a triple mode of address to signal the threefold way God has self-communicated in history.” With that she relates this topic to the theme of the entire book and answers the second question: “So what?”

And, that is where the rubber of trinitarian belief hits the road of the useful for contemporary life. The symbol speaks of the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus: relationships in community; equality of persons; God who loves and covenants with us, entering our historical lives with the offering of salvation. “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.”

“Quest” material moves both vertically and horizontally. Vertically, it has depth as well as height. Readers who seriously accompany Johnson in this survey will do well to travel it a chapter at a time. It is crammed with energy, pathos, yearning, celebration, “aha!” insights and rich imagery.

Because, along with the cosmos, we are evolving and history is ongoing, the author warns us that human questing for the Living God will never end. Given that fact, she implies that we must always travel in a fog, and it is all right to do that. (But, please, never again enclosed in a little pod traveling on automatic pilot.)

A. Regina Schulte, Ph.D.


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