Review of Elizabeth Johnson's She Who Is


Review of:
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
By Elizabeth A. Johnson
New York: Crossroad, 1992.
311 pages. $24.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Elizabeth T. Knuth, April 1993.
© Copyright 1993, 1997, Elizabeth T. Knuth.


One indication that a movement or philosophy has come of age is that its adherents no longer feel compelled to justify their existence, to ask for permission to be who they are and think as they do, to beg for acceptance on their opponents' terms. Another sign of maturity is to move from a concentration on limited special cases to a systemic analysis, along with a willingness for serious engagement with opponents. The first of these shifts can be seen, for example, in the gay and lesbian rights movement. At one time, gay rights demonstrators chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight." Now, with the advent of groups like Queer Nation and ACT-UP, gay/lesbian pride activists are more likely to be heard saying, "We're here. We're queer. Get over it." Feminist theology, and feminism in general, also show these marks of growth and self-assurance. The widening of scope does not mean that concrete, practical justice issues are of no concern; analysis of theory and symbol is needed if we are to have more than a Band-Aid approach to promoting justice and human wholeness. And so, as Luke Timothy Johnson points out, "the feminist theological agenda . . . has extended beyond the moral denunciation of sexist patterns in church and society to encompass an ever more explicit engagement with the central symbols of the Christian tradition" (Rev. of She Who Is, by Elizabeth A. Johnson, Commonweal 29 Jan. 1993: 17).

Elizabeth Johnson's She Who Is is evidence of this confident Christian feminism. She does not try to prove that feminism is intellectually respectable; she assumes that her feminism needs no apology. Neither does she think it an inherent contradiction to be a Christian feminist. (One disappointing exception is her description of conversion, pp. 62-65. Her notion of conversion sounds much like 1970s consciousness-raising groups: women must realize they are oppressed, accept that it is okay to be female, and learn that sexism is wrong. I doubt that many women today need to be convinced.) One of the finest features of this book is that while Johnson criticizes the tradition from a feminist perspective, she also mines that tradition for its positive aspects, ideas that may actually support feminist principles.

One of the most striking things about this book is Johnson's tone. She does not posture as a detached, objective observer. She is not an outsider. On the other hand, neither does she have an axe to grind. Rather, this is the view from the inside, from one who is deeply, passionately committed to faith and to feminism. Her style is "poetic and even prayerful" (Luke Johnson 22). I was moved by her description of God as "the focus of absolute trust, one to whom you can give yourself without fear of betrayal, the holy mystery" (p. 4).

This book is indeed wrestling with the "central symbols of the Christian tradition," or, as Elizabeth Johnson says, "mighty concerns." She Who Is is a theological work in the strictest sense: it is "talk/reasoning about God." The author first asks whether we should talk about God at all. Has not the idea of God often been used to bless oppression? Is not talk about God merely an opiate which allows us to engage in pointless abstract speculation and ignore pressing matters in the real world? Johnson contends that we must talk about God because what we say of God reveals and shapes our view of all reality, and especially our highest values. Furthermore, "right speech about God is inseparable from solicitude for all creatures, and in particular for human beings" (p. 14). What we say about God is directly related to how we view--and achieve--full humanity.

Given, then, that we must talk about God, what is the proper way in which to do so? It is this question which is the burden of the book. God is mystery, and cannot be encapsulated in our conceptions. As Johnson points out, it is well within the mainstream of Catholic thinking to say that God is always more and other than our analogies. In particular, we cannot admit that what she calls "classical theism" has adequately described God. The picture of God as an absolute (male) monarch, infinitely removed from the everyday material world, omnipotent, unchanging, rational, and transcendent, bears more than a passing resemblance to the historical ideals of ruling class males, which ought to make us suspicious. Johnson does not argue for "feminine" traits in an otherwise masculine God, a female member of the Trinity, an earth goddess, or an impersonal God. She believes that we need equivalent imagery for God in male and female terms.

As a feminist, Johnson wishes to examine women's experience for hints of God. This might strike some as an alarming procedure. But the God of the Bible is a God who acts in human history. God's presence and revelation are ongoing. "It therefore seems logical to suggest that `women's experience' also might legitimately be thought to have a certain revelatory quality if carefully discerned and interpreted" (Luke Johnson 20). Elizabeth Johnson writes that "women's awakening to their own human worth can be interpreted at the same time as a new experience of God" (p. 62). She takes a very Rahnerian approach in claiming that to know one's deepest self is to know God.

Johnson's sixth chapter, "Classical Theology," is an especially fine exposition on the incomprehensibility and hiddenness of God. Parts of this section could have been lifted directly from The Cloud of Unknowing. Consider the following, about the God who is mystery: "The God who is utterly distinct from all creatures and hence better known intellectually by negating all symbols is nonetheless deeply known in human love, as love itself" (p. 108).

I have said that this book is about God. More specifically, it is about God as Trinitarian, "a treatise De Deo Trino" (Luke Johnson 20). To say that the Christian God is a Trinity seems to many people to be too speculative, and pointless besides. However, the doctrine of the Trinity arose out of the lived experience of early Christians. Johnson attempts to find in women's experience today some clues that would point to God as Trinity. She discusses the Biblical figure of divine Sophia as, in turn, Spirit, Jesus, and Mother. So rather than beginning with the unity of God or the first Person of the Trinity, she begins with Spirit. Two other reviewers, Luke Johnson (22) and Mary Ann Donovan (Rev. of She Who Is, by Elizabeth A. Johnson, America 9 Jan. 1993: 18), think this is a brilliant stroke. Elizabeth Johnson believes this approach "allows a starting point more closely allied to the human experience of salvation, without which there would be no speech about the triune God at all" (p. 122). I give the author credit for daring, and it may be that the Spirit is attended by the least "baggage," but I wonder if this is really the best place to begin building a Trinitarian theology from below. In theory it may be so that we could never know God without the Spirit at work in the world and in our hearts. But is our first inkling of God really purely spiritual? Is this the way we really first experience God? We are bodily creatures and Christianity is the incarnational religion par excellence. I think that we are more likely at first to see something, hear something, or feel something that offers us tantalizing hints that there is a mysterious something more. As in the life of Augustine, or of C.S. Lewis, the material world calls out to us: "I am not what you seek," and, "What do I remind you of?" So my inclination, if I were to depart from the traditional sequence, would be to talk first about how we encounter God in Jesus. I also thought this section on Spirit-Sophia was too naive in its optimism. Not everything spiritual is good, but Johnson doesn't reckon seriously with evil until her final chapter. (This may be another area of Rahner's influence.) In these chapters on Sophia, at any rate, she does not seem to recognize the human capacity for self-deception, nor to acknowledge the possibility of spiritual evil beyond the self. These three chapters on Sophia are in very poetic, almost romantic, language. Some people may find this appealing, but I do not; her language can be "mushy with affect" (Luke Johnson 22).

The patient reader will be rewarded with the final chapters, in which Johnson discusses God as a Trinity which is also a Unity, and the implications of that for praxis. She takes Rahner's axiom that "the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa," and runs with it. In Trinitarian theology, subordinationism is heretical. Therefore we must get beyond the false alternatives of dominating "power over" or victimization. "Self-containment and the absence of relationship are not necessarily the highest perfections but signify lack" (p. 252). To speak of God as Trinity suggests that what is most living and real is relationship marked by equality and love. Such relationality, like the bond of friendship, destroys neither unity nor distinctiveness.

Despite the qualms I have mentioned above, I would recommend this book, especially to those who have some background in theology and who are interested in feminism. This could also be stimulating for those who are looking for fresh ways to understand Trinitarian theology. Although those who are familiar with feminist theology may wish to skip the first few chapters, what Johnson does with the Chalcedonian definition of Christological orthodoxy is unusual (p. 35--now that's a brilliant stroke!). As a specimen of unashamed Christian feminism, Johnson's She Who Is may do for Trinitarian theology what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her did for early church history.


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