Saturday, January 12, 2008
Elizabeth Johnson's 'Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God' (Continuum, 2007),
[Excerpts - click title for full article]
...It’s just assumed that God is this single individual with more power than anyone else, who intervenes now and then to get certain things done, and whom you need to satisfy on a number of levels. Again, this isn’t the God of Christian revelation. When you hear talk radio or people in the press talking about God, this is the God they’re talking about. This image is so unworthy of us.
...I see a terrific hunger for a mature faith, but that’s not being fed by much of the preaching that people hear, most of which also uses this stale idea of God...
...Before the Enlightenment, were biblical images more alive in the church?
I don’t want to paint any age as the golden era, including our own, although I think we’re in a renaissance right now. If you look at the Middle Ages, you see God spoken of as “the fountain fullness overflowing.” Richard of St. Victor speaks of the deep relationality that is at the heart of God.
Theologians in the Middle Ages wrote tomes on these ideas. We didn’t have anyone doing that during the Enlightenment, with the exception of Cardinal John Henry Newman in England, but he went back and read the Fathers of the church, which caused the whole God question to open up for him again.
The Enlightenment didn’t touch the East in the same way. Even today if you read Christian Orthodox theologians, you get a much different sense of the fullness of God’s trinitarian life, inviting the world into communion. It’s so different from this monarchical, solitary ruler God that we have, the God about whom we ask questions like, “Why is God letting this illness happen to me? What did I do that’s wrong?”
What is attractive about this idea of God?
This all-powerful God can bless you or curse you; therefore you better please him to get the blessing and not the curse. That’s a pattern of relationship that people have with their parents. It’s familiar. It brings a certain measure of security. Also many people don’t know any other God. They haven’t been exposed to any other understandings.
...But in general I think the image of the theistic God is very widespread in our country. You hear it in sermons. And it’s not just me saying this: The U.S. bishops have said that preaching in our country is in a very bad way in terms of the Catholic tradition. The late German theologian Karl Rahner, S.J. was saying the same thing back in the 1950s and ’60s. He said that the words of the preacher fall powerlessly from the pulpit “like birds frozen to death and falling from a winter sky.” I sit and listen to some sermons and I think, “Come on, think of all the wonderful things you could say with this text.”
How does one’s theology of God affect one’s everyday life and faith?
If you’re a believing person, you draw your deepest values from that. How you make moral decisions and vocational decisions, how you treat other people—it all flows from how you see God working.
None of the newer theologies of God are innocent in terms of politics. Every one of the ideas I explore in my book has political implications. They are concerned with power and who uses it and the powerless and how they are affected. So if you let any one of those theologies get into your understanding, you’re going to vote differently, you’re going to volunteer differently, you’re going to use your money differently. Theology, I think, can be very powerful as a tool. It’s my conviction that we all have a theology, so how it shapes your life depends on what it is.
...What are some of the theologies of God that you’ve been investigating?
They include images from feminist theology, from Latin America and from Latinos in the United States, as well as the God who emerges from encounters with religious pluralism. Also God as envisioned in Europe after the Holocaust, God as seen through the African American experience, and several others.
Each of the new images of God I studied has biblical grounding, each refers in some way to the Trinity, each of them is oriented in some way to religious practice. All of them support the idea that God is deeply involved, deeply concerned with what happens in the world. If you love God, then your heart needs to be conformed and configured to God’s heart. You have to feel that way toward the world as well. There will certainly be differences of opinion about how to do that.
You mentioned the Trinity. This solo God of the Enlightenment doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Trinity.
The Trinity has been just about lost forever in the West. Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the Vatican, says the Holy Spirit is the Cinderella of theology in the West, in the kitchen doing all the work while the other two get to go to the ball.
The view of God in classical theism also does not see God through the lens of Jesus Christ, which is basic to the Christian understanding of God. Therefore it leaves out everything that is beautiful and attractive and that makes people want to be Christian. Jesus and his life, death, and Resurrection just don’t factor in.
The new theologies from Africa and Latin America, on the other hand, are examples of a new kind of trinitarian theology. They don’t let Christ and the Spirit drop away. They’re rooted in an understanding of God related to the world. These understandings are so basic to Christian faith and tradition, I call them a gift to all the rest of us.
You frequently use the term “the living God.” What does that mean?
It’s a term found all through the Bible. I love it. The living God is always ahead of us, always surprising, always calling us to come ahead. Wherever “the living God” is used, it indicates a life of fullness, of flowing water, new reality, new justice, new peace. The different theologies I studied use different words for it: getting back to the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of life.
...What is revelation then?
In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, revelation became highly intellectualized. It came down to doctrine: We knew certain truths, certain beliefs. You’re a Christian if you believe this. I would say Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, The Constitution on Divine Revelation, changed all that. Its opening sentence says, “In his goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will.” In the gift of God’s own self comes understanding something of who God is, so revelation becomes much more experiential right from the start. That experience is then articulated in words and finally it is written down. We call it revelation.
I always regret that word, revelation. It sounds like an object, but it’s a relational dynamic that has brought to birth wisdom in the Christian community about God and fidelity in the way people live.
What we are called to believe is actually a mystery, God’s own giving self. Rahner uses the image of the horizon: You see it, but you never get there. You can’t control it or comprehend it, because then it wouldn’t be God.