TheReligiousLeft.org

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sisterhood is Ecumenical: “An Open Letter to Elizabeth A. Johnson”

by Caryn D. Riswold

In my eleven years of teaching undergraduate students about Christianity, I have repeatedly drawn on the 1992 book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson. In my class on Women, Race, and Theology, for example, students are drawn to her “attempts to braid a footbridge between the ledges of classical and feminist Christian wisdom,” challenged by her faithful use of Thomas Aquinas and other deeply Catholic sources of wisdom, and joyfully engaged by the “images of God” that she includes in the middle of the book, from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, to Dina Cormick’s Creator God most beautiful, and a photograph of an unnamed Mexican woman twirling cotton into thread.

Along with many other scholars, I am indebted to the ways that Johnson describes how language about God functions: “the way in which a faith community shapes language about God implicitly represents what it takes to be the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty." Language matters, as any sociologist will tell you. Exclusive male language for God matters, as any theologian must admit. As a feminist scholar working in conversation with a weighty Christian tradition, a Lutheran one to be exact, I follow in the footsteps of this Catholic feminist who has shown for decades how one can truly and authentically be both of those things.

On April 1, 2011, The New York Times reported the following: “A committee of American Roman Catholic bishops announced Wednesday that a popular book about God by Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University in New York, should not be used in Catholic schools and universities because it does not uphold church doctrine.”

The article also reports that Dr. Johnson responded to the Bishops saying: “The conclusions thus drawn paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops. A conversation, which I still hope to have, would have very likely avoided these misrepresentations.”

The Catholic Theological Society of North America voiced numerous concerns about the Bishops’ statement, including: “It is difficult for us to imagine that Professor Johnson, who has written so elegantly and movingly about the divine mystery throughout her career, lacks a heartfelt intention to say something modestly truthful about God based on God’s revelation in Scripture and Tradition.”

In response to the public controversy, a group of over seventy Lutheran women in academic and pastoral work around the globe collaborated to write an Open Letter to Dr. Johnson, voicing support for her work and noting her substantial contributions to Christian and feminist theologies. Dr. Mary Streufert, Director of Justice for Women at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America coordinated this effort, and sent the following letter to Elizabeth A. Johnson in May 2011. A list of signatories follows.
Eastertide, 2011

An Open Letter to Dr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, from Lutheran women in religious studies, theology, and pastoral ministry

We were saddened to hear the news of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine’s recent criticism of your 2007 book Quest for the Living God. As scholars, pastors, and teachers of the Lutheran church, we women write to express publically our indebtedness to you, our feminist Catholic sister, for a theological vision where the breadth and depth of female experience is capable of bearing the divine. In braiding a sturdy footbridge between classical theology and feminist Christian theology, you have made it possible for so many to follow you across that bridge and to find a space in traditions that have not always proved welcome to women or our concerns.

Rather than a theology that disrespects Christian tradition, as the Bishops’ criticism suggests, we understand your theology as a faithful invitation to see more—more of God, more of creation, and more of who we are as human beings. Your faithful theology paints for us a picture of a God who loves creation deeply, dwells in creation deeply and inspires and empowers us to dwell with each other deeply.

You have been an essential voice in our introduction to feminist theology, and we have learned from you how to cherish the best in our theological inheritances while simultaneously engaging in faithful critique of those same inheritances. Our theologies and the theologies of our students and our parishioners have been transformed by your work. Inspired by the paths you’ve forged we now work to transform our theologies and institutions into places that more faithfully reflect the depth of God’s love.

Dr. Johnson, we are grateful for your wisdom, your leadership, and for a theological vision that enlarges our understanding of God’s creating, compassionate and redeeming presence among us. We are also thankful for your work in promoting Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, enriching the theological work that we share. Know that you continue to inspire countless scholars and public ministers in our Lutheran tradition and beyond.

Your sisters in Christ,
(List of Signatories after the jump below)


Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition.  She contributed to the book Transformative Lutheran Theologies:  Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives (Fortress 2010) and speaks regularly on her recent book Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave. She is Associate Professor of Religion and chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College. You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.

Kristin Johnston Largen
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg


Deanna Thompson
Hamline University


Kari Kloos
Regis University


Janet Bregar
California State Fullerton


Norma Cook Everist
Wartburg Theological Seminary


Kathryn Johnson
Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Affairs,
Lutheran World Federation, Geneva


Kirsi Stjerna
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg


Kelly Denton-Borhaug
Moravian College


Diane Jacobson
Professor Emeritus, Luther Seminary


Lorraine Brugh
Valparaiso University


Sue Stover
Durham, North Carolina


Elna Solvang
Concordia College, Moorhead


Gwen Sayler
Wartburg Theological Seminary


Carol Schersten LaHurd
Chicago, Illinois


Kadi Billman
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Chicago 


Lois Malcolm
Luther Seminary


Arnfridur Gudmundsdottir
Iceland


L. DeAne Lagerquist
St. Olaf College


Maria Erling
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg


Kris Stache
Wartburg Theological Seminary


Mary (Joy) Philip
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Chicago


Lisa L. Stenmark
San Jose State University


Beth Birkholz
Marietta, Georgia


Aana Marie Vigen
Loyola University Chicago


Melissa James
Graduate Theological Union


Jacqueline Bussie
Capital University


Esther Menn
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago


Sharon Betcher
Vancouver School of Theology


Caryn Riswold
Illinois College


Nina Livesey
Oklahoma University


Gladys G. Moore
Mount Holyoke


Joy Schroeder
Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary


Shauna Hannan
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary


Barbara Rossing
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago


Cynthia Moe-Lobeda
Seattle University


Hanne Løland
MF-Norwegian School of Theology, Oslo, Norway


Marcia J. Bunge
Valparaiso University


Laurie Jungling
Augustana College, Sioux Falls


May Burt Persaud
Wartburg Theological Seminary


Ann Fritschel
Wartburg Theological Seminary


Alicia Vargas
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary


Donna Duensing
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary


Mary M. Solberg
Gustavus Adolphus College


Jessicah Duckworth
Luther Seminary


Kristin M. Swenson
Virginia Commonwealth University


Janyce Jorgensen
York, Pennsylvania


Joanne Chadwick
San Francisco, California


Elizabeth Palmer
University of Chicago Divinity School


Kirsten Mebust
Augustana College, Sioux Falls


Anna Mercedes
College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University


Wanda Deifelt
Luther College


Melinda Quivik 
Houghton, Michigan


Katie Day
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia


Margaret R. McLean
Santa Clara University


Kristen E. Kvam
Saint Paul School of Theology, Kansas City


Terra Schwerin Rowe
Drew University


Rebecca Thurman
Wartburg College


Jeannine Olson
Rhode Island College


Kristin Helweg Hanson
University of Alaska, Anchorage


Marit Trelstad
Pacific Lutheran University


Beverly Stratton
Augsburg College


Sarah E. Fredericks
University of North Texas


Lea F. Schweitz
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago


Mary Lowe
Augsburg College


Barbara Lundblad
Union Theological Seminary in New York


Jennifer Hockenberry
Mount Mary College


Diane V. Bowers
San Leandro, California


Center for Anglican Learning and Leadership, Berkeley, California


Susan Wilds McArver
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary


Terry Snipes
Smyrna, Georgia


Katharina von Kellenbach
St. Mary's College of Maryland


Lisa Dahill
Trinity Lutheran Seminary


Susan Hedahl
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg


Mary J. Streufert
Chicago, Illinois


Corrine Carvalho
University of St. Thomas


Sherry Jordan
University of St. Thomas


Carolyn Schneider
Texas Lutheran University

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