Posted by: JLLH | February 23, 2009

Reclaiming the Significance of Experience


I find the coexist symbol a fitting illustration of the core of theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s message and the guiding principle of all her endeavors: that the colorful differences among religions illuminate the diverse ways in which we experience God.  Far from being fractionated, we are in fact united in our quest to discern and express the mystery that is God.

Johnson wrote Quest for the Living God because she finds herself fascinated by how believers view God. She summarizes the purpose of her own quest in theology with a quote from Aquinas: “The study of God and all things in the light of God.” She begins this introductory chapter by showing that humans have been trying to articulate their experience of God since the dawn of consciousness. She invites us see this as an enlightening journey of mankind’s reappropriation of God through the lens of a particular social and cultural milieu and insists that this process – of seeking, finding and expressing – is the means by which the living God remains as such.

Throughout history humans have experienced a pervasive sense of the sacred – of a numinous power over which they have no control but that nevertheless imbues a sense of purpose into their lives. From the prelingual era to modern day, there are prevalent themes that characterize the history of the experience of God. It is important to note that Johnson does not limit her discussion merely to Christianity. She talks about religion as a living institution – as an ongoing human phenomenon with a colorful and complex history. Her openness should come as no surprise, given her progressive and inclusive mission within the Catholic tradition.

One theme among the diversity of religious experiences is the quest for unity and completion. In general, humans express their notion of God with symbols that represent a reality that is greater than their own individual experience. God is persistently conveyed an all-encompassing wholeness that satiates an undulating yearning for completion and interconnectedness. In this sense, God’s presence is permeating and ephemeral, yet undeniably real. Johnson also sees that in both contemporary society and throughout history, people perceive God’s elusive presence as being disclosed in a diversity of ways, particularly in their experiences – such as meeting limits or physical healing – as well as in their feelings – especially love, loss, emptiness and fullness. Johnson’s effort to characterize humanity’s pervasive desire to express their experience of God is done so to show that the quest for the living God has been and continues to be a perpetual activity of the human spirit.

One of New Atheism’s central critiques of religion is the unwavering reverence for religious faith.  In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins continuously lambastes the concept of religious faith because it discourages questioning by its very nature (346), requires no justification and undergoes no argument (348). Johnson indirectly responds to the first part of this argument in her introductory chapter when she asserts that despite the conceivable “certainty that [the monotheistic religions] possess definitive knowledge of the Holy, there persists an active seeking for deeper understanding, closer union and greater fruitfulness.” (10) In essence, Johnson shows that the monotheistic religions encourage rather than discourage the search for God and that there is textual evidence for the theme of “seeking and finding” in the Old Testament, New Testament and Qur’an. Thus, Johnson responds to New Atheism’s claim that religion espouses and perpetuates a certain level of ignorance by showing that monotheistic religions encourage a level of curiosity and questioning.

If the Abrahamic traditions encourage the unrestricted search for God, then why, with all this searching, haven’t we “found” God? Johnson provides a few factors that explain the open-endedness that characterizes this historical search for the living God. Interestingly, the first reason is that “the very nature of what is being sought is incomprehensible, unfathomable, limitless, ineffable and beyond description.” (12)  So the monotheistic faiths encourage the search for God, but predicate the endeavor with the assertion that we will not be able to find God. Johnson paraphrases Aquinas when she says, “If you have fully figured out who God is, then your are dealing with something else, some lesser reality.” (13) A point of confusion lies in the means by which she substantiates her claim. Johnson makes the objective claim that it is impossible to fully express who God is. But in order to make this claim, wouldn’t that imply that she has some done exactly this? Doesn’t it imply that she has somehow acquired knowledge of God that allows her to share it with the rest of us? Theologian John Haught would respond that it is by a leap of faith that Johnson makes this assertion – a faith that is grounded in a “trustful surrender” to the infinite mystery of God. (God and the New Atheism, 75)

An additional reason for the ongoing search is the dynamic social and cultural zeitgeist over human history.  Each generation describes its experience of God through the contemporary social and cultural milieu. This is important for Johnson and is part of the crux of her argument: people must articulate their notions of God to match the social and cultural zeitgeist in order for the living God to remain “vibrant and alive.” Johnson finishes this section with her thesis for the book: “Christianity today is living through a vibrant new chapter of this quest [for the living God]. People are discovering God again not in the sense of deducing abstract notions but in the sense of encountering divine presence and absence in their everyday experiences…” (13-14)  In essence, Johnson is embarking on an endeavor very similar to Catherine LaCugna in her book God For Us. Where LaCugna ventured to show the synthetic dichotomy of oikonomia and theologia with regard to the Trinity, Johnson seeks to resurrect meaning in the experience of God rather than in the contemplation or analysis of God. In a sense, Johnson also sees a synthetic dichotomy of economy and theology. For her, the way to maintain a vibrant, living God is through our reflective experiences of God.

Before Johnson sets out to explore the diverse ways in which people around the world experience God, she requires that her readers uphold a few rules when talking about God. I find her use of the word “rule” interesting given that, since the “rules” are actually statements that one must subscribe to, Johnson is actually asserting a level of objectivity that she herself claims is impossible. Nevertheless, the rules include:

(1) “The infinitely creating, redeeming and indwelling God is so far beyond the world and so deeply within the world as to be literally incomprehensible.” (17) I first ask how one can simultaneously make an objective claim about God and also assert that one cannot fully know God. How can one describe God if he is indescribable? Yes, of course, we do what we can to express our experience of God within the confines of human knowledge and capabilities. But I still do not understand how one can make such an absolute claim about God as to set it as a ground rule for speaking about God while maintaining the notion that “God surpasses whatever we can understand and account for in terms of our human categories.” (17)

I mentioned before that Dawkins asserts that religious faith is dangerous because it requires no justification and undergoes no argument (348). When explaining her first ground rule, Johnson does not appear to offer justification for her claim. God is utterly ineffable. Period. We have no way of fully knowing Him because He is absolutely transcendent, imminent and incomprehensible. How could one go about countering these claims? Is it even possible?

(2)    Johnson addresses a second central critique made by New Atheism when she asserts that, “no expression for God can be taken literally.” (18) Both Dawkins and Harris highlight the dangers of religious fundamentalism and literal interpretation of the Bible and Qur’an repeatedly throughout their works. Johnson foils their argument by asserting that no expression of God (I’m assuming she’s including the Bible) should be taken literally. Instead, humans talk about God indirectly utilizing three things: analogy, metaphor and symbols. Johnson says we can speak about God through analogy based on the belief that the created world is fundamentally good and thus, “all creatures participate in some way in the overflowing goodness, truth and beauty of the One who made them.” (18)

To assert that no claim of God can be taken literally but that analogy can be utilized to make a “new affirmation of God” suggests that there is some level of authenticity to claims made through analogy. But by what criteria can we discern good analogies from bad analogies if we cannot make any absolute claims about God? I am reminded of the following quote by Dawkins: “Of course, irritated theologians will protest that we don’t take the book of Genesis literally any more. But that is my whole point! We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe and which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision….without an absolute foundation.” (269)

Johnson concludes this chapter with a quote that sheds light on her thesis that the living God is maintained by the human expression of our diverse experiences of God: “‘Religions die when their lights fail,’ that is, when their teaching no longer illuminate life as it is actually lived by their adherents.” (23) If given the opportunity, I would ask Johnson how she could differentiate the implications of her thesis with the corollaries of the following quote from the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke: “What will you do, god, when I am dead? / In losing me you lose your meaning.” Where do we draw the line between the freedom in personal expression of God and conjured arbitrariness? Are Johnson’s ground rules for theological inquiry enough to withstand the tumultuous winds of relativism?



  1. Jenna, I noticed your ‘Coexist’ symbol on Monday and since you put it up again, I thought I might make a short comment on it.
    I find it more than a little funny that the symbol for Buddhism is the yin yang since the yin yang is actually a symbol of indigenous Chinese philosophy and has nothing to do with Buddhism (with the exception that both originated in the East, much in the same way that both Scientology and the tortilla originated in America). In fact, very few concepts, on the surface, are more un-Buddhistic than the less-than-transcendent yin yang.

    Another amusing aspect is that Hinduism is not represented at all, whereas both Paganism & Wiccan beliefs find separate places (I haven’t checked the numbers in a while, but I’m sure there are probably still about 10,000 Hindus to every Neo-Pagan).

    Anyway, I just wanted to point this out because almost all my experiences with people and events which endorse the ‘Coexist’ movement have displayed similar lack of understanding (lack of perspective) in some way or another (note, I’m not accusing you Jenna, just noting my experience with Coexist as a movement). If I were to guess, the cause of this is that oftentimes people intellecualising interreligious dialogue as unnecessary and that all we have to do is get past our prejudices and just all “get along”.

    This is in fact fallacious. We cannot “illuminate the diverse ways in which we experience God” without really putting forth an effort to understand each other. Coexist events I have seen do a fine job of putting forth the time and putting forth the materials for a decent presentation, but I have yet to see any evidence that any put forth the effort for serious understanding. In my opinion, this simply provides a breeding ground for the next bout of misunderstanding.

  2. Gabriel- Its funny that you mention the yin yang from coexist because I thought a similar thing when looking at it once more. I took an Asian spirituality class last semester where we explored Taoism and Confusionism which gave a whole new meaning to the yin yang. I wish everyone could take a class on religious pluralism or at least schools did a better job of introducing different spiritualities and ways of thinking. That is actually one thing I’m looking to explore in my final paper this semester. In what ways do the religious thinking we are exposed to as children shape our understanding of the world? Is this how we form our morality? What would the world look like if children were introduced to religious pluralism, even atheism, from the get-go?

    I looked up ‘coexist’ (and I actually have one of these bumper stickers, I think its a great concept) online to see what the world wide web had to say and the first link I clicked on went straight to a website with pictures of a U2 concert with a huge flashy ‘coexist’ as the band’s backdrop. I know U2 does wonderful things with social movements and global human rights issues especially because of their massive fan base, but I’m left wondering, how many of the people in the crowd actually know what that word or concept represents and if they do understand, do they put it into practice? Like Gabe mentioned, they put on a good show but what happens after the concert’s over?

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