Johnson's work gets high marks in classroom

Dominican Sr. Mary Catherine Hilkert

Professors who have used in the classroom The Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God and other works by St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson told NCR that students have responded well to her style and approach to theology.

In a statement dated March 24 and released March 30, the bishops' doctrine committee said that the book is marred by “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors” and “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel.”

Mark Yenson, a religious studies professor at King’s University College in Ontario, Canada, uses Quest for the Living God in an upper-level seminar for undergraduates. He said his students, many of whom are preparing to teach in Catholic schools in Canada, find the work “really helpful.”

“It’s clearly the work of an experienced teacher who is able to grab people’s attention and concretize theology for a wider public -- people who may not have experience with theology itself.”

Yenson, who said he uses Johnson’s book as “the skeleton” of his course on “interpreting the Catholic tradition,” interspersing it with more in-depth readings, said that his students widely praised Johnson in recent end-of-term evaluations of his course -- even those who did not agree with all of the theologian’s arguments.

“A couple of students said that they would probably put more weight on masculine language for God,” said Yenson. “So they would want to qualify Johnson, or they might disagree with Johnson, but they kind of thought that disagreeing with Johnson was part of the agenda -- that the book was appropriate for a university course, where they’re expected to engage critically with the text.”

Another professor, who said he would “tend to agree” with the bishops’ critique of Quest for the Living God, said he would still consider using it in one of his courses as a way of having students engage the material.

“I do tend to agree with the bishops in terms of evaluations of some aspects of the book,” said Ralph Del Colle, an associate professor in theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. However, he said, use in the classroom is “not the issue in terms of the bishops’ statement. In fact to use it with the bishops’ statement might be pedagogically interesting.”

Although Del Colle said he would want to “qualify” what Johnson says in certain sections of the book -- particularly her critique of tradition -- he also said the book could be useful as a general introduction to modern theological thought.

“I think she captures a host of trends in contemporary theology in one volume, so in lieu of having several books -- like one on theology of the cross, one on liberation theology/Latin America, one on feminist theology, and going through the list -- her book could be useful in terms of capturing those trends.”

Dominican Sr. Mary Catherine Hilkert, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, uses Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse in a graduate level course. She said her students have also expressed gratitude for Johnson’s work, even mentioning that it’s “sustained them spiritually.”

One student, a music major, even wrote a composition based on the scriptural idea of Holy Wisdom based on an inspiration from Johnson’s book, Hilkert said.

Michael Attridge, an assistant professor in systematic theology at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College, which presented Johnson with an honorary doctorate last year, said his students in a graduate course in Christology “deeply appreciated” her Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology.

“Year after year after year I have students who express a sort of profound appreciation [for her work],” said Attridge. “It’s not superficial. They’ve found that she really speaks to their own situation.”

That appreciation, said Attridge, even recently led one student to e-mail him a thank-you note for introducing her to Johnson’s work.

“Out of the blue ... this student e-mailed me saying she just wanted to tell me how much she really appreciated the Elizabeth Johnson book that I had assigned,” said Attridge. “She said she really found that Johnson had addressed how she was feeling, what she was thinking, some of the considerations and concerns she found very meaningful to her.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is]

More coverage from NCR:

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here