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.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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