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It's not about the feminism (except when it is)

In his post below about the USCCB's critique of Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God, Grant noted that Fr. Thomas Weinandy told the New York Times "The primary concern was not over feminism or nonfeminism. The bishops are saying that the book does not adequately treat a Catholic understanding of God." Laurie Goodstein's article seems to presume that it was the feminist stuff that ruffled the bishops' feathers. And based on what the bishops' statement alleges, Grant wondered "whether Johnson's feminism didn't feature more largely in the committee's mind than Weinandy lets on." I think it's a fair question.

I said below (in the comments) that the reading overall strikes me as deeply unfair and also oddly aggressive. It's a prosecution, not a careful laying-out of concerns and clarifications, and it rests on some odd assumptions about what Johnson is trying to do. The main one, which I find totally unpersuasive, is this: "For Sr. Johnson, if God is incomprehensible he is also unknowable." If she believed that, why would she write a book about seeking God? Why do theology at all? If you'll look to page 11 of Quest, you'll find citations from Scripture about the centrality of that search for God to the Christian faith, and how God has promised to reveal himself to those who seek him. As Erin Kidd writes over at the Women in Theology blog (where a thorough response to the bishops' critique is ongoing), "We are on a quest not because we lack knowledge of God, but because we never come to the end of God. God is deeper than our glance can penetrate." I can't imagine coming away from what Johnson writes at the very beginning of the book convinced that she believes God is "unknowable" -- unless I went in already convinced that Johnson, because she's a contemporary feminist theologian, is interested only in tearing down the faith from the inside. I know there are people who believe that. I should hope the bishops wouldn't take it as their starting point in analyzing a work of theology.

The reason I am wondering about just how much the feminist thing affected the bishops' reading is that it's in the section addressing female language for God where their critique seems sloppiest. Turn with me, please, to page 12 of the bishops' statement, headed "New Names for the Unknown God." (Again, "unknown" -- not Sr. Johnson's claim. "New" is also debatable.) The section begins:

Sr. Johnson argues that women "have experienced strong discomfort with the dominant images of God as father, lord, and king" (96) and that female language for God is not only permissible but necessary.

Instead of "argues" I would say "observes." (This is one of several places in the bishops' statement where one could make that substitution.) What they've quoted/paraphrased from Johnson is not an argument at all; it's a simple statement of reality. I suppose you could quibble with the "necessary" part, if you were determined to find fault, but "permissible" is absolutely in keeping with Catholic tradition, as Johnson makes clear. The next sentence:

For Sr. Johnson, language for God should be analyzed not primarily in terms of its adequacy for expressing the reality of God -- all human language fails to attain the reality of God -- but in terms of its socio-political effects.

That's a big claim, the kind that sends me to the text looking for backup. Does Johnson really say that "expressing the reality of God" is impossible or not important for God-language? Not that I can see. And it turns out you don't even need to have the book handy to see that this is a distortion of Johnson's work. At the end of that very same paragraph, the bishops quote this from Johnson, in re: all-male images of God as experienced by women in the modern world: "Instead of evoking the reality of God, they block it." If you want to claim that Sr. Johnson is not concerned with analyzing language "in terms of its adequacy for expressing the reality of God," you cannot then quote a line in which she analyzes language in terms of its adequacy for "evoking the reality of God." What is going on here?

The bishops go on:

As part of the effort to complete the overthrow of unequal and unjust power relations, she argues that it is necessary to replace the traditional language and concepts of God with new language and new concepts of God that will serve the purpose of promoting the socio-political status of women both in society and the church.

Sounds sinister. But I don't see Johnson attempting to "replace" anything -- she never, ever says we must stop calling God our father (something I presume she does several times a day), for example. And I don't see her purpose as promoting any such agenda. She's describing broadening the language we use for God so as to allow all people, including women, greater appreciation for the reality of God -- precisely what the bishops say she's not interested in pursuing. Are they doing so much reading between the lines they're overlooking what the lines themselves say?

The closest the bishops come to a responsible criticism of this section of the text, in my opinion, is when they say (p. 13) "What is lacking in the whole of this discussion is any sense of the essential centrality of divine relation as the basis of Christian theology." I can't agree that the book, or even pages 96-7 of the book, lacks "any sense" of the centrality of revelation, but I will concede that centrality could be stated more explicitly. It seemed to me Sr. Johnson was taking it for granted, as part of the basic groundwork of this sort of theology. A university professor teaching undergrads would be fairly cautioned, though, to make sure to spell it out for students using this book in a class. If the bishops had simply said that, I wouldn't argue. But they claim that Johnson has no regard for divine revelation, which is not at all fair, and they go on to say: "The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgment."

This implies that Johnson disagrees or says otherwise in her book. As far as I can see, she doesn't. Again, she never argues that the traditional names for God must be "replaced." And -- again the bishops' critique is self-refuting -- she grounds her discussion of feminine language for God in Scripture, in a passage the bishops have just quoted. Are they disputing the fact that feminine images for God are indeed found in the Bible and are therefore part of divine revelation? Because that seems to me a fairly orthodox observation.

Finally, on page 16 of the bishops' statement, they quote a section on God's simultaneous transcendence and immanence that ends, "What results is a mutual abiding for which the pregnant female body provides a good metaphor." There's no commentary on that particular sentence. Perhaps they think it's self-evidently problematic. I happen to like it. It also strikes me as scriptural. But I suppose I might feel differently if I were already predisposed to believe there is an agenda at work here other than the desire for greater knowledge of the incomprehensible God. Is that what I'm supposed to be afraid of? I wonder.


Commenting Guidelines

Sorry, but I'm a little late to this all. That being said ----Dealing with non-exclusive language isnt terribly difficult. For instance, there have been any number of inclusive language translations of the Psalms. Here is a short list of what is already in existence:Psalter for the Christian People: An Inclusive-Language Revision of the Psalter of the Book of Common Prayer (1979 Pueblo Books)Joseph A. Arackal, V.C., ( has been a Catholic pioneer in the use of inclusive language and his publications include: Praying in Inclusive Language: Morning & Evening Prayer - The Four Week Psalter (1992 Patmos Publications) and The Psalms in Inclusive Language (1993 The Liturgical Press). For a sample of his translation, go here: He also has produced a book entitled Twenty-Two Gathering Prayers: Praying in Inclusive Language (1992 Sheed and Ward).The bottom line is that producing credible inclusive language prayers for Catholic audiences is not exactly rocket science. Its a matter of willingness, not possibility.

j.a.m. So long as a bishop engages the people in his diocese as "his sheep" they most certainly will continue to feel uncomfortable and, in many cases, unwilling to even give him the benefit of the doubt.A good shepherd is one who can honestly say that "I know mine and mine know me," not "bleat on cue - but only after you write that weekly check."

Nancy asked: "How exactly do you separate the wheat from the chaff?"How about vigorous debate among people who have READ and UNDERSTOOD what has been written?

Nancy, nothing in the rite described (among many) by Johnson has anything to do with idol worship. And, unless your talents extend to South Asian languages and you've translated the chants you heard at Fatima as "Up with Vishnu! Down with Jesus!" I doubt there's any reason for concern, anymore than the old ladies incessantly muttering in Polish during Masses in Chicago should send up red flags there's heresy afoot. The Mary's Gold (marigolds) are just flowers. Is laying roses at the foot of a statue of Mary idol worshop? Unless you're aware of something about the context of the use of incense and flowers in the rite described, you seem to be over-reacting to label it idol worship. Don't make the same mistake some Protestants make about Catholic symbolism and ritual.

Mary, and "a typical Hindu ceremony" is a metaphor for? Not to mention that Hindu worship IS false idol worship and has nothing to do with Jesus, so NO debate is needed. Who in the Vatican approved this Hindu rite, Mary?

Please do read it again, Nancy, because, no, even the part you quoted did not say that a Hindu ceremony was held. It said things that are often used in typical Hindu ceremonies were used in a Catholic ritual--it did not say their symbolic function or content was the same as when they are used in a Hindu ritual, or that any were used in a manner inconsistent with Catholicism. Given that you're just plain wrong to label it idol worship, I can't imagine why anyone should care what Vatican bureaucrat approved it.

"I can't imagine why anyone should care what Vatican bureaucrat approved it."It being the use of chanting, incense and flowers of a typical Hindu ceremony. Perhaps I should remind you that it was Christ Who instituted The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.(CCC nos.1339-1340)

Nancy, you have plainly uncovered a conspiracy that goes right to the top. Under the circumstances I think you'll agree that what Sr. Johnson wrote or didn't write is irrelevant, and therefore you're in the wrong place. Please direct further queries to the appropriate Vatican office.

Nancy --Do you mean that Sr. Roberta who taught us Gregorian chant was really a Hindu in disguise? Shame on her!!! I bet she wore a sari under her habit. No wonder nuns' habits covered them from head to toe -- they were covering saris!! The nuns were probably all part of the conspiracy! And Father Reynolds who bought the incense and the ladies altar society who brought the flowers were all in on it! Shame! Shame!! Do you realize that 'pitR" in Sanskrit means "father", just like "pater" in Latin?? And to think all those years when I thought Father was praying in Latin he was really speaking Hindu. Sneaky!!!

Maybe tangentially relevant--since the discussion has tended toward gender inclusivity in general and now cultural inclusivity: The Church, for centuries, has allowed converts to incorporate cultural symbols into its practices (saints' lives in early Christian Britain used the symbol of the stag, which represented royalty, to represent Christ). Anglo-Saxon translations of the Gospels characterized the apostles as "leorning cnichtas" (knights of learning) who followed Christ as if he were a Germanic tribal king.About eight miles north of my house is the tiny Czech parish of St. Cyril, where the priest still says Mass in Czech, and there's a "polka Mass" every year. Mother Teresa chose saris as habits for her nuns. In northern Michigan, the Native American parish of St. Kateri Tekakwitha uses uses Ojibwa chants and drums, which are sacred to the tribe in the Mass (it was approved by the diocese through the Vatican).In other words, there is nothing new about cultural inclusivity in the Church. I'm curious to know whether Nancy puts up a Christmas tree ...

There is a difference between the culture of India and Hinduism, and that difference makes all the difference. For example, a Catholic from India would worship The Blessed Trinity, NOT the blessed quadinity.

Nancy, that's enough. Seriously.

I see from the Women's Ordination Committee that Roy B. will not be recanting (no surprise there) and that the non-recanting will be public--a Friday speech at the doors of the Vatican embassy in D.C.

Erin,Yes, I think that the bishops were trying to say that "metaphor" in a thin sense is not an adequate descriptor of the knowledge we have of God in revelation. How do you understand Johnson's image, quoted by the bishops: "Our language is like a finger pointing to the moon, not the moon itself"? I've spent some time with these texts over the last few days, including everything in Johnson's book that Amazon shows for free. I think that the bishops' statement is clear and accurate as far as I can tell. The Quest book is in fact written for non-specialists. This is exactly the kind of book that religion professors all over the US would present to their freshmen and sophomores to clear the decks, to begin anew, unless there was some move made to influence administrators.I happen to agree with the perspective presented by the bishops regarding both the knowability of God and the distinction between the divine order and the order of creation. The first paragraph on page 17 is something I have wanted to say in my own writing. I also think that the tone of the bishops' statement is measured. It does not conform to theological discourse in the academic sense. The conventions of the theological academy severely limit the ratio of criticism to exposition, and this statement definitely exceeds that ratio. It's a teaching document, and a good one, I think.

A while back, we had a thread on a group of young catholic moral theologians who were trying to stay above the "liberal/conservative" divide.They offer a perspective on April 4 on Johnson and the Bishops on their blog.It notes( I thought interestingly) how the divide afects their own discipline after the hoped for beginning at Trent turned to finger pointing.It places well(I thought) the role of the theologian .Much of this discussion as well as the Bourgeois discusion below tends to be one way or the other and how authority is and I think should be used.We are truly caught in the problem of how to move forward in our understanding of our faith in terms of the real pluralistic changing world we live in.The problem of the Defenders of the Faith (as they've been called here) is that that engagement only happens on one side of the divide.This thread again shows the problem of even getting past the divide.

Amazon provides nine pages of content from Quest for the Living God.

You can see more pages when you sign in. Still, point taken.