by Elizabeth A. Johnson Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
This book was recommended by Father James Martin who wrote Jesus: A Pilgrimage.The theology of this book arises from practical commitments. On different continents groups of Christian believers become actively engrossed in issues that affect the welfare of people and the natural world. They aren’t necessarily thinking directly about God, but in the thick of their worldly engagement and, in the corner of their eyes so to speak, they glimpse something of the truth of the living God that surprises and sustains them. Over time they reflect on their experience, articulating what they have come to realize. Theologians who are part of these communities then frame these insights into new patterns of thought that seek to understand something of the divine Mystery being encountered in these ways. Each of these verbal interpretations of faith, in turn, opens up a concrete path of discipleship which broadens out to invite and challenge the whole church beyond the originating group.
The process unfolds from religious experience among an active community in a particular context, to popular and critically trained theological reflection, to continuing practical action arising from spiritual and moral commitment. Insight develops, in a word, from heart to head to hands. Reading between the lines, one can see that in mapping new glimpses of God this book is also about the work of theology. Through thick and thin, through blessing and scandal, through politics inside and outside the church, through silencing and persecution and suffering, even the murder of colleagues, theologians have continued energetically to practice their craft, which by definition, is to speak about God.
This book shares the fruit of many such theological labors carried out in different places amid the unspeakable brutality,, bewilderment, and blessed achievements of recent history. The first chapter provides brief background and lays out the rules of engagement for the journey. Each succeeding chapter then presents a discrete idea of God. To clarify the meaning of this insight, each chapter describes the context in which it has arisen, the reasoning that explores and explains it, and the challenge to spiritual and practical life that it entails. Featured are transcendental, political, liberation, feminist, black, Hispanic, interreligious, and ecological theologies, ending with the particular Christian belief in the one God as triune. At times the focus is on the work of particular theologians; as other times a whole school of thought carries the answer. At the end of each chapter, recommendations for further reading will point the interested reader to broader and deeper sources.
This book is not a comprehensive canvas. Reams of books have been written about the subject of each chapter, including fundamental analysis of method, connections with other teachings on Jesus, sin and grace, the church, and critical assessments from within and without that refine a particular theology’s central approach. The choice made her, however, is to keep a laser beam trained simply on the idea of God, distilling this idea from discussions that surround it in order to present this core concept as it undergoes development in today’s living tradition.
One day when the apostles Paul and Barnabas were preaching in Lystra, the saw a man who had been crippled from birth and healed him. The crowds, knowing that the man had never walked before, thought these two newcomers were gods from heaven. Full of enthusiasm, they and their priest brought oxen and garlands to sacrifice before them. Distraught, the apostles waded into the crowd and shouted:
Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. (Acts14:15)
Signifying the Creator, Savior, and Lover of all the world, the whole cosmos as well as all human beings, the phrase “the living God” elicits a sense of ineffable divine mystery on the move in history, calling forth our own efforts in partnership while nourishing a loving relationship at the center of our being: “my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (PS 84:2) When medieval map makers came to the limit of their knowledge of the known world, they of times wrote in the empty space, “Here be dragons” There is something frightening about moving into the unknown, which might harm or devour us. Readers are invited to test where the limits of their own ideas about God might be and, guided by the different theologies presented here, to risk a journey through dragon territory to new places already discovered to be life-giving and true by others in the church. The result can be a richness of faith that cleaves to the living God even in darkness and shows itself in passionate, responsible care for this good but terribly fractured world.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J. has received numerous awards for her writing. She has given us a God truly worthy of our belief, fidelity, and love. Every word breathes with the author’s own deep love of God, the church, and the world.