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Questing for the Living God

By: Conrad T. Gromada, Ph.D.

After four years of persistent invitations to Sr. Elizabeth Johnson by Sr. Christine Schenk, FutureChurch was treated to a magnificent address to a packed house at its 17th annual benefit on October 18, 2007, at Windows on the River on Cleveland's West Bank. Dr. Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, titled her talk, “Questing for the Living God,” similar to the full title of her latest book, hot off the press, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 2007). She chose this topic precisely “because church reform is exhausting work . . . (and) needs to be centered in strong and deep relationship with God.” She focused on three theological frontiers we now face in our relationship with God: the feminist, the interreligious, and the ecological.

Photograph of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, with benefactors Tary and Fred Harms on either side of her.
Sr. Elizabeth Johnson (center) with benefactors Tary and Fred Harms, who travelled from Illinois to attend.

She began dramatically with a quote from Nikos Kazantzakis and ended poetically with (what she termed) her “poor prose” with words from a play by Christopher Fry. Her presentation was anything but “poor!” She captured the minds, hearts and imaginations of all present as indicated by sustained applause and astute answers to the questions she entertained at the end. She was artful, poetic, engaging, and indeed deeply theological-challenging all those in attendance to risk crossing these three frontiers.

At the risk of oversimplifying one of her major themes, God made us in God's own image and we have returned the favor. But, sadly, and sinfully, we have chosen over and over again throughout history to fashion God in terms of whatever suits our fancy or our need to control (or possess) rather than in terms of whatever enables us to freely embrace and respond to “all that is” as gift. Johnson pointed out how the biblical tradition itself has been truncated by this “will to power.” But today feminist insightfulness, interreligious conversation, and heightened ecological awareness are unlocking hidden treasures in that tradition.

(1) In feminist theology, maternal images of God, long neglected, introduce women and men to a caring God, maternally looking out for her children in special need, defending the defenseless “little ones,” and wisely managing her household, the whole wide world.

(2) In interreligious dialogue, we Christians are learning to overcome “an imperialistic framework for Christology” arising erroneously out of our firm belief in the Incarnation. Johnson insists on the need to seek God Who is present beyond our tradition, for the presence of God is not spent in terms of Christianity alone. Christian triumphalism needs to be laid aside. A self-emptying and invitational spirit must characterize interreligious dialogue which is mandatory in our multicultural and global situation. God is bigger than our Christian formulations of the divine and all are blessed by “the
dignity of difference.”

(3) Johnson stretched the imaginations of her audience in terms of ecological theology. Her presentation of the sheer dynamism and complexity, the utter vastness of time and space, unpacked by scientists today, riveted the attention of all. In just a matter of minutes she described how God must be re-envisioned in terms of our “discoveries about the physical world, our wonder at it and our waste of it.” What kind of God is it whose Spirit is the very “Vivifier” of all that is? New questions are being formulated today in terms of God's so-called “intervention” in an emergent universe, in a universe so inadequately depicted by the extreme positions of those advocating intelligent design and those holding an atheistic view. Johnson declared “a pox on both their houses” and challenged her audience to consider a universe beyond such theories to ones involving chance, yet still founded on faith in “a God of surprising promise, approaching the future in every movement, bringing forth life from death, calling forth hope.”

Photograph of FutureChurch cofounder Fr. Lou Trivision, with Jean Biek and Karen Hanson.FutureChurch cofounder Fr. Lou Trivison (center) with two of his many admirers, Jean Biek (L) and Karen Hanson (R)

Hers was a message of deep faith and hope. This short review offers only a glimmer of the full brilliance, eloquence and theological nuance of Elizabeth Johnson's masterpiece.

Conrad T. Gromada, Ph.D. is a professor of theology at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio.

A podcast of Dr. Johnson' presentation is available for free download on the FutureChurch website. A CD is available from the FutureChurch office for $10.


18th Annual FutureChurch Benefit
Thursday, September 18, 2008, Cleveland, Ohio

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
will speak on her book
Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches are
Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way


Focus on FutureChurch

Fall 2007


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