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Feminist Theology is Alive and Well: A Critique of Johnson’s Book “She Who Is”

Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1999.


Feminist theology is not dead. Although Johnson’s book was written a long time ago, her arguments for a feminist reform have been well received over the years and still stand as perhaps the most reasonably argued feminist position available for Catholics. Compared to other feminist reform proposals, her project is very modest. Her ideas have had plenty of time to percolate the church and the Catholic authorities have not taken any disciplinary action against her. In fact, she was invited recently to The University of Dayton (a Catholic school that I presently attend) to give talks on her classic book (i.e. given a chance to promote her theology).

Apparently, whenever there is a new reform ideology floating around “out there” in the Catholic world of theology (especially those seen as having an influence—i.e. feminism), Roman Catholics like to ask the question whether such new ideology is ressourcement or aggiornamiento with respect to the Tradition (Catholics like to use big Latin words to describe relatively easy concepts, and I explain my understanding of them below). We must remember that for the Catholics this includes Scripture because it was the Tradition—not scripture itself—that delineated and codified the canon.

NOTE: From here on out I will not capitalize “tradition,” but I mean to refer to the broad theological tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Perhaps because I am not cognizant of the technical ways in which these terms are understood by Catholic theologians, ressourcement and aggiornamiento appear to me to be greatly overlapping categories. For the sake of my present thoughts, however, I will assume that ressourcement involves—at least to some degree—the replacement of the “old” interpretation with a “new” one, in which case the old paradigm must be undermined to give way to the new.  For the sake of my present thoughts I will also assume aggiornamiento to be less threatening to the “old” way of interpreting the tradition by understanding it more like a further enlightenment of the implications of the old.

I will now seek to give an answer to the question of whether Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is (see publication info above) is ressourcement or aggiornamiento according to a Catholic model of authority.  I will conclude that certain aspects of Johnson’s project can be seen by Catholics as a harmless enlightenment that advances the existing tradition (aggiornamiento), while other aspects of her proposal appear to undermine aspects of that tradition and could therefore be considered a reinterpretation (ressourcement).

Areas of Johnson’s Project Compatible with Catholic Tradition 

At times Johnson appears to understand herself as engaging only in an attempt to balance out the traditional male imagery of God with an equal amount of female imagery that helps plunge the depths of the divine mystery—which would appear to be simply a way of adding more wisdom to the existing tradition (aggiornamiento).  For example, consistent with the tradition she understands that gender language about God is only metaphorical—not literal (5-6). God is not a male.  

NOTE: She doesn’t like the irony of saying “He is not male,” which language she believes undermines the point!  She prefers “Godself” to “Himself.”  

Along with tradition she admits that metaphors (and all language about God) can never fully exhaust the mystery of the divine reality and therefore all language is inadequate (7). She hopes to make the tradition a land of plenty for feminists who are turned off to it, “consolidating” its gains (12). A good example of such consolidation is Johnson’s application of Irenaeus’s axiom Gloria Dei vivens homo (the Glory of God is the flourishing of humankind) to the female gender (14). In this case, she simply applies tradition in a new direction without undermining it.

She explicitly delineates her aim in terms of “a new interpretation of the tradition” (18) and a “hermeneutical retrieval” of ancient texts (which I assume includes scripture as well as extrabiblical tradition). While anxious to correct sexism she nevertheless does not take this to the extreme of denying all differences between men and women (32).  The most important distinction she makes is this: she is not advocating a negation of male imagery (which is used in the tradition) but only pleading that such imagery not be understood literally or used exclusively (to the marginalization of female imagery) or patriarchally (33).

The male metaphors are to be understood as designating relationships, not essence (34). She is not abandoning, for example, the Chalcedonian formulation, only correcting it against the abuse of arbitrarily transferring Jesus’ human gender to the his divine person when none of the other historical particularities of his human nature are considered transferable (35).  Her female imagery is often drawn from scripture itself (e.g. the housekeeper’s lost coin in Luke 15:4-10 [56]).  She does not ignore or deny, for example, scriptures metaphor for God as Father (80-81).  She does justice to proper theological distinctions between God’s presence and essence in male depictions of YHWH (106).

Johnson’s continued emphasis on paternal symbols as analogous of function and “not an ontological claim,” fits with the existing tradition—aggiornamiento (173). Likewise, her persistent criticism of Aquinas’ anthropology continues also to be a fair corrective (Aquinas thought females were inferior to males, 174). When she complains that the pneumotology of the Nicene Creed “did not receive attention commensurate with [its] confession,” her lament, I take it, could be shared by the most conservative of Catholics and is certainly no threat to the tradition (128). Just the opposite, her critical energy here is an aspiration to live up to this tradition. Her observation that Mary has stolen the spotlight from the Holy Spirit is fitting with the tradition also, which, though affirming that the Holy Spirit is God and Mary merely mortal, tends to let Mary wear all the outfits from the Holy Spirit’s wardrobe (129). This critique is sure to find resonance with Protestants such as myself who share similar concerns. At these junctures, Johnson’s critiques are inbounds and no one should pull the plug on her venture.

Aspects of Johnson’s Project That Undermine Catholic Authority 

On the other hand, Johnson at times appears to be undermining the tradition—in which case her project appears to overlap with ressourcement.

For example, she understands herself to be promoting an entire shift in total world view (6, 28) in which the Christian’s traditional use of divine imagery is “deconstructed” and heavily criticized (29). She is against the use of certain male images that (as inconvenient as it is for Johnson) are actually prevalent in the Christian tradition—God as the absolute king of the world, for example—decrying these images as inherently perverted even when understood in benevolent terms rather than tyrannical terms (20, 34, 36).

Contrary to Catholic tradition that saw Jesus as playing subordinate roles to the Father while still being equal in essence and glory, Johnson also understands roles of subordination to imply inferiority (23, 25). What does that say about Jesus?  Furthermore, since Jesus used almost exclusively masculine language for God (which is oppressive in Johnson’s view), it raises the question: “Did Jesus accommodate himself to a sinful and oppressive way of speaking about God?”  The implications of her ideology have dangerous implications here.

The tension between these two aspects of her project—undermining the tradition while at the same time attempting to cast her project as one that strengthens that same tradition—cannot be easily resolved.

If the tradition excludes women from certain responsibilities in the church, such as priesthood and bishopric, Johnson’s evaluation at places undermines this tradition and (therefore) proposes what we might call a censorious denunciation (or “reinterpretation,” if you prefer to be less candid) of the tradition (122). To depict the state of affairs more starkly: If her concept of “flourishing” includes women flourishing in these roles for which they have so far been forbidden by the tradition, she is accusing the Catholic church of blasphemy (168)!

Ironically, while she claims that “the crucified Jesus embodies the exact opposite of the patriarchal ideal of the powerful man,” she seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that the Sophia-inspired text of scripture (Sophia is Johnson’s favorite name for God) teaches that Jesus endured the suffering of the cross in order to purchase a people for his own possession (Titus 2:14) and, upon rising, take his seat at the right hand of God (Heb 12:2)—the place of kingly power that Johnson hopes the image of the crucified Christ will eradicate (161)!

Conclusion: Johnson = Typical Modern Theology 

Johnson wants to accept parts of the tradition that conveniently fit her feminist agenda and vehemently reject those that create problems for her agenda—even if they are at the heart of the gospel itself (not to mention the broader tradition). This fits the postliberal complaint to a tee (that modern theology wrongly tries to redefine God in keeping with their modern sensibilities, redefining everything to fit their agenda). The real question is: Is anyone really surprised?


Feminine God Imagery in Early Syrian Christianity

The following is a surprising excerpt concerning the development of early Christianity from History of the World Christian Movement, Vol I: Earliest Christianity to 1453 by Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 63-64.  

After reading this excerpt, leave your thoughts in the comment section: What do you think about the use of Feminine Imagery for the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit?  

Another distinctive feature in Syriac Christian literature concerns the positive use of feminine images in liturgy and theology. Often Syriac writers employed images of the Spirit as woman, reflecting a theological inclusiveness in gender that has contributed to contemporary discussions of trinitarian language. An early Syriac eucharistic liturgy calls upon God as both Father and Mother to descend upon the elements being shared. The Syrian tradition sometimes provided strong feminine imagery for both Christ and the Holy Spirit.

It was not uncommon in the early Christian movement for newly baptized persons to be fed milk and honey as a sign of their crossing the Jordan River. The Odes of Solomon, a collection of Christian hymns from the end of the first or very early second century, extends that image in a strongly feminine direction to encompass all three divine figures in Christian worship. The Son is a cup of sweet milk, the book tells us, while the Father is he who was milked, and the Holy Spirit she who milked him. In another place the Odes contain a hymn of Christ that suggests Christ is the one who feeds us. Christ says:

     I fashioned their members
     And my own breasts I prepared for them,
     That they might drink my holy milk and live by it. (1)


(1) The Odes of Solomon, trans. James H. Charlesworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 42.

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