Last Thursday, the book Quest for the Living God by Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, was questioned by the US Bishops as “not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.” This is big news in the world of American theology. I repeat this is big news and generating lots of discussion. The report claimed that her view of the Trinity and God was incorrect. The response by some of the liberals was that it is a return to the middle ages and repression. A more thoughtful approach was that she was being attacked by the Bishops because of her feminism and they went after other aspects to be circumspect. Those who defend her find when they read through the Bishop’s documents that the Bishop’s office is not reading her book correctly. You know these less educated clergy misread and think she is nothing but jargon. There is a lot of buzz about why, why now, and who was responsible behind the scenes.
But when I read through the Bishop’s document, I find that they were condemning her for pantheism and panentheism, the use of mystical metaphors for God, and an immanent view of God that clashes with traditional doctrine. They also do not like her thinking that the Holocaust has changed theology. It sounds a lot like Arthur Green and her critics sound a lot like Daniel Landes. One side is post mystical and post Holocaust and the other side does not read carefully but knows enough that this is not traditional and that they do not like it.
The interesting thing is the same trend of thought by Johnson and Green and the same year of birth. The youngest of the “lost generation” served as vanguard leaders of the baby-boomers. It was also the year that Tommy was born in the Who’s rock cantata. A boy born in 1941 who was a spiritual savior (It’s a boy Mrs Walker, it’s a boy!) (The story loosely based on the encounter with the gurus in the 1960’s).
On first thought, we might be glad that modern Judaism follows Mendelsohnn’s Jerusalem by not have required dogma checked in this sense of a group of bishops deciding what a theologian should say. Yet, we do have reviewers and institutional voices that are just as effective. Notice how much Green felt Landes was acting as a censor or decider of who is a heretic. And the repercussions of this debate will be felt in American theological circles, even Jewish ones.
Here are selections from the 24 page condemnation, notice the parallels to Green. What are the implications of this debate for Jewish thought?
In the light of the Holocaust and other horrendous evils, modem theism found itself unable to defend belief in its “omnipotent, omniscient Supreme Being” (52)
Later in her book, Sr. Johnson advocates an understanding of God that implies that the ﬁnite order is ontologically constitutive of God’s being. It is this view of God, which she identiﬁes as “panentheism,” that allows her to predicate suffering to God as such. It is only
because God partakes of the ﬁnite order that the suffering within the ﬁnite order redounds to him. However, such an understanding undermines God’s transcendence in that God’s manner of existence, as Creator, would no longer differ in kin
The panentheism espoused by Sr. Johnson, however, fails to respect not only the transcendent integrity of God, but also the integrity of the created order, for in this view the ﬁnite created order ﬁnds its value not in its own created being, possessing its own inherent created value, but in being ontologically constitutive of God’s own being. Read the whole 24 pages here.
Here are the events from NCR; notice how pedestrian this write up is compared to the actual contradictory charges of panentheism, Kantianism, mysticism, and post-Holocaust theology.
Despite that conclusion, the bishops did not call for any disciplinary measures against Johnson, such as a ban on teaching or publishing. Johnson, 69, is a distinguished professor of systematic theology at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York.
According to the statement, the committee felt compelled to publicly denounce Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God because it is directed to a “broad audience,” and because it’s being used in many venues “as a textbook for the study of God.”
When it appeared, Quest for the Living God drew praise in many quarters for sketching new understandings of God based on various contemporary intellectual currents, including political, liberation, feminist, black, Hispanic, interreligious, and ecological theologies.
The statement, however, asserts that the book reaches many conclusions which are “theologically unacceptable.” The Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is chaired by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Though dated March 24, its statement on Johnson’s book was released today.
The 21-page statement from the doctrine committee outlines seven categories of problems in the book.
First, at the level of method, the statement accuses Johnson of questioning core elements of traditional Christian theology, including its understanding of God as “incorporeal, impassible, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.” Doing so, the statement asserts, is “seriously to misrepresent the tradition and so to distort it beyond recognition.”
Second, the statement faults Johnson for treating language about God in the Bible and in church tradition as largely metaphorical, implying that truth about God is essentially “unknowable.” Even if mysteries such as the Trinity and the Incarnation can never be fully grasped, the statement says, they can nevertheless be “known.” While Johnson bases part of her argument on early church fathers, according to the statement, her position actually has more in common with Immanuel Kant and “Enlightenment skepticism.”
Third, the statement asserts that in talking about the “suffering” of God, Johnson actually undermines God’s transcendence, suggesting that God differs only in degree, not in kind, from other beings.
Fourth, according to the statement, Johnson advocates new language about God not based on its truth but its socio-political utility. In particular, she argues that all-male language about God perpetuates “an unequal relationship between women and men,” and thus has become “religiously inadequate.” In fact, according to the statement, male imagery about God found in scripture and tradition “are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable.”
Fifth, the statement asserts that Johnson’s emphasis on the presence of the Holy Spirit in non-Christian religions “denies the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnate Word.” In effect, according to the statement, Johnson’s argument suggests that for the fullness of truth about God, “one needs Jesus + Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.”, a position it says is “contrary to church teaching.”
Sixth, the statement says, Johnson’s treatment of God as Creator ends in pantheism, undercutting the traditional understanding of God as “radically different from creation.”
Seventh, the statement faults Johnson’s understanding of the Trinity. Johnson treats traditional language about God as three persons as symbolic, according to the statement, thereby undercutting the church’s belief that “Jesus is ontologically the eternal Son of the Father.”
In its conclusion, the statement says the root problem with Johnson’s book is that it “does not take the faith of the church as its starting point.”
“It effectively precludes the possibility of human knowledge of God through divine revelation,” the statement says, “and reduces all names and concepts of God to human constructions that are to be judged not on their accuracy … but on their social and political utility.” Read Full story here and it has links to documents and articles.
Charge that the bishops office is misreading the document:
The document accuses Johnson of wanting to “replace” masculine names for God with feminine ones. Johnson never says any such thing. “Are they [the bishops on the committee] doing so much reading between the lines they’re overlooking what the lines themselves say?” Mollie asked. That’s certainly possible. But I wonder whether they’ve read the book at all.
Take, for example, this passage from Quest:
All fruitful metaphors have sufficiently complex grids of meaning at the literal level to allow for extension of thought beyond immediate linkages. That is why God can be seen as a king, rock, mother, savior, gardener, lover, father, liberator, midwife, judge, helper, friend, mother bear, fresh water, fire, thunder, and so on.
God is not literally a father or a king or a lord but something ever so much greater. Thus is the truth more greatly honored. This is not to say that male metaphors cannot be used to signify the divine. Men, too, are created, redeemed, and sanctified by the gracious love of God, and images taken from their lives can function in as adequate or inadequate a way as do images taken from the lives of women…. If God is a “he” as well as a “she”—and in fact neither—a new possibility can be envisioned of a community that honors the difference but allows women and men to share life in equal measure.
As anyone who has read the book can tell, Johnson has no interest in dumping male images of God in favor of female ones. She wants us to consider both. Read the rest here.
Here is a blog Women in Theology that has extensive coverage of the debate, along with reflections and defenses.