I wouldn’t call myself an ambulance chaser, though I did leave my house once by car to try to view a tornado reported on TV to be on the ground in my neighborhood. For the record, it’s a lot harder to do that in a residential area than on the plains in Kansas. Back in 2008 I caught a news story that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had issued a warning about errors in a theology book entitled Quest for the Living God by Sister Elizabeth Johnson. Naturally I had to take a look myself, and I purchased the book at the time. It sat on my book shelf on the “to read” shelf (I must admit, I have two such shelves) through two presidential election cycles. Then early this year I came across the author in another context and I thought it would be useful to read this work to refresh my foundational theology roots, and I purchased it again on Kindle forgetting that I owned the book in hard copy.
In retrospect I can see the 2008 fuss in better context. That was the same year that the Vatican investigation of women religious in the United States began in earnest, and I think that one of the discontents of the Vatican (as expressed by certain American bishops with influence) was the numerical reality that fewer sisters were doing catechesis (e.g., teaching the Catechism) and more sisters were undertaking professional theology (e.g., exploring the roots of what we teach). I certainly get the impression that some of the best theological work taking place today is being produced by women religious. Sister Elizabeth Johnson, for example, is a full professor at Fordham University.
So, in the more tranquil times of the present, I have been able to reflect upon this book as it was intended, a text on foundations of reality and belief, the work one must do before engaging in specific religious practice or teaching. In grad schools and seminaries “Foundational Theology” is the first course of theological study. Those of you in catechetics can appreciate the importance of foundational work. Imagine you are leading a Bible study, and someone asks inquisitively, “How do we know these books are true?” Your answer: “Because the Church has taught us so.” To which your questioner asks, “How does the Church have that power?” And you, “Because Jesus gave it to the Church.” Questioner: “Who is Jesus?” “God.” And the questioner has thus gotten to the core question, “Who is God?”
Elizabeth Johnson begins her work addressing the contemporary problem of “God talk.” I should point out that theological discussion of God is standard scholarly fare. Even Cardinal Wuerl, in his criticism of the book, concedes that if the book was confined to use by theologians, the bishops would not have intervened. The author reminds us of the sobering truth that God is “totally other” and defies every analogy we can conceive of. As she puts it, “God cannot be compared with anything in the world. To do so is to reduce divine reality to an idol.” (13) Or put another way, if language about God is possible, then this totally other Being cannot exist, because language implies control on our part. Our Jewish ancestors knew this; a Jew was not allowed to utter the sacred name.
Her second critical point is that the human search for God is insatiable. This is not a denial of the Church’s Creed; rather, the Creed simply opens more doors of mysterious searching. Johnson draws from the writings of perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, S.J., whose theology looks for points of contact between created man and a “totally other” God. Johnson uses an excellent analogy of Rahner’s vision of theology. Imagine a scientist in a lab jacket looking through a microscope. The normal instinct of our culture would be to inquire about what the scientist is viewing. Rahner’s methodology draws more to the scientist: why is looking, what drives him to search, what is he hoping to find? Rahner contends that all people are created with an insatiable thirst to pursue a being that is of its nature inaccessible.
Johnson goes on to highlight the great mystery of this totally other being, that this being has freely and lovingly extended its very being into the human world, first by creating the world, and more importantly, by sending the living Jesus to express the perfect love and desire of the being we call God for our own well being and happiness. But this omnipotent love of God for the individual human is not a solitary event; those who experience both the awe of God’s otherness and the irresistible desire to pursue are drawn together by this most powerful experience, and thus we have a rudimentary u7nderstanding of what we casually at times refer to as Church. This was my reference in Wednesday’s blog, to those who have left the Church—the possibility that the awe and the passion for God were nowhere to be seen.
Naturally I don’t think a foundational work like Johnson’s belongs in the elementary stages of catechesis. But an awakening of awe in God and an introduction to those who passionately seek “the other” are the first legs of instructor and student alike. In preparing for my First Communion in 1956, I can remember my religious teaching sister emphasizing that “God always was” and “God always will be.” At seven years old I found this to be the most challenging but engaging teaching of the catechism, and even today (allowing that the analogy of time has no meaning for the Other) the analogy has great power for me still. Only when the divine imagination is stirred is the catechetical process possible.
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For Folks Who Can't Read Everything