In her new book Creation and the Cross (Orbis, 2018), Distinguished Professor of Theology Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, challenges us to reconsider cosmic redemption. It’s an ancient concept that fell out of favor in the 11th century, but is needed more than ever in a time of advancing ecological devastation.
And in a bonus track, Sister Johnson reflects on the recent death of renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, an avowed atheist.
Full transcript below:
Patrick Verel: For Christians, Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for the sins of humans, and his suffering is directly connected to our salvation. But what if there were a way to extend that belief in salvation beyond humans to all created beings? I’m Patrick Verel, and today my guest is Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, a Distinguished Professor of Theology and author of Creation and the Cross, which was published last month by Orbis Press. Now, cosmic redemption is a big part of this book. What is it, and why has it fallen out of favor in recent centuries?
Elizabeth Johnson: Cosmic redemption is the idea that all of creation will be saved, every last galaxy, every last earthworm, every portion of the great world that God has created has a future with us in glory with God. It dropped out of awareness in churches’ consciousness pretty much around the 16th century, with the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin and others focused their question on salvation of humans. The question was, how can I find a gracious God? The answer was through the death of Jesus on the cross.
The issue was, therefore, very focused on human beings and our sinfulness and our need to be redeemed. That tremendous focus on human beings blocked out the whole rest of creation. Once the Protestant reformists began asking that question, the Catholic church began responding. The debate really, the Protestants said, “We are saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ on the cross, and the grace alone.” Catholics answered back, “Yes, but we also need to do good works.” That became an internal squabble among Christians, and that diffuseness of that blocked out the rest of creation.
Patrick Verel: Why is Saint Anselm such an important figure when it comes to this story?
Elizabeth Johnson: Okay, Anselm was a 10th and 11th century theologian, a monk, and ultimately the Archbishop of Canterbury. He wrote a wonderful book in Latin called Cur Deus Homo, or in English, Why the God Man. He asked the question, why did God become human and died to save us when He could have done it some other way? He could have shed a tear or done one act of kindness, and that would have solved it.
His answer became enormously influential. His answer was, God became human and died to save us because sin offended the honor of God, and humans had to make satisfaction. Since we are just human creatures and finite, we cannot make satisfaction equal to the glory and honor of God we’ve offended, so an infinite person had to come and do it.
The only way to make satisfaction was to die, because Jesus was sinless and death was understood as a punishment for sin, a result of sin. As the sinless one, he did not have to die, so when he died, he paid back more than was owed to the honor of God. Since he didn’t need any blessing, he shares it all with his brothers and sisters.
Patrick Verel: Okay.
Elizabeth Johnson: The last line of that book Anselm writes, “And so you see, God’s mercy is greater than we could have imagined.” Now, the problem with that is for Anselm’s time, that was an argument that made sense to people because he was living in feudalism, and the lord of the manor, his word was law. There were no police forces, no armies, et cetera.
If you offended the lord, you were breaking up civil orders as well as his own honor. You had to pay it back in a visible way. What Anselm did was take that political arrangement and made it the image of God. That made it cosmic. What has developed is out of that theory is a notion of God as a supreme Lord whose honor is more important to God than God’s mercy. Jesus told parable after parable where God’s mercy violates the norms or the expectations. You think of the Prodigal Son, and so on, that you don’t have to pay back, you see.
God’s mercy comes and saves you regardless. You don’t need to pay, but it became tit for tat, like we had to earn our salvation. We have to pay back and Jesus was the one who paid it back. The cross became a prerequisite for God to be merciful, and that has done terrible damage to the image of God.
Patrick Verel: Creation and the Cross has been constructed in a dialogue form, which is similar to the way that Saint Anselm wrote many of his works. Why did you do that?
Elizabeth Johnson: I did that because Anselm has been so influential, whether you realize it or not, right? I wanted to have like an alternative to Anselm, in the same vein. So, he chose a monk named Boso, seriously B-O-S-O it’s spelled, who used to ask him a lot of questions about things, and set him up as a dialogue partner in this book.
I invented an interlocutor to myself whom I named Clara from the Latin word for light, and I said that she’s an amalgamation of all the very smart, insightful young men and women whom I have taught over the course of my teaching life. It becomes a conversation between a teacher and students in a way, that is easier to follow rather than whole paragraphs of argument.
Patrick Verel: Then the main argument of the book is that cross represents more than just salvation from sin. It’s, and I quote, “An icon of how God is present with all creatures in their suffering and death.” Now, is this a new argument?
Elizabeth Johnson: It’s a very ancient argument, but it’s one that we haven’t paid attention to, right? You can find this, again, in the Bible, in the New Testament, understandings of the death and resurrection of Christ, is that, in Jesus Christ, God became one with us in the flesh, to quote John’s gospel, right?
The flesh was human flesh, but our human flesh, we realize today, is part of the whole flesh of the community of life on earth. I mean, we take in food and air, it keeps us alive. We have evolved out of the whole community of life on earth. I’m using the expression, “Community of life,” which is a key expression in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’.
To try to make ourselves realize we’re not the only ones prancing around on this planet, but as humans, we are part of a wonderful community of life and that what we say about God, we need to bring that community of life mainstream into our dogmatic teaching and our preaching and our liturgies. The idea in scripture that when the word became flesh and dwelled among us, it was God becoming bonded personally with human beings, but also with all flesh on the earth, with matter.
His genes, Jesus’ genes were of the Hebrew line of the human race, the cells in his body were made of gases and materials that had exploded in the stars billions of years ago, just like our own. Part of God became bonded to the universe humanly, physically as a cosmic event. So, in his death, God is with all creatures who die, not just with humans, but with the pelican chick, and the deer being chased by the lion and so on.
Also, then in the resurrection of the body of Jesus Christ, it’s the beginning of the future of all flesh. If the resurrection means anything is that there’s a future for creation, that everything doesn’t end up in annihilation, but the love of God that created it all is powerful enough to redeem it all. At the end of Laudato si’, Pope Francis writes that, “At the end of history, we will all be together enjoying the beauty of God,” that’s his view of heaven, “and all creatures be splendidly transfigured,” and I’m quoting here, “Will share with us in that joy.”
Patrick Verel: So, if people took this notion to heart, how do you think that will change their outlook on life?
Elizabeth Johnson: I think it would do two things. It would expand our consciousness as human beings on this planet that we are not the king of the hill, so to speak, that we have neighbors and relatives of different species than ourselves. To put us in a context, when God spoke to Job in the book of Job, the first question God says to him is, “And where were you when I created the world?” As if you think you can rule everything. Put us back in a humble position.
The second thing that flows from that is a tremendously powerful impetus for ethics, for ecological care of the earth, for responsibility for the lives of all these others in the air, in the sea, on the land, that we are basically wiping out, making species go extinct as Pope Francis says in Laudato si’, that should be for us a cause of personal suffering to see all this death. Many people in the church are still merrily going on their way as if this is not a religious matter.
Patrick Verel: This notion that Christians have a duty to protect the environment, it’s gotten a lot of attention and obviously you delved into it in great detail in your 2014 book called Ask the Beasts, that one, and the God of Love, and as you mentioned Pope Francis had his encyclical Laudato si’. What’s the common thread between all of these?
Elizabeth Johnson: We live on a marvelous Blue Planet, and we’re destroying it, so wake up.
Patrick Verel: It’s so funny that we’re talking about this now, and Stephen Hawking, of all people, just died.
Elizabeth Johnson: Yes.
Patrick Verel: What was your take on him?
Elizabeth Johnson: He was fabulous. Now, he was an atheist, avowed atheist.
Patrick Verel: Yeah.
Elizabeth Johnson: And so, A Brief History of Time, you know his famous book, at the end of it he’s talking about all the ways equations can explain galaxies and this and that, black holes, everything, and he says, “What is the power that created these equations that makes the universe run this way”, and when I talk about this I always say, “In the integrity of his own atheism, he leaves that question hanging, he leaves it unanswered”, which I honor that. I mean that’s what he … He didn’t know where it all … But, as Christians, we can say, well we think we have an answer. We think this came from the love of God.
Patrick Verel: That’s interesting. It makes him seem more like an agnostic.
Elizabeth Johnson: He’s not like Richard Dawkins or those other idiots. They know nothing about religion and they dis … I mean they’re as bad as the fundamentalists, who just dismiss science.
Patrick Verel: Yeah.
Elizabeth Johnson: I mean the two of them, I wanna say a plague on both your houses, no don’t. Really, but-
Patrick Verel: We’ll edit that out.
Elizabeth Johnson: No, leave it in. No, but Dawkins, yeah, no, I mean I would say he was a rigorous atheist. He really didn’t believe there was anything remotely that he could name God anyway, but he wasn’t damning those who thought, not saying we’re all idiots if we thought otherwise, but I think having that question lined up that way, after all his study, is a beautiful in road to say, someone who lives with faith doesn’t have anymore data than the scientists do in terms of the material world, the physical world evolution and all of that. It has a different interpretation of it. It has a different take on it, sees it with different lens, and the lens says we push it to the ultimate. It comes from the infinite generosity of a loving God. And that makes my life meaningful.
So, I can’t force you to believe this and I can’t prove it either, and that’s why faith is faith. We walk by faith not by sight. It’s not proved, but you have a lot of reasons that can back it up. You have the community that’s trying to live this out, and so on and so forth.