Ever Ancient, Ever New

Quest for the Living Godby By Elizabeth A. JohnsonContinuum. 234p $24.95
Elizabeth Johnson’s theological talent has flourished in many ways, much to the benefit of the academy and the church. She is one of the co-creators of a modern theological genre, feminist theology; and her contributions to this genre, one of the most exciting developments in the history of theology, have enriched the faith of a generation of believers. Her feminist interpretation of the Trinitarian God, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992), is a tour de force that will endure in the Catholic tradition as a theological classic. Her feminist reconstruction of the communion of saints in Friends of God and Prophets (1998) and her efforts to recover the historical mother of Jesus, Miriam of Nazareth, in Truly Our Sister (2003), have applied the insights of feminist criticism to specifically Catholic beliefs and doctrines thoroughly engulfed in patriarchal assumptions. It is a great act of generosity, then, that such an accomplished scholar would pause in her career-long project to share with us her considerable gifts as a teacher, as she does in her new book.

Quest for the Living God is an invitation to its readers to explore some of our best contemporary reflections on the experience of God and topics surrounding the doctrine of God. Written in clear and accessible prose, the book avoids the technical language that peppers scholarly works intended for a professional audience, and takes pains to guide a theologically inexperienced reader through all the issues that inform a particular interpretive concern. The book consists of 10 chapters: “Ancient Story, New Chapter,” an orientation to the task of theological interpretation; “Gracious Mystery, Ever Greater, Ever Nearer,” on the work of Karl Rahner; “The Crucified God of Compassion,” on God’s relation to evil in the work of Jürgen Moltmann, Dorothee Soelle and Johann Baptist Metz; “Liberating God of Life,” on Latin American liberation theology; “God Acting Womanish,” on feminist theology; “God Who Breaks Chains,” on black liberation and womanist theologies; “Accompanying God of Fiesta,” on Latino/a theologies; “Generous God of the Religions,” on claims for the workings of divine providence in world religions; “Creator Spirit in the Evolving World,” on God in the perspectives of the natural sciences and ecology; and “Trinity: The Living God of Love,” on efforts across the tradition to capture the emotional resonance of belief in the triune God.

Each chapter begins by situating the theological theme under consideration in the broader cultural situation to which it was a response. Thus, Johnson begins the chapter on Latin American liberation theology by explaining the facts of third world poverty, and the chapter on black liberation and womanist theologies by presenting the facts of endemic racism in American society. As first threads woven into the fabric of each chapter, they offer background and context for the nuances and problems of each theology of God. Were these introductions read collectively (and artificially) on their own, they would offer a valuable survey of contemporary culture at large. Placed as they are amid the many interpretive stories Johnson tells, they allow the reader to appreciate the challenge, art and truth of theological reflection. Each chapter ends with an expository bibliography that provides direction for further reading.

I found every one of these chapters to be an engaging tour of our best theological thinking on God. And even though I have read nearly all the authors whom Johnson enlists as her conversation partners, I learned much from the imaginative ways she gave voice to their motivations, hopes and commitments. Karl Rahner has always exerted a strong influence on Johnson’s thought, so I was not surprised by her especially accomplished, and even moving, presentation of his theology of divine mystery. The chapter on feminist theology is the finest brief account of its concerns that I have ever read.

Of course a book like this, for reasons of length alone, cannot do everything. The author must make choices. I cannot see how one could fault Johnson for the choices that she made, though I can imagine a reader dissatisfied by some omissions. There is, for example, no discussion of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Orthodox theology or process theology (except for a mention). These exclusions may simply reflect Johnson’s interests, or lack thereof. If she made her own theological passions the criteria of her choice of material, then the reader must judge whether her passions extend far enough to make this a satisfying book. My hope for broader inclusion was motivated by a desire to see her skills in explanation and analysis brought to bear on more theology.

It is rare that one finds a book that will appeal to all sorts of audiences, but Quest for the Living God is one. Professional theologians, undergraduate students and literate people of faith will enjoy all that this engaging work has to offer.

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