Elizabeth Johnson, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York, in a June 1 letter to the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, strenuously defended the orthodoxy of her 2007 book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, saying the committee had thoroughly misunderstood, misrepresented, and misinterpreted the book.
For those of us who yearn for more dialogue in the Church, the story of Professor Johnson and the US Bishops is another sad example of the lack of such dialogue. I have not read Quest for the Living God, but ordered it right away when the story first came out. (Don`t tell me what not to read!) It sits on my night stand, enticing me to put other tasks aside.
Other Johnson books on my shelf, read in varying degrees of completion, are: Truly our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, and Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints.
For too long, women`s experience has been defined, categorized and identified through male eyes and male minds. Elizabeth Johnson is a woman and a theologian – the former affects her study of the latter, and she does so unapologetically. She and other women theologians, bring a woman`s voice to the study of Mariology and the role of women in the Church. By doing so, the boundaries of theology are challenged, expanded and made more inclusive. Isn’t this, after all, the purpose and goal of all fields of study?
And, as in all fields of study, works are are expected to be judged and critiqued by one`s peers to ensure good scholarship and accuracy of research. Certain processes for academic scrutiny are put in place for the sake of consistency. In our Church, bishops have the final say in theological judgments. As with all issues, some bishops are more authoritarian than others. The issue of decreasing academic freedom continues to worry many Catholic theologians. And the way that Johnson`s work was censored without opportunity for dialogue has caused many of her peers to stand beside her in support.
In her letter to the Bishops, Johnson explains that Quest for the Living God merely presents “ideas and images of God surfacing, being tested, spiritually prayed, and ethically lived out in eight different conversations: in transcendental, political, liberation, feminist/womanist, black, Latino/Latina, interreligious, and ecological theologies.” The book is an attempt to show “how contemporary believers are seeking to express the ancient wisdom with new relevance.”
What makes me want to read Quest for the Living God (besides the episcopal censor!) is that it promises to be a great survey, a general introduction into the diverse ways of embracing God in diverse realities. Each section begins with the context, the historical foundation that lay the ground for these new and challenging ways of thinking. Some of these ideas I`m familiar with. Other`s I`m not. I look forward to the opportunity to learn more about the experience of sisters and brothers around the world, and how that experience is uniquely reflected in the way they live their faith. How is it similar to my own experience? How is it different?
The hard work of truly listening to the other is at the heart of dialogue. Closing doors, minds and hearts to new ways of thinking also closes us to the possibility of new ways of living the truth.