Excerpt from Elizabeth A. Johnson, "Forging Theology: A Conversation with Colleagues," in Things New and Old: Essays on the Theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson, ed. Phyllis Zagano and Terrence W. Tilley, New York: Crossroad, 1999, pp. 91-123.
I began the study of theology as an undergraduate in 1959 just prior to the announcement that a Second Vatican Council would take place. I opted for theology as a minor in college because I was fascinated with the question of suffering in the context of God's relationship to the world. The theology I learned in those early years was drawn largely from Aquinas' Summa. By reading this text directly we largely avoided the ideas of the later commentators who gave such a substantialist twist to Thomas' ideas. Strange to say, we never read the infamous question 92: women as defective males. I fell in love with the clarity and precision of Aquinas' thought, with the way he entertained and answered objections, and with the cosmic sweep of his vision.
In the decades since then, my theological thought has been influenced, challenged, expanded, and prodded forward by successive encounters with other theological movements. Each has influenced my approach to different questions, in some cases very substantially. In chronological order, my intellectual autobiography includes the following:
These have been decades of great intellectual adventure, not only for me but also, I suspect, for everyone in theology who sincerely and curiously seeks the truth. What each of us does with so many diverse theological influences is rooted deeply in our unique personal history and values. Many warm thanks to all participants in this session, moderators, panelists, and attendees alike, for thinking through so many important theological issues at this precise stage of the journey. I experience it as an inestimable privilege to be engaged in theology and to share this ongoing work with so many fine colleagues. Just let my tombstone read: "She lost as gracefully as possible in the effort to understand God for the sake of resisting evil and healing the world."
- the documents of Vatican II, especially Gaudium et Spes;
- biblical scholarship flourishing since the council;
- American death of God theology;
- European Catholic theology, especially Rahner, Metz, and Schillebeeckx;
- European Protestant theology, especially Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Pannenberg, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation;
- Latin American liberation theology, enhanced by its expression in the South African context;
- feminist theology, with its diverse voices in womanist, mujerista, Asian-American, and third-world women's theologies;
- currently underway: encounters with comparative theology, ecological theology, and postmodern thought especially as mediated through feminist theory.
Excerpt from Elizabeth Johnson, “Worth A Life,” in Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories
, ed. William Madges and Michael Daley. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Pub., 2003, pp. 200-204.
It was the summer of 1965. In preparation for making final vows in my religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, I and sixty classmates were spending two months of extended reflection at our cloistered, beautifully green and rolling Motherhouse on Long Island. My heart was very conflicted about whether to make this life-committing decision. The reason for my hesitation was the contrast between the spirituality of religious life at that time, which required world-denying detachment, and my own growing inclinations. The trouble was: I was fascinated by this world.
On the one hand, our congregation was living the religious life-style typical of the era: strong top-down authority, strict daily horarium, full habit, restricted human relationships, emphasis on distance from the world, commitment to saving one’s soul and the souls of others in a church where conciliar renewal had not yet begun. Indeed, the Council in progress was a distant event with next to no impact on daily life. On the other hand, the sixties were in mid swing: John F. Kennedy newly dead, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan singing protest songs, Martin Luther King dreaming his dream, riots in the cities, LBJ’s war on poverty, my own peers in “the outside world” beginning to rebel against the older generation. My sympathies lay with the latter. In contrast to what our vow preparation was teaching, I kept thinking that if God created and loved this world, then shouldn’t those of us radically seeking God in religious life be in the forefront of engagement with this world? Wouldn’t final vows box me into a narrow life of perfection when the evolving, struggling world needed to be embraced with the love of God? Wouldn’t I be denying the divine call that I felt in my own spirit?
And so I struggled.
One day we were handed, among other materials for personal reading, a poorly printed pamphlet. It was the draft of a conciliar document not yet voted on. Out of curiosity, I took it on my daily walk. Coming to a large, favorite pine tree I settled in its shade and began to read. The opening words riveted me: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” Stunned, I read that sentence over and over again. Exactly right! And weren’t nuns supposed to followers of Christ? Here was the highest authority in the church challenging the spiritual tradition in which I felt encased, endorsing rather than warning against involvement with the world. But more than that. This document painted a theological vision of humanity created in the image of God, defaced by the evil of sin, but redeemed by Christ and now led in history by the Spirit through the witness of the church. This was a vision Ihad never before encountered, and it was so beautiful.
All afternoon long I slowly read that draft of Gaudium et Spes
, drinking it in like water in the desert. The sun began to slide down the sky but in a very real way the light was rising. I loved the way the Council aimed its message to the “whole of humanity” in a spirit of respect and love. I admired the way it admitted that atheism often arose as a critical reaction to deficienciesin the way believers themselves acted. I thrilled to the idea that the church and the world should be in mutual relationship, each learning from the specific wisdom of the other - the gospel on the one hand, and science, humanities, andon theother. I resonated with its analysis of changed conditions in the modern world - new technologies, a new humanistic spirit, the desire for freedom even on the part of women, enormous inequity of material wealth resulting in poverty and hunger, the danger of nuclear weapons - and the impact all of these conditions had on religion. Marriage and family, culture, socio-economic justice, political participation, war and peace, international cooperation: I stirred to the way these issues were addressed in the spirit of the gospel.
Most of all, I reveled in this work’s emphasis on the dignity of the human person. Every human being is created in the image of God. This anthropology grounds the essential equality of all persons, the fierce and repeated call to treat every human person with respect, and the need for an ethic that serves the common good. What ringing words - “with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” (#29).
Just as exciting was the way Jesus Christ gets connected to struggling humanity, first as the incarnate Word who is truly one of us (“he worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind, acted by human choice, and loved with a human heart” #22); and then through his dying and rising as the Savior who transforms our hearts with hope. And wonder of wonders: “All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all persons of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For since Christ died for all people, and since the ultimate vocation of human beings is in fact one, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every person the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (#22). The scope of this vision took my breath away.
This whole teaching was substantial nourishment for my mind and heart. By the time this Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World
concluded with a ringing call for harmony within the church “through the full recognition of lawful diversity,” so Christians can then serve the modern world ever more generously and effectively - “let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case” (#92) - by this time I was possessed with an overriding conviction: this is worth a life; this is worth my life.
And so it has proven to be. On that hot summer day, my young, questing spirit intersected with this Council document and found its life-long direction. In the decades since then much has changed in myself, my religious community, the church, and the world, but the power of Gaudium et Spes
to inspire and challenge me has not waned. Many of my decisions in ministry and the direction of my theological scholarship have been made in its light. Its insights have become even more telling as I read it through the lens of feminism, applying its principles explicitly to women within the church as well as in society.
Given this personal history, I have met current ecclesiastical efforts to reverse Vatican II’s direction with dismay. After almost forty years of living in the spirit of Gaudium et Spes
, it is spiritually and intellectually impossible for me to return to that narrow-minded and fearful world in which I was originally formed. The respectful, loving intent of Gaudium et Spes
stands as prophetic witness against all in the church that is mean-spirited, arrogant, and reactionary. Weaned into my life’s commitment by this profoundly humanistic, generous teaching on the meaning of the church and its mission, I continue to join with others who walk by its light ... regardless.
Excerpt from “The Jerome Award Remarks” at Catholic Library Association Prayer Breakfast, Boston, April 16, 2004; in Catholic Library World
74:4 (June 2004): 42-45.
Thank you! You have added my name to a roster of illustrious people in Catholic scholarship who have received this award before me. This is a delightful honor! By way of response, I would like to reflect with you about being a theologian today, in particular a woman doing this ministry in the church.
I find being a theologian a humbling, exciting, tough, and wondrous ministry in the church. One thousand years ago, Anselm defined theology in three famous words: “faith seeking understanding.” And that is what we do. Within the community of faith, we think. We aim to shed a little more light on the truth made known in Jesus Christ so that it can be lived out more full-heartedly, with more love of God and neighbor. Every time and place brings new questions to faith. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, the church has been blessed with a long, honorable list of theologians who took these questions seriously and tried to interpret the meaning of faith for their own culture. There is a history of Christian theology.
When I was a graduate student in the 1970's I loved learning about these thinkers, from Augustine in the 4th century, to Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure in the 13th, to Karl Rahner and Gusatvo Gutierrez in the 20th century. But a question arose in my mind and heart: where were the women? It's not as if women were not actually there in the church, believing and contributing. But in the midst of all these men's great insights, I was struck by the silence of women's voices in theology and the absence of their spiritual wisdom. It seemed unfair.
Inspired by a pioneering generation of American women theologians ahead of me, I grew committed to bringing women's voices to the table. This means paying attention to women's experiences, listening to their questions, taking their struggles and suffering seriously, and hearing their insights into God, which can be profound. It means highlighting this experience in my writing. It means combing through the sources of scripture and tradition for elements that promote women’s human dignity. And it means speaking honestly in my own voice as a contemporary woman. My stance is not radical, for I do not reject the good, nourishing insights that generations of male theologians have labored to bring forth. Rather, I appreciate these. At the same time, I am convinced that this is not enough for the church of today and tomorrow. The submerged female half of the church, indeed of the human race, is rising, and the faith we pass on to our children will be poorer if women's contributions are ignored.
In taking this path, I and today's cohort of women theologians are deliberately countering a deeply ingrained prejudice. For it is no accident that women have not been theologians. For one thing, women were barred from the education that equips a person to do this work. For another, theology was reserved for ordained priests who did it as part of the hierarchy's office to teach. In both instances women were excluded because of our feminine gender, which was explicitly held to be less rational, less strong, and less Christ-like than men. We cannot underestimate the transforming effects of the Second Vatican Council which opened the doors of studying theology to lay persons. All kinds of new questions, new methods, and new understandings are blossoming in theology, fed by the experience of people who are not clergy butwho are lay persons, men and women. Theology is now also women’s work, for the first time in history.
In addition to resisting women's subordination to men in the church, the struggle for women's human rights in society also affects the way I do theology. The United Nations compiled statistics that deeply affect my outlook. While comprising ½ of the world's population, women do 3/4 of the world's work; receive 1/10 of the world's salary; own 1/100 of the world's land; form 2/3 of illiterate adults; and together with their dependent children are 3/4 of the world's starving people. In addition, women are raped, beaten, prostituted, and murdered by men to an extent that is not mutual. These statistics are taped to my computer so I do not forget. When I think about God, when I engage in “faith seeking understanding,” social justice for all people, particularly women, is a crucial element.
One example may illustrate how I operate as a woman theologian. It has to do with how we speak about God. Traditionally, the church has used male images almost exclusively. God is Father, King, Lord. "He" loved us and sent "His" Son to redeem us. Art has supported this language, creating a masculine picture of God in our imaginations. Think of Michelangelo's depiction of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling - an old, white man with a long beard and a face full of stern authority. This is fine as far as it goes, but where does it leave women? Pretty much out in the cold, as far as being created in the image and likeness of God is concerned. Analysis shows that the dominant male image of God has not only spiritual but also political effects. It functions to support men's rule in family, church, and society.
In the 1980's I heard people start to address God as "Mother." I was also intrigued by the World Council of Churches statement that its members could begin the Lord's Prayer with the words, "Our Father, Mother, Maker, who are in heaven ...". I attended a baptism where the priest said: "I baptize you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all." Wanting to promote the flourishing of women in a way that was responsible to the integrity of the Catholic tradition, I decided to take up the question of whether this way of naming God is legitimate or not.
My book She Who Is
is the result. Here, the question about female language for God is answered with a resounding YES. First, I explored the ancient teaching that God is incomprehensible, beyond all images and words. Regarding gender, God is neither male nor female. But as Creator of both in the divine image and likeness, God can be spoken of in terms of either. With this rationale, I then consulted the work of women biblical scholars to find that scripture is replete with female images of God. For example, in the Hebrew Bible, the word for mercy is taken from the root word for womb, rechem
. In our prayers for mercy, we are actually asking God to have womb-love, to forgive us the way a mother does the child of her womb. Inthe New Testament Jesus tells a parable about God the Redeemer using the image of a determined woman searching for her lost coin(Luke 15: 8-10). This parallels the insight into God’s mercy told in the parable of the good shepherd, which precedes it in Luke’s gospel. Augustine once started a homily on the parable of the lost coin: “Holy Divinity has lost her money, and it is us!” But where are the homilies today that begin that way? Where are the churches named after the good homemaker? The church, I concluded, has been using only a small sliver of biblical language for God. We need to use more feminine imagery - She Who Is
This book has been translated into six European and Asian languages and has won many prizes. I think this is not only because it makes a strong, reasonable case for using female images of God, but also because when one takes these images into prayer, they open up a new encounter with God in a profoundly spiritual and woman-affirming way. The implications for women’s participation in the ministries of the church and for women’s human dignity in society are enormous.
In other writings I have dealt with issues such as God and evolution, suffering, the liberating meaning of Jesus Christ, the communion of saints, Mary the mother of Jesus, the Trinity as a mystery of relation, ecology as an issue for faith. One can deal with these issues without ever mentioning women. Indeed, most male theologians do. But in every instance I raise the gender question. What has the tradition taught about these things that has restricted women's full human dignity? And what has it taught that enhances our dignity? What does the encounter of women with God today contribute to the understanding of faith in the whole church? Where does women's wisdom take us in terms of practice? The transforming vision keeps growing.
One final point. In this vein, I began to think about Jerome, after whom this award is named. Biographers of Jerome always mention Paula, and note her financial, intellectual, and emotional contributions to his life and work. They were very close friends for over twenty years. When she died, he was sunk into sorrow and wrote a treatise, Life of Paula
, that begins: “If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.” He writes of her extraordinary charity to the poor, the sick, and the hungry. He praises her keen mind and yearning to know God through study of the scriptures. He even admits, “While I myself, beginning as a young man, have with much toil and effort partially acquired the Hebrew tongue, and study it now unceasingly lest if I leave it, it also may leave me; but Paula, on making up her mind that she too should learn it, succeeded so well that she could chant the psalms in Hebrew and could speak the language without a trace of the pronunciation peculiar to Latin.” He ends his treatise confessing his deep grief over her death: “The rudeness of my diction, devoid as it is of all elegance and charm, bears witness to the feelings of the writer.” He was overwhelmed with grief.
Women scholars today read between the lines to see a beautiful and productive friendship, with the highly-gifted woman contributing money, personal support, and even intellectual knowledge to the man’s work. And he appreciated it. His work, however, goes forth with only his name on it. We need to bring women back into the picture.
To conclude: I grew up in Brooklyn within sight of New York harbor. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I used to say a tugboat driver. I loved the way these little red boats would pull the great ocean liners and cargo tankers through the proper channels and nudge them into their home berths. When the ships were leaving, sometimes it would take half an hour, but the tugs would eventually get them away from the dock and turned around, on their way out into the wide world again. The tugs were jaunty, strong, useful, unpretentious - and beautiful. My desire to work one, however, met the rejoinder in the 1950's that girls could not do that. Recently a friend encouraged me with the wise and funny idea that my wish had come true in an unforseen way. Women's theology is a tugboat, pushing mightily to get the church, the bark of Peter, into proper channels regarding the needs of our time. And I am a driver. In truth, I love doing this. And I thank you most cordially for the recognition that this Jerome Award bestows on this work of “faith seeking understanding.”
Doctor of Letters, honoris causa
, St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN, 1994
Doctor of Theology, honoris causa
, Maryknoll School of Theology, NY,1995
Doctor of Theology, honoris causa
, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, IL, 1996
Doctor of Sacred Theology, honoris causa
, Siena College, Loudonville, NY. 1998
Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa
, Le Moyne College, Syracuse NY, 1999
Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa
, St. Joseph College, Brooklyn, NY, 2001
Doctor of Pedagogy, honoris causa
, Manhattan College, Riverdale, NY, 2002
Doctor of Theology, honoris causa
, Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., 2003
Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa
, College of New Rochelle, New York, 2004
Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa
, Villanova University, 2005
Doctor of Human Letters, honoris causa
, St. Joseph’s College, West Hartford, Conn., 2006
Doctor of the University, honoris causa
, St. Paul University, Ottawa, 2008
Doctor of Sacred Letters, honoris causa
, University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, 2010
Doctor of Educational Leadership, honoris causa
, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, 2011
Distinguished Professor, Fordham University, 1997.
Teaching Award, Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 1998
Fordham Sapientia et Doctrina
Lecturer and Medalist, 2003
Professor of the Year, voted by Graduate Student Association, 2011
U.S. Catholic Award
, given annually by this journal for promoting the cause of women
in the Church, 1994.
Sacred Universe Award, given by environmental group SpiritEarth for promoting
care for the Earth, 1999.
University Medal, Siena Heights University, Adrian MI, 1999.
Loyola Mellon Award in the Humanities, Loyola University Chicago, 2000.
Elizabeth Seton Medal in Theology, Mount St. Joseph College, Cincinnati, 2000.
Woman of Wisdom Award, College of St. Catherine, St. Paul MN, 2003.
John Courtney Murray Award, Catholic Theological Society of America, 2004.
Jerome Award, Catholic Library Association, 2004.
Monika Hellwig Award for Promoting the Intellectual Life of Catholics, Association of
Catholic Colleges and Universities, 2006.
Yves Congar Award in Theology, Barry University, 2008.
Myser Award for Promoting Catholic Identity, College of St. Catherine, St. Paul. MN, 2008.
Sophia Award, Washington Theological Union, 2009: for excellence in theology
at the service of ministry.
Marianist Award, University of Dayton, 2009
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Reading of the Communion of Saints was awarded:
- Grawemeyer Award in Religion, University of Louisville KY, 1992
- Crossroad Publishers Women's Studies Award
- Catholic Press Association Book Award, Academic Books category
- Choice: Outstanding Academic Books
The Church Women Want was awarded:
- American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, Constructive Category, 1999.
Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints was awarded:
- First place from the Catholic Press Association, category of Gender Studies.
Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God was awarded:
- Outstanding Book Award, College Theology Society, 2004.
- Catholic Press Association Book Award, Theology, 2004.
- First place from the Catholic Press Association, category of Academic Theology, 2008.
Elizabeth Johnson appears in the Library of Congress 2009 Engagement Calendar, entitled Women Who Dare, for the week of June 22-28, 2009.