Monday, December 8, 2014

"We need to go back to the Bible and to the riches of Christian tradition for a fuller understanding of the living God": A special interview with Elizabeth Johnson

By Patricia Fachin (English translation by Rebel Girl)
IHU-Unisinos (em português)
November 23, 2014

"The bishops need to study the history of theology more closely." This is how theologian Elizabeth Johnson begins her answer to the American bishops' critique of her book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011).

According to the American bishops, the work, by criticizing modern theism, criticizes key points of Catholic theology, questioning, for example, the traditional view that God is at the top of the pyramid of Being. The book also receives criticism for being presented to the general public as "a teaching tool for college students" who have an interest in Catholic theology. The bishops argue that some of the arguments presented by the theologian don't represent the Church's thinking.

In the following interview, granted to IHU On-Line by e-mail, Elizabeth Johnson argues that her book is based on the "insight" that "theology took a wrong step in the 17th century (...) by trying to respond to attacks by European Enlightenment thinkers against the existence of God," as shown in Jesuit Michael Buckley's book At the Origins of Modern Atheism.

The theologian clarifies that "rather than appealing to its own primary materials, namely Christology that centers on the person and teaching of Jesus Christ as well as on religious experience with its focus on personal testimony motivated by the Holy Spirit, theology abandoned its distinctive field" by responding to the Enlightenment thinkers. Instead, she adds, "theologians began to invoke philosophy, with its inferential reasoning method, as well as science with its tests of objective hypotheses. They used these methods in order to defend the existence of God. In that sense, theology in fact found a common ground on which it could dialogue with the rising atheism, but at the price of its unique feature. What disappeared was the understanding of God revealed in the Bible, through the history of Israel and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."

According to her, the traditional Catholic view of God has weakened further with the "discovery" of a new contemporary cosmology, explained since then by the Big Bang theory. The theologian explains that the new thesis on the origin of the universe is opposed to the view that the "universe was static" and the thesis that "everything was made directly by God, as recounted in the book of Genesis, and remains in a same permanent state throughout its existence." Elizabeth also points out that ancient and medieval philosophy were responsible for organizing "all these static creatures into a great hierarchy of beings" as follows: "At the base was nonliving matter (rocks, water, stars). Above that base came the vegetables and then animals, then humans, then the angels and each higher level was blessed with more spirit than the ones below. At the top of the pyramid of being was God, creator of all."

For the theologian, the new theories of science raised other issues for theology, and "the cosmology of the Big Bang and evolution on Earth show that things are always changing, new creatures are always emerging and creation is in the making." In this sense, she emphasizes that, from her point of view,  the new "scientific discoveries" allowed the possibility of "us referring to God not only on top of a pyramid of being, but within and throughout all the circle of life that arises, struggles, develops and dies, creating even more new life. For Christian theology, bringing the Holy Spirit, which is the Creator Spirit, to the scene, means obviously bringing the whole Trinitarian God to the scene, not just a single male figure who creates."

She also recalls that Christian theology interprets Jesus "as the Word and the Wisdom of God whose life, death and resurrection reveal the character of the living God. What do we glimpse through that lens? A merciful love that knows no bounds, a compassion that deeply penetrates the sin, suffering and terrible death of people in order to bring new life." However, she argues, the "ecological" view of God "guarantees theology the possibility of crossing the species line and extending this divine solidarity to all creatures."

Faced with questions raised by the European Enlightenment thinkers and the recent Big Bang theory, the theologian emphasizes that "the challenge for contemporary theology, being done in a cultural context in which atheism is now a given, is clear: not repeating this big mistake. We need to turn to the Bible and to the riches of Christian tradition for a fuller understanding of the living God."

Elizabeth Johnson is Professor of Theology in the undergraduate and graduate programs at Fordham University, a Jesuit university in New York, where she teaches systematic theology and feminist theology. She is a former president of the American Theological Society and the Catholic Theological Society. She is part of the editorial board of the journals Theological Studies, Horizons: Journal of the College Theology Society and Theoforum. Elizabeth is also the author of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).

In turn, Cadernos Teologia Pública, one of the publications of Instituto Humanitas Unisinos - IHU, has published the following articles by Elizabeth Johnson:



Check out the interview.

IHU On-Line: How does current cosmology understand the creation story? What is telling the story of creation in light of contemporary cosmology?

Elizabeth Johnson: The current scientific consensus holds that the universe originated about 13.8 billion years ago in a primordial explosion called " the Big Bang", an outpouring of matter and energy that is still ongoing.

This material expanded according to a precisely calibrated rate, unfolding not too fast, not too slow. Its irregular bumps allowed gravity to bring the hydrogen atoms together; its dense friction gave birth to the stars that joined together in swirls of galaxies.

About five billion years ago, in a corner of a galaxy, our solar system was formed as follows: some old giant stars died amid great explosions that "cooked" their simpler atoms, transforming them into heavier materials such as carbon and iron, expelling their wastes into the cosmos. Gravity gathered part of this cloud of dust and gas and this gave birth to a new star, our sun. Part of this cloud dissolved into very small pieces that caught fire, forming the planets in our solar system, including Earth.

Finally, 3.5 billion years ago, another important change took place. Certain materials in the ancient seas of our planet acquired the power to reproduce, and life began. Life then evolved from single-celled to multicellular creatures, from sea to land and air, from plant to animal life, and, most recently, from primates to humans -- we mammals whose brains are so richly textured we experience self-reflective consciousness and freedom or, in classical philosophy terms, mind and will.

IHU On-Line: This contemporary history of the universe teaches us amazing things.

Elizabeth Johnson: The universe is unfathomably old. One earth year can dramatize this cosmic history. If the Big Bang occurred on January 1st, our sun and planets came into existence on September 9th, life on Earth would originate on September 25th and our human species would come on the scene on December 31st at five minutes to midnight. We humans would have arrived only recently.

The observable universe is incomprehensibly large. There are over 100 billion galaxies, each containing billions of stars, and no one knows how many moons and planets, all of them being visible and audible matter, only a fraction of all matter and energy in the universe. The Earth is a small planet, orbiting a medium-sized star on the edge of a spiral galaxy.

The universe is profoundly dynamic. The Big Bang , the galaxies and stars, stardust, the Earth, the Earth molecules, single-celled creatures with life, the life and death of these evolutionary creatures, a progressive life tide, fragile but unstoppable, up to the whirlwind of millions of species that exist today, and from one of the branches of this tree of life, homo sapiens, the species through which the Earth becomes conscious of itself.

The universe is deeply interconnected. Everything is connected to everything; nothing we can conceive is isolated. What makes our blood red? Theologian and scientist Arthur Peacocke explains that "every atom of iron in our blood would not be there if it had not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and had not finally condensed to form the iron in the crust of the earth, from which we came." We are made of stardust. The subsequent history of evolution makes it clear that humans share with all other living creatures on our planet a common genetic ancestor. Bacteria, pine trees, blueberries, horses, the great gray whales -- we are all genetic relatives in the great community of life.

IHU On-Line: From the perspective of that Big Bang cosmology, how should we view and refer to God?

Elizabeth Johnson: Before that cosmology was discovered, people thought that the universe was static. Everything was made directly by God as recounted in the book of Genesis, and remained in the same permanent state throughout its existence. Ancient and medieval philosophy organized all these static creatures in a large hierarchy of beings. At the base was nonliving matter (rocks, water, stars). On top of that base came vegetables and then animals, then humans, then the angels and each higher level was blessed with more spirit than those that were below. At the top of the pyramid of being was God, creator of all.

Given the science of the time, this was a clever arrangement. Using it, theology focused on what it called "the transcendence of God," that is, the fact that God is absolutely different and is beyond all of creation.

Contemporary science, however, raises new questions for theology. The Big Bang cosmology and evolution on Earth show that things are always changing, new creatures are always emerging and creation is in the making. While continuing to assert transcendence, theology's answer now recovers the doctrine of continuous creation, which sees the presence of the Creator Spirit dwelling within the evolving universe, sustaining its existence, enabling its life and giving rise to its evolution.

IHU On-Line: What do you mean by "God is at the top of the pyramid of Being"? Is God "on top of the pyramid of Being" or not? If God isn't on top, what does that mean?

Elizabeth Johnson: A very beautiful metaphor by the British philosopher Herbert McCabe contains this insight: "The Creator makes all things and keeps them in existence from moment to moment -- not just like a sculptor, who makes a statue and leaves it alone, but like a singer who keeps her song in existence at all times."

So, now we can refer to God not only on top of a pyramid of being, but within and throughout all the circle of life that arises, struggles, develops and dies, creating even more new life. For Christian theology, bringing the Holy Spirit, which is the Creator Spirit, to the stage, means obviously bringing the whole Trinitarian God to the scene, not just a single male figure who creates.

IHU On-Line: What are some of the images used in the Bible to refer to God and what do they tell us about Him? Is the fact that God is presented in images enough to understand Him as not being at the top of the pyramid?

Elizabeth Johnson: To account for the continuous dynamic presence of God in the world, the Bible often uses natural images, such as the ruah, which means breathing, breath or wind blowing, also running water, clouds moving, birds flying, and burning fire. Not that the Spirit is impersonal. But these elements convey something of the moving energy of the Creator Spirit operating in the world more clearly than the limited image of a human person.

Consider fire. Valued for its heat and light, but being also sometimes uncontrollably dangerous, fire symbolizes the presence of the divine in most world religions. Lighting lamps or candles, as well as burning incense, are typical ritual acts. Similarly in the Bible, fire often means the presence of the divine. You may remember the burning bush where Moses met the God of Abraham who sent him to lead the Israelites in their flight from slavery in Egypt. Also remember Pentecost when tongues of fire descended on Jesus' disciples and they were inspired to go out and preach.

For humans, the approach of the fire of the Spirit always marks the coming of grace, of rest, of liberation, love, comfort, healing and trust. As in the human world, the same occurs in nature -- all creation is permeated, lit up, energized, and emboldened by the fire of the Spirit.

In a poetic oracle, the 12th century theologian Hildegard von Bingen thus expressed the Spirit: "I, the greatest and most fiery power, have begotten every living spark ... I burn over the beauty of the countryside; I shine in the waters; in the sun, moon and stars I burn. And through the ethereal wind, I induce everything to glow with a certain invisible life that sustains all. I, the fiery power, remain hidden in these things and they shine from me."

Each of the cosmic images used in the Bible to indicate the presence of God can be developed in a similar way. They express the immanence, or the intimate presence and activity of the Creator Spirit which is not far from any of us. As the apostle Paul wrote, it is in God we live and move and have our being (cf. Acts 17:28).

IHU On-Line: The principles of narrative theology appear as an alternative to dogmatic philosophy from the perspective of understanding the dynamic nature of the relationship of creation with God. In that sense, how does narrative theology account for the opposite, that is, the truths of faith beyond the story, such as the salvific character of Jesus? How does a theology that takes into account the narrative of current cosmology and the history of evolution express the truth of faith about the salvific value of Jesus?

Elizabeth Johnson: The story of life is a story of suffering and death for millions of creatures in millions of millennia. The temptation is to deny the violence and escape to a romantic view of the natural world. But there is another option, namely, reading the Gospel with attentive eyes.

Christian theology interprets Jesus as the Word and the Wisdom of God whose life, death and resurrection reveal the character of the living God. What do we glimpse through that lens? A merciful love that knows no bounds, a compassion that deeply penetrates the sin, suffering and terrible death of people in order to bring new life. The ecological view of God guarantees theology the possibility of crossing the species line and extending this divine solidarity to all creatures.

In the Incarnation, the Word of God became flesh, part of the Earth's matter, in solidarity with the flesh of all creatures. As Pope John Paul II wrote, "Incarnation signifies the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature, everything that is flesh: the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The Incarnation, then, has a cosmic significance."

Jesus preached that not a sparrow falls to the ground without God's heart knowing and caring about it. The cross brought Jesus into union with all who die. In the resurrection, the power of God's life opens a future for this victim of state violence and, through him, for all who die. This is the reason why the Church sings "Hallelujah" at Easter.

Through Jesus, we learn that salvation has a cosmic scope. The Creator Spirit dwells in compassionate solidarity with every living creature that suffers, from the dinosaurs destroyed by an asteroid to the impala fawn devoured by a lioness. The Spirit is constantly working all the time to renew the face of the earth. This idea does not mean that we should glorify suffering, a trap that should be carefully avoided. But this leads to the involvement of the relationship of the life-giving Spirit to a suffering, evolutionary world, with an eye on divine compassion. The cry of nature is met by the Spirit groaning in the labor pains of all creation to bring the new to birth (Rom. 8:22-23). This is the model of cross and resurrection that is operating on a cosmic scale.

IHU On-Line: How do you respond to the US bishops' criticism that when your book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God criticizes modern theism, it ends up criticizing key points of Catholic theology?

Elizabeth Johnson: My basic answer is that the bishops need to study the history of theology more closely. One of the great insights that appears at the end of the massive study At the Origins of Modern Atheism by Michael Buckley, SJ, is that theology took a wrong step in the 17th century. It was trying to respond to the attacks of European Enlightenment against the existence of God. But rather than appealing to its own primary materials, namely Christology that centers on the person and teaching of Jesus Christ as well as on religious experience with its focus on personal testimony motivated by the Holy Spirit, theology abandoned its distinctive field.

Instead, theologians began to invoke philosophy, with its inferential reasoning method, as well as science with its tests of objective hypotheses. They used these methods in order to defend the existence of God. In that sense, theology in fact found a common ground on which it could dialogue with the rising atheism, but at the price of its unique feature. What disappeared was the understanding of God revealed in the Bible, through the history of Israel and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"It is not without some sense of wonder that one recalls that the theologians bracketed religion in order to defend religion." (Buckley) If this had been done only as a first step, the results might not have been so poor. But this remained the ongoing full option of most of the great thinkers in the following centuries. Consequently, natural theology never met mystical theology, which means that philosophical reasoning that goes from the world to God, done from the privileged position of the spectator, was never connected with the religious experience of God in Christ.

The result is a simplistic view of God that's at work in popular culture and much of the preaching of the church. It is a monarchical view that sees God as an invisible person of great power who dwells beyond the world but who may intervene from time to time to bring about change. Although "He" loves the world, He is uncontaminated by its disorder. And this distant and lordly lawgiver is always at the pinnacle of hierarchical power, reinforcing the structures of authority in society, the church and the family.

This simplistic view is now known by the abbreviated term "modern theism." Note how it provides a weapon for the modern a-theism. Because this is the God that atheists say does not exist. In fact, with no trace of the biblical story of the gracious self-giving of God's covenant and salvation, this idea is more a modern human construction than an expression of God's revelation.

The challenge for contemporary theology, being done in a cultural context in which atheism is now a given, is obvious: not repeating this big mistake. We need to return to the Bible and to the riches of Christian tradition for a fuller understanding of the living God.

IHU On-Line: What are the ethical implications of seeing the presence of the Creator Spirit in an ecological world?

Elizabeth Johnson: There are two consequences, one positive and one negative. In a positive sense, it becomes clear that the intimate secret of ecological communities of plants and animals is the dwelling of the Spirit of God within them. Instead of being far from what is sacred, the evolving world of life bears the mark of the sacred, being imbued with spiritual splendor itself. This is not to say that such a world is divine. But that in its own vitality, its suffering, death and its new advances, it is permeated, enlivened and encompassed by God's Spirit. It also means that the natural world is revealing -- it reveals something of wisdom, beauty, power and divine love for those who have eyes to see. How wonderful!

In a negative sense, it is clear that both from the scientific and the religious perspective, the current destruction of life on Earth through human actions is a thorough failure. To speak scientifically, we are destroying the fruit of millions of years of evolution on earth and preventing its future. To speak philosophically, this is a moral failure. Ethicists have coined new words to name this violence: biocide, ecocide, geocide. Speaking theologically, this destruction is deeply sinful, contradicting the will of the Creator whose beloved creation it is. "Sacrilege" and "desecration" are not strong enough names. The bishops of the Philippines even say that such theft is an insult to Christ -- "the destruction of any part of creation, especially the extinction of species, defaces the image of Christ which is etched in creation." Whatever the language, the judgement is still that the ecological damage that humans are causing the Earth is deeply wrong.

In Christian terms, the movement from sin to a new life marked by grace is known as conversion. Conversion means a turning point, a change in direction, turning away from one path and towards another. Given the ecological ruin, we, the whole church, need a profound conversion of mind and heart to the Earth which is God's beloved creation. This is more than simply a matter of moral or ascetic practice. It is a spiritual conversion toward a deeper relationship with the living God who made and loves the natural world of which we are a part. Converting to the Earth, we become partners with the giver of life and responsibly careful with the natural world that for now is being ruined.

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