Sister Johnson’s God

The warning about her work by the doctrinal committee of the US bishops’ conference

In late March, the doctrinal committee of the US bishops’ conference warned the faithful about a book by Fordham University theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. The committee said that the book “contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium.”

The committee noted that it had a pastoral duty to issue the warning, given Sister Johnson’s prominence and popularity and the book’s use as a “textbook for the study of God” at Catholic universities. The warning generated angry complaints from members of the Catholic left who always find it shocking and “controversial” when bishops exert themselves to defend Church teaching. Sister Johnson, for her part, responded to the warning by saying that the bishops could have resolved the matter through “dialogue” and had “radically misinterpreted” arguments in the book.

Did they? No, the warning is well-founded, documenting extensively Johnson’s heterodox approach to theology. Johnson claims in the book to be countering “modern theism,” but in fact ends up advancing a dangerous new instance of it. Even the subtitle of the book—“Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God”—suggests the novelty to which she aspires. She may be opposed to some versions of “modern theism,” but her understanding of God remains decidedly modern, man-made, and undoctrinal.

The committee observes that she bases much of her criticism of classical teachings of Christian theology on an Enlightenment-style skepticism that treats God as wholly incomprehensible to men. Yet this theory doesn’t stop her from comprehending God according to modern liberal categories. She endorses female language for God—“Should femaleness be an obstacle to naming the divine?” She says that she knows from a modern appreciation of all religions that the “living God is not a Christian.” And she knows from the work of modern science that God can stand back and watch nature and human nature organize itself—“Nature is actively organizing itself into new forms at all levels. Even the emergence of life and then mind can be accounted for without special supernatural intervention.”

As the warning argues, Johnson’s target is not so much “modern theism” as basic Catholic teaching. The “frontiers” of Christian theology that she seeks to map out are non-Christian and reflective of a trendy progressivism. The committee writes that for Johnson “language for God should be analyzed not primarily in terms of its adequacy for expressing the reality of God—all human language fails to attain the reality of God—but in terms of its socio-political effects. She sees God-language as a human construction that is created in a particular socio-political context and reflects socio-political context. In her view, the traditional Christian language for God arises from a patriarchal social structure in which men possess the preponderance of power.”

This position allows her to dismiss the language of Christian revelation. Somehow for her the very words that the Son of God himself used are “inadequate” and “arbitrary,” while the language of feminism, which she wants incorporated into Christian theology, is urgent and necessary.

“What is lacking in the whole of this discussion is any sense of the essential centrality of divine revelation as the basis of Christian theology,” wrote the committee. “The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgment. The standard by which all theological assertions must be judged is that provided by divine revelation, not by unaided human understanding.”

That is essentially the “future” of theology Sister Johnson proposes, a future in which man-made conceptions and descriptions of God dovetailing with contemporary liberalism supersede Christian revelation. According to Sister Johnson, “dialogue” would have dissuaded the committee from acting. But as Cardinal Donald Wuerl (chair of the committee) pointedly noted, she passed a chance for dialogue up when she failed to seek an imprimatur for the book.

“By seeking an imprimatur, the author has the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the bishop concerning Catholic teaching expressed in the book. Thus, clarifications concerning the text can be made prior to its publication,” he said. “It would have been helpful if Sister Elizabeth Johnson had taken advantage of this opportunity.”

That a book so obviously at odds with Catholic teaching is used as a theology textbook forced the committee to act. Perhaps it is no wonder that the book enjoys popularity on secularized Catholic campuses. Its “quest” is not for the revealed God of Christianity but for a secularized theology that comes from the mind of men.

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