Obtuse (Part I)

From the “ecclesiastical punishments” file…

Christians today have absorbed the concrete pattern of modernity into their very soul. –Elizabeth Johnson, The Quest for God.

Not sure if I resent or resemble this remark. What I do know is that I have no earthly idea what it means.

Might I give you my thoughts on the Statement by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, which earlier this week condemned this book?

At one point in The Quest for God, Johnson refers to the ‘obtuse prose’ of unnamed Enlightenment-era theologians. The joke is on her: She writes like a yoga instructor with one too many chai lattes in her.

Nonetheless, the Bishops’ intervention mystifies and discomfits me.

Why issue this statement? Johnson never sought the approval of any bishop. She published a book, thereby inviting argument. But does everyone who writes a book about God have to seek the approval of the bishop? No.

Now, certainly the business of a bishop, a pastor, any shepherd of souls, any teacher of the faith, involves teaching those entrusted to him using educational instruments that will genuinely enlighten the students.

Would any such teacher in his right mind ever use The Quest for God, or any other book by Elizabeth Johnson, as a means for achieving this goal? Certainly not.

But the Bishops’ statement makes Johnson the straw man that she never asked to be.

The statement highlights one very important theme, namely:

God transcends our human understanding. Yet it is possible to say things about God that are true.

Contemplating this thesis will save you the trouble of wading through the full twenty-page statement.

The Bishops’ statement argues its not-altogether-clear points in a way that I do not admire. Over and over again, the Bishops refer to the “Catholic theological tradition.” What, pray, is this?

It is: a shibboleth. Elizabeth Johnson can and should be reduced to smithereens–but not by swinging shibboleths over her head.

Johnson’s doctrine of God is simply untrue—to the extent that she even has a doctrine of God. (For the most part, actually, she poses as a reporter of the zeitgeist. Anderson Cooper is a better reporter of the zeitgeist, and St. Thomas Aquinas is a better theologian.)

That said, teachers of the faith ought not to rely on references to “the Catholic theological tradition” any more than they should rely on references to “most contemporary theologians.” Logical arguments convince more effectively.

Can God suffer in His divine nature? No. God cannot suffer in His divine nature. If He could suffer in His divine nature, He would not be God; He would be a different kind of being, a being subject to another’s power. God is not so subject.

St. Augusinte at the beach
On the other hand: Has God suffered and died in His human nature, which He assumed in the womb of the Virgin two millennia ago? Yes.

Do creatures add anything whatsoever to God’s divine being? No. God is infinitely perfect in Himself. If God lacked for anything, then His act of creation would not be sovereign and free; it would rather proceed from a need, a need that creation would fulfill. But God’s free will chooses what is good because it is good, not because He needs it.

If God does not act with free will, but rather out of need, then where could our free will have come from? We have not endowed ourselves with freedom; we have not generated ourselves. If God is not free, then neither are we. The thesis that we are slaves disgusts us. Therefore, we hold that God acts from free choice in creating, not because He lacks anything.

In the to-us-inconceivable scenario in which God never bothered to create the heavens and the earth, would God lack anything? No. On the other hand: Does the omnipotent and eternally blessed Creator rejoice in His creatures like a father rejoices in his children? Yes. We know this because the Church teaches us this with infallible authority.

I could—and I would like to—go on. But I would bore you, I fear.

I guess what I am saying is: Elizabeth Johnson’s sandbox is one that no sensible individual would ever climb into. The cool kids ignore Elizabeth Johnson’s sandbox, because it is a silly and shallow sandbox, and we prefer to play at the beach.

If, however, you choose to play in Elizabeth Johnson’s sandbox, slip in with a stiletto and cut her heart out. Don’t tromp in uninvited, carrying a Nerf bat, and beat her around the shoulders.

Better to meditate on the Athanasian Creed.

Better to watch VCU vs. Butler.

But alas! Your servant will be in church through the entirety of the game tomorrow! Could I wear an earpiece like a Secret-Service agent and listen to Robby Robinson during our parish council meeting? Probably couldn’t get away with that.

Lord, see what we sacrifice for You!

2 thoughts on “Obtuse (Part I)

  1. Dear Father,

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that the nugget of your discontent here is that the Bishops put their collective noses into the matter, and created a controversy where one did not heretofore exist. You wrote:

    “Why issue this statement? Johnson never sought the approval of any bishop. She published a book, thereby inviting argument. But does everyone who writes a book about God have to seek the approval of the bishop? No.”

    Yes, but Elizabeth Johnson is both a religious sister and a teacher of theology at a Catholic university. Since she has both a religious vow and a mandatum, I would think, from my reading of canon law, notwithstanding her actually seeking approval from the bishops, that she was (a) required to seek approval from the proper ecclesiastical censors prior to publishing a theological text, even a light-weight one, and (b) anything she does write is subject to the immediate criticism of ecclesiastical authorities, even if that criticism is unbidden.

    I should think, then, given the status of the author, that a controversy should have been expected, and may have been invited.

    However, I agree with you regarding the substance of the bishops’ condemnation, which was obviously written by the bureaucrats at the Conference under Episcopal direction. They should have demolished the book, like they did with McBrien’s masterwork “Catholicism” back in the ’90’s. They hit that one so hard it changed the color of the cover in the second addition.

    Yours Truly,
    Will Cubbedge

  2. There was a “Southerner’s Mail Boxes” e-mail a year-or-so ago, with one that stuck with me, “For the Yankee — ‘Sorry I’m late, I got here just as fast as I could.'”

    I don’t really know if I want to get into this one from a theological standpoint; but I’ll venture into it from a linguistic standpoint. I’ll offer that it’s just a matter of missing words.

    “[Many self-professed] Christians today have absorbed the concrete pattern of modernity into their very soul [and, in the process, quenched the fire in the same].” –Elizabeth Johnson, The Quest for God.

    And, no, Father Mark, you don’t resemble that remark, never have, and — hopefully — never will.

    Formal condemnation by the U. S. Catholic Bishops will probably have the net effect of increasing the readership in some quarters. So, perhaps, Will Cubbedge’s perception, above, is correct, and your resentment needs to go two-clicks to the left [why left? first, it’s difficult to imagine your going any more to the right, and secondly, that’s usually where “they” are — but, I’ll admit, having scanned the “Statement” by the COD, not where I think “they” are in this instance].

    If there is an essential rationale for the Bishops’ Statement, it’s that the book’s “broad audience” will misapprehend — while, they, the Bishops, and other “specialists in theology” will not. And, with that elitist claptrap, I’m becoming both resentful AND accepting of their concern. Could it be that instruction (of the laity, in approaches to reading theologically-related materials), rather than condemnation would be a better method of putting such writings into perspective? Case in point, Dan Brown’s writings.

    AND, I’ve apparently long since departed from linguistics, so I’ll let this one hang out.



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