Elizabeth Johnson, Arthur Green, and the Spirit of 1941

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.
And this:

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.

6 responses to “Elizabeth Johnson, Arthur Green, and the Spirit of 1941

  1. Len Moskowitz

    “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.”

    You don’t give Daniel Landes enough credit. In my opinion he’s read Green very closely and has made pointed criticisms that Green doesn’t seem to understand, or at the least refuses to acknowledge.

  2. Len,
    You had your chance to show me with argumentation your opinion and not just tell me and you didn’t. You could have cited passages and we could have had a discussion about ideas rather than arguing about people. You had a dozen posts to discuss the issue. At least with Alan Lew, you argued with citations about why he was not just a Buddhist theologian who keeps mizvot. Look how you argued in the Lew case. Here you did not. Now, the time is over. Let this topic pass. The new topic is about Beth Johnson and any parallel’s with Green. Now go read the USSCB and Johnson. We know your opinion on Landes. To restate it without new data does not add to the conversation. Please dont turn into a troll.

  3. i can understand to some degree why some people would be troubled with tampering with doctrine. i had in a small way a kind of experience with this. It happened when i wrote a small essay
    knocking the pantheism of modern day chasidut. It was not that i am against pantheism per see but i did not like the idea that it is presented in chasidic books as being the regular doctrine of Torah. Fine i say if you believe in it –but don’t go around trying to sell it as traditional Judaism. For a while it seemed this essay was stirring up trouble for me until one (litvack) rosh yeshiva said not to leave it in his yeshiva. He did not mind other writing that i left there; but that one people were taking as an attack on rebbi nachman directly. I did not intend it that way. Rather I was trying to defend rebbi nachman and explained that he did not endorse pantheism at all and it was just present day breslov rebbis and were using the name of rebbi nachman to endorse pantheism.

  4. The Catholic tradition insists that all attributes that are predicated of God even if originally acquired by human experience can be understood only analogously. Thus predicates mean something different when applied to natural kinds than when used in connection with God. Common sense says the meanings are univocal… exists, powerful,loving, suffering and all the rest mean the same both with respect to God and created beings, it’s just that God is different from objects.(See Quine’s Word and Object.) The first view is the Thomistic view, the second was held by Duns Scotus. (see pg 7-8 of the Bishop’s statement.) Even though these human concepts do not have the same meaning when applied to God, Catholicism claims they do give “real if limited knowledge of God.” On the univocal view they give us knowledge, provided of course the sentce is true and the assertion is justified, because the predicate has the same meaning here on earth as in the transcedental realm. The Catholic formula is we can have knowledge of God, but He is incomprehensible. (Somehow they equate this view with negative theology, where all we can know is what God is not. (pg.9…apophaticism of the Church Fathers.)) Sr. Johnson because she denies the knowledge that can be acquired by the analogical use of terms, ends up saying all predicates of God are metaphors, do not express any literal truth about God, and are therefore to be evaluated by pragmatic considerations and to prevent these terms being used to maintain unfair distributions of power. (Big heresy!!!.)

    The paper reinforced this point on pg.14 when it says the entire feminist program of Sr. Johnson for replacing patriarchal language is based on her ‘radical’ position that all theological language and concepts are mere metaphors, and do not describe even in a limited way the reality that is God. They then point out how this error leads Sr. Johnson to think God is present and active in other religions, whereas the Catholic position is that other religions can receive their fulfilment only in Catholicism.(pg. 15-16)

    Now here is my point…on the surface there are parallels here to Green-Landes. But Landes does not locate the failure of Green in his failure to use terms analogically. Politically Green lines up with Sr. Johnson, but his arguments are more of the form…let’s get real, no reasonable version of Judaism can possibly hold X, so clearly we need to hold Y. And he is right as far as the cultural- political beliefs of his audience. The guys who are making arguments similar to the Bishops are the Anglican theologans of Radical Orthodoxy, John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock. This is so cute or should I say cool …Western civilation has fallen apart and become this horrible, sinful place because we went with Duns Scotus and forgot Thomism. Scotus’ rejection of analogy which led to, wooo, nominalism is seen as a precursor to modernity. Who knew?

    After I thought of this little chidush I found this post…baruch shekivanti…Smile

    • Thank for the insight. There are several sites that connect the Bishops office to radical Orthodoxy. I should have given one. I forgot that you have read them. My problem here and this gets to be insider baseball, is that the Bishops who pushed for this are not necessarily Thomist. And some of the younger hands in the drafting studied with Johnson and accept Rahner.
      A moderate perspective starts with David Tracy. I think she was trying to stay within Tracy’s guidelines of a capacious, subjective, and multi-valent form of analogy. For those who want some background to my discussion with EJ- see here, here, and here.
      I think that my be my problem with this Jewish debate. The lack of form. “let’s get real” and “let’s get traditional” are politics not good theology. Maybe I should send Landes the Radical Orthodoxy reader?

    • Analogia Entis, not a new issue. Cf. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, Carl Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form.

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