Quest for the Living God

Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God was the subject of significant controversy when it was published. Johnson, a professor of systematic theology at Fordham University and a member of the Congregation of St Joseph, wrote the book in an effort to frame and summarize major developments in theology through the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Her book was well-received by a popular audience, Roman Catholic and otherwise, but was subject to intense criticism by American Roman Catholic bishops. It was not banned from Roman Catholic institutions, but became something of a focus for various parties in liberal/conservative squabbles within that church.

Johnson lays out very clearly, in the first chapter, the reasons for her writing this book. It seems, after all, that the quest for the living God has been going on for much of recorded human history. Johnson seems to wish to explain why her work is important at this particular moment:

She explains that, first, the nature of God is to be limitless and incomprehensible, at least in totality, to humanity. This means that there is always further exploration and searching to be done. Second, the human heart is insatiable and our longing to know God is subject to this insatiability. We are driven to keep searching even when we have seen some parts or understood some small piece. Third, our cultural context is always changing and this shapes our experience of searching. What was a sensible and reasonable explanation or description in western Europe a millennium past may no longer be the most accessible or relevant contribution to the discussion today. Johnson in no way advocates discarding historical efforts in this quest, but is clear that “the search must be undertaken anew if religious traditions are to remain vibrant and alive.”

After the introductory chapter, setting the stage for why this book needs to be written in this way and at this time, and a second chapter laying out the twentieth century context in which these developments have grown and taken shape, Johnson works through eight subsequent chapters, each focusing on a particular area of development in the theological discourse:

  • Theodicy, particularly in light of World War II and the political and social contexts which surrounded it and the developments which followed.
  • Liberation theology and its connection to poverty and the attention it garnered for Christian communities of long-standing in the so-called Third World.
  • Feminist and womanist theology and the calls to justice around issues of gender that it has produced.
  • Theologies of race, especially where liberation theology and womanist theology intersect with racial issues; of particular interest to Johnson is the connection between the issues of black Americans and scriptural calls to social justice.
  • Latinx theology, in particular in the American context. (Central and Southern American contexts are covered in more detail in the chapter on liberation theology.) The unique place of Mary, mother of Jesus, in Latinx theology is covered in some detail in this chapter as well.
  • Religious pluralism and the question, especially in a Roman Catholic framework, of how Christian teaching about salvation intersects with the reality of many other religious traditions. Can members of other religions be saved; is their salvation accomplished through their religious practice or in spite of it; and if through it then do their religions enjoy a positive positioning in God’s plan of salvation for all humanity?
  • Ecological theology and where Christian tradition, teaching, and practice intersect with environmental concerns.
  • The mystery of the Holy Trinity and how it might be considered and approached in light of all the foregoing discussion, central as it is to Christian faith.

This is a very fine book. My principal complaint while reading it was that I wished Johnson would have engaged more deeply with many of the issues that she presents. Of course, this is not the aim of her book. Johnson aims to describe certain developments in theological discourse and the context in which they have come about, and this she does admirably. Of great value are the lists of further reading offered at the end of each chapter. It is in those books that I have found the more detailed, deeper engagement with each of these topics that I found myself wanting while reading Johnson’s book.

This is an excellent overview of the theological developments of the twentieth and twenty-first century, especially with regard to the Roman Catholic theological discourse and tradition. If one sought to become more familiar with the theology of the last century, the suggested reading lists in this book would be worth the purchase price themselves. A very fine choice for students of theology and highly recommended for a reading group or book club.

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