This year marks the end of Elizabeth Johnson’s formal teaching career. She retired this spring after 27 years at Fordham University. And while it is certainly true that those who have had the experience of being one of her students have enjoyed a depth of engagement and intimacy of personal connection that mere readers of her books have not, it is also true that her readers know Johnson as a teacher par excellence. It is fitting, then, that Creation and the Cross is written as a dialogue between teacher and student, “Elizabeth” and “Clara”; and it is unsurprising that in introducing this dialogue format, Johnson says “I pledge that like Anselm ‘I will try to the best of my ability…not so much to make plain what you inquire about, as to inquire with you.’”
Creation and the Cross is an investigation of the relationship between the created world and the work of salvation. Is the world—indeed, the entire universe—merely the stage on which the human relationship with God plays out, or can we speak of cosmic redemption as well as the redemption of human beings? Johnson, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, points out that in the Eastern churches, incarnation and redemption do in fact have a cosmic character. Here in the West, however, our imaginations have been almost entirely captured by the juridical understanding of sin, forgiveness and the cross propounded by St. Anselm in the 11th century. There is little to no room in that understanding of salvation for God’s relationship with or mercy towards the wider created world, resulting in a theological blind spot that has at last become apparent in light of the worsening environmental crisis and the looming dangers of global climate change.
In pursuing the idea of cosmic redemption, then, one must challenge the assumptions that Anselm’s theology has embedded in the Western way of thinking about redemption. And because a direct confrontation with Anselm was crucial to the success of her argument, Johnson made the bold decision to engage Anselm on his own ground. She patterned her work after Anselm’s treatise Cur Deus Homo? The conclusion even mirrors Anselm’s: Elizabeth and Clara agree that the compassion of God is, in Anselm’s words, “incomparably greater than anything that can be conceived.”
Is the world—indeed, the entire universe—merely the stage on which the human relationship with God plays out, or can we speak of cosmic redemption as well as the redemption of human beings?
In the first of six “books” in Creation and the Cross, Clara opens the dialogue by asking what connection there is (if any) between what she has been taught about Jesus dying on the cross to forgive sin and the ethical imperative she feels to care for the Earth and all its creatures. In response, Elizabeth guides her through an analysis of Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” (that Christ suffered crucifixion to atone for human sin, satisfying God's anger), its social background and its later historical developments, and finally gives a list of seven clear and pointed contemporary critiques.
The give and take between Clara and Elizabeth makes for a lively exchange between a bright, curious student and a teacher who balances deep knowledge with a light touch. The presentation of Anselm’s theory itself is generous, with Elizabeth defending Anselm against Clara’s initial criticisms. This respect for and deep appreciation of the tradition has always been a hallmark of Johnson’s work. However, she does not shy away from saying, bluntly and repeatedly, that Anselm is simply wrong about some things. “The mercy of God does not need the death of Jesus,” she states. “Satisfaction is not due before sin can be forgiven. The death of Jesus is not necessary for salvation.”
Intriguingly, Johnson argues that Anselm got things wrong because of the limitations of the question he initially posed, and she asks a new question: “How can the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ be understood as good news for the whole created world, including human beings, to the praise of God and to practical and critical effect?” Addressing this new question requires not simply critiquing Anselm but starting over entirely; the rest of Creation and the Cross is devoted to constructing a new, ecological understanding of salvation.
Johnson chooses as the beginning point of her constructive work “the biblical idea that the living God who creates the world is also the world’s Redeemer and Savior, merciful towards all creatures.” Elizabeth thus spends Book II, “The Creating God Who Saves,” demonstrating to Clara that this idea shines forth throughout the Old Testament. Book III, “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews,” focuses on Jesus’ life and ministry and on the historical reasons that he was killed. Clara’s questions about the construction of the Gospels and the relationship between history and theology in the Gospel narratives result in a helpful overview of how Scripture scholars approach those issues, coupled with Elizabeth’s introduction of the “theology of accompaniment” that will serve as the cornerstone for her ecological approach to salvation. This theology of accompaniment is grounded in the “double solidarity” of Jesus with suffering, and of God with Jesus. Clara concludes that we can understand salvation, then, “as the presence of the living God companioning us in travail.” She adds, “This changes everything, doesn’t it?”
In Book IV, “Interpretations Blossom,” Johnson focuses on the intensely creative early years of the Jesus movement, when the disciples and those who followed them reached for appropriate ways to speak about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The dizzying array of financial, medical, legal, military, sacrificial and family metaphors used by New Testament writers is presented in all its poetic and haphazard glory, leading Clara to conclude that “we contemporary folk should feel free to let the satisfaction theory go dormant” so that we can savor the many other metaphors that “would ground us in the original experience of salvation in Christ.”
In Book V, “God of All Flesh: Deep Incarnation,” Elizabeth introduces Clara to the new theological notion of “deep incarnation,” which describes “the radical divine reach in Christ through human flesh all the way down into the living web of organic life.” Both the cross and the resurrection can now be understood as intimately connecting God to the suffering, death and new life not only of human beings but of all creatures. Thus the wideness of God’s mercy embraces all of creation, and Clara’s initial query about whether it is possible to connect Jesus’ death on the cross to a human obligation to care for the Earth and its creatures is answered.
Creation and the Cross is an ambitious book—and one that triumphantly succeeds in its ambition to reconceive our understanding of salvation, redemption, and the wideness of God’s mercy.
Finally, in Book VI, “Conversion of Heart and Mind: Us,” Johnson turns from theology to spirituality. After Clara asks what more is needed now that we are seeing things differently, Elizabeth argues that the entire point of new ideas and new understandings is to bring us to conversion, to a turning “that will impact our whole lives.” She presents the reader with a series of thought experiments designed to spark our imaginations about the Earth, our place in its community of creation and God’s relationship to nonhuman creatures, with the goal of jogging “our minds and hearts into new pathways of inclusive love.”
Creation and the Cross is an ambitious book—and one that triumphantly succeeds in its ambition to reconceive our understanding of salvation, redemption, and the wideness of God’s mercy. Anselm’s satisfaction theory is thoroughly dissected and found wanting; in the end it is not only wrong about too many things but simply too small for the task it was attempting. In its stead, Johnson’s vision of salvation as divine solidarity with all flesh is impressive in both its simplicity and its reach. Her theology of accompaniment, in which “the living God, gracious and merciful, always was, is, and will be accompanying the world with saving grace,” does not sidestep the cross, but instead presents it as “an historical sacrament of encounter with the mercy of God,” one that makes “the compassionate love of God’s heart blazingly clear.”
This clarity is not intuitively obvious. It is the fruit of Johnson’s rich scholarship, skillful argument and a lifetime of commitment to journeying ever deeper into Holy Mystery. At the book’s conclusion, Clara declares that she feels “very at home” with her teacher Elizabeth’s interpretation of the cross and its cosmic implications. The reader, too, finds herself at home, securely grounded in an understanding of God’s mercy that directly addresses the deepest questions of our day.