[Elizabeth A. Johnson is the Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, and one of the most prominent Catholic theologians of the last generation. She is a past president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the ecumenical American Theological Society. The Brooklyn native has served as a theologian on the national Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue (1984-91); a consultant to the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Women in Church and Society; a theologian on the Vatican-sponsored dialogue between science and religion, and on the Vatican-sponsored ecumenical conference on Christ and world religions; and a core committee member of the Common Ground Initiative, started by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago to reconcile polarized groups in the Catholic Church. Johnson is retiring this year and spoke to Charles Camosy about her career. This is part one of a two-part interview.]
Camosy: It is really difficult to believe that you are retiring. Pretty much as long as I’ve known what academic theology was I’ve thought of you as a major and active player. What are your thoughts as you come down the home stretch of your formal academic career?
Johnson: Looking back over the years, the thoughts of my heart are filled with gratitude: gratitude for the support of my religious community; gratitude for the locale of a good university; gratitude for the worldwide network of fine colleagues and friends; and most of all gratitude for the opportunity day in and day out to pursue the life of the mind, which I love.
Through teaching, researching, writing, and public lecturing, I’ve been engaged in the ancient task of “faith seeking understanding,” as Anselm defined theology, or reflection on praxis in the light of the Word of God, as Gutierrez puts it, which means thinking about the meaning of faith for our own day. Listening to people’s questions, analyzing situations of social suffering, wrestling with sacred sources, offering interpretations, and drawing out implications for right action and prayer: every day has brought a spark of light into my life, because the core of what I am thinking about is deeply beautiful, namely, the love of God for the world.
Before we focus too much on the end, why don’t we focus a bit on your beginnings. What was your relationship to the Church like growing up?
In the neighborhood where I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, the Church was simply there, integrated into life of family, school, and friends. It shaped the week, Sunday being a day of big breakfasts after the children’s Mass, which my dad cooked, and a roast later in the day cooked by my mom. And it shaped the year, including the festivities of Christmas and the sacrifices of Lent. I loved the material items around the Mass (candles, flowers, incense, music), and was quite taken with the mystery of what the priest was doing with his back to us at the altar.
One story might stand for the rest. We were taught about plenary indulgences and encouraged to gain such blessings for the poor souls in purgatory who had no one else to pray for them. One year after school on All Souls Day, I rounded up some of my siblings and neighborhood friends and brought them to church. Together we said six Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Bes, thereby gaining a total of eight plenary indulgences and offering them for the most abandoned souls in purgatory. Following the rules that said you could gain only one indulgence per person per visit, I led the kids out of church for a walk around the block. Re-entering church we repeated the prayers; and yet again a third time. Before supper we had freed 24 souls from purgatory. That’s a lot of power to give a twelve-year-old girl.
I think current Church teaching about an option for the poor follows this same line of thinking. In my own work, I’ve written that if theology has not somehow benefitted the most threatened persons, who would be poor women of color with their dependent children in violent situations, it has not fulfilled its purpose.
So you came out of a fairly traditional context. But as some may not be aware, isn’t it fair to say that though you pushed the growing edge of Catholic theology, you never really totally left that traditional place? You’ve constantly stood up for the fact that doctrine matters and grounded your work in the tradition.
In my own experience I do not feel a strong dichotomy between “the growing edge” and the “traditional place,” as if one had to choose between them. Perhaps this is because I began graduate studies in theology two years after the close of the Second Vatican Council.
The excitement was palpable. The Church was changing right before our eyes. Rather than dealing with a static tradition we were dealing with a living tradition, one that wanted to be in dialogue with the modern world. This affected how theology would be done. Previous formulations might have been suitable for their own time, but the task now was to interpret the same good news anew, to make it relevant and appealing. Those formative years have affected everything I have done since.
You’ve written many widely-read books, but are perhaps best known for She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. To my way of thinking, this is a classic example of your work pushing boundaries but nevertheless grounding itself deeply in the tradition and in doctrine. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it tries to conserve traditional theological categories.
The central category in this case is the ineffable God. Religions across time and around the world today have reflected on the presence of this mystery. The Christian tradition has done so with such an emphasis on God as Father that the holy mystery of the divine has been lost; God is understood literally as a ruling male person with absolute power, loving, but demanding obedience.
When women began to theorize, this was judged to be inadequate and even oppressive. My sense was we did not have to reinvent the wheel and make-up a new deity but could reinterpret the Christian narrative of the trinitarian God in a more inclusive manner. The method was to put the wisdom of the past at the service of the present, with the conviction that God moves in history, keeping pace with experience.
How do you think about such commitments with the trend-lines of the discipline today? Sometimes I worry that we are too focused on ideas and concerns which, while important, artificially disconnect us from the life of the Church and push us in a religious studies direction.
One of the amazing developments of our time is the emergence of pluralism in theology. Just think of the global growth of theology on various continents in sharply different cultural contexts. Take note of the new voices contributing to the discipline, such as those of women and ethnic minorities, voices not heard before.
Consider the profoundly troubling questions being raised, such as entrenched racism. Think of the new partners, academic and interreligious, in the theological conversation. Place all this in motion before the three publics of the academy, Church, and society that theology is meant to address.
It is no wonder that varieties of transcendental, process, mystical-political, radically orthodox, Thomistic, aesthetic, contextual, liberation, black, feminist/womanist/mujerista, Latinx, queer, ecological, literary, post-liberal, and post-modern constructs, along with interreligious dialogue, now make pluralism of methods and views seem entirely normal.
While religious studies defines itself differently from theology, it is a cognate discipline with enormous richness to contribute to the theological task.