The Redemption of All Creation

March 28, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, constructive theology, Environment | 2 Comments
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In her new book, ecofeminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson argues compellingly that Christ is the redeemer of all creation, not only of human beings. What could be more timely, as the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection approaches?

Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. By Elizabeth A. Johnson. 256 pages. Published by Orbis Books. $28.

In January, Scientific American shared some disturbing news: researchers had determined that between 1990 and 2015, concern about the environment and climate change had declined among U.S. Christians. * Since the study didn’t distinguish between denominations, and since Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical was published in 2015, you may find yourself hoping, as I did, that U.S. Catholics don’t share this declining concern.

Unfortunately, certain powerful theological paradigms going back well before the Reformation make such a distinction unlikely. In her splendid new book, Creation and the Cross, theologian Elizabeth Johnson takes on one of them:  the notion that salvation is an exclusively human matter, having nothing to do with the rest of creation. “What would it mean,” she asks, “to rediscover the biblical sense of the natural world groaning, hoping, waiting for liberation?”

Johnson traces this dualism between redemption and creation back to the work of the eleventh-century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, and, in particular, to his “satisfaction theory” of salvation, as formulated in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human). Anselm’s answer to the question, Johnson explains, is that Jesus had to become human and die on the cross to pay back what was due to God for human sin.  This theory, we learn, has played a pivotal role in Christian theology and practice ever since. But Anselm’s satisfaction theory is an interpretation of the cross, not its only possible meaning. And like all interpretations, it is shaped by the social context from which it emerged, in this case, feudalism, where local rulers required subjects to make satisfaction—to pay—for breaking the law.

In contrast, Johnson proposes an accompaniment theology of salvation, in which Jesus’ brutal death “enacts the solidarity of the gracious and merciful God” with all those who suffer, including the poor, species that undergo extinction, and all the rest of creation. She traces this redemption back to the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible, the Holy One of Israel who promises liberation to the Israelites in Egypt and later in Babylon. But this redemption is not some trade-off, as the satisfaction theory implies, but a redemption poured out by a God whose compassion for us is that of a mother for her child, a redemption that causes streams to flow in dry land and wilderness to bloom.

And it is this liberating and merciful God who sends Jesus, not to pay for our sins, but to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free. But Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom constituted a serious challenge to the Romans who ruled Israel during his lifetime. The cheering crowds who greeted him, especially during his entry into Jerusalem, as well as his confrontation with the money changers in the Temple, constituted such a threat to the unjust power of empire that the rulers crucified Jesus in order to silence him. Yet instead of death silencing him, the resurrection made Jesus present to the disciples in an entirely new way, enabling them to take the liberating message of the compassionate God to the ends of the earth and to all of creation. And through the early church’s recorded memories of the crucified and risen Christ, this understanding of the cross as an expression of the compassion and mercy of God spread throughout the world.

The culmination of this accompaniment theology is something Johnson calls “deep incarnation.”  The creator God Jesus Christ is, she explains, the God of all flesh, with flesh not signifying only sin, as the dualism between spirit and matter suggests, but the finitude and death suffered by all creation, including God’s own son. But with the resurrection, this “flesh was called to life again in transformed glory.” And, as St. Paul writes, the hope promised to all in this transformation “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.”

Creation and the Cross concludes with a call to us all to a conversion, in our actions as well as our beliefs, to love of the Creator/Redeemer of the whole world and the entire cosmos. Within this conversion, mistreatment of the earth is as much a sin as mistreatment of other humans. In order to repent we must understand ourselves as members of the whole “community of creation,” whose suffering is our suffering. The cross, then, is the icon of God’s compassionate love for everyone and everything.

For all Johnson’s disagreement with Anselm’s satisfaction theory, she does show her appreciation for another aspect of Cur Deus Homo, and to such an extent that she actually imitates it: the question and answer format Anselm uses to make his theology accessible. Of course, no book is perfect, and in the case of Creation and the Cross, Johnson’s interlocutor, “Clara,” sounds, from time to time, suspiciously like a theology professor. That limitation notwithstanding, the Q&A format, combined with Johnson’s gift for clarity and strategic summarizing, makes this book an ideal tool for helping us all expand our understanding of redemption to include all of God’s beloved creation.

In a review of this length, it is not possible to do justice to the range of biblical and theological sources Johnson draws upon to lay out her deep incarnation theology. The depth and accessibility of such material throughout the book makes Creation and the Cross an ideal resource for RCIA participants seeking to achieve an understanding of the faith. But really, given the feeble concern so many US Christians feel for God’s creation even in the face of increasing numbers of massive fires, extreme weather events, droughts and flooded cities, Creation and the Cross is a book we all need to read, and we need to read it soon.

 

This review appeared in the March 22-April 5 2018 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

 

 

 

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Prophetic Obedience

April 25, 2017 at 10:29 am | Posted in Catholicism, constructive theology, ecclesiology, Vatican | Leave a comment
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This reviews appears in the April 21 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

PROPHETIC OBEDIENCE: ECCLESIOLOGY FOR A DIALOGICAL CHURCH
By Bradford E. Hinze
Published by Orbis Books, 288 pages, $42

I have to confess, I’m pretty wary of the word obedience. So wary, in fact, that I almost declined to review Bradford Hinze’s new theology of the church.

I’m glad I didn’t. Prophetic Obedience is precisely the kind of constructive theology that enables post-Vatican II Catholics like me to overcome the binaries that have hindered us since the election of Pope John Paul II: freedom vs. obedience, the horizontal vs. the vertical, the magisterium vs. the sensus fidelium.

Hinze traces these binaries back to Second Vatican Council itself. He explores many of the ways in which the Vatican II vision of the church as the people of God, of all the baptized on the road together, impacted a wide range of ecclesial bodies as well as community organizations after the council. And he shows how a conservative faction of the bishops and the Vatican attempted to replace that vision with a “communion ecclesiology” stressing centralized authority and the magisterium.

The struggle between the people of God and communion ecclesiologies goes back to Pope Paul VI’s insertion of an “explanatory note” into the Vatican II Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The note forbade the college of bishops from ever acting without the approval of the pope. Another devastating blow was the 1983 promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law stipulating that bishops’ synods, episcopal conferences, diocesan synods, and parish councils had nothing more than advisory (“consultative”) authority.

Yet Hinze does not react to the damage done to the ecclesiology of the people of God with an attack on communion theology. He acknowledges, in fact, that communion ecclesiology, with its stress on the unity of the church, is also an important part of Vatican II teaching. Instead, he traces the problem to one form of communion ecclesiology, a form fixated on unity and authority to the exclusion of the voices of God’s people. The ascendancy of this form of communion ecclesiology, Hinze argues, “eclipsed” but did not extinguish “the new dawn of the People of God as it was emerging during the two decades after the council.”

To remedy this eclipse, the author offers a new ecclesiological vision: prophetic obedience. Prophetic obedience is the fundamental marker of a dialogical church, a church that deepens in its commitment to normative expressions of the apostolic faith — Scriptures, creeds, liturgies and official teachings — as it welcomes the wisdom of all the faithful.

In constructing this new ecclesiology, Hinze expands considerably on previous understandings of both prophecy and obedience. Prophecy is no longer only a word or message received that leads to a corresponding proclamation or witness; it is also the result of heeding, receiving and responding to the voice of the Spirit as expressed by all of God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Fundamental to this understanding of prophecy is the practice of lamentation. Drawing on the book of Psalms, Hinze explains laments as people calling out to God to listen and respond to their pain and suffering. The two driving forces within lamentations, we learn, are the desire to know why particular suffering is occurring and how long it will continue. Jesus came to understand his mission by listening to the laments of the people. And the laments of God’s people today form a crucible from which compassion and discernment are forged. Without heeding the voice of the Spirit in the laments of all of God’s creation, the church cannot fulfill its prophetic calling.

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Dayanna Renderos Ruiz, 9, receives Communion during a Mass at St. John of God Church in Central Islip, New York, April 11, 2015. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The author also expands the idea of obedience well beyond the notion of blind capitulation to authority that gave me pause when I first read the title of his book. To do so, he revisits the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, and in particular, the obedience they practice. A standard framework for understanding obedience is Jesus obeying God the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays, “Not my will but thine be done” (Mark 14:36). Many theologians have configured the entire Trinity around this structure: The Father speaks, the Son responds in pure obedience, and the Spirit is the passive recipient of the interaction.

Hinze, however, expands this understanding of obedience by offering an alternative vision of the Trinity in which all three persons practice obedience, though in distinctive ways. For example, the Spirit, as seen in Genesis, is the active agency of God present in a chaotic world. The Father is obedient to this Spirit when he hears and responds to the groaning of creation. He is likewise obedient to the Son when he hears and responds to Jesus’ suffering by raising him from the dead. Drawing on the “polyphony of scripture,” Hinze illustrates the obedience of all three persons to one another and draws on this model to present a compelling ecclesiology of prophetic listening and response as the calling of all the people of God. The church can move beyond a paternalistic and hierarchical exercise of authority only by living out this vocation.

Multiple aspects of Prophetic Obedience deserve acknowledgement. One is the way the author weaves repeatedly and effectively throughout his book the theme of the prophetic identity of the people of God and their calling to obey the Spirit in the laments of all creation. Another is Hinze’s integration of the post-Vatican II experiences of women, women’s religious congregations, and people in ecumenical and interfaith grassroots organizations into his ecclesiology. He does not just theoretically advocate prophetic obedience to the voices of God’s people, he enacts it.

Finally, Hinze makes use of a considerable range of extra-theological scholarship, for example, the works of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor. Using such material nuances his argument but also risks making the book less accessible to those who would benefit most from it: Catholics in parishes. Given the compelling case Hinze makes for the pivotal role of prophetic obedience in the renewal of the church, we can only hope that somebody creates a parish version of his book very soon.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary. In May, the Apocryphile Press will issue her new book, Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (co-authored with Mary O’Brien). All book reviews can be found at NCRonline.org/books.]

This story appeared in the April 21-May 4, 2017 print issue under the headline: Listen, respond to voices .

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