Review of Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth A. Johnson

Like many others, I first heard of Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God from the media frenzy following the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ criticism of it earlier this year. (The news release can be found here, but the link to the actual statement no longer works; if you can get your hands on paper copies of the Catholic news service Origins, you can follow all the exchanges between the bishops and Johnson.) A matter of particular dismay was that the whole process of criticism and subsequent publication of it was done, to all appearances, in secret; Johnson didn’t know about it much before anyone else in the general public did. There were procedural issues, not to matter principles of basic civility, that seem not to have been taken into account. Johnson herself eventually responded with a long response concluding: “Ideas are taken out of context and twisted to mean what they patently do not mean. Sentences are run to a conclusion far from what I think or the text says. False dilemmas are composed. Numerous omissions, distortions, and outright misstatements of fact riddle the reading. As a work of theology, Quest for the Living God was thoroughly misunderstood and consistently misrepresented in the committee’s Statement.”

Shortly thereafter I was notified through an email sent to all women theologians of the ELCA suggesting we send a letter of support to Johnson. After widespread positive response (expressed through “reply all” button), another email from Higgins Rd. came along indicating that we were to write in only if we didn’t want to sign the letter; it would otherwise be taken for granted that we did. I have no idea if I’m the only one who refused. But I did refuse for several reasons. 1) I’d never read the book; that was the main thing. 2) I wasn’t entirely sure what the purpose of a supportive letter from Lutheran women theologians was supposed to mean. Would it actually help Johnson’s case if the daughters of the heresiarch of the Western church were enthusiastic supporters? Was it officially ecumenical but beneath the surface reveling in the Schadenfreud of that horrible Catholic magisterium of celibate males squelching a free-thinking woman? Was it a big ol’ “you go girl”? 3) The draft of the letter I saw contained the phrase “in the name of Sophia-God.” From acquaintance with others of Elizabeth Johnson’s books, I knew what it meant, but as I do not call on the name of any Sophia-God, I couldn’t agree to have my own name on the letter. I saw that in a later version it was removed, and I am very glad about that.

However, I thought I had better read it myself and make my own statement about it; so here it is.

My first reaction was: what’s the big deal, either for or against? My second reaction was: this book was not written for me. Quite possibly because it was not written for a conference of Catholic bishops, either, they had a hard time understanding it and ended up seriously misconstruing it. What they heard as a free-for-all relativism, Johnson intended as an exhortation to encounter the living God and not just concepts about said God, which are open to distortion and misconstrual over the years too. We all know how study of biblical times suddenly sheds light on a passage that has become dark because of our misinterpretation of what a particular phrase means or object signifies or custom implies. The same thing goes for theology. Johnson was trying to shed light in a different way, by showing how various recent Christians have made sense of their encounter with God.

Johnson’s second chapter “Gracious Mystery, Ever Greater, Ever Nearer” provides the clues about her audience. She’s talking to people who are struggling to find faith under ossified forms that don’t speak to them anymore, particularly the “modern theism” of the Enlightenment period onward. I gather she specifically means the Catholic faithful who, for all the forward strides of Vatican II, are still taught to think of theology as a watertight scholastic system that has all the answers, God as a highest being Who can be dissected and explained, the status quo as always God’s positive will, and the world around as basically an enemy. In short, she’s trying to offer a corrective to the far-away-God-you’d-better-obey, and churchly graces running as intermediaries between us and Him, with an evocation of God-with-us, grace as God’s own presence. (At this point, and at several other points in the book, I found myself having the embarrassingly triumphalistic thought, “They’re finally catching up with Luther five hundred years later…”) No more God as ultimate and fearful power; instead the God Who has loved the world since before it was made, Who sustains and permeates it daily, and therefore does not require us to hold it arm’s length. The object of her critique is not a theology or church that I myself have experienced firsthand, so her alternative vision had little existential grip on me. I can well imagine, though, that it would speak powerfully to others. Johnson herself notes in her response to the bishops that the book wasn’t even written as a theology textbook (though it has been used that way) but “for a broad audience of thinking, seeking, committed, teaching, preaching adults as nourishment for their own mature faith.”

From then on, the book visits different pockets of Christian praxis and thought around the world over the past century or so. Johnson was not trying to do original work per se, but to gather up the original work of others and share it with a readership that might otherwise never hear of it. She starts with Christians trying to cope with the enormity of the Holocaust, the failure of baptized persons to stop it (not to mention their collaboration in it), and the implications for divine omnipotence that six million of the chosen people had been slaughtered. From there she moves on to liberation theology arising from situations of extreme poverty (amply citing Latin American Catholic bishops), feminist theology, black theology, U.S. Latino theology, theology of the world religions (amply citing Asian Catholic bishops), and then eco-theology, wrapping up with a reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity. The red thread throughout each of these chapters is theodicy. The world is riven by such evils—Nazism, sexism, racism, religious war, environmental destruction—how do we, how can we believe in God in the midst of it? How do we respond? The universal conclusion is that we need not suffer passively in the face of evil; we can and should act, confident that God is pleased and stands with us when we counter all that would destroy His good creation.

As far as that goes, all well and good. We know entirely too much to pretend anymore that modern governments and social structures are unambiguously good. It expands our vision to see how other Christians elsewhere in the world are trying to respond to the evils around them. There is much in their fight that is inspirational, not to say a bit rebuking of the comforts we in the North and West can taken for granted.

Still, the overall effect left me rather dissatisfied (but again, I reiterate, this book wasn’t written for me). I get the overall impression that the driving purpose is to craft a primarily useful theology, which cannot help but put the starting point at a human-determined concept of need. Not that human need is irrelevant to the task of theology or church life, but starting with the human perception of it rather than the biblical account of it, seems to me, almost guarantees a skewed reading. For example, even though the point is to empower solidarity in action, Johnson’s treatment of evil strikes me as remarkably thin. Why after all does God let such awful things happen? There is not even a hint of the “hidden God” concept that Lutherans use to deal with such things (however unsatisfactorily). God apparently acts, Johnson seems to be arguing, but only when we get our acts together and do something. God is good, but God’s power remains very much in question. Her tone is cheerful and upbeat throughout but after awhile it rang hollow to me, or just false—for instance, when the vast violence of the evolving universe is labelled as “cruciform” and so dispatched, as if Jesus’ crucifixion were some kind of divine pattern for how things happen not only morally but also naturally—hardly good news! And the potential for evil among the very movements that challenge evil is little acknowledged. I think, for instance, of a Zimbabwean pastor friend who has described to me the evils of colonialism that liberation movements succesfully shook off—only to be replaced by arguably greater evils in the form of a dictatorship. Even the good guys, even the insightful critics, are sinners. Johnson throws a bone to this problem in occasional disclaimer sentences, but I don’t see how they are integrated into the entire fabric of her thinking.

Another problem with the starting-from-suffering method is that it lends itself to one-up-man-ship. It is just barely acknowledged in the chapter on black theology, which has its own major problem of sexism, spawning a womanist (=black feminist) response—which also critiques white feminism for its failure to account for the privileges of race and class. To what extent is black theology valid when it is not self-consciously womanist too? I never saw that question considered or answered. The same for liberation theology in infamously machismo-infected Latin America. Or I could offer an example of my own. In the section on feminist theology, Johnson discusses the image of God as Mother, saying, “First of all, mothers give the gift of life to others… maternal love nurtures what it has brought into existence, mainly by feeding the young… Finally, this love passionately wants the young to grow, flourish, and be fulfilled… Good paternal love does all of these things too… But the irreplaceable role of women’s own bodies in giving birth and their close connection with breast-nursing and child-rearing lend a special resonance to the maternal model” (103). My immediate reaction to this, as an adoptive mother, was to think, “Then I’m not really a mother after all—I’m only a father, since I neither gave birth to nor breast-fed my son.” So her warmly meant validation of maternal models of God demoted me from maternity. Guess how that made me feel?

Analogous to Johnson’s treatment of evil, the christology she describes in the chapter on the world religions was also thin at best. I noted a careful pattern of talking about “God in Christ” but not “Christ is God” (though the latter theme resurfaced briefly in the chapter on the Trinity, yet there also “threeness” seemed more important than the biblically witnessed agents of Father, Son, and Spirit). There was nothing whatsoever about the call to evangelical mission. And this is to say nothing of the works-righteousness approach to salvation for non-Christians, or what strikes me as a colonizing approach to other religions for Christian use. I actually enjoyed the section on U.S. Latino theology, but I was quite astonished that neither this chapter nor the one on liberation theology so much as mentioned the long-observed reality that “liberation theology opted for the poor, but the poor opted for Pentecostalism.”

In the end, I can’t tell if my lack of warmer appreciation for Johnson’s book is because of a difference in theological style, or if it’s because she really is writing for people with theological burdens that I don’t share and thus can’t appreciate, or if it’s because, ultimately, she’s Catholic and I’m Lutheran. I can’t say conclusively, but at present I’m inclining to think it’s really the last of the three. Certainly she has a much more positive attitude toward religion as such than I can ever imagine having myself; the failure to distinguish law from gospel was evident throughout; and at the points where my disagreements were the sharpest I could perceive way off in the distance a long-standing doctrinal dispute between Catholics and Lutherans.

If that’s the case, then the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has no business ganging up on one of their own who cites others of their own so extensively in her book. They ought to be examining the deeper problems at the heart of their own teaching instead.


Posted by John Hannah at October 25, 2011 19:42 Excellent review. Penetrating, thoughtful, faithful to the Book of Concord. Thank you.


Posted by Pr. Greg Harbaugh at October 28, 2011 14:32 Thank you, Sarah, for the fine review of Johnson’s book and your and her sensitivity to others’ struggles. I continue to think that when the fullness of God’s transcendence is given over to an immanent God, we lose both the strength of God-with-us and the overwhelming pathos of the crucifixion of the Son of God. God is with us as that Holy Other “by whose stripes we are healed.” Johnson seems to submerge Christology in anthropology, replace the Crucified with the (generic?) human experience of suffering, and thus loses the salvatory force of Him-who-died/gave-Himself-for-our-sake (motherly act?). Christ’s victory on the cross becomes a function of reflection through the cross to some other reality/process by which we might relieve suffering.

Having waded in the waters of theologies du jour, and gleaned much from some of them, the thinness of which you write regarding Johnson’s book seems to me to result from the lack of a “thick” or strong sense of transcendence that grounds divine immanence specifically in the incarnation of the Son of God as/in Jesus, the crucified. As He is risen and ascended Lord, the character of theodicy is utterly transformed into the justification of the un-godly/sinner. As the crucifixion is reckoned an action at the heart of God’s own life, theodicy becomes more identifiable with theosis. On the other hand, where immanence as God’s generic presence, absent the concreteness of Jesus crucified, displaces transcendence, theodicy will likely be shaped by God’s need for our assistance esp. in worldly matters, with slogans such as, “God’s work, our hands…”

As for the US Catholic Bishops Conference, I think there is much work to be done. Enough already. Thanks again, for your review and for your leadership among us.

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