Saturday, December 3, 2016

Panentheism & Providence In Elizabeth Johnson's Ask the Beasts

This is the short paper that I recently presented at AAR in San Antonio. It was for a panel in honor of the work of theologian Elizabeth Johnson, which was organized by Scott MacDougall and Tripp Fuller. The other panelists included: Catherine Keller (my doctoral advisor), Lisa Sowle Cahill, Cynthia Rigby, and Eric Daryl Meyer. I believe that there will soon be a podcast of the event made available on Homebrewed Christianity, but until then, I wanted to share my original, slightly longer paper (to which Johnson offered a thoughtful, engaging response that considered the distinct traditions of process theology and Thomism):

I am very grateful for the opportunity to participate on this panel in honor of Elizabeth Johnson’s inspiring career. Like many other students who have pursued theological education in recent decades, my first encounter with Johnson’s work was She Who Is. Reading it in one of my first theology courses was a transformative experience, as I was moved by her call to embrace female symbols of God in dialogue with the orthodox tradition. As Johnson put it, her strategy in She Who Is was to connect “feminist and classical wisdom” (8). Thus, she affirmed Ruether’s “critical principle of feminist theology…[that] whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine” (30), and then unfolded a relational vision of God through biblical and Thomistic sources. By creatively entangling past to present, tradition to experience, Elizabeth Johnson has become a crucial theological guide for many today.

Already in She Who Is, Johnson was relating ecology to faith. But her theology of creation achieved perhaps its fullest expression with her recent Ask the Beasts. In this brilliant work of constructive theology, Johnson continues her strategy of demonstrating how classical sources are relevant to the present, but now in relation to science. Beginning with a close reading of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, she then reflects on its implications for Christian faith. With wisdom and insight, she considers many key issues within the religion-science dialogue, including: the relationship of humans to nonhumans; the realities of chance and purpose in nature; God’s presence and action in creation; the problem of suffering throughout evolution; and the environmental crisis. In the process of confronting such issues, Johnson once again uncovers surprisingly traditional resources for persons of faith through her meditations on scripture and theological texts. With its beautifully clear prose and carefully formulated arguments, Ask the Beasts is destined to become yet another classic.

Many of the concerns that Johnson considers throughout Ask the Beasts have also been important to my own research. But while Johnson draws “largely from the Catholic intellectual tradition” (xviii) – an admirable tradition, especially in her appropriation of it – it is not as much my own, despite my love for some apophatic thinkers. With a background more in Protestantism and process thought, I often find my differences with Thomists to be both challenging and fruitful to consider. As such, I want to ask a few closely related questions about Johnson’s proposals in Ask the Beasts, relating to her Thomistic arguments for panentheism as an ecological model of the God-world relationship: first, about the meaning of “panentheism”; second, about how Johnson might revise Aquinas’ theism; and lastly, about her noncoercive account of divine providence.

In chapter five, “The Dwelling Place of God”, Johnson considers the classical doctrine of omnipresence in order to emphasize divine immanence within creation. Against the Western dualism of spirit over matter that denied “the natural world’s intrinsic worth” (126), she shows how traditional sources, from scripture to the creeds, have emphasized God’s intimate presence in creation. Thus, the Creator is not dualistically separate, but immanently dwells in all things, “blessing” all with intrinsic worth (124). Philosophically, Johnson looks to Aquinas’ view of God as “being itself”, in which creation participates as in its gracious source. Thus, God and creation are connected, so “nature can never be thought to be godless,” she writes (144). According to Johnson, when Aquinas images God as “in all things” and “all things in God,” this entails an “interesting mutuality” between God and creation – which she suggests can be called “panentheism” (147).

Aquinas, the panentheist? Is he not, as many believed, the “premier representative of classical theism”? If panentheism simply indicates God’s all-encompassing presence in all things, which classical theists affirm, is it still a useful theological category? Although panentheism appeared in the works of 18th century German idealists, the process philosopher Charles Hartshorne popularized it in the 20th century as a way between Thomistic theism and Spinozan pantheism. For him, it not only holds together immanence and transcendence, but also means that God and the world mutually influence one another. On his reading, Thomistic theism does not permit God to be affected by the world because God, as “pure act” – the perfectly actualized One – lacks possibility for change, novelty, or movement.

Johnson affirms Aquinas’ God as “pure act of being,” rendered as the “infinite divine aliveness” (144). But she also views God as interactively related to the “open-ended” creation (180), even asserting that “God suffers” (203) with creatures. Does this not imply that there is potential for relational receptivity in God – that it is possible for God to be acted upon? Aquinas seems to deny this in the Summa when he wrote, “God is pure act without potentiality whatsoever” (1.3). Thus Niels Gregersen reflects a common view that since Aquinas’ theism of “pure act leaves no [possibilities] unrealized in divine experience,” God “cannot…be affected by…creatures.”

Without “domesticating” the mystery of infinity, what revisions (if any) are therefore necessary within Aquinas’ thinking in order to affirm the relational panentheism that Johnson suggests? Are there resources within the Thomistic tradition to do so, or might other traditions prove more helpful? Of course, Hartshorne and process theologians present certain possibilities, and Johnson has confessed to finding aspects of that tradition useful. But in keeping with her strategy of reclaiming classical sources, I wonder if an Aquinas-inspired panentheism could benefit from a Cusan supplement. She does not engage this 15th century Catholic cardinal, who wrote two centuries after Aquinas, but I want to briefly suggest that Nicholas of Cusa’s apophatic relationalism resonates with her panentheism.

Like Aquinas, Cusa employed panentheistic imagery of God in all things, and all things in God. But with his non-dualistic doctrine of “the coincidence of opposites” – following for him from the logic of divine infinity and simplicity – Cusa was led toward a more radically relational ontology. Realizing that this doctrine paradoxically implies the coincidence of activity and receptivity in God, he argued that God must be “moved with all that moves.” And since active creating must coincide with being receptively created – or the potential-to-be-created – God is both the “creating” and “creatable” creator.” Thus, while Cusa long agreed with Aquinas that no unrealized possibilities are in God, in his final work he claimed that God is best named “possibility itself”: the empowering source of potential for every actuality. Cusa thereby diverged from Aquinas by viewing divine possibility as prior to actuality, enabling him to affirm real and reciprocal relations between God and creatures – much like Johnson suggests.

The coincidence of opposites even leads Cusa to argue for a non-coercive account of divine providence, a position that Johnson also develops in Ask the Beasts. Since God’s loving mercy and creative power coincide in the divine infinity, Cusa argues that God does not force free creatures, but lovingly “urges” and “calls” them. Drawing on Thomistic sources, Johnson similarly claims that a “risk-taking God” of love “invites but never coerces” free creatures (158, my emphasis). This is crucial to her project of confronting the problem of suffering in evolution. As she writes, “98 per cent of all previously existing species have gone extinct,” so suffering and “death [are] intrinsic to the process of evolution” (184). But such tragedies are the “result of the world’s autonomous operation”, not “the direct divine will”, she writes (191). For her, God never directly intervenes in creation because God is voluntarily “self-limiting” (202).

(With Elizabeth Johnson, right before our panel)
Here, Johnson again diverges from Aquinas, who maintained that God sometimes overrides natural causes for certain miracles. But since Johnson also affirms miracles like Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the new creation (208-9), how would these be brought about if God “never coerces”? Are these not exceptional instances requiring God to un-self-limit? After all, a voluntarily self-limited God could intervene, since no metaphysical necessity prevents God’s un-self-limitation. Finally, does this position not ultimately call the goodness of God into question, who is apparently capable of preventing certain instances of extreme suffering – like the backup pelican chicks (185-6) – but neglects to do so?