Quest to Topple the Patriarchal Idol

May 2010By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God.  By Elizabeth A. Johnson. Continuum. 234 pages. $24.95.



By the term "Living God," Sister Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., means a deity she won't have to call "Father." In her new book, Johnson, author of She Who Is (1993) and Truly Our Sister (2004), compares herself to a prophet warning Israel to turn away from idols and to seek "the female face of God" — i.e., the "living God." She's eager to pull the "idol off its pedestal, breaking the stranglehold of patriarchal discourse and its deleterious effects." After all, she urges, "God is not literally a father or a king or a lord, but something ever so much greater." She invites us to join her, open the "patriarchal cage," and release the "divine mystery." But what she releases from that cage is unspeakable.

At the start, Johnson asks us to reflect that an "invisible, greatly powerful, grand old man in the sky" might not be God at all. Strange, then, that in Scripture the prophet Daniel has just such a vision of God as the "Ancient of Days" enthroned in Heaven (Dan. 7). Evidently, this is a permissible way to envision God. Then she claims that the idea of God as an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Being comes from "modern theism" only three centuries ago. In reaction to the Enlightenment, she alleges, "rational arguments," rather than Scripture and Tradition, were used to defend the existence of God, and the divine attributes were deduced by contrasting the infinite to the finite — God as "omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, in contrast to creatures who are limited in power, knowledge, and presence." Johnson is a Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University. She should know that the Council of Rome (A.D. 382) declared God to be "all-powerful and omniscient," present "everywhere," and "ruling all things," and that St. Thomas Aquinas used "rational arguments" back in the thirteenth century to prove the existence of God and deduce His attributes. Far from being a "construct" of eighteenth-century "modern theism," all this is as old as the Church herself.

Johnson also complains that the Church has promoted a "primitive idea of God unworthy of belief," an "idol" rather than a "mystery." To liberate us from an idea of God she calls "deficient to the point of being idolatrous," she invites us to follow Karl Rahner and approach God through the spirit's "unrestricted drive" toward "boundless truth," a "quest" for "self-transcendence" that alone "constitutes us as spiritual subjects, or persons." Nowhere does she hint that such a Promethean quest might be considerably hampered by original sin.

Next Johnson alleges that the same eighteenth-century modern theism turned grace into something "objective," liable to be "lost by sin and gained again by penance." This is odd because this particular dogma about grace also comes to us from antiquity. It is plainly stated by St. Thomas, as well as by the Fathers of the Council of Trent, who declare, "Those who by sin have fallen away from the received grace of justification, will again be able to be justified when, roused by God through the sacrament of penance, they by the merit of Christ shall have attended to the recovery of the grace lost." Johnson wants to get rid of this "objective" grace and replace it with a subjective form of grace found everywhere at all times, for example, in the "love" expressed in "creative art, literature, technology." Well, this is not the supernatural grace we received at baptism. She also contends that "divine life" is not closer to some than to others, but equally near to all, without need for religion.

Johnson goes on to speak of God's "liberating partiality" for the "oppressed," but never glances at the most oppressed of all, babies killed in the womb by the millions. She endorses the "praxis of justice," but concedes that it has nothing to do with "individual piety and moral living." Rather, it involves a "mystical-political" theology, where the only "pernicious sins" are "racism, sexism, ecclesiastical clericalism, and ruination of the earth." What on earth does "mystical-political" mean?

In a chapter titled "God Acting Womanish," Johnson gets to the heart of her project — revealing "the female face of God." She observes that Catholic feminists use the term patriarchy or "rule of the father" for a "structure" in which women lack "equal access to power." Feminists don't want to "add women, and stir," but to transform the whole structure. In particular, women "have experienced strong discomfort with the dominant images of God as father, lord, and king" because these "male images of God" function to maintain an "unequal relation between women and men." She wants to be rid of these "images" now that women have "discovered God as a life-giving Spirit" who "liberates them into their own freedom" and lets them "trust their own personal power." What freedom and power? Abortion rights and New Age rituals?

Never once does Sr. Elizabeth mention that our Lord often speaks of God as His "Father" in the Gospels and instructs His disciples to pray to Him as "Our Father." Since the Redeemer is Truth incarnate, and since He alone knows God intimately, it stands to reason that if He tells us to pray to God as "Father," we should accept with joy this invitation to divine intimacy. Not only does Johnson ignore Christ's words, she pretends that the idea of God the Father comes from men in authority in the early Church who used their position as a "model for the divine" and created "verbal depictions of God in liturgy, preaching, and catechesis, along with virtual representations in art" to link God to "maleness." Thus she presents the divine Fatherhood not only as a man-made construct, but also as the result of a conspiracy against women among the first Christians.

Johnson warns that if we take literally the "naming" of God in the "image of powerful men," we turn God into an "idol." Her fear of idolatry is unwarranted: Our Lord never warned us against taking literally the beautiful name of Our Father, as He surely would have if there had been any danger of idolatry.

There's a hint of violence in Sr. Elizabeth when she rages against the "ruling male substratum of the idea of God," which is "engraved in public and private prayer" and resistant to "iconoclasm." Yes, she's calling for a new iconoclasm to overthrow the divine Fatherhood. She'd like to pull down and smash the "patriarchal language for God," such as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, just as the iconoclasts of the sixteenth century pulled down and smashed tabernacles, crucifixes, and religious statues and paintings as "idols." She exclaims that "only if the full reality of historical women of all races and classes enters into our symbol of the divine, only then will the idolatrous fixation on one image of God be broken, will women be empowered at their deepest core" to uncover the "mystery of divine Sophia's gracious hospitality toward all human beings and the earth." Ah yes, Sophia.

To promote "Sophia" (Wisdom) as the female face of God, Johnson makes the absurd claim that Sophia's words and deeds were spoken and acted by Jesus and that Jesus is the "human being Sophia became." So you see, according to Sr. Elizabeth, it wasn't the Word that became flesh and lived among us, it was Sophia. Indeed Johnson alleges that the pre-history of Jesus in St. John's Gospel is actually "the story of Wisdom under the guise of the metaphor of Word." Note well — she dares to assert that the Word of God is only a metaphor for the divine reality of Sophia. The truth is exactly the reverse: Sophia is a figurative way of speaking about an attribute of God, an allegory of His Wisdom, whereas the Word is eternally the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

It's not enough for Johnson if someone speaks of God as having "feminine" attributes, because then God remains "in the image of the ruling man," though with a milder side. No, she wants a "female icon of God in all fullness," a "living God" who will replace the Father and act "womanish: outrageous, audacious, courageous, willfully desiring the flourishing of women." Outrageous? Audacious? Doesn't that sound like the Adversary in drag, the one who pretended he wanted Eve's "flourishing"?

Johnson urges Christian theologians who dialogue with spokesmen for other religions to "pass over" to the views of their dialogue partners, "endeavoring to see, savor, grasp the world from a different perspective." In this way, they'll be purified of "what may be arrogant, narrow, and ignorant." They might also want to enter into the "spiritual practices" of other religions, as did her acquaintance Diana Eck, a Methodist who worshiped in a temple of Vishnu and found her views "enlarged." Note well: Johnson fears "idolatry" when we pray to Our Father, but she's not at all afraid of idolatry when someone worships a statue of Vishnu. Go figure.

In a chapter on "ecological theology," Johnson follows the late Fr. Thomas Berry closely. She believes that matter evolved into "consciousness, then to spirit," and that even the emergence of "mind" may be "accounted for without special supernatural intervention." In one of her rare comments on sin, she scolds the human race for "unbridled reproduction," for exhausting earth's "carrying capacity," and for "deeply sinful desecration of the earth." She thinks that a good criterion to gauge the morality of an action is whether it contributes to "a sustainable life community on earth." This requires us to "shift ethical attention away from human persons alone and to re-center vigorous moral consideration on the whole community of life." In sum, Sr. Elizabeth endorses what sounds very much like pantheism: Not only has Nature produced everything, including the human mind, it even "bears the mark of the sacred and has itself a spiritual radiance." It is a "sacrament of continuous divine presence," a "locus of divine compassion," and "the bearer of a divine promise." But don't try to make Nature accountable for suffering, she warns, because it never had a "plan," only "a vision."

In her last chapter, Sr. Elizabeth urges us to "deconstruct our naive imaginations" about the Trinity. She contends that in the Lord's Prayer, when Jesus says "hallowed be thy name," he is referring to the name of YHWH (the "I Am Who Am" revealed to Moses), not to the name of Father. So much does she hate the name of Father that she insists it cannot possibly be "the name of God all by itself." She would willingly step back three thousand years to a pre-Christian view of God to avoid it. Well, the good news is that the name of Father is indeed the name of God "all by itself." With this very name, Jesus invites us all into a new intimacy within the Trinity.

One has to wonder, is this poisonous ideology from the 1970s what the author still teaches in her classes at Fordham University? Has she not seen the fruit of this ideology, that it has led to the ruination of many religious orders for women? Sister Elizabeth, it's time to let go of "Father" as your boogeyman.



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A "Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University"!!! I thought the Jebbies had returned to their Catholic roots. Guess not. Sad. Wonder what Fr. Joe Koterski thinks of the "Distinguished Professor of Theology"'s ideas... Posted by: ED CIPOT
June 02, 2010 01:20 PM EDT
What's really bizarre is why Sister Elizabeth would have been attracted to the Father-centered Catholic faith in the first place! Posted by: Charlemagne II
May 11, 2010 01:12 PM EDT
What is most disturbing about Sr Johnson is that she remains a professor at a so called Catholic University and apparently is still a member of a religious order. Perhaps the order (?) needs addressing. Posted by: Mary McCurry
May 20, 2011 03:29 AM EDT
Elizabeth Johnson sounds like one gutsy, free thinking gal.
Posted by: Anonymous
August 15, 2012 08:26 PM EDT
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