Posted by: jennlay | February 21, 2009

Liberating God

JohnsonI am really enjoying Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God and think it is aptly named and chosen to participate in the atheist debate on the death of God, as from death comes new life.  For the New Atheists, God does not exist, but the idea or ideas of God do exist in a very powerful way.  And it is these ideas, which they see not only as wrong but also quite dangerous, which need to be “killed.”  There is a saying in Buddhism, “If you find the Buddha, kill him,” and this can be applied to the intersection of atheist critique and people of faith who, like Johnson, are searching for the living God.  This means that if you think you have found the Buddha, it is not the Buddha and thus any attachment to him will only hinder your journey; so he must be killed.  I think there is also a similar saying in Christianity along the lines of “If you have found God, it is not God.”

Many of the major world religions and institutions have claimed a monopoly on knowing the one, true God.  They have set this God up as an idol not open to other interpretations and are so dedicated to the one God that they are led to create great acts of violence and harm to God’s own creation.  One’s understanding of who God is and how that God relates to oneself and the larger world, carry over into how one lives her life and interacts with others on a daily basis.  Setting up limited, dangerous ideas of God and putting these idols above all else, has created a culture of rampant systemic violence where there is a great deal of suffering that is either justified through one’s understanding of God or simply ignored as divine will.  A quote by Juan Luis Segundo sums up this idea well, “Our falsified and inauthentic ways of dealing with our fellow human beings are allied to our falsification of the idea of God.  Our unjust society and our perverted idea of God are in close and terrible alliance” (Johnson, 80).

In Johnson’s book she is trying to present a picture of the living God, active and present among people of today in various realities.  Chapter four of this book focuses on the reality of those who live in poverty, and the image of the living God as the “Liberating God of Life.”  The understanding of a liberating God of life who loves all of creation but in particular has a special care for those who suffer and desires their realization of justice is contrary to the traditional Christian doctrine presented of God.  If God is truly all powerful, and all knowing, and good, then surely God would do something to end the suffering of the innocent.  But since suffering still exists, and on an ever widening scale in our day and age, then it must be permitted if not divinely intended by God.  So people who live in poverty and suffer due to unjust social structures are left to endure their suffering with no real hope or desire to actively work to change it, and those in the minority who enjoy the luxuries and wealth of the world have no moral obligation to share it (unless of course they do it as good deeds to receive reward in the after life).

The question of innocent suffering has been a question for theologians and people of faith for centuries under the category of theodicy.  An incorporation of theodicy and a liberative understanding of the God who loves and desires justice can be found in Gustavo Gutierrez’s book On Job.  Gutierrez is also the one who coined the phrase “liberation theology,” which has spread throughout Latin America as a way of reflecting on one’s reality and the divine and then working to change that reality based on the insights one gains (and continuing this cycle).  In this understanding of God through liberation theology, one becomes empowered with the realization that not only does God not want her children to suffer, but God is also actively working through the love of the spirit to eliminate this suffering and bring about a world of justice where all human beings can be fully alive.  “Gloria Dei, vivens homo,” which means the glory of God is the human being fully alive (Johnson, 82).  Archbishop Romero, former Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, who was murdered because of his profound solidarity with the poor during El Salvador’s civil war, rephrased this for the reality of those in poverty.  “The glory of God is the poor person fully alive.”  When one understands God as the source of all life and love and as an active presence in the world to bring about peace and justice, then anything which violates human beings from experiencing this reality of God and the world, violates God’s very being.

Toward the end of this chapter, Johnson makes some pretty strong claims about the importance the idea of God as liberator and as standing in radical solidarity with the poor, must take in comparison to all other ideas of God and experiences of God.  She says that we know God better in solidarity with the poor  and that understanding God as liberator is the measure to be used against all other ideas of God that ignore the suffering of people (86).  Due to my own experiences in Central America, walking with the poor and sharing in their lives, I can see and agree how that experience bettered my understanding of God, or at least expanded my ideas about God and the lives believers are called to live.  However, I am wary of making as strong a claim as many liberation theologians do, such as there is no salvation outside the poor, or that the crucified people (those who innocently suffer due to structural violence or social violence) can know Jesus better than someone who has grown up in wealth and luxury.  Understanding God as the liberating God of life does come out of the context of mass suffering and is an important understanding of God for all people in helping to bring about our own liberation from the things of this world which prevent us from being fully alive and consequently restrict the full glory of God.  I just think Johnson makes some strong claims for this being one chapter of her book on many realities and understandings of God and God as work in world today.

It seems that there would be a number of issues that both Johnson and the New Atheists could agree on in regards to the dangers and harm that religion causes.  Johnson argues that false Gods such as wealth, power, control, and comfort have been set on altars and worshiped as the way to live one’s life at the expense of many millions who suffer.  However, it is not only replacing God with other ideas or material items that Johnson and liberation theology condemn, but especially false idols of God.  This is where the critique of the New Atheists aids in the discussion and ultimate goal of freeing God and allowing the full mystery of God to be experienced.  While the New Atheists would argue that not only are false idols of God dangerous, but also no idol or idea of God should be embraced or professed, Johnson is looking to remove the false idols in order to come to a deeper understanding of the living God.  The New Atheists with their rigid dedication to the sciences, are not open to the experience of the living God, and thus while helping along the way to free others from false notions of God, cannot fully participate in the glory and joy which is found in the experience of a relationship with the living God of Life.

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