The USCCB on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s Book: Some Initial Comments
In a report signed 24 March 2001, but published today (30 March 2011), the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) identified the “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” that it found in Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ’s book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum, 2007). The committee, chaired by Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, organized its 21-page report into seven problematic areas relating to what the committee found to be “theological and methodological inadequacies,” as stated in Wuerl’s March 30th cover letter.
The full report begins with (a) an explanation for the publication of the statement and (b) an overview of the proceeding critique. The reason for the report is described as: “Because this book by a prominent Catholic theologian is written not for specialists in theology but for ‘a broad audience’ , the Committee on Doctrine felt obliged, as part of its pastoral ministry, to note these misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” (USCCB 1).
It is because Johnson’s book is seen as a potential text for undergraduate classroom adoption that it was subjected to such analysis, the bishops say. Yet, I wonder if the phrase “a broad audience” was not included in Johnson’s own introduction and the text was aimed at her theologian peers, would the bishops have just not responded? I somehow doubt it.
Here is how the headings of each section of the full report breaks down and therefore provides us with a brief glimpse at the critique that follows each heading:
- “A False Alternative: “Modern Theism” or Radical Reconstruction of the Idea of God”
- “A False Presumption: All Names for God are Metaphors”
- “A God who Suffers”
- “New Names for the Unknown God”
- “The Presence of God in All the Religions”
- “Creator Spirit in the Evolving World”
- “Trinity: The Living God of Love”
I want to only make a few preliminary comments about each of the sections, perhaps the need or opportunity will arise for additional analysis at a later time. What follows might be at times technical and certainly boring. It reflects my initial reading of the report in light of my own reading of Johnson’s book back in 2007 when it first came out. If you have no interest in this response, you can stop reading here and scroll down to the conclusion.
1. “A False Alternative: ‘Modern Theism’ or Radical Reconstruction of the Idea of God”
Concerning the first section, the report claims that Johnson is playing something of a “sleight of hand” to equate what she terms “modern theism” with what the report claims to be “integral and essential elements of [the Christian] tradition” (USCCB 4).
However, I don’t get that impression from my reading of the text in question. Instead, what I see is the perhaps inadvertent grouping-together of inadequate or incomplete — yet, immensely popular — conceptualizations of God. Modern Theism, as it is described here, is oftentimes the “doctrine of God” that most Christians appropriate, something that any pastoral minister can recognize in any given week of pastoral ministry among the faithful. In identifying that popular and problematic understanding of God, Johnson, it would seem, is simply establishing a starting point from which she might engage in a constructive theology.
However, what follows in this section is the beginning of an at-times latent and at-times more explicit concern with what I would classify as an anti-univocal-concept-of-being agenda that appears throughout the report. Take this line for example:
“Within traditional Christian theology, God is indeed the supreme being, but that means that he [sic] actually exists in a manner that is uniquely his [sic] own and so his [sic] manner of existence radically differs in kind from all else that exists. Existing in such a manner does not make God remote” (USCCB 5)
I don’t know about that. First of all, use of the term “supreme being” actually seems to work in a manner contrary to the rest of the argument, suggesting God is a ‘being’ of the ‘supreme’ — i.e., biggest, best, highest — proportions makes God out to be of same kind, different only in degree.
It doesn’t seem to me that the committee intended to say that, nor do I get the impression that Johnson means exactly what the report suggests that she said either. I do agree with the report, in general, that there is a crisis (perhaps a pastoral/catechetical one??) in how many understand God. It is theological efforts such as the book in question that serves to address such concerns.
2. “A False Presupposition: All Names for God are Metaphors”
As I tell all my students working on papers, I note in observation of this report: “use adjectives sparingly. Each adjective increases the statement’s vagueness and weakens an argument.” For example, the opening sentence of this section includes the phrase: “…her radical revision of the traditional Christian understanding of God…” (USCCB 6). What do the report’s authors mean by “radical?” That said, I can understand, at least in part, the concerns raised in this section as they relate to humanity’s ability to know God.
What the committee states is that “the tradition acknowledges that there is a difference between God’s being incomprehensible and God’s being unknowable” (USCCB 8). Well, yes, but so does Elizabeth Johnson. Take, for example, her very important article in the renowned journal Theological Studies 45 (1984) titled, “The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female,” which deals with this distinction quite clearly.
What Johnson deals with in this section of her book struck me as a reiteration, perhaps with some elaboration and development, of what she first published more than two decades ago — where was the concern then?
I agree with the committee’s point, as I have to believe Johnson also concurs, that the Christian tradition has always held that we can say something true about God. Certainly this is central to all creedal statements, to the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, among so many others. I don’t get the impression that Johnson is jettisoning the knowability of God. Instead, I think she is trying to capture the attention and illuminate serious concerns with the taken-for-granted attitude of many who cannot distinguish human language for God with Deus in se. Yet, I still don’t understand where the concern arises. Perhaps it is a matter of insufficiently expressing a rather delicate and nuanced theological position.
Furthermore, the committee makes clear that all language about God, albeit true, is always rooted in analogy (as good Thomists would, of course, assert). At the same time, there is an objection raised about the notion that “all names for God are metaphors” (USCCB 10). Am I missing something?
3. “A God Who Suffers”
The committee is indeed right to raise concerns about an understanding of God that gets too close to what some process theologians and others have been doing. I wholeheartedly agree that some of those interpretations are indeed non-biblical and can be entirely problematic. I’m not sure how to take this particular concern. I believe that what Johnson is doing here is opening a space within which one can conceive of a God who remains actively and compassionately (literally: “to suffer with”) involved in creation and salvation history. To deny that is to deny much of the truth revealed in the Incarnation and most sound pneumatology. God remains actively engaged in human history, how does suffering play into that relationship? I’m not entirely sure.
My problem, then, with this section is that I don’t believe the committee offers a sufficient critique or ‘alternative’ to Johnson’s theology. Where is the “authentic Catholic tradition” so frequently invoked earlier? Instead of focusing on the questions of theodicy, God’s impassibility and other related theological questions, the authors skip ahead to preemptively critique later portions of the book. I’m not sure what to think about this section other than to point out that the final line contradicts the earlier assertion of a “supreme being,” and again sounds a lot like the Radical Orthodoxy movement’s critique of John Duns Scotus’s theology. The committee writes: “Such an understanding undermines God’s transcendence in that God’s manner of existence, as Creator, would no longer differ in kind, but only in degree, from that of all else that exists” (USCCB 11).
4. “New Names for the Unknown God”
Concerning this section, perhaps the most dumbfounding of the seven, if the committee readily acknowledges that “Sr. Johnson is entirely correct on this: the Catholic theological tradition affirms that no human language is adequate to express the reality of God. Catholic teaching maintains that human concepts apply to God only in an analogous fashion” (USCCB 7), then what is the problem? The images that Johnson discusses are, by and large, biblical images like Ruach and Sophia.
The report continues: “The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgement” (USCCB 13). Well, of course! Who is suggesting the contrary? Johnson is using “Wisdom” and “Spirit,” symbols of Divine Immanence long recognized in both the Hebrew and Christian canons. What is the problem again?
The claim is that Johnson isn’t taking “divine revelation” as a point of departure. I’m not sure that I follow that argument, but either way, she does rely on the Divinely revealed symbols of God’s own presence in creation and salvation history. I do wonder if there aren’t other motivations at play here, perhaps the matter of patriarchy is not something to dismiss so easily.
5. “The Presence of God in All Religions”
This is always a contentious issue. I am not an expert on interreligious dialogue or comparative religion, I know plenty of theologians who are and I would leave it to them to look at this critique with more wisdom than I. Here is my take…
Take the committee’s statement here: “What Sr. Johnson is doing here is setting the stage to argue that the Spirit of God is at work in other religions in the same manner that the Spirit is working within Christianity and thus other religions are equally salvific” (USCCB 14).
The issue at hand is the use of “in the same manner.” I’m not sure what that means. I understand that God can indeed be found active in all of creation and, because humans are both imago Dei and therefore are capax Dei, all humans are already always in relationship with God. Yet, there is indeed a special relationship to the Trinity, by the Spirit, in Baptism. So, does that mean that God works differently in the Catholic church (or more broadly, in the Christian reality) than in the rest of the world? I don’t know. Nor does the committee, because the report sort of skips over that.
The committee is 100% correct to say that Jesus is the “fullness of truth” (USCCB 16), for Christ is the decisive embodiment of God’s revelation. Yet, the committee is interpreting Johnson’s text at the point at which it suggests that she believes one “needs” other religions. I’m not sure that she says what the interpretation suggests.
6. “Creator Spirit in the Evolving World”
I actually heard Johnson speak on this subject in-person at the Catholic University of America about 3 years ago. I thought it was brilliant and a fine attempt to engage contemporary science with theology.
The committee asks this question in the report: “First, how does one conceive of a transcendent God who is equally immanent within the world and history?”
My response: Rahner’s Axiom.
As for “the second concern” that “is over the evolution of human beings” (USCCB 17), I again return to Rahner and suggest that folks concerned about God’s relationship to humanity vis-á-vis evolution check out works like, “Christology Within an Evolutionary View of the World” and others. We (all those interested in theology — faith seeking understanding) must take seriously the scientific discoveries of our day. Fideism is simply not an adequate response.
7. “Trinity: The Living God of Love”
There is some reason to be concerned, according to the committee’s reading of Johnson’s writing on the Trinity, for what may be lost and gained in the attempt to better elucidate the meaning of the Triune God in Johnson’s book. However, I’m not convinced, having read the report, that the committee’s concerns are self-evident. Yes, there is the uncomfortable (for the authors of the report) engagement with the Council of Nicaea, but there was also an uncomfortable engagement with that council from the perspective of the Fathers of the subsequent six councils.
I am not convinced that Johnson disregards the creedal statements of belief articulated in the Nicene or any other Ecumenical Council. Instead, my view — perhaps generous by some accounts — is that she is attempting to follow the guidance of the Holy Father, the late Pope John XXIII who, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, reminded the Church of its need to distinguish between the faith and its articulation.
Such an enterprise is bound to be messy. What concerns me about all this business is the fear it instills in young and old theologians alike. Women and men of good faith who, following Anselm, seek only to better understand the faith we share in the Gospel. This sort of promulgation dampens the fervor for clarification, illumination and understanding what it is we profess with our lives, urging instead some sort of fideistic substitute — a “no questions asked” form of belief.
Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book is imperfect, yet so is Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, and Augustine’s De Trinitate. Each theologian of every age offers further elucidation, not the final word. The job of the theologian is to seek. If theologians are punished for doing their job, then what?