Remarks at the Cushwa Center’s American Catholic Studies Symposium


By Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.


Acsn S17 Site JohnsonElizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.

This event has sparked a salutary pause for me, a moment of reflection about my life and its trajectory. There have been stretches that have felt like a wild roller coaster ride, what with teaching, mentoring, committee work, traveling for public lectures, researching, writing—all adding up to very busy seasons. I welcome the invitation this event provides to stop and reflect.

For sure, I did not initially envision becoming a theologian, let alone one involved so publicly in the conversation taking place in the church, for better and for worse. Heidi Schlumpf’s beautifully written biography has done an excellent job of delineating how that came about. But once I defended my dissertation in 1981, a challenge arose: The dissertation is finished—now what do I do?

I felt a strong impulse to explore certain questions that were vexing people’s faith. These were my questions too—questions of justice, of women’s dignity, of the felt presence and absence of God in our diverse, roiling, secular American context. My graduate education had given me the tools; my faculty position gave me the mandate (publish or perish); my students gave me the need to articulate; my social world in friendship with other theologians, both in the academy and the churches, gave me vibrant example and encouragement; and my own attraction drew me to the theological task like a fish to water. This has been the joy: to use all the power of my mind at the service of people’s faith, for the good of the church and the world.

Three brief points—about the work of the theologian, about the role of conflict, and about my love for this work.

First, theology. Monika Hellwig at Georgetown University was the first laywoman elected president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Her presidential address, titled “What is a Catholic Theologian?”, was delivered in 1987, smack in the middle of my battle for tenure at Catholic University in Washington. Existentially, I was sorely tempted to walk away from the university and go back to more peaceful work. Who needs this agita? I am a New York State certified teacher of reading for grades K-6, and the thought of spending my days teaching inner city children how to read was deeply appealing.

Monika Hellwig’s words, however, dropped into my life like a summons. She used eight metaphors to expound on the work of a theologian. A theologian is a myth-maker (interpreting the meaning of faith in new cultural moments); a myth-breaker (challenging old formulations in order to release new insights); an archivist (reverencing and treasuring the cumulative wisdom of the past, and bringing it forth to promote life today); a comforter; a builder; a critic; an archaeologist (making new discoveries about the past that interpret the present); and finally a ghost: “It must finally be said that the theologian is most successful and most acceptable when no longer visible because the ideas have been assimilated so that they are no longer credited to a particular person. It may be a hard saying, but our destiny is to surrender what is intellectually our own, and to die and disappear.”

Monika’s imaginative way of translating Anselm’s classic description of theology (“faith seeking understanding”) spoke to something deep in my soul. She spelled out what I had been trying to do, and what I loved doing, and she affirmed its worth despite difficulty. So I remained in the fray.

In retrospect, I realize that a key quality of her address lay in how it was articulating the work of theology from a layperson’s perspective. A tremendously significant development in Catholic theology of these past decades has been the shift in agents of theology—who is actually doing this work—from the ordained to the laity. This is visible in the theological faculties, in the changing membership of professional societies, and in the composition of cohorts of graduate students who will be the theologians of the future. In our day theology is a vocation rooted not in ordination, but in baptism.

Those doing the vital work of myth-making, myth-breaking, archiving, comforting, building, critiquing, etc., those seeking understanding in order to glorify God and bring about the reign of God’s justice on earth, are now married or single, often with children or plans for them, with financial concerns, with broad social connections, with lifestyles that differ from that of male clergy. This is not to impugn the fine theological work of priests, among whom I count some of my dearest friends, but simply to describe what is happening. It has now become clearer to me that my own life as a theologian is part of this shift of theology’s grounding from orders to baptism, that is, the baptismal anointing of the Spirit that bestows the gift of faith on individuals and the collective sense of the faithful. This gift provides discerning skills to recognize, interpret, and practically apply the living faith in each historical moment.

Second, conflict. Monika Hellwig’s treatment of the ghost metaphor goes on to describe how difficult it is for theologians to do their work anonymously these days. Publishing requires us to put our names on books. There are conferences at which we speak; the media, which reports; and even the requirements of rank and tenure committees looking for what one has personally produced.

“All these factors thrust us individually into the public eye, and force us to stand clearly identified with our own words and works,” she wrote. “With rapid communication and rapid translation, the individual theologian enjoys and suffers wide exposure to the most diverse readers and listeners. It is almost a tautology, therefore, to say that it is our vocation to be in trouble, to be misunderstood, to be accused of scandal and error, and to be seen as a public danger.” As Monika observed, “Those who went before us and are safely dead are now respectable and edifying.” Those of us still laboring in the vineyard should not be surprised to be the target of slings and arrows.

I do not engage in theology in a pugilistic or aggressive manner, looking for a fight. There are too many positive, extraordinarily interesting ideas to explore going forward. Even my critiques of patriarchy have been mounted in a scholarly way in service of a vision of a new way of being a community of women and men together. Yet, conflict has found me, both from some bishops and from right-wing groups in the church. Unlike beneficial academic criticism, these have threatened to take away not only my job, but also my life.

Upon reflection, it seems to me that as an academic discourse with practical implications in our day, theology forms part of a comprehensive reform movement in Christianity. It is an effort to reinvestigate, rediscover, reinterpret, and renew the Christian tradition in light of the challenges posed by the postmodern world. Its value should not be exaggerated: new visions by themselves do not change the world! But neither should theology’s influence be underestimated. A different intellectual paradigm can change conscience, decisions, and practices, both personal and social, and lead to critiques of systems. Conflict may ensue.

I have found that these situations, for all the upset they cause, far from making me change my thinking, have clarified and strengthened it. Recently, I have been re-reading the sermons of Augustine for lectio divina, and à propos of conflict, one in particular struck me: Sermon 64. Augustine is preaching on a festival of women martyrs. He expresses surprise that they could be so courageous, being the weaker sex. But then he finds the answer. If they spared themselves from bodily death by denying Christ, “they would have died in that part of themselves where they were most truly alive.” You can see the parallel: It becomes a matter of intellectual integrity, of staying true to an insight that comes as a gift and means something valuable to oneself and to many other people. Stay the course, or die in your own spirit, where you are most truly alive.

And so I continue to mount a passionate defense for the theological work of searching for God in the midst of vast cultural changes—not a God distant from time and space, but the God of history, present in every deer on the run and bird on the wing, in every human heart and movement for justice. The stuff of theology is experience, about which theology asks hard questions and mounts stringent systematic reflection, wrestling with what it means in the light of our faith tradition. It is worth doing. If conflict is the price, so be it. As some wags have even suggested, perhaps the conflict (especially over Quest for the Living God) has been Sophia’s strategy to get these wonderful ideas more widely known.

Third, my love for doing theology. Heidi Schlumpf has said that, when she started research on my biography, she was determined to write about me as a person, not my work. But in the end, she could not separate them. Her comment set me to thinking, and here is what I have realized. When I sought entrance into my religious community, one of the questions I had to answer in writing was “why?” I wrote that I wanted to become a Sister to love God and my neighbor more each day. At that point in time, life in a religious order seemed the clearest way for me to do this. It was not a particular task, but a dedication of my whole life, whatever I did. For me being a theologian flows like this, as a concrete way to live out love of God and neighbor. Not incidentally, over the years my religious community has been tremendously supportive.

Let me be clear that my path has not been with doubts, struggles with faith, questions flung to the heavens in the manner of Job. As a young person in the 1960s, I was very affected by the “death of God” movement. An all-black cover of Time in 1966 had just the words, “Is God Dead?” I still have that cover. I was also affected by Bonhoeffer’s “Letters from Prison,” and his notion that in a world come of age, God is rightly edged out. His words—“Before God and with God, we live without God”—ended up on a banner in my room. I found the idea that, with regard to God, we are not dealing with a concrete object but deep holy Mystery to be enormously liberating while also profoundly disorienting. So one seeks and does not settle for an idol, for something less than God. In the process, one gets to feel connected with what one is studying. It is organic, life and work together.

This was beautifully voiced by Bonaventure in the 13th century, instructing young friars how to study: “Do not think that you can read without unction, speculate without devotion, investigate without wonder, observe without joy, know without love, understand without humility, or reflect without grace. Open your eyes, then, alert your inner ears, unseal your lips, and apply your heart, so that in your studies you may discover, see, hear, praise, love, serve, and glorify your God.”

Doing theology is an inestimable privilege. It means taking part in a vital human conversation that has extended over centuries and now takes place around the globe. More immediately, it means being engaged in this ongoing work with so many fine colleagues, older and up-and-coming. In my experience, doing theology in the academy is an intellectual and spiritual endeavor with practical and critical effects—or, as Johann Baptist Metz would put it, a mystical-political work questing for the living God.

To conclude, I am so grateful for the invitation to deed these papers to the University of Notre Dame Archives, for everyone who planned this event, and for all of you who have participated. Let me sum this up by saying that when I finally do become a ghost, if I had a say on what would be on my tombstone, it would be this: “She lost as gracefully as possible in the effort to understand the living God for the sake of resisting evil and healing the world.”