Abounding in Kindness

Writings for the People of God

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Elizabeth A. Johnson
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , March
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In her most recent work, Elizabeth Johnson has brought together talks and articles into a single volume intending “to make insights accessible to a broad reading public” (vii). The organization of the articles around the “Christian creed” (vii) and editing of the articles into one book is creative and masterly, while the text itself is the smooth, almost poetic prose that readers have come to expect from Johnson.

Similarly, the content of the articles is what readers have come to expect. Although the intention is to move the reader through the Creed, the articles almost always lead us back to the same theses contained inJohnson’s other books, and the criticisms that accompany them. Since this book is intended for a broader reading audience, one might expect she would address some of the concerns raised by other theologians and the Catholic hierarchy, but that is not the case.

In “Atheism and Faith in a Secular World,” Johnson uses statistics to show the rising number of people who identify themselves as atheists, and traces the historical causes. She then utilizes the work of Karl Rahner to show that humans are dynamically ordered to God because “the human spirit is structured with an unrestricted openness toward truth” (27). The question that implicitly follows is: If all humans are created with an orientation toward God, why are there so many atheists?

Johnson blames the rise of atheism on what she calls “modern theism” (30), which is defined as belief in a male God in the sky who is a distant monarch, a “lordly lawgiver [who] stands at the summit of hierarchical power, reinforcing structures in society, church, and family” (30). She states that this is the god atheists reject, using only Richard Dawson’s, The God Delusion, as evidence. She adds that this view of God is not enough to support the faith of the young, stating “For an individual, if the Rock you lean on is too miniscule to support the range of your life's desires, faith will collapse as you grow into maturity” (31). Her solution is to use the “renaissance in theologies of God” (32), to put forth more effective new and renewed conceptions of God.

While the “bearded man in the sky” image of God is only one of many, Johnson makes a big leap when she presumes this is the only image avaialable to atheists and is the primary cause of their atheism. She does not credit atheists with the intellectual capability to conceive of and consider more than one image of God and then reject them all. Similarly, Johnson fails to recognize that as the faith of the young grows, so too does their understanding of God. One only needs to read James Fowler to know that is the case. As faith expands, the “Rock” does not stay the same size. Instead, we see the Rock was much greater than we ever imagined.

Her mistreatment of atheists and the faith of the young only belies that her agenda is the same as always: to rename the persons of the Trinity. Although she does not make an explicit argument for renaming the persons of the Trinity in this essay (“Atheism and Faith in a Secular World”), it comes up throughout the book, even in chapters that one might not expect it to. It is accompanied by the argument that without this renaming, males will always be regarded as the superior sex, and women will be kept out of key positions of power and influence, most especially the priesthood.

As many other theologians have noted in the past, Johnson fails to make a distinction between predications for the one divine nature and predications made for persons of the Trinity. Since Chalcedon, clear rules have been established in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions for making predications about God. The bottom line is that the names of the persons of the Trinity are considered to be revealed and are not subject to revision. If, as Johnson argues, those names are just about relationship (parent-child), and the gender of Christ is no different than any other of his historical characteristics, and if those names are inherently oppressive to women, then we have to believe that Jesus either chose the names arbitrarily or was accommodating sexism.

Interestingly, Johnson says that “The Christ that cannot be co-opted . . . is the historical Jesus” (11). We can't ignore the Christ that cared for the poor, healed people, ate with the outcast, and treated women with the same dignity as men. Why, then, should we ignore what Christ said about God?  Further, if one believes women's experience is important, we might wonder what is the significance of the Second person of the Trinity becoming a male? What might be lost if we ignore his experience and our experience of him?

Almost as problematic is the way Johnson uses parts of the tradition to support her theses, but not in context, or while ignoring parts of a text. For example, she quotes Mulieris Dignitatem in which John Paul II praises the “genius” of women, saying he relegates women to the domestic sphere (63). She ignores that John Paul II encourages women to get involved in every aspect of human life. Similarly, she cites Aquinas multiple times to support apophatic naming and the need for multiple names, but ignores his position on the primacy and irrecovability of the revealed names.

Johnson also ignores data that contradicts her presuppositions. She often argues that the association of women with matter is the basis for discrimination. However, she ignores the scholarship of Caroline Walker Bynum, who convincingly shows that in the Middle Ages, women's association with matter was a source of empowerment. Further, the maleness of Christ, his kingship and justice, served as a counterbalance to priests who misused their authority.

She also fails to explore the progress women have made in the Catholic Church without being ordained or renaming the divine persons. Since Vatican II, few parishes are without a woman employed professionally, and many diocesan administrators and theologians at the USCCB are females as well.

As a female working in the Catholic Church, I found very little that was new or particualarly helpful in regard to gender in this book. I also did not find that the book is any more suitable to a broad reading audience than what Johnson has published before. However, this book would provide a good introduction to Elizabeth Johnson's overall thought to a person unfamiliar with her work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melissa L. Smeltzer is Assistant Professor of Theology at Ancilla College.

Date of Review: 
May 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth A. Johnson, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, is Distinguished Professor of Theology, Fordham University. A former president of the Catholic TheologicalSociety of America, she is the recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award for distinguished achievement in theology. Her book She Who Is received the Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Her other books include Consider JesusQuest for the Living God  and Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.



Cynthia L Rigby

Thanks for the review, but I do think it misses the point that Johnson is intending to recapitulate many of the ideas she has developed elsewhere for a broader audience.  I don't think, then, that the fact that there is not much that is "new" is an apt criticism.  Also, Johnson's goal is never to "rename the Trinity," as the reviewer puts it.  The point of using "equivalent female imagery" for "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is to participate more fully in the mystery of God (see, for example, She Who Is).  Johnson does not want to disguard the traditional apostolic language (implied by the reviewer's use of the term "renaming"), but to add to it so it is better understood.  The strength of the review, I think, is Dr. Smeltzer's challenge to Johnson's narrow engagement of atheists - thanks for this; I am going to give these critiques some serious consideration. 


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