Saturday, September 8, 2012

Reading Theology and Retaining Sanity: A Report on Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God

More in the trying-to-retain-sanity vein about which I blogged yesterday--trying to retain scraps of sanity as the political balderdash and religious drivel pour out in the weeks ahead of the 2012 elections in the U.S.:

Though I have a Ph.D. in theology, I have to admit this: I don't read much theology at all.  In fact, I tend to avoid theology and theologians like the plague (theologians as opposed to writers about spirituality like, say, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, etc., who have long drawn me like moth to flame).  Or, for that matter, poets and novelists and playwrights, whose work has long fed my spirit.

Theologians: not so much.   When I read Joan Givner's book Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1982) a few years back, and read what Porter once said to a friend about theologians, according to Herbert Klein, I thought Porter got it about right.  She stated, 

We are groping around in the dark, like in a cellar, with only the feeble flame of our reason to aid us.  And along comes the theologian and blows out the light (as cited by Givner, who is recounting what Klein reported to her that Porter said, p. 258).

And I wondered as I read this if this was among the reasons that Flannery O'Connor, who read Rahner, Barth, and de Chardin and had a higher opinion of theologians than Porter evidently had, was particularly acerbic about Porter as a fellow Catholic Southern writer, when she mentioned Porter in letters transcribed by Sally Fitzgerald in the important book Habit of Being (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979).  

Being disbarred from the guild of Catholic theologians for reasons never stated--which has effectively been Steve's and my experience--certainly hasn't endeared me to my craft and those who practice it, to say the least.  Since we've effectively been told we don't belong and don't speak a respectable language, I find in turn that much that my fellow Catholic theologians write is incomprehensible to me--a foreign language bordering on gibberish.

A misplaced language skating above the experiences of folks like Steve and me.  Of gay and lesbian human beings.  Of those on the margins.  Of ordinary lay Catholics.

It certainly hasn't salved the wound of alienation in Steve's and my case, either, that none of our colleagues in important groups like the Catholic Theological Society of America has ever opened her or his mouth--even once--to speak out about what has been done to us.  Or to extend a helping hand.  Not even when some of our classmates have risen to the top of that organization and clearly have the power to do something, even if something is merely an empty gesture of solidarity with two former friends consigned to the margins by the powers that be in the Catholic church. . . .

And so here's what happened back when the furor developed about Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God (NY: Continuum, 2008): I went to the website and bought a copy of the book as a gesture of solidarity with Johnson.  I have actually met Elizabeth Johnson at CTSA and have heard her speak.  I like her.  She strikes me as a person with a keen mind and a deep heart.  On the few occasions when I was in her presence at theological society meetings or have heard her speak, I've been impressed by her unpretentiousness and humanity--qualities not always in strong evidence at the meetings of theological societies, including (and perhaps especially) Catholic ones.

Elizabeth Johnson is the first, and one of the only, people I ever heard mention gay folks in an official address to CTSA.  For most of the folks there--and for groups like Voice of the Faithful and the people to whom they dole out awards--it's as if we don't exist.  And as if we are slightly dirty and should be hidden in closets somewhere.

But having bought Elizabeth Johnson's book back in April 2011, I put it into a stack of books on my desk and let it lie.  Oh, I did perhaps dip into it now and again, enough to realize I like what she has to say (and admire and applaud her for writing plainly and clearly--which may well be part of why the bishops are now out to get her).

But I tended for the good part of two years to pass the book over when I reached into the stack for something new to read.  There were, after all, travel essays by Jan Morris in the stack, a book of hitherto unpublished stories and essays of Mark Twain, a number of books on regional foods and their history.  

Theology?  Why?  When?

Lately, I've been trying to reform myself.  Just a little bit.  Knowing as I try that I'll fail, but thinking the trying itself may be worth the effort, even when old bones are set in their course and snap when bent.  Trying, as I mentioned yesterday, to struggle to puzzle out the Latin of a tattered old breviary we happened to have lying around, and finding it easier and easier to read each day.  Expanding my French vocabulary by reading psalms full of impossibly arcane (and, often, pompous) words one never meets in any other French text and never in ordinary conversation.

And as part of the self-reformation (with the Spirit's lead, it goes without saying: or so I hope) and sanity-claiming process, I've just begun to read Elizabeth Johnson's Quest.  And I'm finding I really like the book.  Here's a passage from her introduction that may suggest why:

Reading between the lines, one can see that in mapping new glimpses of God this book is also about the work of theology.  Through thick and thin, through blessing and scandal, through politics inside and outside the church, through silencing and persecution and suffering, even the murder of colleagues, theologians have continued energetically to practice their craft, which by definition, is to speak about God (from the Greek theos, which means God, and logos, which means word or reasonable speech).  They ply their craft by marshaling reasons, laying out arguments, making a case the way a trial lawyer might do, seeking to present an intelligible and convincing scenario.  By listening to people's experience in specific situations, reading scripture, consulting tradition, and drawing on the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences, theologians have been working creatively to prepare such briefs in our day (pp. 2-3).

I think I'm going to like Elizabeth Johnson's book.  And I can now see very clearly why the bishops are furious at her and exercised at the threat one single nun poses to them and their empire--a nun who dares to speak about God and about defining God!

I may now buy Margaret Farley's Just Love.  And read it.  And subject readers to doses of both theologians on occasion.  Medicine goes down better when it's halved and shared with others, after all.

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