Creation and the Cross

Elizabeth Johnson

 

 

 

Elizabeth A. Johnson, Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril.
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018. xvii +238 pp. ISBN: 9781608337323.

Reviewed by Robin Ryan, cp
Catholic Theological Union, Chicago

In this work, Elizabeth Johnson, a distinguished Catholic theologian who recently retired from Fordham University, offers another valuable contribution to the work of faith seeking understanding. Her topic is soteriology – the exploration and articulation of the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. This book builds on her earlier books on the mystery of God (She Who Is) and the theology of creation (Ask the Beasts).

In Creation and the Cross, Johnson engages in a sustained, critical dialogue with Anselm of Canterbury (1033/4–1109). Though the Church has never defined as official doctrine any particular theory of the saving work of Christ, Anselm’s theory of satisfaction has sometimes been treated in theology and preaching as if it were official doctrine. Johnson has two principal aims in this book: to illumine the deficiencies in Anselm’s theory, particularly its view of Jesus’ death as required by God to make recompense for sin; and to broaden the Christian theology of salvation in a way that will embrace other creatures and the entire cosmos. In pursuing both of these aims, she endeavors to construct a theology of accompaniment. Emulating Anselm’s dialogue with the monk Boso in Cur Deus Homo, Johnson converses with an imaginary interlocutor (“Clara”) in Creation and the Cross.

Briefly stated, in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human), Anselm developed his theory of satisfaction against the backdrop of a feudal culture. In feudal societies, the interpersonal bond between the lord and the vassal guaranteed the order of society. If the honor of a superior was impugned in some way, there was the threat of social chaos. The restoration of honor occurred through the punishment of the guilty or by the guilty party making satisfaction to the one offended. The degree of injustice and thus the requisite level of satisfaction was measured according the social status of the injured party. This restoration needed to exceed what had been taken away.

Anselm draws on this socio-cultural framework to construct a theory of salvation from God in and through Christ. He engages in what we would call a work of contextual theology. His argument is based upon two key premises: without the incarnation the salvation of the human race would be impossible; salvation is God’s intention. So the redemptive work of Christ is grounded in the divine intention to effect salvation for humanity. Anselm argues that by sinning human beings failed to render to God what is God’s due; we offended the honor of God. In so doing, we disturbed the order and beauty of the universe. If humanity is to avoid God’s punishment, satisfaction to God must be made. Since in this case the One who is offended is infinite, the offense is infinite. Humanity must offer to God something that is greater than everything that is not God. Humanity is in no position to make this satisfaction because: (1) we are finite beings; and (2) we already owe God perfect obedience anyway. Thus, humanity has fallen into a pit from which it cannot extricate itself.

If God were simply to remit sin without either punishment or the requisite satisfaction, it would mean that there would be no difference between the guilty and the nonguilty. Satisfaction must be made, then, to restore the order of creation. The debt must be paid from “our side” since we were those who offended God, yet it is a debt that can only be paid by someone who is divine. Thus the necessity of the “God-Man” – the incarnate Son/Word of God. Anselm followed the tradition of his day which held that death is a consequence of sin. As one who was truly human Jesus owed perfect obedience to God; but as one who was sinless, he was not obliged to die. Nonetheless, in order to make satisfaction to God on behalf of the human race, Jesus freely underwent death. Anselm stresses that Christ died not by any compulsion from God (the Father) but by his own free choice. At the same time Anselm admits that it can be said that the Father willed the death of his Son “because the Father was unwilling for the restoration of the human race to be brought about by other means than that a man should perform an action of the magnitude of his death” (I, 9).

For such a great deed, Christ deserves a reward. But as the Son of God, who shares everything with the Father, he is in need of nothing. So Christ assigns the reward to humanity. The self-gift of Jesus in his death is of infinite value; it outweighs the evil of all sins past, present and future.
Humanity receives the gift of salvation from God.

While Anselm’s theory did not make an immediate impact in the 12th century, it did influence 13th century theologians and many thinkers thereafter. This soteriology also influenced Christian preaching on the redemptive death of Christ, though it was sometimes distorted in such a way as to depict Christ as a sacrificial victim whose death appeased an angry God. Writing not long after Anselm, Peter Abelard accused Anselm of depicting a bloodthirsty God. A century later, Thomas Aquinas incorporated the notion of satisfaction as one among several soteriological metaphors, though he did not accept the idea that either the incarnation or the death of Jesus was absolutely “necessary” in order for God to save humanity. God could have saved us in other ways.

Johnson identifies some positive elements in Anselm’s theology of salvation – aspects of enduring value. Anselm exemplifies the effort to engage in the work of theology in dialogue with culture. His goal was to demonstrate the mercy of God, which Anselm claims is “found to be so great, and so consonant with justice, that a greater and juster mercy cannot be imagined” (II, 20). Johnson also commends Anselm for never losing sight of “the heavy reality of sin” (14).

Overall, however, Johnson concludes that the theory of satisfaction is deficient, even erroneous. It does not reflect the biblical portrait of God and of God’s saving work in Christ. For one thing, it says nothing about the salvific significance of Jesus’ public ministry or his resurrection. Moreover, Anselm’s soteriology presents “a disastrous image of God” (15). Portraying a Creator who would require someone to die in order to make recompense for sin “makes God morally repulsive” (16).

Johnson endeavors to construct an alternative depiction of God. She begins this work by turning to Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55 of Isaiah). Writing at a time when exiles from Israel were languishing in Babylon, an anonymous prophet proclaimed a new saving work of God – a new exodus. The people would be brought back home. In this proclamation the prophet emphasizes that the Creator is also the Redeemer. The One who had created them and formed them into a people was the very same One who would redeem them. Deutero-Isaiah shows the very character of God to be “extravagant with love” (46). This portrait of the merciful and gracious God, grounded in the experience of the exodus, serves as a counterweight to Anselm’s thesis that an offended God is in need of satisfaction in order to redeem.

How, then, to interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus? Johnson argues that Jesus was put to death for reasons that had nothing to do with making satisfaction for sin. Jesus died as a result of the mission to which he stayed faithful – the mission of proclaiming and making present the Reign of God. Crucified under the title “the King of the Jews,” he met the fate of an enemy of the empire (93). But this does not mean that God either needed or wanted the cross in order to save the world from sin. “He suffered for the way he loved God and neighbor, not because he needed to pay a debt to divine honor” (19). It is the resurrection of Jesus that reveals God at work to save. The resurrection affirms the new life of the whole enfleshed person of Jesus; it is God’s endorsement of Jesus.

What, then, is saving about all of this? Johnson moves to the model of accompaniment, which is linked with the idea of solidarity. God’s presence to and solidarity with others, especially those who are suffering, is a powerful force. Johnson asserts that rather than a necessary gift to placate divine honor, “Jesus’ brutal death enacts the solidarity of the gracious and merciful God with all who die, especially victims of injustice, opening hope for resurrection amid the horror” (50). A theology of accompaniment envisions salvation as “the divine gift of ‘I am with you,’ even in the throes of suffering and death” (106). This theology affirms a double solidarity: God was with Jesus in his suffering, and the crucified and risen Jesus is with us, especially in our suffering.

Johnson’s next step is to deepen and broaden this notion of accompaniment by exploring the Christian belief in the incarnation. In Jesus, God joined earthly life as a participant; this entailed a divine relationship to the world that had not previously existed. As she puts it, “the tribe of those who loved Jesus came to see him as the embodied presence of God” (162). And when the Prologue to the Gospel of John affirms that “the Word became flesh” (sarx in Greek), this links the divine not only with human existence but evokes a connection with all creatures, with all that is vulnerable, perishable and transitory. Building on the work of Danish theologian Niels Gregersen, Johnson speaks of “deep incarnation.” In Christ, God enters into the “biological tissue of creation in order to share the fate of biological existence” (185; Johnson, quoting Gregersen). This means that in Christ God accompanies not only human beings but every creature. “Theologically speaking, the cross signals that God is present in the midst of anguish, bearing every creature and all creation forward with an unimaginable promise” (189). Thus, the Christian notion of salvation is not salvation from the world, but the salvation of the world. The evolving world of life will be transfigured in a way that transcends our imagination, and every creature will share in an unending plenitude. Such a theology envisions the human person as part of the community of creation, and it summons us to care for our common home, as Pope Francis has expressed it in his encyclical Laudato Si’ (quoted often by Johnson).

In Creation and the Cross, Elizabeth Johnson has given us another informative, creative and timely work of theology. Her prose is poetic in places, and the arguments she makes are cogent. Occasionally, the literary technique of dialogue with “Clara” seems a bit forced and gets in the way, but for the most part her explanations are limpidly clear and expressed in a way that engages the reader. Johnson theologizes as someone who is steeped in the Catholic Christian tradition but who also takes the risk of placing that tradition in dialogue with contemporary questions and challenges. In doing so, she is emulating the creative work of classical theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

In my work on soteriology, Jesus and Salvation (2015), I tried to sketch the outlines of a soteriology of communion. It bears some resemblance to Johnson’s theology of accompaniment. It is interesting to note that for both approaches the death of Jesus is integral to his saving work, even if it is not a death required as recompense for sin or a death directly willed by God. But as the culmination of his life of self-disposal before God (as Karl Rahner saw it), it is essential that Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, shared in the experience that terminates the earthly life of every human being, indeed of every creature. The incarnation means that Jesus lived our life and he died our death. Even if most of us do not have to endure the unjust, violent death that Jesus suffered, his walking into the valley of the shadow of death means that our death can be a dying with Christ (accompaniment), a dying in communion with Christ.

July 19th, 2018

Contemplative Philosophy


A little night stand

Made of plastic boxes

Filled with blocks and toys

A simple lamp teeters atop

A wooden puffin stands guard

A flying pony, colorful indeed, keeps watch

And under a well-worn headband

Neatly stacked

A Bible for Toddlers

An Illustrated Book of Saints

A pink and white plastic rosary

Coiled up

Ready to spring


Howard Hain

(July/19/2018)

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Sustainable Development Goals


What can we do? We wonder in a world worried about its future. Can we do anything? Let’s not be afraid of big ideas. Why not think big?

In September 2015 world leaders at the United Nations agreed to work for 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The goals aim to “eliminate poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change, while ensuring no one is left behind. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while also tackling climate change and environmental protection.” https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/development-agenda/

Cities have become an important focus for Sustainable Development, because today more than half the world’s population lives in cities and that number is expected to reach two-thirds by the year 2060. In cities “the battle for sustainability will be won or lost,” one UN expert remarked. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2018/07/un-forum-spotlights-cities-struggle-sustainability-will-won-lost/

The 11th goal of Sustainable Development is “making cities safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable by 2030. Sustainability differs from city to city, but quality of life means among other things, adequate housing, work and employment, clean water and air, access to public transportation.

Mayors throughout the United States have recognized the important role that cities can play in achieving the SDGs. This year, 2018, New York City is the first city to issue a report on its progress towards sustainability. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/international/downloads/pdf/NYC_VLR_2018_FINAL.pdf

Governments, civil society and the private sector are all called upon to contribute to the realization of these goals. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2016/05/mobilizing-citizens-of-the-world-to-achieve-the-2030-agenda/

At a time when countries are building walls and thinking only of themselves, why not think big? What can we do?

Contemplative Philosophy


Manage distractions / Celebrate intrusions

Graciously receive / Generously give

From the inner room only the Good gets through

The Sovereignty of Good

Lock your doors / Welcome others in

The bodies of those who listen fit the keyhole

The voices of those worth hearing sound the same


Howard Hain

(July/18/2018)

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What Happened to the Native Peoples?

H.Hudson halfmoon

For the injustices against the native peoples and the land God provided here.

“Lord, have mercy.”

The native peoples are often forgotten in the story of the “discovery” of America. Our heroes tend to be the settlers who came on ships, built towns and cities, explored the land and gave us what we have today. But it came at a price.

If you ever visit New York harbor by way of the Staten Island Ferry look towards the various shores where once the native peoples fished, hunted and traded in large numbers. The water was fresher then, fish and shellfish plentiful, the air cleaner, the earth less damaged by human activity.

The National Museum of the American Indian is located in the old customs house across from Battery Park near the ferry. It’s a good place to remember the native peoples in the story of America. The Europeans traded with them; they were their guides into an unknown land; they provided many of the foods that fed growing populations in Europe and America. Their respect for the land was greater than those who came after them.

A young Indian woman, Kateri Tekakwitha and a Jesuit priest, Isaac Jogues, are figures to remember here. They represent the clash of civilizations that occurred when Europeans and native peoples met.

Europeans brought disease.  Smallpox  disfigured and partially blinded Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Mohawk woman who lived along the Mohawk River past Albany, NY. The native peoples had no immunity to small pox and other diseases. Three out of ten died from it. By some estimates 5 million native people lived in North America when the first Europeans arrived. Within a hundred years there were only 500,000. Besides disease, the major cause of their diminishment, the native peoples also suffered from wars and greed.
Museum of American Indian

 

At the museum, besides Kateri Tekakwitha remember Father Isaac Jogues, the Jesuit missionary who, while attempting to advance peace-keeping efforts with the Mohawks at Ossernonon (Auriesville) was killed by a war party on October 18, 1646. Previously, in 1642  Jogues had been captured by this same tribe. He escaped in 1643, fled here to New Amsterdam (New York City) and then was put on a ship for France by a kindly Dutch minister.

The French missionaries came to the New World out of the turmoils of the Old World expecting a new Pentecost among the native peoples here, but it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, disease and political maneuvering made the native peoples suspicious of  foreigners and the seed of the gospel fell on hard ground.

Letters back to France from the early Jesuits–marvelously preserved in “The Jesuit Relations”–often express the missionaries’ disappointment  over their scarce harvest, but it didn’t stop them. They were well grounded in the mystery of the Cross.

The Indian woman and the priest persevered. We forget how difficult it is when civilizations clash– like now.

 

Readings for the 15th Week


July 15 SUNDAY FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Am 7:12-15/Eph 1:3-14 or 1:3-10/Mk 6:7-13 (104)

16 Monday
[Our Lady of Mount Carmel]
Is 1:10-17/Mt 10:34—11:1 (389)

17 Tuesday
Is 7:1-9/Mt 11:20-24 (390)

18 Wednesday
[USA: Saint Camillus de Lellis, Priest]
Is 10:5-7, 13b-16/Mt 11:25-27 (391)

19 Thursday
Is 26:7-9, 12, 16-19/Mt 11:28-30 (392)

20 Friday
[Saint Apollinaris, Bishop and Martyr]
Is 38:1-6, 21-22, 7-8/Mt 12:1-8 (393)

21 Saturday
[Saint Lawrence of Brindisi, Priest and Doctor of the Church; BVM]
Mi 2:1-5/Mt 12:14-21 (394)