God’s Charity and Bears

Yesterday I had the fortune to be present at two events featuring Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University in NY and a prolific, challenging and inspiring author. In the afternoon I attended her visit to a small seminar of MAT at St. Catherine’s University, where I teach as an adjunct, and in the evening I attended the public talk co-sponsored by St. Kate’s Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity and Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

The afternoon session was informal. No presentation, just dialogue with Johnson, with questions ranging from her recent ecologically-focused work and some of her earlier writings. At one point, when the subject of women in the Church had been raised, someone asked her why she stays in the Church. She spoke about the need to stay in to help move the institution forward and about the value of community.

More importantly though is the truth of our faith. In that context, Johnson relayed a story from the event at Fordham a couple of years ago that involved a dialogue between Steven Colbert and Archbishop Dolan of New York. At one point during that, someone asked Colbert why he stays in the Church. As relayed by Johnson, Colbert said, “because the story has a happy ending.” At which point he stood up and walked to the front of the stage and gesticulating, said excitedly, “The tomb was empty!” A good reminder during time when our discussion of various issues involving the Church – whatever they may be (and they vary for different people) – get us frustrated or angry or upset. We have a truth claim about death and resurrection, and above all, that is what matters.

In the evening, Johnson focused on the environment, making a case for our concern for the whole of creation and for moving away from a human-centered locus of concern. She grounds her argument in both evolution and Christian claims about creation and Christ, connecting Christ not only to human beings but to all of creation and the world. (For a full exploration of her argument, see her newest book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.)

She ended her talk discussing the need for conversion to the earth, suggesting three aspects to that. First, intellectual conversion, that is, a turn from a human-centered to a God-centered view that has room for seeing all creation as meaningful. Second, emotional conversion, by which she means a need to feel compassion for all living creatures and all of nature. And finally a practical conversion that calls us to think about all of our choices in terms of their effect on the environment.

It may be that Johnson overstates in saying that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato si, is the most important encyclical ever written by a Pope. But no one can ignore the damage we are doing to our home and the importance of taking action to preserve it.

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