Entering the Dialogue

Abounding in Kindnessby Elizabeth A. Johnson

Orbis. 240p $24

In Abounding in Kindness: Writings for the People of God, Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., weaves together a rich tapestry of theological and ministerial reflections that probe some of the church’s most pressing contemporary questions. Throughout this collection of lectures and other short essays, Johnson addresses a myriad of topics that display the breadth of both her interests and talents: evangelization, atheism, feminism, scripture, liberation theology, ecology, hospice, Christology, torture, pneumatology, ecclesiology, the communion of saints and Mariology.

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Although Johnson addresses these many topics with a level of understanding that is immediately clear to the reader, she always does so in a humble, often poetic style that makes complex theological concepts accessible to a general audience. In so doing, she invites Christians to individual and institutional self-examination, and makes the reader feel that she/he is entering into a genuine dialogue with someone who clearly has her own ideas but is charitably open to the experience of others.

Given the breadth of topics covered in this book, it would not be possible to sufficiently cover each here. In the midst of the church’s current focus on ecology, inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical on the topic, it thus seems appropriate to focus on Johnson’s chapters about creation. These essays offer valuable reflections that enrich current faith-based environmental conversations, but they also provide a foundation upon which to touch on some of the other topics that Johnson treats in this work.

In the first chapter, “Passing on the Faith: The Banquet of the Creed,” Johnson invites readers to pause and contemplate. In particular, she proposes that these reflections can help the faithful appreciate God’s creation and in turn become inspired to pursue justice in all its forms. Although she does not say it explicitly, her reflection about creation could inspire persons of faith to turn a theological eye to practical problems.

“Heaven and Earth Are Filled With Your Glory: Atheism and Ecological Spirituality” makes the case that contemplation of creation can help believers know God and so justify faith in response to atheism. Scripture and St. Thomas Aquinas can both facilitate a mystical experience of creation that can help persons of faith recognize the world as a sacramental mediator of the Creator. This admiration of creation can in turn inspire persons to live in right relationship with the world and advocate on its behalf. In other words, Johnson points out that “contemplation of nature” can draw people closer to God in a way that both inspires faith and moves the faithful to repent of disordered relationships with creation.

In two places, Johnson cites “unbridled reproduction” and “exploding human populations” among the causes of ecological harm. With respect to present global ecological issues like climate change, environmental degradation is often historically and more immediately due to the consumerism that Johnson also cites rather than human population growth by itself. Levels of per capita resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are often higher in wealthy nations with relatively lower population growth rates. Additionally, many countries with higher population growth rates can still choose more sustainable paths of economic development. Persons of faith and goodwill should largely, if not exclusively, focus on the reform of ecologically destructive elements of economic structures rather than the reduction of population growth rates.

Additionally, to the extent that population growth contributes to ecological degradation it is important to clarify that not all proposed means of population growth reduction are morally acceptable in the eyes of the magisterium.

In “Creative Giver of Life,” Johnson develops the insight that ecological reflection can help persons recognize the moral imperative to live in right relationship with creation. For example, she points out that the poor are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation. Additionally, she describes how appreciation for the splendor of creation can help Christians recognize the Trinitarian presence of the sustaining Holy Spirit and redeeming Christ. With these insights, Johnson develops an ecological ethic based on the Christian awareness that humanity is inexorably related to the rest of creation in which God was, is and will be present.

In “Creation: Is God’s Charity Broad Enough for Bears?” Johnson suggests why humanity currently has a disordered, i.e., “sinful,” relationship with the world. Specifically, she cites the Hellenistic separation of matter and spirit, the “medieval distinction between natural and supernatural,” post-Reformation anthropocentrism and an understanding of Genesis that incorrectly justifies ecological exploitation. Aware of how humanity has slipped into an ecologically abusive relationship with creation, Johnson says that humanity might thus begin the process of “ecological conversion” toward a more sustainable relationship.

At this point, Johnson could have more strongly emphasized the need for public policies to address environmental degradation. This is not to say that a critique of unjust sociopolitical and economic structures is absent from this book—see especially Chapter Nine, “The God of Life in Feminist Liberation Theology: To Honor Gustavo Gutiérrez.” Rather, it is simply to point out that, especially in light of Johnson’s recognition of human sinfulness, she could have taken a more Augustinian approach to environmental degradation and emphasized the need for public policies that address socially destabilizing ecological threats like climate change.

While there is much to recommend from the perspective of ecology, readers who are not especially interested in this topic will nevertheless find this book a rich source of accessible, stimulating reflections and an important gift to the church.

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