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She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse / Edition 10

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse / Edition 10

by Elizabeth A. Johnson
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    ISBN-13: 2900824519253
    Publisher: Crossroad Publishing Company
    Publication date: 05/28/2002
    Edition description: 10TH ANNIVERSARY
    Pages: 376
    Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

    About the Author

    Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., is a distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University in New York. She has served as President of the Catholic Theological Society of America and is the author of several books, including Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (Crossroad/Herder & Herder)

    Read an Excerpt


    Introduction: To Speak Rightly of God

    Vision begins to happen in such a life as if a woman quietly walked away from the argument and jargon in a room and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps, laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells.... Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity, the striving for greatness, brilliance — only with the musing of a mind one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing dark against bright, silk against roughness, pulling the tenets of a life together with no mere will to mastery, only care....


    A Crucial Question

    A small vignette from the late fourth century reveals how fascinating the Christian people of that time found the question of right speech about God. In a culture imbued with Greek philosophical notions, debate raged over the question of whether Jesus Christ was truly divine or whether he was a creature subordinate to God the Father. Rather than being an esoteric issue confined to theologians or bishops, this discussion engaged the participation of a broad range of people. One famous remark by Gregory of Nyssa caught the situation precisely: "even the baker," he said, does not cease from discussing this, for if you ask the price of bread he will tell you that the Father is greater and the Son subject to him.

    What is the right way to speak about God? This is a question of unsurpassed importance, for speech to and about the mystery that surrounds human lives and the universe itself is a key activity of a community of faith. In that speech the symbol of God functions as the primary symbol of the whole religious system, the ultimate point of reference for understanding experience, life, and the world. Hence the way in which a faith community shapes language about God implicitly represents what it takes to be the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty. Such speaking, in turn, powerfully molds the corporate identity of the community and directs its praxis. A religion, for example, that would speak about a warlike god and extol the way he smashes his enemies to bits would promote aggressive group behavior. A community that would acclaim God as an arbitrary tyrant would inspire its members to acts of impatience and disrespect toward their fellow creatures. On the other hand, speech about a beneficent and loving God who forgives offenses would turn the faith community toward care for the neighbor and mutual forgiveness.

    Speech about God shapes the life orientation not only of the corporate faith community but in this matrix guides its individual members as well. God is that on which you lean your heart, that on which your heart depends, "that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself," in Martin Luther's memorable phrase. As the focus of absolute trust, one to whom you can give yourself without fear of betrayal, the holy mystery of God undergirds and implicitly gives direction to all of a believing person's enterprises, principles, choices, system of values, and relationships. The symbol of God functions. Neither abstract in content nor neutral in its effect, speaking about God sums up, unifies, and expresses a faith community's sense of ultimate mystery, the world view and expectation of order devolving from this, and the concomitant orientation of human life and devotion. No wonder that even the baker joined in the debate over the right way to speak about God.

    In our day interest in right speech about God is exceptionally alive in a new way, thanks to the discourse of a sizable company of bakers, women who historically have borne primary responsibility for lighting the cooking fires and feeding the world. The women's movement in civil society and the church has shed a bright light on the pervasive exclusion of women from the realm of public symbol formation and decision making, and women's consequent, strongly enforced subordination to the imagination and needs of a world designed chiefly by men. In the church this exclusion has been effective virtually everywhere: in ecclesial creeds, doctrines, prayers, theological systems, liturgical worship, patterns of spirituality, visions of mission, church order, leadership, and discipline. It has been stunningly effective in speech about God. While officially it is rightly and consistently said that God is spirit and so beyond identification with either male or female sex, the daily language of preaching, worship, catechesis, and instruction conveys a different message: God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, or at least more fittingly addressed as male than as female. The symbol of God functions. Upon examination it becomes clear that this exclusive speech about God serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women. Wittingly or not, it undermines women's human dignity as equally created in the image of God.

    Gradually or abruptly, peacefully or in anger, happily or with great anguish, quietly like the woman in Adrienne Rich's poem that heads this introduction, or shouting from the city walls like Sophia in the Book of Proverbs (8:1–3), myriads of women and a number of men are turning from the restrictive inheritance of exclusive God-talk. For some, the journey involves a sojourn in darkness and silence, traversing a desert of the spirit created by the loss of accustomed symbols. For others, new language is born as women gather together creatively in solidarity and prayer, and as sister scholars uncover alternative ways of speaking about divine mystery that have long been hidden in Scripture and tradition. In this matrix feminist theologians, engaging in the traditional theological task of reflecting on God and all things in the light of God, are shaping new speech about God that, in Rebecca Chopp's memorable phrase, are discourses of emancipatory transformation, pointing to new ways of living together with each other and the earth. Respectful of their own equal human dignity, conscious of the harm being done by the manifold forms of sexism, and attentive to their own experiences of suffering, power, and agency, these women are engaged in creative "naming toward God," as Mary Daly so carefully calls it, from the matrix of their own experience. This is not an intellectual endeavor only, although it is certainly that, but a movement with roots deep in the human spirit. Women, long considered less than adequate as human persons, claim themselves as active subjects of history and name toward God out of this emerging identity, to practical and critical effect.

    What is the right way to speak about God? The presenting issue in debates about inclusive language is ostensibly whether the reality of women can provide suitable metaphor for speech about God. The intensity with which the question is engaged from the local to the international level, however, makes clear that more is at stake than simply naming toward God with women-identified words such as mother. The symbol of God functions. Language about God in female images not only challenges the literal mindedness that has clung to male images in inherited God-talk; it not only questions their dominance in discourse about holy mystery. But insofar as "the symbol gives rise to thought," such speech calls into question prevailing structures of patriarchy. It gives rise to a different vision of community, one in which the last shall be first, the excluded shall be included, the mighty put down from their thrones and the humbled exalted — the words of Mary of Nazareth's song of praise (Lk 1:52), creating conditions for the formation of community characterized by relationships of mutuality and reciprocity, of love and justice. Introducing this mode of speech signals a shift, among those who use it, in their sense of the divine, a shift in total world view, in highest ideals and values, in personal and corporate identity. Such usage is urged upon the whole faith community in the conviction that it bears a fruitful and blessed promise. What is the right way to speak about God in the face of women's newly cherished human dignity and equality? This is a crucial theological question. What is at stake is the truth about God, inseparable from the situation of human beings, and the identity and mission of the faith community itself.

    Context: Mystery Mediated in History

    The unfathomable mystery of God is always mediated through shifting historical discourse. As the vignette about the baker from the fourth century makes clear, language about God has a history. Tracing these changes both in the scriptural period and throughout subsequent history makes clear that there has been no timeless speech about God in the Jewish or Christian tradition. Rather, words about God are cultural creatures, entwined with the mores and adventures of the faith community that uses them. As cultures shift, so too does the specificity of God-talk.

    In one of those myriad interesting little discussions that Aquinas carries on in the formal framework of the quaestio, he deals luminously with the legitimacy of this historical development. The question at hand is whether it is proper to refer to God as "person." Some would object that this word is not used of God in the Scriptures, neither in the Old Testament nor in the New. But, goes his argument, what the word signifies such as intelligence is in fact frequently applied to God in Scripture, and so "person" can be used with confidence. Furthermore, he muses, if our speech about God were limited to the very terms of Scripture itself, then no one could speak about God except in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek! Broadening the argument, Aquinas defends the use of extra-biblical language about God on grounds of historical need: "The urgency of confuting heretics made it necessary to find new words to express the ancient faith about God." In conclusion, he clinches the argument with an exhortation to appreciate this new language: "Nor is such a kind of novelty to be shunned; since it is by no means profane, for it does not lead us astray from the sense of scripture."

    The wisdom carried in this argument supports in striking fashion patterns of speaking about the mystery of God that are emerging from the perspective of women's experiences. It is not necessary to restrict speech about God to the exact names that Scripture uses, nor to terms coined by the later tradition. So long as the words signify something that does characterize the living God mediated through Scripture, tradition, and present faith experience, for example, divine liberating action or self-involving love for the world, then new language can be used with confidence. Moreover, the urgency of confuting sexism, so dangerous to women's lives in the concrete, makes it imperative to find more adequate ways of expressing the ancient good news that faith is to proclaim. Nor is such novelty to be shunned, for it does not lead astray from the sense of Scripture — if, that is, the sense of Scripture means the promise of God's creative, compassionate, liberating care bent on the whole world, including women in all our historicity and difference. The present ferment about naming, imaging, and conceptualizing God from perspectives of women's experience repristinates the truth that the idea of God, incomprehensible mystery, implies an open-ended history of understanding that is not yet finished.

    The historical open-endedness of talk about God is due not only to its location in time, place, and culture, which is the case with all human speech, but to the very nature of what we are talking about. The reality of God is mystery beyond all imagining. So transcendent, so immanent is the holy mystery of God that we can never wrap our minds completely around this mystery and exhaust divine reality in words or concepts. The history of theology is replete with this truth: recall Augustine's insight that if we have understood, then what we have understood is not God; Anselm's argument that God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived; Hildegaard's vision of God's glory as Living Light that blinded her sight; Aquinas's working rule that we can know that God is and what God is not, but not what God is; Luther's stress on the hiddenness of God's glory in the shame of the cross; Simone Weil's conviction that there is nothing that resembles what she can conceive of when she says the word God; Sallie McFague's insistence on imaginative leaps into metaphor since no language about God is adequate and all of it is improper. It is a matter of the livingness of God. Given the inexhaustible mystery inherent in what the word God points to, historically new attempts at articulation are to be expected and even welcomed. If the concept of God confesses the infinity and the incomprehensibility of holy mystery, then, as Karl Rahner argues, "it actually postulates thereby a history of our own concept of God that can never be concluded."

    In what now reads like unwitting prophecy, the Second Vatican Council spoke of this dynamic of divine mystery mediated in history by using the organic metaphor of growth:

    For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers who treasure these things in their hearts (Lk 2:19, 51), through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience.

    What the council did not envision but what is clearly happening today is that this dynamism is operative among believers who are women. Women are newly contemplating and studying things they have treasured and, through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, are effecting a growth in the understanding of the realities and words that have been handed down. In faith and struggle women are growing the church into a new moment of the living tradition. As Anne Carr has so eloquently put it, the women's movement comes as a transforming grace for the whole church although, terrifyingly, grace may always be refused.

    Purpose: Connecting Feminist and Classical Wisdom

    My aim in what follows is to speak a good word about the mystery of God recognizable within the contours of Christian faith that will serve the emancipatory praxis of women and men, to the benefit of all creation, both human beings and the earth. In so doing I draw on the new language of Christian feminist theology as well as on the traditional language of Scripture and classical theology, all of which codify religious insights.

    By Christian feminist theology I mean a reflection on God and all things in the light of God that stands consciously in the company of all the world's women, explicitly prizing their genuine humanity while uncovering and criticizing its persistent violation in sexism, itself an omnipresent paradigm of unjust relationships. In terms of Christian doctrine, this perspective claims the fullness of the religious heritage for women precisely as human, in their own right and independent from personal identification with men. Women are equally created in the image and likeness of God, equally redeemed by Christ, equally sanctified by the Holy Spirit; women are equally involved in the ongoing tragedy of sin and the mystery of grace, equally called to mission in this world, equally destined for life with God in glory.

    Feminist theology explicitly recognizes that the contradiction between this theological identity of women and the historical condition of women in theory and practice is glaring. This leads to the clear judgment that sexism is sinful, that it is contrary to God's intent, that it is a precise and pervasive breaking of the basic commandment "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lv 19:18; Mt 22:39). It affronts God by defacing the beloved creature created in the image of God. Faced with this sinfulness, church and society are called to repent, to turn around, to sin no more, to be converted. Corresponding to this theological stance, feminist theology advocates the reform of patriarchal civil and ecclesial structures and the intellectual systems that support them in order to release all human beings for more just designs of living with each other and the earth. Far from being a theology done for women alone, it calls to strengths in women and men alike who care for justice and truth, seeking a transformation of the whole community.

    By classical theology I mean the body of thought that arose in early Christian centuries in partnership with the Greek philosophical tradition and continued through the medieval period, molding the discourse of the churches at the beginning of the modern era. This tradition continues to shape contemporary language about God, both explicitly and implicitly, whether accepted or rejected, in popular and intellectual circles, particularly in its language about the Supreme Being, divine attributes, and trinitarian persons.


    Excerpted from "She Who Is"
    by .
    Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth A. Johnson.
    Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
    All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
    Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

    Table of Contents

    Preface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition,
    Introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition,
    1. Introduction: To Speak Rightly of God,
    2. Feminist Theology and Critical Discourse about God,
    3. Basic Linguistic Options: God, Women, Equivalence,
    4. Women's Interpreted Experience,
    5. Scripture and its Trajectories,
    6. Classical Theology,
    8. Jesus-Sophia,
    9. Mother-Sophia,
    10. Triune God: Mystery of Relation,
    11. One Living God: She Who Is,
    12. Suffering God: Compassion Poured Out,
    Index of Authors,
    Index of Subjects,

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