Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, has finally responded, at length, to the public critique of her book Quest for the Living God, by the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine. It is a wise, learned and gracious response that also demonstrates Sister Johnson's superlative command of the theological questions raised by the Committee. Reading her lucid response words will help those unfamiliar with her work see why her books are so valued by students, readers and other theologians. Her introduction reads:
The first observation I would like to make underscores the obvious: Quest for the Living God is a work of theology. It is not a catechism, nor a compendium of doctrine, nor does it intend to set out the full range of church teaching on the doctrine of God. Rather, it presents areas of Christian life and study where the mystery of the living God is being glimpsed anew in contemporary situations. Hence the subtitle, Mapping Frontiers.
To be specific: Listening to theologies emerging within distinct contexts in the church, Quest presents ideas and images of God surfacing, being tested, piritually prayed, and ethically lived out in eight different conversations: in transcendental, political, liberation, feminist/womanist, black, Latino/Latina, interreligious, and ecological theologies. Each of these conversations wrestles with the word of God amid, respectively, the onslaught of atheism; massive public suffering; the oppression of poverty, sexism, racism, and ethnic prejudice; respectful encounter with other religions; and the amazing discoveries of science. The book culminates, quite deliberately, in a chapter on the Christian belief in God as Trinity, to which I suggest all these different discourses have been contributing rich angles of understanding. Quest is offered to readers as an invitation to think about their own idea of the living God in view of this new scholarship.
As a whole, it seems to me, the book illustrates the dynamic process described by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum): For there is growth in understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and the study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (Lk 2:19, 51), through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. (§8) Precisely this type of activity is illuminated in each chapter of Quest; for example, the idea of the liberating God emerging through the experience of struggle, prayer, and study done by the church of the poor in Latin America.
It appears that part of the present difficulty stems from the Statement’s reading my book as if it belonged to a genre other than theology. Theological research does not simply reiterate received doctrinal formulas but probes and interprets them in order to deepen understanding. To do this well, theology
throughout history has articulated faith in different thought forms, images, and linguistic expressions. Its work employs all manner of methods and ideas taken from other disciplines in order to shed light on the meaning of faith.
Her entire letter to the USCCB is on NCR's website here.
James Martin, SJ