She Who Is wrap-up

I’m not going to offer a blow-by-blow account of the rest of Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is, mostly because I don’t think I could do justice to the many nuances and illuminating insights it contains. It’s definitely changed how I think about these issues. Also, it’s a highly readable book for academic theology, and anyone who’s interested should have no trouble getting their hands on a copy. I highly recommend it. But I thought I’d offer a few more thoughts.

The balance of the book contains discussions of, inter alia, the Trinity, Christology, God’s relationship to the world (classical theism vs. pantheism vs. panentheism) and divine power and (im)passibility that are quite good. Johnson’s taken on the last topic, in particular, strikes me as very worthwhile. Some contemporary theologians, in reacting against the classical view of God as omnipotent and impassible, go to the other extreme and define God almost exclusively in terms of weakness, suffering, etc., as though these were good in themselves. But as Johnson points out, a passive, suffering God can reinforce patterns of victimization just as an omnipotent, impassible God can seem like an overbearing and uncaring tyrant. It’s also not clear what the religious value is of a God who is only “fellow sufferer.”

What’s we need, Johnson argues, is a way of thinking about the power and suffering of God that avoids both extremes. She points out that there are different kinds of suffering: some, like the suffering experienced in childbirth, are means to a good end and and can be retrospectively seen as contributing to the wonderful gift of new life. Others, like extreme sexual or physical violence and degradation, are impossible to fit into any scheme in which they can be seen as contributing to some greater good. So we need to be careful in making these distinctions lest the “suffering God” end up valorizing victimization. Johnson even offers a feminist reinterpretation of God’s wrath: “the wrath of God in the sense of righteous anger is not an opposite of mercy but its correlative” (p. 258).

Johnson does affirm that God is present and shares in creaturely suffering. “The compassionate God, spoken about in analogy with women’s experience of relationality and care, can help by awakening consolation, responsible human action, and hope against hope in the world marked by radical suffering and evil” (p. 269). But God is also empowering her creatures to resist violence and victimization, and actualizing possibilities for more bountiful life. The cross and resurrection, in other words, are inseparable. Johnson doesn’t pretend to offer any “solution” to the problem of evil, but if God is thought of more in terms of relationality, both within the triune life and in its relationship to creation, then God’s power needn’t be defined as the unilateral ability to determine everything that happens:

Sophia-God is in solidarity with those who suffer as a mystery of empowerment. With moral indignation, concern for broken creation, and a sympathy calling for justice, the power of God’s compassionate love enters the pain of the world to transform it from within. The victory is not on the model of conquering heroism but of active, nonviolent resistance as those who are afflicted are empowered to take up the cause of resistance, healing, and liberation for themselves and others” (p. 270)

This is more suggestive than fully fleshed out, but it highlights how feminist concerns to counteract a God modeled on the aloof, solitary patriarchal male who is able to impose his will on a recalcitrant world dovetails with contemporary efforts to re-think divine power and action in light of both the problem of evil and a scientific understanding of reality. Developing a new understanding of power and new ways of speaking about God as “almighty” is still an urgent theological task, especially when the all-determining God of classical Calvinist theology seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity.

The opposite danger, though, is reducing God’s power to a moral example or ideal. While Johnson, I think, would deny that this is her intention, she does say things that seem to point in this direction. For example, she says that speaking of the suffering of God is valuable primarily because it “facilitates the praxis of hope” (p. 271), that is, motivating action by and on behalf of those who are oppressed. While this is certainly an important task for Christians to take up, I’m left a bit uncertain about the role of eschatology in her theology. Doesn’t hope, in the Christian lexicon, ultimately have as its object something that God will bring about? While Johnson mentions the resurrection life in a few places, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t seem to play a pivotal role in her theology, and she says little to indicate that it’s ultimately God who will bring about the final emancipation of creation, not human efforts to build a just society, necessary as those are. I’m certainly on board with much of the program developed in She Who Is, but Johnson’s strictures about idolatry also apply, surely, to any tendency to annex God to a political agenda, no matter how worthy.

6 thoughts on “She Who Is wrap-up

  1. Dave Bruner

    Hi, Lee,

    1. This is a little out of right field (and reflects my div-school pedigree), but I wonder if you’d enjoy reading some Karl Barth–esp volume IV/2 of the dogmatics, about sanctification. In it, Barth talks about how sin is first and foremost pride (ala Augustine) but not only that–it’s also sloth, our refusal to accept and make use of the responsibility and gifts that God has given us. (Barth talks about ‘our refusal to accept that we are masters and not slaves.’) I found that an intriguing revisioning/elaboration on traditional definitions of sin, and one that I think might be sympathetic with feminist concerns like Johnson’s. (Which, if true, is ironic, since Barth is often kicked both personally and theologically for his lack of feminist sympathies.) Anyway, if you feel like investing a month or so, it’s absolutely fabulous reading.

    2. You are among the most adventurous and determined lay readers of theology I’ve ever encountered. Hooray for you. I hope you’re teaching adult ed or doing something at your local parish!

    grace & peace.

  2. Dave, thanks for the kind words.

    I admit that I haven’t read much Barth. Some essays here and there. Diving into the Church Dogmatics seems a bit daunting, frankly. Do you think it’s worthwhile to dip into various places without trying to read the whole thing?

  3. Dave Bruner

    Lee: Barth is hard, especially at the beginning. But he’s definitely, definitely worth reading, and you don’t need to read the whole thing. (I looooove Barth, and have no plans to read the whole thing. I pretty much think that’s the preserve of the PhD, and my wife firmly agrees!) The CD is also where his very best material is.

    Here’s what you do: (a) get a secondary guidebook to him (Cambridge Companion to Barth, or John Webster’s book on Barth) and read it to get a broad-brush outline. Then get one of the individual CD volumes (any one of the multi-part Volume IV (Christology) is amazing, or volume II (election) is also great). Then pick a chunk that looks interesting and dive in. If you can handle Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, you can handle KB.

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