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review of Elizabeth Johnson's 'SHE WHO IS'





She Who Is: 10 The Central Criterion of Human Flourishing, and Goal of Transforming Communities


In her deeply thoughtful book 'She Who Is', Elizabeth Johnson critiques the damage and diminution that results from sexism - a sexism that permeates societies and theological traditions; and centres her alternative thinking around a central criterion... human flourishing, and the passionate goal of transformation into new community.

In this theological endeavour, she believes in and hopes for a breakthrough; sees philosophy also being rethought, human sciences, and women's literature operating as partners in a process... at a creative moment in history, which she feels may typically result in significant advances in theology.

Using feminist theology as a lens through which to view restrictions that go deeper than feminist issues alone, she uses 'the emancipation of women toward human flourishing' as the criterion and touchstone for testing the adequacy of religious symbol or custom or tradition or pre-supposition. For if something consistently results in the denigration of human beings, can it really be religiously true and redemptive?

This principle of women's flourishing is clearly articulated by another feminist theologian and writer, Rosemary Radford Ruether:

'The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women... Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine... or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption.'

Consequently, she asserts an implied positive principle:

'What does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy... does reflect true relation to the divine... the authentic message of redemption and the mission of redemptive community.'

The criterion and the lens, though, are not used solely to argue the case for women's flourishing alone. Instead - reaching through the specific, multi-faceted oppressions suffered by women - the goal towards which feminist theological endeavour passionately journeys is transformation into new community.

Feminist liberation theology hopes so to change unjust structures and distorted symbol systems that a new community in church and society becomes possible - a liberating community of women and men characterised by mutuality with each other and harmony with the earth.

This vision of redeemed humanity, though never fully realized, becomes more actual in each small move from situations of domination/subordination to a community where subservience is unknown thanks to relationships of mutual respect, reciprocal valuing, and sharing in solidarity with the dispossessed.

What Elizabeth Johnson is NOT advocating is: reverse sexism; or a sameness that would level out genuine variety and disrespect uniqueness.

Instead the goal of her feminist theology is the flourishing of all - in uniqueness and interrelationship - both sexes, all races and social groups, and the wider creation too.

This calls, she argues, for a new model of relationship which is neither hierarchical nor univocal, but instead is inclusive, and celebratory of difference.

The goal of feminist theology, therefore, is NOT to make women equal partners in an oppressive system. It is to transform the system.

Or - to use Rebecca Chopp's homely metaphor - the recipe is not for church or society to "add women and stir"... because the prevailing order itself needs radical transformation.

To quote Rosemary Radford Ruether again:

'All of us, both women and men, need to be converted... to that whole humanity which has been denied to us by systems of alienation and social oppression. This fuller humanity demands not only a conversion of the self into its fuller possibilities, but a conversion of society, a transformation of those social structures that set people in opposition to each other. We seek a new social order, a new order of human-nature relations, that both mandates and incarnates mutuality.'

Feminist theology sees that, for the eschatological dream of a new heaven and a new earth to become more historical reality, the liberation of women - the flourishing of women - as genuine human persons in communities of mutuality... is essential.

This feminist theology contributes to an intellectual paradigm shift of great magnitude. Previous and prevailing theological theory may not be adequate to contain or account for the shift. This may not involve minor tinkering with theology as an academic discipline, but an effort toward major re-shaping of theology and the religious tradition that gives rise to it.

Journeying out from an andro-centric world may involve a major recentering that means almost every inherited given may come under scrutiny and be subject to critique, and to renewal - in the interest of liberation into fuller life and flourishing, and the transformation of communities.

Susannah Clark


Links to my summary pages on 'She Who Is':


She Who Is: My introductory comments on Elizabeth Johnson's book

She Who Is: 01 Right Ways to Speak of Godde

She Who Is: 02 Mediating the Mystery of Godde

She Who Is: 03 Purposes of this Book

She Who Is: 04 The Rationale behind Feminist Liberation Theology

She Who Is: 05 The Patriarchal 'God' of Classical Theism

She Who Is: 06 Feminist Theology and the Vantage Point of the Margins

She Who Is: 07 Analysis of Sexism

She Who Is: 08 Feminist Assessment of Sexism as a Paradigm for other Oppressions

She Who Is: 09 The Methodology and Response of Feminist Theology

She Who Is: 10 The Central Criterion of Human Flourishing, and Goal of Transforming Communities

She Who Is: 11 Critique of the Way People Speak about 'God'

She Who Is: 12 Sociological and Psychological Effects of the Male Metaphors for 'God'

She Who Is: 13 Theological Effects of Idolatry, resulting from Patriarchal Language for Godde

She Who Is: 14 Whether to use the word God




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