Creation and the Cross

The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril

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Elizabeth A. Johnson
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , February
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781626982666.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Many who have never heard of Anselm of Canterbury are nevertheless familiar with his satisfaction theory of atonement, which has dominated Western Christianity since the 11th century. In fact, for many, both inside and outside of Christianity, Anselm’s theory has become synonymous with the Christian message. 

In pointed disagreement with Anselm, Elizabeth A. Johnson’s most recent text invites readers into “a theology of accompaniment … that will support planetary solidarity and work for ecojustice” (xiii). Readers familiar with Johnson’s extensive corpus will recognize her creation theology and her call to reject myopic, sinful anthropocentricism. Her text calls Christians to a conversion of affirming God’s presence with and love for all creation, the necessary context for responding to the cross and the current state of our planet. 

Though rejecting Anselm’s position in the strongest possible terms, Johnson consciously models her work upon the organizational structure and dialogical style he used in Cur Deus Homo. Her introduction clearly explains her book’s distinctive structure and the rationale for it. 

Following Anselm’s pattern, Johnson’s text is constructed as a two-person dialogue. Johnson names her dialogue partner Clara, an imagined composite of students. Like Anselm’s medieval treatise, this text is also organized into books, each of which has several subsections. 

The first book presents an overview of, and seven objections to, the satisfaction theory. The second book, entitled “The Creating God Who Saves,” presents a theology of God derived primarily from Second Isaiah, the Exodus event, and the Psalms. The intent is to establish that the theology of accompaniment that Johnson develops is in continuity with the testimony of the Hebrew scriptures regarding the God of Israel. 

The third book develops this theology of accompaniment as it becomes specifically Christian, in response to the Christ event, which is understood very differently from Anselm’s atonement theory. Johnson’s theology of God’s presence is one of double solidarity: firstly, the solidarity of Jesus with human suffering; and secondly, the solidarity of God with Jesus, acting to resurrect and vindicate him. In this theology, though divine absence may be felt, “God does not abandon” (110). 

The fourth book is particularly masterful in its explanation of the necessarily metaphorical nature of language for salvation, the harm that literalizing metaphors can do, and the vital need for creative images derived from contemporary contexts. This book gives an overview of the diversity of metaphors for salvation present throughout the texts of the New Testament, locating each in the specificity of its cultural context.

The fifth book, “God of All Flesh: Deep Incarnation,” extends the notion of God’s solidarity and presence to the entire creation through the incarnation. Johnson investigates the meaning of “flesh,” distinctions between finitude and sin, and, citing Genesis 9:16-17, emphasizes that the first covenant God makes is with “all flesh that is on earth” (165). Using the lens of a Wisdom christology, Johnson argues that the resurrection “pledges a future for all the dead, not only the dead of the human species but of all species” (190).

The sixth and last book concludes by offering five thought experiments to promote Christian conversion to this inclusive, creation-centered understanding. The theology of accompaniment places sin and forgiveness within the cosmic frame of divine loving presence with and care for all of creation. 

Johnson’s choice to pay tribute to the effectiveness of Anselm’s style and structure by modeling it, even while rejecting the content of his theory, effectively calls attention to two fundamental aspects of Johnson’s approach, both of which are characteristic of her body of work. First, though she vigorously disagrees with Anselm’s theory, she does not engage in diatribe. Johnson has an extraordinary gift for honoring, respecting, and incorporating the received tradition even as she pointedly and firmly critiques aspects of it. Second, using Anselm’s style and structure also implicitly draws attention to Johnson’s conviction that the Christian image of salvation must not be constrained by one time period, one culture, or one metaphor, but must be continually reappropriated. Just as Anselm used his feudal culture to craft metaphors, so, too, contemporary metaphors pertinent to our time must be developed.

An especially striking trait of this book is the accessible writing that does not sacrifice complexity of thought. Without any disciplinary jargon, Johnson explains the key contours of her panentheistic, ecological theology. 

In keeping with the conversational structure, the text does not use footnotes. However, notes and a works consulted section at the end list the sources used for every section of each book. All these features make the book suitable for undergraduates and general readers.

Finally, those who closely follow Johnson’s work will recognize that every paragraph in this dialogue is steeped not only in her extensive scholarship, but in the living faith that her writing always reflects and opens up to readers. Though the distressing, pressing issue of the text is our planet’s peril, Johnson gifts readers with a theology that both comforts and empowers for change.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison Downie is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth A. Johnson, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University. A former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, she is the author of many books, including She Who Is (winner of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion), Quest for the Living God, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Abounding in Kindness: Writings for the People of God (Orbis 2015), and  editor of The Strength of Her Witness: Jesus Christ in the Global Voices of Women (Orbis 2016).

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