[Elizabeth Johnson is the Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, and one of the most prominent Catholic theologians of the last generation. She has focused much of her attention on the environment and what role ecology plays in theology. Johnson is retiring this year and spoke to Charles Camosy about this aspect of her thought. This is part two of a two-part interview. Part one can be read here.]
Camosy: Is it fair to say that the last years of your formal academic career have taken an ecological turn?
Johnson: Probably not. The first book I ever published, Consider Jesus (1990) has a section on salvation affecting the whole cosmos. She Who Is (1992) consistently includes the earth in phrases about the will of God that all should flourish.
Then in 1993 I published the small monograph Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit, exploring how these interrelated three were severely neglected in patriarchal theology. So, the interest has always been there. In recent years as the ecological crisis has become more severe, this concern has come more to the fore, as you observe.
What role has Laudato Si‘ played for you along this journey?
Since this encyclical is of recent vintage (2015), it could not influence my thought to a great degree. But it is most welcome at the theological table for putting care for the earth front and center as a matter of concern for those who love God.
Do you see ways in which Catholic colleges and universities–and perhaps other institutions as well–can better implement Laudato Si’ as they attempt to live out their mission?
Many surveys and actual projects are showing how this can be done. These include setting up academic centers dedicated to this subject; running conferences; promoting ecological courses in the curriculum across the disciplines; setting sustainability goals and producing an annual report on the university’s state; banning bottled water; locally sourcing student meals; recycling; composting; linking ecological care with spirituality through campus ministry; and much more.
You and I share a deep theological interest in non-human animals, and your Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love was a very important contribution along this growing trajectory of theological concern. How was this book received? Are you starting to see a shift in how we think about non-human animals?
The book received very good reviews and several awards. What pleased me the most were the scientists who wrote with insights and questions; rather than disputing or rejecting their work, this book appreciated it and used it to further religious thinking.
Recent advances in the scientific study of animals, their intelligence, emotion, social relations, and purposive action, are leading to a sea change of society’s attitude toward animals who are other than human. We begin to realize that we are all branches on the tree of life, and that human capacities are on a spectrum with animals, not a new appearance with no precedent.
This is already affecting theological anthropology, and much exciting work lies ahead. Laudato Si’ forges a way ahead by seeing that at the end we humans will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God, and the universe with each of its creatures “resplendently transfigured” will share in this unending plenitude. Quite a shift.
Your most recent book, just published, is titled Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril, which advances your turn to ecological concern in significant ways. What is your basic thesis in this book, and to where does it point people of faith who share your concerns?
The book explores cosmic redemption, the view found in Scripture and in various lines of tradition that the whole cosmos will not be annihilated but will be redeemed along with human beings. In order to bring this to light, I tracked the biblical teaching on divine mercy which precedes and envelops the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus.
This teaching is often overshadowed by Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Reflecting his feudal context, he argued that the death of Jesus was necessary to pay back the dishonor rendered to God by human sin. In subsequent centuries this idea has held sway, leading to the idea of a vengeful God who requires blood and giving a justification to violence.
Retrieving a much richer biblical teaching, this book argues that no one had to die in order for God to be merciful. Rather, the cross shows the depths of divine love in a different way, insofar as the Word becomes flesh and goes down into death in order to accompany all creatures in their living and dying, with the promise of a future of life.
The cross gives hope to all who die, not just human sinners.