Elizabeth Johnson on the God-World Relationship

Relation Between  God/World


Associated Theologians

Single-Action Theory God’s intentions are carried out in the overall purpose of the cosmos, not its particulars. Gordon Kaufman, Shubert Ogden, Maurice Wiles
Top-Down Causality Divine information/patterns flow into system as a whole, influencing the parts. Arthur Peacocke
Causal Joint Theory Insertion of divine influence at various levels (quantum, genetic…) John Polkinghorne, Nancey Murphy, George Ellis, Robert Russell
Organic Model The world is God’s “body”. Sallie McFague, Grace Jantzen
Kenotic Position God voluntarily limits power. John Hick, Keith Ward, Paul Fiddes, John Haught
Process Thought God provides initial aims and then lures. John B. Cobb, Ian Barbour, David Griffin, Charles Hartshorne
Source: Elizabeth A. Johnson. Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2014).

One will immediately notice from the chart that Johnson has limited her choices to Christian theological perspectives that take evolutionary processes seriously. Important theologians are also missing from this useful but limited classification. For example, where would you place Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being/ Unconditioned” (a very traditional, even classical, idea on the surface) ?  Would Jürgen Moltmann best be placed in the Kenotic or Process view? In any case, Elizabeth Johnson uses this discussion as a springboard in her book to discuss a view she is drawn to. The chart is mine. Johnson bases her choice on the classical, Neo-Thomistic, notion of primary and secondary causes. She is careful to note that the terms “primary” and “secondary” in this relationship are not on the same ‘level’.

Thus we must be clear that these two causes, ultimate and proximate, are not two species of the same genus, not two different types of causes united on a common ground of generating effects. They operate on completely different levels (itself an inadequate analogy), one being the wellspring of Being itself, the Cause of all causes, and the other participating in the power to act, as things that are burning participate in the power of fire. The relation precludes competition precisely because the living God, “source and goal of all things,” is not included among the “all things” that work by natural laws. The horizon cannot be included within the horizon. (p. 163)

Johnson makes several important clarifications in dialogue with the representatives on the chart above. One is that the artisan/instrument analogy sometimes used by defenders of this classical view should be replaced by the understanding that there is no mechanism asserted here (“God is not a bigger and better secondary cause.”) as there is, for example, in the ‘causal joint’ theory. As with most typologies, this blurs the edges separating some of the respective views. I suppose you could rearrange this material more  favorably as a series of circles within larger circles (regions) in order to do justice to the overlap.

Those interested in a complete defense of Neo-Thomist classicism would do well to look elsewhere, but if you are already drawn to this perspective, the further discussion in Johnson’s book of how it interacts with specifics of an evolutionary view of the world such as randomness, emergence, and death, is enlightening and imaginative.

The Glass of Vision Lecture 4: The Metaphysician’s Image


In the last lecture, Farrer makes a case for images in the form of metaphors, as the locus of revelation in the broadest sense. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the specific events then that these images, many of them very ancient, interact with. In this lecture he asks how we might better understand the reality behind these imaged events. “Does God feed his saints with nothing but figures of speech?” The development of an answer to this question leads to a general discussion of the nature of metaphors in human endeavor.

Farrer distinguishes between problems and mysteries. Problems are potentially solvable puzzles and are the usual domain of the various natural sciences, but they can also be approached by philosophers. Information about the world is gathered and analyzed through the use of appropriate instruments (physical or conceptual), continuously refined, which yield answers to specific questions. Science, especially, is often narrowly focused and can only provide the kind of information that its tools and limited questions are designed to extract. Mysteries, on the other hand, are more multidimensional and holistic. They are the so-called ‘big questions’ of life, and call forth human awe and wonder. What is it to love? What does it mean to by subject to time? What are the forces of nature? What is consciousness? Sheer amazement or perhaps poetic exploration are possible responses, but “where the attitude of passive respect combines with a rigorous demand for understanding, metaphysical activity will appear.”

The understanding that Farrer has of metaphysical mysteries precludes any kind of finality like that of puzzles. “Mysteries are not to be solved but (always inadequately) described.” There are no pre-selected tools that can be used to understand complex processes and objects in their fullness. Often multiple images are used to make a composite picture. Images are re-arranged until they seem to fit with other things that we know and with other images. Metaphysics is a systematic elaboration of our thinking and wondering about the world, but in the realm of mystery there are no hard rules to guide us. We go from images to images, term to term, in “irreducible analogizing”. George Lakoff, in his Metaphors We Live By (2003), documents the truth of this assertion in great detail. In fact, Lakoff’s concept of ‘imaginative rationality‘ has a great deal in common with what I think Farrer is getting at here.

After this excursus, Farrer returns to the questions that preoccupy him as a theologian. The total object of belief, like mysteries, is a vast divine process, but there is also a curtain between divine agency and effect. This veil “is not blank. It is painted with the image of God, and God himself painted it, and made it indelible with his blood…” but our experience of it has only begun in Jesus and is therefore partial and dimly understood. The metaphysician may seem to have a relatively easier task than the theologian.

Neither of these men, it is true, can get behind the imaged form of statement, but the metaphysician’s object of study is absolutely given to him in his own existence and in its environing conditions: it is about these things that his analogical statements are made, and he has such an awareness ofthe realities he describes as to be able to feel the relative adequacy of different analogies to them. Not so the scriptural theologian. He has got something, indeed, of given reality to which some of his statements refer, that is to say, the work of grace in his own soul.But not even with regard to this is he in the same position as the metaphysician. For the work of grace in one’s own soul, taken as something simply given, and apart from the transcendent realities to which it is believed to be related, is not even recognizable as the work of grace. So the theologian cannot simply feel the adequacy or inadequacy of the revealed images to the object they describe: for he has not that object. He cannot criticize the revealed images from his acquaintance with their object: he can only confront them with one another.

In conclusion, metaphysical and theological contemplation of mysteries are a grasping after unmeasurable realities that meet us under the conditions of our finitude. They are the natural extensions of human wonder that go beyond intellectual problem-solving within systems. Theology has taken on an enormous task, one comparable to metaphysics, but with a different kind of object. It attempts to interpret all of reality as related to a single idea–God. And that task is the subject of the fifth lecture.


The Big Landlord in the Sky

A little research into the history of the game “Monopoly” will reveal that its true origin is found before the Depression era. In fact, the idea for the game was essentially stolen from Elizabeth Magie who had patented her version in 1903. Unfortunately, the man who did this left out half of the rules. This was the version you most certainly learned to play as a child. It is based on the idea of running everyone “out of town on a rail”, to quote the infamous local monopolist, Mr. Potter. The original game created by Elizabeth Magie-Phillips was called The Landlord’s Game, but everyone soon knew it as The Monopoly Game. It was designed to be played in two ways. You could play it the same way Mr. Potter was pictured in the movie, or Carnegie and Rockefeller ‘played’ in real life, running everyone else out of business, or you could play the game according to a more progressive economic vision where everyone benefitted when wealth was created. It was “Lizzie’s” hope that by teaching the game especially to children, the kind of world she wished to live in would be given a chance in the future. The natural fair-mindedness of children would be drawn to the set of rules that eschewed cut-throat competition.


Which brings me to my topic, is there an economic vision contained in the Christian tradition? When we pray for God’s reign to be “on earth as it is in heaven”, what does that look like in the realm of money? Kathryn Tanner’s book, The Economy of Grace (2005), attempts an answer to those questions.

Tanner begins with the idea that “theological ideas are always internally constituted by a contestatory relationship with the beliefs and practices of the wider world.” An example of this would be “God is love”. Implicit in this statement is what is missing from our own experience of love. Now Tanner acknowledges that Christian thought has not historically developed a systematic economic vision. Furthermore, some views in Christian history have not been fully consistent with basic theological principles. Nevertheless, she proposes that the two principles that are most deeply imbedded in the Christian tradition across time and have the power to speak to our economic situation are:

  1. Unconditional Giving
  2. Noncompetition in a Community of Mutual Benefit

On the first, think of the term hesed in the Hebrew scriptures, or perhaps the Jubilee traditions.

God’s purpose is to benefit creatures, so the proper return for God’s giving is not so much directed back to God as directed to those creatures.

The second is a given of much Trinitarian discussion. This is not a sacrificial relationship, but one in which each giving does not result in a loss of something, but a spiral of benefit.

When we turn to our present-day capitalist systems, we find little of either of these being expressed. Capitalism assumes that ‘property’, including land and labor, is private. Competition seems to be the rule. Employers are always trying to pay less or make do with fewer employees, for example. But capitalism can also take different forms in different countries, suggesting that there is some room for maneuvering; cracks in which a theological intervention might wiggle in.

Theological economy does not linger on the outskirts of the capitalist economy, waiting for it to die a natural death, but works from within it to turn or convert it away from truncated hopes, unrectified losses, callous exclusions, and winner-take-all competitive conflicts.

So, if we lived as though God were not the big landlord in the sky, our theology would do away with contractual, legal analogies. Even “stewardship” would be a suspect word. But money and spiritual grace, while equally ‘goods’,  are so in two different registers. How can we translate these theological principles?

Kathryn Tanner looks at some places where capitalism could be open to theological imagination. Overall her preference for a Keynesianism wedded to Post-Fordism is made clear. She has specific ideas for a host of economic issues including debtor nations, the burdens of pollution, trade, welfare, and the creation of common goods (mental and physical). One area that caught my attention was the business-employee relationship. While capitalist markets are effected by social and political forces frequently outside of their control, businesses can often stand to benefit by benefitting their employees.

Henry Ford knew that it makes little sense to pay your workers so low they can’t buy your cars.

Zero-sum games don’t work in the long term (although they often do in the short term) because workers are also consumers. The usual understanding of the Pareto optimum (a condition of economic efficiency, where no one can be made better off by making someone worse off occurs), according to Tanner, does not factor in the interest one might have in another’s benefit. “What benefits a person is, in short, too narrowly defined in individualistic terms.” The overall competitive system disintegrates without an equilibrium point. Pure win/loss, so pervasive in our present iteration of capitalism, is not optimal. But that goes not only for the Wall Street corporations, but also for the middle class. Although it is common knowledge that there are enormous barriers to influence today, “history demonstrates that those hurt by capitalism succeed in changing the system only where that change serves the general interest.

Overall, Tanner’s work is a model example of how to write about an aspect of life from the point of view of imagining what ultimately is the case with God. Imagining the divine life should shape, judge, engage our narratives of how things ought to be, but discussion of this sort should also discern the appropriateness of stages of progress. Tanner’s application of the two principles of unconditional giving and noncompetitive community  to the realities of the world of economics serve to at least tell us the direction we should be heading even if the specifics may be revised.

Some current examples of areas where business interests converge with the interests of employees or the larger world.




My brother-in-law is in the testing stage of a new idea that links your purchases at any store to charities of your choice. It is called “Bandifer” after the medieval standard bearers (i.e. bearers of a ’cause’).  He had the idea many years ago, but the technology has finally caught up with it. The project is very much in keeping with what Kathryn Tanner has written about and I hope to be able to mention it again at a later time.

Sarah Coakley on Girard

SCoakleyWhile we await another installment of Sarah Coakley’s ‘unsystematic systematics’ or ‘theologie totale’, she continues to expand upon some themes that she has previously covered. During the 2013 Gifford Lectures she highlighted her work with evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak and its importance for a reclamation of a traditional notion of sacrifice. Recently, in October of 2015, she gave the DeBose Lectures (Rowan Williams is slated for 2016!) in which she talked at length about three anti-sacrifical “lightning rods” in our current discourse (Lecture #1, Lecture #2, Lecture #3) that prevent that project. Those obstacles she names as:

A. Sacrifice as Violence   B. Sacrifice as Patriarchy  C.  Gift/ Sacrifice Disjunction

The first anti-sacrificial perspective, sacrifice as violence, she associates with René Girard. Her previous encounters with Girardian thinkers have come mostly through interactions with liberal Catholics (anti-immolationists) but she has been somewhat suspect of the movement as a whole due to its near axiomatization in France. Girardian thought promises to solve a number of problems for theology, but also requires some big shifts in the way the narrative of the Bible is read. Because of René Girard’s increasing influence in theology today, I was all the more interested in hearing what specific arguments a noted theologian might make against his basic assumptions.

In what follows, I will attempt to give a summary of these arguments which are found in Lecture #2 beginning at the 3:55 mark. It should be mentioned that previously, in the first lecture, she describes the “messiness” of the notions we have of sacrifice. Part of this is due to the variety of ways in which the term has been used. It may refer to any number of things such as offering, the warding off of threat, the control of death, substitution, or moral self-giving. Even in the scriptural text, one can detect a number of definitions at work. This “forest of symbols” for sacrifice, or what Farrer calls “tremendous images”, complicates the matter.

Coakley begins with an orientation to Girard for those listeners who may not be familiar with his work. She characterizes it fairly as an enticing account of how we hide our violence through religious ritual. She classifies it as a Freudian psychoanalytic approach for that reason. Culture is stabilized by the scapegoat mechanism. Clearly in the early Girard, sacrifice is essentially violent. In fact, says Coakley, you might get the notion from Girard that the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) is more foundational for Christianity than Genesis 3. That “…it replaces the story of the Garden as the explanation for original sin.” Our task is therefore, according to Girard’s take on the Gospels, to name the dark secret, to unveil the fact that there is a primary violence animating and, paradoxically, holding together the very foundations of our common life.

Coakley refers to Rebecca Adams’ 1993 interview with René Girard where he critiques himself (she refers to it as a “Girard beyond Girard“) Part of that interview was reprinted in The Girard Reader (1996). Interestingly, she seems to think that it is not widely known and deserves to be so. Perhaps among a general readership it isn’t. However, even a passing familiarity with Girardian thinkers themselves shows that they are very aware of it and have worked considerably to incorporate the ideas into a larger picture. In any case, Coakley rehearses some of these reversals of Girard from his previous work that are laid out in that interview. According to Coakley’s summary:

a. Girard admits that any totalizing movement, not just religious ones, can fall into the scapegoating trap.

b. Mimesis now has a positive as well as a negative aspect. Girard appeals to Solomon’s intervention and the case of the two women who both make claims to be the mother of a child as well as to the imitatio Christi. In the case of the latter, she wonders, as does the interviewer, if this imitation is not finally a gnostic one that has its roots in a modernistic version of rationality. The Girardian concept of Atonement, for example, seems to have much in common with an Abelardian theory at least. Moral influence by itself would seem to lack an ontological foundation.

c. Girard retracts his previous view of the book of Hebrews as a mistaken view of sacrifice. He attempts to bring it into alignment with his own anti-sacrificial sacrifice.

None of this is particularly enlightening so far. Girardians have made a number of adjustments based on this that have for some time been incorporated into their picture of the theory. Equally, few Girardians follow Girard on every point. Another typical riposte (to use her own favored term) used in Girard’s defense is to say that he is working in the fields of cultural anthropology and literature, not theology. So Coakley asks if she is flogging a dead horse? She doesn’t think so. Tensions remain.

First, she feels that the theological concern about the primary ontology of violence (John Milbank’s criticism) hasn’t been fully answered, and asks a pointed question. “Was there a pre-fall condition or were we created violent?” She admits that some like James Alison have made useful adjustments to the theory in this matter, but thinks that the question still remains about the need for a primary grace and hope, not just an eschatological one. Girard’s overriding story, for Coakley, is pessimistic and gloomy. Here the link between the view of evolution as “red in tooth and claw” and Girardian primary violence is apparent. The alternative vision of proto-altruistic cooperation in biological evolution noted in Coakley’s Gifford lectures is more in keeping with the traditional Christian doctrine of the Fall from a good creation and is one reason to reconsider the insistence on primary violence. Nature itself, as even Darwin admitted, isn’t completely violent.

Second, according to Coakley, there are some Kantian hangovers in Girard’s view of rationality. Kant wonders, for example, why Abraham didn’t take a stand on ethical principles against the requirement by God to sacrifice his Isaac. “But if modernistic reason has been so signally ineffective in transforming culture and religion up until now, what resources can be brought by Girard to redirect the ever-dangerous proclivities of distorted desire?…It is no good saying to yourself, I must be more reasonable.” She continues, “It is strange that a thinker so interested as Girard, as early as Violence and the Sacred, in the thought of anthropologists such as Victor Turner on the ritual process, might not think to draw at least on these resources to show how desire is most effectively changed, not so much by taking thought but by ritualized redirection of the energies of wayward desire.

A related criticism is given in a later part of the lectures. How can an accidental death (the outcome of human scapegoating) have any real relation to divine exchange? “How could it possibly constitute a saving event in any significant sense or release believers into transformed states of spiritual and moral response? In other words, unless Jesus’ self-gift in death involves a voluntary substitution deeper than the merely vague moral intentionality toward the good of others that Girard and some of his followers seem to favor, then it seems that nothing substantial has changed in the events of the cross…[T]he dark forces of violent sacrifice are not confronted.”

Finally, Coakley asks whether we can conceive of sacrifice as both painful and free of violence–productive, in fact. She locates an example of such sacrifice in the maternal self-giving on behalf of children, especially in childbirth. This at the very least should cause us to reconsider the negative idea that sacrifice is always inherently irrational and search for a more satisfactory view of rationality. Coakley sees an alternative working in Paul’s participatory concept of a “living sacrifice” that is both costly and joyous.

Despite these criticisms, Coakley does take to heart one of the most important messages of Girard’s work. A rediscovery of the classical definition of sacrifice cannot include any room for the justification of random scapegoating violence.

Other resources on the topic:

Sarah has even more recently spoken on the same theme November 11-12, 2015 during the Stob lectures at Calvin (Lecture#1, Lecture#2). A great deal of the material is the same as the lectures above, but there are differences. For example, she includes an extended (20 mins.) positive interaction with Calvin’s view of sacrifice beginning at the 22:00 mark in the second video.

Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation (M Nowak): http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic426436.files/five_rules.pdf


***UPDATE 2/2016 Sarah recently gave the Boyle lecture at Gresham College on the theme of cooperation in evolutionary biology. This lecture expands on themes from her Giffords.

Readers may also want to consider the early interactions of Rowan Williams with Girard in a 1989 article entitled “Girard on violence, society and the sacred” reprinted in Williams, Rowan and Higton, Mike (ed.). Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007.

Williams appears (in distinction from Coakley?) to have strengthened in his appreciation for Girard over time. Part of this is due to Rowan’s own insistence on the essential non-competitiveness of God. He finds this echoed in the non-violent God of Girard. His recent forward to Antonello’s and Paul Gifford’s Can We Survive Our Origins? (Michigan State University PressJan 1, 2015) shows that he assumes the basic framework of mimetic theory is correct, but more specifically, we might ask if he accepts Girard’s interpretation of the cross as well as the following quote seems to suggest: “Equally, we have lost our familiarity with the myth that exposes the arbitrary and irrational nature of the primitive symbolic concordat- the myth of a voluntary and innocent death that unravels the exclusionary sacrificial illusion, the myth (and fact) of Christ’s cross.” (xiv) As always, William’s interaction with just about any thinker is complex, and he continues to view Girardian thought much as he did before, as a broad theory that needs fleshing out. He seems comfortable with calling it a “heuristic myth” (see video link below),  but I also think it is safe to say that Sarah Coakley and Rowan Williams have different intuitions about the meaning of Girard’s work for theology.

For a conference on the book by Antonello and Gifford, see http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/2111183.



Rowan Theological Playlist

Rowan Williams and Company (YouTube)
I’ve managed to collect most of the videos I could find on Youtube and reference other formats such as Vimeo in the notes. In addition to gathering all the available videos I could find, I’ve placed them in chronological order and added a few notes and links to writings on the same themes. The “and Company” refers to a number of videos I tacked on to the end that are of various figures that RW mentions throughout his writings and lectures.


The Jewish ‘No’ to Jesus is a ‘Yes’ to the Messianic Future

The Jewish ‘No’ to Jesus is a ‘Yes’ to the Messianic Future.

I’ve been reading through The Way of Jesus Christ this summer with an online group. This is an excellent summary by The Moltmanniac of Jürgen Moltmann’s response to the issue Paul struggled with in Romans. It is framed by Martin Buber’s perspective that the Jewish people cannot recognize Jesus as the Messiah because the world is essentially unchanged.