Elizabeth A. Johnson, Creation and Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril, (Orbis Books, 2018)
Elizabeth Johnson has written a superb, constructive, and accessible work of Christian Dogmatics. In Creation and the Cross she develops a theology of accompaniment, demonstrating the depth of God’s mercy and the consistency of God’s redemptive work, marked by solidarity and grace. God’s creating, accompanying, and redeeming work reaches wider and deeper than humankind. The whole of creation in its life and death, suffering and joy, is swept up by/in God.
“A theology of accompaniment holds the faith conviction that God forever companions the world with liberating, saving mercy.” (222)
Through this redemption comes to mean:
“… the presence of God walking with the world through its trauma and travail, even unto death. This theology entails a double solidarity, of the actual Jesus who lived with all who live, suffer, and die, and of the resurrecting God of life with the ministering and crucified Jesus.” (106)
I began with the constructive and creative theological enterprise that Johnson undertakes, though she herself begins somewhere else. She starts with Anselm. Johnson incisively critiques and deconstructs the satisfaction theory of salvation/atonement developed by Anselm, which now stands as the one and only view of atonement in much of the church, despite radical changes in context and pastoral needs. Johnson desires to show another way to understand God’s redemptive/saving work in a way that doesn’t require the death of Jesus. The question is, was this the most fruitful way to begin? The ubiquity of the satisfaction theory in the experience of many who will read this book (or will hopefully read this book) may have indeed required a substantial addressing of Anselm (and his legacy), however it is important to keep in mind that after this chapter the references back to Anselm are sparse, this work is not one of deconstruction, as I led off, the majority of this book is a constructive and positive articulation of God and God’s redeeming work.
The book does have a more positive interplay with Anselm, and this comes in the way of style. Johnson borrows Anselm’s conversational, interview, style. The book is framed as a discussion with Clara (Johnson’s imaginary interlocutor – based on a collage of real and imagined conversations). Clara asks questions, poses problems, voices critiques, and offers her own contributions to the discussion. Clara adds to the books accessibility and allows Johnson to make smooth pastoral asides and brief nods to wider literature without disrupting the flow of the narrative.
For those interested, here is the general scope/shape of the book. As already mentioned, chapter one begins with the summary Anselm and a thorough (though not uncharitable) rejection. Chapter Two focuses on the community of Second Isaiah about to return from exile. The God of Israel is a saving and redeeming God (First in the Exodus, now here again) long before the Incarnation – this redemption comes through a deep knowledge (solidarity) with the people and the promise/action to deliver.
“It is the Creator God who is called Redeemer and Savior. These and other texts sing out an unequivocal assurance that the God who created the people is now acting as Redeemer, claiming back from another’s authority, overcoming every obstacle to restore them to their own life in God’s covenanted family. This redeeming work clearly has a political dimension; people robbed, plundered, and taken into captivity are being released to return to their native land. At the same time, given that the exile was interpreted as punishment for the nation’s misdeeds, this moment of redemption also entails the forgiveness of sins, for the individual but also for the whole community.” (48)
The next chapter turns to Jesus of Nazareth: who was this man, what did he do, why did he die – again, keep in mind the relationship to Anselm, Johnson is intent to show that Jesus is about more than is death to satisfy God’s honour. Johnson clearly lays out the scene in which Jesus lived, filled with Jewish hopes and expectations for eschatological redemption. She also begins in this chapter to explore the idea of resurrection (both that which preceded Jesus and hinting at that which followed – this becomes central in the next chapter).
“Maybe one way to interpret the impact of Jesus’ activity would be to say that in the name of the gracious God of Israel he was announcing comfort, and giving people practical tastes of release from captivity in their own situation?” (82)
Following this, Chapter Four looks at the creative work of the apostles and Gospel writers to find meaning in the crucifixion in light of the resurrection and ongoing felt presence of Christ in their midst. Johnson offers an excellent survey of biblical metaphors concerning the cross, their backgrounds and missionary/pastoral purposes.
“The point is that the early Christian communities rose with panache to the challenging task of interpreting Jesus’ death… In light of resurrection faith they used a rich and hope-filled range of metaphors to speak about Jesus’ life given for others. No theories were offered for how any of these metaphors worked. They were announcing that through this Jesus whom they loved, and who had met a terribly negative end, the gracious and merciful God of Israel was doing something profoundly good in the world.” (155)
Chapter Five is the first time Johnson picks up an explicit and sustained ecological focus, exploring the significance of God taking on flesh for a Deep Incarnation – the interrelation and interdependence of creation means that the Incarnation (and its implied solidarity with human fragility and finitude) extends to all of creation.
“God is the holy mystery of love, unfathomable, and always in saving relation to the striving, evolving world.” (180)
Finally, in the last chapter, she comes to us. While that includes humans and our own conversion, us extends to the entirety of creation which sings praises, groans in longing, experiences God’s care in death, and will be redeemed to new life in God. In this chapter she offers five imaginative practices for how our faith leads us into love and care of the non-human world. The last sub-section is a barn-burner of a close, drawing threads together and providing a moving summary for anyone who needs to understand the path we’ve taken in a hurry.
“The best take-away for spirituality and ethics would be a lively sense of the presence of God to all creatures on planet Earth, walking with them in their joy and suffering in order to heal, redeem, and liberate, and a humbled awareness of the creating God who cares especially for the poor and oppressed among human being and among all species. It would also mean a strong appreciation of the living God’s merciful love poured out with out merit on any creature’s part, and a vibrant hope in God that promotes action on behalf of the ecojustice for the flourishing of life. These are the outflows from a theology of salvation as accompaniment, an ‘I am with you to deliver you’ view of God’s saving work.” (222)
If I met a Christian who was interested in taking a first step into a richer understanding of the faith they confess, the God they praise and petition, and the Messiah they follow, this would be one of the first books taken off my shelf.