Beyond Utterance

'Quest for the Living God'

Mapping the Frontiers in the Theology of God
Elizabeth A. Johnson
Continuum, $24.95, 234 pp.

Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is is a foundational text for feminist theology, and thus for theology in general. In her new book, Quest for the Living God, she offers a compelling case for several important movements in modern Christian thought. She begins with Karl Rahner’s seminal investigations in the1930s before moving on to various contemporary Christian theologies—and, finally, to the complex connections being forged between Christianity and other world religions.

The critical problem Johnson seeks to address is summed up in her account of Rahner’s view that “what people hear in the preaching and teaching of the church draws on a primitive idea of God unworthy of belief.” As Rahner himself put it, all too many of the preacher’s words are “like birds frozen to death and falling from a winter sky.” Instead of dead words and detached deity, Johnson presents theologies of a living God active here and now. What are the marks of a living God? Johnson repeatedly warns that God is “ineffable...unspeakable...indefinable...unfathomable...incomprehensible.” This is a standard premise of almost any theology, so why is “ineffable” the mark of a living God? The simple answer is that life itself is ineffable in its fecundity, change, and sheer ongoingness. God, like the life he creates and sustains, has to be caught on the fly. Even Moses only gets to see him from the back as he passes by.

A living God must reach us in our concrete, particular lives. Christianity is a religion not of souls only, but of embodied souls; and bodies are very particular things—particular as men or women, particular in their personal history. An ahistorical, purely metaphysical theology is bound to miss this.

Rahner’s abstract theory of the Trinity sets the stage for much of what follows in this book. “The economic Trinity,” he famously wrote, “is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa.” As Johnson explains, “The axiom is shorthand for the realization that we know God from the way God has acted in history, through the Incarnate Word and renewing Spirit.” In line with Rahner’s special attention to the immanent or historical manifestation of God, Johnson offers a chapter on three late-twentieth-century German theologians—two Protestants, one Catholic—who made history the explicit context of their work. Theology emerges for all three from deep meditation on life under the Nazis during World War II and its immediate aftermath. Jürgen Moltmann witnessed the firebombing of Hamburg and lived as a prisoner of war. These experiences led him to develop a “theology of the Cross” where God himself is the one “shattered and broken.” Dorothee Sölle’s family hid a Jewish mother in their attic. One of her brothers was killed on the Eastern front. Visiting Auschwitz after the war, she came to reject the distant “omni” God of “omnipotence and omniscience.” Johann Baptist Metz, a Catholic, was conscripted out of school at age sixteen in the last days of the war. Sent one evening to deliver a message to headquarters, he returned to discover that his company of more than one hundred teenagers had been completely wiped out by tank and bomber assaults. “I found only the dead.” While Moltman and Sölle seek some comfort in the figure of the suffering God of the Cross, Metz argues that there is a danger that eternalizing suffering in God may give it, as Johnson puts it, “a certain splendor.” He insists that there is no tidy answer to suffering: as Johnson writes, it must continue to “cry out in history.”

Suffering is also a major theme for the other theologies Johnson outlines with her usual clarity and precision. In a chapter called “Liberating the God of Life,” she examines South American liberation theology, which is rooted in an experience of endemic poverty. In another chapter, she presents a synopsis of major feminist theologies, which address the second-class status assigned to women in most cultures and in the governing structures of the Catholic Church. Another chapter deals with theological perspectives on black slavery and racial discrimination, while “Accompanying God of Fiesta” focuses on la lucha—the struggle of Caribbean and Latin American migrants in the United States. A special appeal of the theology described in this chapter is its paradoxical insistence on celebration, on flor y canto, even in the face of suffering and injustice.

Having discussed various Christian attempts to develop a theology adequate to history, Johnson turns to the relation between Christianity and other world religions in the chapter, “Generous God of the Religions.” Johnson describes attending a Catholic Mass that made use of certain Hindu traditions. The liturgy, complete with the chants, incense, and marigolds of a typical Hindu ceremony, is a new rite approved by Rome. After the penitential Kyrie, participants received the bindi, “the red dot placed between the eyes as a symbol of the third eye which seeks wisdom within.” The Hindu practice can remind Catholics that penance reveals an inner wisdom about our way with God.

In the final chapter, “Trinity: The Living God of Love,” Johnson looks back at the more traditional language of the “immanent Trinity,” especially as it pertains to the Holy Spirit. A renewed emphasis on the Holy Spirit within a Trinitarian construction of God is a crucial part of Johnson’s overall enterprise. It is the Holy Spirit who accompanies us in the changes of history. Jesus signs God into history once and for all, but it is the Holy Spirit who travels with us over time.

Vatican II was a moment when the living God emerged because of the insistence of the bishops that one had to reconsider faith in the tragic aftermath of World War II. One wonders how many of the theologians discussed in Quest for the Living God, many of them laypersons, would be invited to participate as periti at a Vatican III. Rahner, liberation theology, and feminist theologies have not lately met with favor in Rome. During Vatican II, Michael Novak, then in his liberal phase, opined that the problem with the church was that it was committed to “unhistorical orthodoxy.” It is just such orthodoxy, unhistorical and disembodied, that fails to reach the living God these theologians seek to recover. Elizabeth Johnson’s careful analysis reminds us how much we miss when dead birds fall from the pulpit.


Related: Robert J. Egan reviews Elizabeth Johnson's Truly Our Sister
Galileo's Daughters, by Elizabeth A. Johnson

About the Author

Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.