So I’m teaching a theology course this fall on Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God, Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum 2008). Sister Elizabeth writes this readable book for seekers, doubters keeping faith with their questions, and people nourishing others through teaching and preaching. That takes in a good many of us. It’s the short course on the theologies of the past 60 years.
A lively national dialogue has followed the March 2011 U.S. Catholic bishops’ critique of Quest and Sister Elizabeth’s response. The Committee on Doctrine critiques Quest for not starting with scripture and the Church’s teachings. Sister Elizabeth insists she has written from faith for faith.
Methods differ. To talk about God, we have to make analogies, comparisons. Commonly, many of us construct our idea of God out of the perfections of all that we know as good. God is transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent, everlasting, all-loving, all-merciful, unchanging. In this method God is impassable, unable to suffer, because suffering is a negative. Many of us wind up with the question, “If God is all powerful, how can God let bad things happen to good people? “ Or, “How could God permit the Holocaust?”
The contemporary theologies that Quest surveys wrestle with such current questions. In responding to the Committee on Doctrine, Sister Elizabeth talks about lecturing for the South African Catholic Bishops conference in 1987 before apartheid ended. Going in, she assumed the impassibility of God.
When she lectured on the cross, she included the theologies of Edward Schillebeeckx and Johannes Baptist Metz, who hold “God is compassionate toward those who suffer but suffering does not touch the being of God.” She also presented the thinking of Jürgen Moltmann and Dorothy Soelle, who wrestled with the Holocaust and “who hold in different ways that God indeed suffers on the cross and beyond.”
At the end of the lecture Sister Elizabeth asked which theologies resonated with audience. Overwhelmingly these priests and bishops who grieved the killings and violence against them, who mourned and buried too many dead, who faced terrible limits on their lives raised their hands for Moltmann and Soelle. They had experienced God suffering with them, accompanying them in their horrors. As Sister Elizabeth explored the scriptures, she found the bible bears out their experience that God sees and hears pain and come to liberate, for example, in the Exodus.
The Second Vatican Council in its Document on Revelation (Dei Verbum) describes the gospel making progress in the world in three ways—the study and experience of believers (that’s all of us) and the preaching of bishops—or as the document itself says:
- Through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts.
- From the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.
- From the preaching of those who have received along with the right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her” (#8).
The gospel advances through our study and spiritual experience as well as through officials of the Church. This is a call to listen one another’s insights into words that will nourish our faith today.
If you are close enough to St. Paul, Minnesota, join our seminar and if not join the conversation here online. Start a conversation where you live. Gather a circle of friends who want to keep faith. I’ll let you know what is happening in our group.
Click here for the syllabus for Here Be Dragons: A Dialogue with Quest for the Living God.
You can sign up for the course here — $220 for the entire series or $25 per session. Register for as many as you can attend.
Order the book from Good Ground Press (800-832-5533 or 651-690-7010), Continuum, or wherever you find religious books.
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