Thursday, December 11, 2014

Smoothing the way to Jesus

by José Antonio Pagola (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Buenas Noticias: Blog de Jose Antonio Pagola
December 14, 2014

John 1:6-8,19-28

"There is one among you whom you do not recognize." John the Baptist utters these words referring to Jesus who is already moving among those who are approaching the Jordan to be baptized, although he still hasn't manifested himself. His whole concern is precisely to "smooth the way" so that those people might believe in him. That's how the first Christian generations presented the figure of John the Baptist.

But John the Baptist's words are written in such a way that, read by those of us who call ourselves Christian today, they raise disturbing questions in us. Jesus is among us but do we really know him? Do we agree with him? Do we follow him closely?

It's true that in the Church we are always talking about Jesus. In theory, nothing is more important to us. But then we turn so much around our ideas, projects and activities that Jesus quite often remains in the background. We ourselves are the ones who, without realizing it, "obscure" him by our own starring roles.

Perhaps the greatest misfortune of Christianity is that there are so many men and women who call themselves "Christian" in whose hearts Jesus is absent. They don't know him. They don't resonate with him. He doesn't attract or seduce them. Jesus is an inert and lifeless figure. He is mute. He doesn't say anything special to them that gives hope to their lives. Their existence isn't marked by Jesus.

This Church urgently needs "witnesses" to Jesus, believers who look more like him, Christians who, through their way of being and living, ease the path to believing in Christ. We need witnesses who talk about God as he did, who communicate His message of compassion as he did, who spread trust in the Father as he did.

Of what use are our catechesis and sermons if they don't lead to knowing, loving, and following Jesus with more faith and joy? What are our Eucharists if they don't help people be in a more living communion with Jesus, with his plan and his delivery up on the Cross for all? In the Church, no one is "the Light" but we can all radiate it through our lives. No one is "the Word of God" but we can all be voices that invite and encourage others to focus Christianity on Jesus.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"My church is the world": An interview with Padre Beto

By Eder Fonseca (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Panorama Mercantil
December 3, 2014

Padre Beto (Roberto Francisco Daniel), native of Bauru, was born in 1965. He was trained in radio broadcasting (Senac-SP), in law at the Instituição Toledo in Ensino (Bauru), in history at the Universidade do Sagrado Coração (Bauru) and in theology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany. He worked in priestly ministry in the Diocese of Bauru for 14 years and in April 2013 was excommunicated by the diocese for having freely reflected on the Church's sexual morality. He taught high school and prep school philosophy classes at D'Incao and Infinito schools (Bauru). For five years, he was host of the "Conexão 96" program on 96 FM and for nine years he was a columnist for Jornal da Cidade (Bauru), he was host of "Mensagem do Dia" on 94 FM and host of "Tema Livre" on 94 FM (second Wednesdays from 11 PM to 1 AM). He is the author of several books including two in German, Erinnerung als ethisches Projekt and Befreiungstheologie im Film, and his latest published book is the controversial Jesus e a sexualidade – Revelações da Bíblia que você nunca viu ["Jesus and sexuality - Revelations of the Bible that you have never seen']. For the portal Panorama Mercantil, he says, "I no longer believe that the Church is a beneficial path for humanity. Churches create division; they create prejudice and exclusion."

Padre Beto, whenever we begin an interview, we always ask about the early life of our interviewees. How was your early life before getting into the priesthood?

I was born in Bauru, in a lower middle class and essentially Catholic home. As long as I can remember, my parents have always been involved in a parish and I always saw them concerned with helping people with difficulties. My parents raised me with a lot of freedom and always encouraged me to commit myself to others and to the life of society. I can't say my parents were pious traditionalists. On the contrary, they were very critical of the Catholic Church. I remember my father as an active layman used to refer to priests as "the black capes," with a certain irony and good humor. Even as a teenager, I was active in the youth ministry of my diocese and, even at the end of the military dictatorship, relating the message of Jesus Christ to citizenship, democracy, political and economic power. I can say that I learned to do politics in the Christian community. After all, I was living in a Church of the 70s and 80s that reflected liberation theology and had as examples men such as Dom Oscar Romero, Dom Arns, Pedro Casaldáliga, Dom Mauro Morelli and Dom Luciano Mendes de Almeida. Also being a young Christian at that time was not being a pious young man worried about being chaste as is common today. We were concerned with the well-being of everyone, but when it came to relationships and sexuality, we all lived very freely. I entered seminary at 27, but I didn't enter as a virgin. I had girlfriends, various relationship experiences and different sexual experiences that have taught me a lot about human life. I'm also grateful for that part of my life. Before entering seminary, I finished two college courses -- Law and a degree in History. Anyway, my life before seminary was very active, with a lot of freedom of thought and action.

In your History course, you were very influenced by Karl Marx. How was your mind working in those days, knowing that the previous popes condemned Marxism?

First, it's necessary to understand that in the History course, thanks to Marx, we learned to see historical events within a political and economic context. Seeing history this way, without falling into determinism, didn't conflict with what we were discussing within the Christian community, as this was much influenced by liberation theology. We did see Pope John Paul II as a conservative who was retreating from the whole process initiated by the Second Vatican Council. I was fully aware that the Church was a human institution that had conservative and progressive forces. But, as I lived in Brazil, I felt reassured by the CNBB (National Conference of Bishops of Brazil) we had at the time. I wasn't influenced by Marx to the point of becoming a Communist, I never believed in the Socialist models or in Marx's vision of the future. But through Marx, I learned that nothing is fragmented, the mode of production influences our mentality, and that we should be agents of our history to give meaning to our passage through this existence.

You've said you had several opportunities to not become a priest, but you've reiterated that this is your vocation. When your vocation was stronger, did you know you might have a problem because of your worldview?

The discovery of my vocation was a process. I never dreamed of a particular life plan, in the sense of having my profession, my family, my children, my retirement and my grave. I was led from early on to think about society, about the well-being of all, about politics and economics. The ongoing discovery of Jesus Christ led me more and more to think of my life as integrated into a whole. Added to this I had an experience of death in the family, which made me reflect on our very ephemeral passage through this existence. And the question I always asked myself was what I would like to see when looking back on my history at the time of my death. During my whole discernment, I made retreats at ITAICI [Centro de Espiritualidade Inaciana Vila Kostka Itaici] with the Jesuits, which helped me a lot in my self-discovery. I got to a certain point where I didn't fit in a profession anymore, whether being a professor or a legal professional, but the priesthood seemed a way through which I could help people individually, socially, and even unite all this with the message of Jesus Christ. It seems a joke, but the final "push" towards a radical decision for the priesthood came through a film I watched five times at the cinema, "Dead Poets Society".

Pope Francis says celibacy is a gift that the Holy Spirit gave the Church. For you, is celibacy a gift the Holy Spirit has given the Church?

I wouldn't say celibacy is a gift of the Holy Spirit. I can't see sexuality as a sin. On the contrary, I see it as a way to liberation from many neuroses. I remember when I was a priest and celebrated Mass for a group from the Youth Ministry of my diocese. In that Mass, we were reflecting about purity and I made it clear to the young people that purity has nothing to do with chastity. On the contrary, a good sexual relationship can purify us. Purity is transparency, honesty in any human relationship. I think a gift of the Holy Spirit is the intelligence to understand oneself, thus being able to choose the lifestyle I should assume to be a person in harmony with myself and others. Sexual life can't be demonized or standardized. It's an individual construct and depends on my awareness about my sexual orientation and lifestyle through which I can quietly fulfill myself as a human being.

Do you believe Pope Francis is in fact a reformer?

I think that as a good Jesuit, Pope Francis understands that the Catholic Church needs changes. However, he knows he can't make them quickly. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI created a clergy and a huge group of conservative, moralistic faithful during their papacies. As the institution is, the Pope must act carefully and slowly. One sees Pope Francis' efforts to have personal attitudes that make the clergy and the faithful reflect better, such as simplicity, a more political discourse and a personal approach to excluded people. Aside from these personal attitudes, I don't believe the Pope will achieve significant changes, as shown by the Synod of Bishops on the Family. What Pope Francis can do is prepare the ground for the next Pope to come along and carry out reforms that bring the institution closer in practice to the life of Jesus Christ.

Why don't you like the Catholic Church's assistentialist policy?

Because assistentialism only serves for the state to sit back and not return our paid taxes in benefits for the population and at the same time it politically anesthetizes the consciences of the faithful. If a parish, for example, maintains a day care center, it ends up performing the role of the state (which is being paid by all of us to build and maintain day care centers in Brazil) and makes the faithful collaborate twice towards assistance to the poorest. The faithful have paid their taxes and, at the same time, they're working with the church to maintain the day care center. The church should be an ethical force in society, raising the consciousness of its faithful about health policy, education, employment, retirement, etc., as it should also put pressure on governments for everyone's basic needs to be met. The Church is against abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, but the church never goes head to head with the state demanding an effective health care system, education that truly gives a future to young people, a good retirement for our seniors, or better wages for our police. Anyway, assistentialism is a hidden way of creating a parish island for ourselves and not dealing with the real issues that affect the children of God.

In your interviews, you always say you like the book A cama na varanda ["The bed on the porch"] by psychoanalyst Regina Navarro Lins. In this book, apart from other things, she talks about polyamory. What is your view on polyamory?

I've been able to hear the confessions of the faithful for 15 years. I can say that priests hear two main themes in confessions basically -- sexuality and relationships. Listening to people for so long, I can also say that simultaneous love for more than one person is a fact of human life. Hardly anyone, married or not, will love only one person in their life. Given this fact, I believe that the best way to live out these relationships would be specifying them through polyamory. If the love between two people enables us to develop our sensitivity and our ability to be more human, polyamory is a richer path to this development and perhaps closer to the message of Jesus Christ. Christ, in the Gospels, doesn't consider the traditional family we have today important, but the quality of the relationships we cultivate. Polyamory might be the healthiest way to live out these feelings. Many Christian couples are living a great hypocrisy. They hide their feelings and maintain the traditional argument about valuing the family institution. This is very sad, because behind a "politically perfect" facade hides a meaningless life and an inability to deal with relationships.

You were excommunicated by the Catholic Church in April 2013 for supporting homosexuals. How did that happen?

I've always been very open with all Christians, whether priests or laypeople. I believe the Church matures when we all reflect together. When those at the top decide and the majority obeys, we aren't living out the love Jesus preached and we are infantilizing the majority of the faithful. Since coming back to Brazil (2001), I've been reflecting openly on social networks about various topics around the Church's sexual morality (including homosexuality), but I've always made it clear that these were simple personal reflections and have never omitted official Church morality. My way of being never bothered my previous bishops. But in April 2013, the leadership of the Bauru Diocese deemed that these actions were unacceptable. Thus on April 23rd, my bishop demanded that I withdraw all materials from the social networks and ask forgiveness. Even though I made it clear to him that I had no reason to apologize, the bishop gave me until the April 29th deadline to think about it. Irrespective of the time, on April 24th, the bishop was already being interviewed about the ultimatum on a local television network. I thought a lot about it and decided to resign from priestly ministry since I could no longer exercise freedom of thought and freedom of expression in the Church.

At 10 a.m. on April 29th, I went to deliver my letter of resignation. At the diocesan curia, the bishop received me cordially and led me without any warning at all into a room. There, I was surprised to see a table made up of five priests from the council of presbyters and a stranger who was sitting at the head of the table. I was then led to an empty chair and the bishop withdrew. After a few seconds, I realized I was in a courtroom and sitting in the defendant's chair. Realizing this, I left the room after an argument and the fury of the stranger who was the investigating judge appointed by the Bishop of Bauru. The same morning, the Diocese of Bauru publicly declared my excommunication. Interestingly, the investigating judge, who we later found out was Father Tiago Wenceslau from the Campo Limpo Diocese, seeing the repercussions of the case, quickly spoke out, saying that I had not been excommunicated for defending gays, but for disobedience to my superiors. The Church never loses its covert ways of escaping clashes. Now, the disobedience was due to the content posted on social networks which pertained to the defense of homosexuals. If I had been talking about the virginity of Our Lady, my superiors, of course, would not have been bothered.

Recently, the Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church backed down on acceptance of homosexuals by the Church. How does the lobby work specifically for that matter?

Frankly, I don't know how that kind of lobby works. What I think is more serious in the Church is the lack of transparency in its structure. As well as power still being in the hands of the clergy -- very old men -- thus leaving laypeople, women and young people simply as faithful who must follow blindly what's established. This type of structure is no longer useful for the 21st century. It's precisely the lack of transparency and the concentration of power in the Church that enables the formation of lobbies that act in the so-called wings of Church.

What's the main message you want to pass on to the reader who will peruse your latest book "Jesus e a Sexualidade – Revelações da Bíblia que você nunca viu"?

I would say that the book has two big messages. The first is that the current sexual morality of the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations does more harm than good. This sexual morality has no basis in Scripture, much less in Jesus Christ. It's the fruit of philosophical lines that are far from the biblical universe and the message of Jesus. Being based on the philosophies of Antiquity and not on the practice of universal love preached in the Gospels, Christian morality closes its eyes to the knowledge we have today of genetics, sexuality, human structure. The second big message is that human sexuality is something very good. The experience of sexuality can only be within the message of Jesus -- in the end, love (agape) and love (eros) aren't opposed but complement each other in a wonderful way. God made us sexual beings and it isn't active sexuality that leads us away from God. What separates us from God is lack of love in any dimension of human life.

Do you expect to return to pursuing your activities in the Church at some point?

No. I no longer believe that the Church is a beneficial path for humanity. Churches create division; they create prejudice and exclusion. Jesus sees humanity as our family. The latter should be united in what we have in common, the simple fact of being human. So, I have no intention of going back to being a priest in the Catholic Church, much less create a church. Brazil is a great example of how churches don't solve our problems and don't create the Kingdom of God. Brazil is full of churches and we officially declare ourselves a Christian country. Now, how can a Christian country be the seventh power in the world and leave the majority excluded from that reality? How can a Christian country have a very high crime rate, poor education for the majority, contempt for retirees, racism and homophobia and other very clearly anti-Christian problems? Brazil has churches, Brazilians praise God, but we are not a Christian country. I prefer to continue my mission in the world. My church is the world and my family, humanity.

Eder Fonseca is a journalist. He founded and is currently executive director of Panorama Mercantil, one of the main interview portals in Brazil.

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.