Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril

By Elizabeth A. Johnson. Orbis Books, 2018. 256 pages. $28/hardcover; $26/paperback; $22.50/eBook.

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“The creation waits eagerly for the children of God to become manifest.” —Romans 8:19

Since childhood, I have been reconstructing the account I can give about the Divine–human relationship. Since I believe that the God I worship is one God, part of my “discipline” is to reconcile the core story I learned from the Scriptures with my experience of the world, the science and history I have learned, and the accounts and struggles of people on this path and others. Most urgent for me in recent years, in this era of climate crisis, is to reconcile the very human-focused story of Jesus with the story of Christ, the divine Word and wisdom at the heart of the cosmos. In Creation and the Cross, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson undertakes the same effort in ways that are both profound and remarkably accessible.

Johnson suggests in this book that the messianic event is continuous instead of limited to Jesus’s earthly life, and that the proper focus is not humanity but creation in its entirety. Atonement and reconciliation require alignment of human awareness with all of God’s manifestation, rather than dominion over it.

After an introduction setting the stage and explaining her method, Johnson casts her essay in the form of an extended conversation between herself and Clara, an inquisitive and challenging friend. The book starts with looking at two key problems: first, the existential and moral challenges that climate change presents, and second, the inadequate theology of the Atonement that has predominated in most branches of Christianity since the Middle Ages.

Book I starts by “Wrestling with Anselm.” The theory of the Atonement is an attempt to explain the meaning of that part of revelation that is Jesus’s story. Anselm developed the “satisfaction” theory, according to which sin, and especially Adam’s sin, represented an affront to God the lawgiver. The Divine–human relationship could not be mended without a penalty being paid. In medieval thinking, the more august the offended party is, the greater the penalty must be. God being immeasurably august, there is no adequate payment within human capacity; so God enacted the incarnation, so that God himself, in the person of Jesus, could pay the price that we could not, and resolve the debt. Johnson discusses this theory in a nuanced way that treats Anselm sympathetically while showing how this view radically narrows the Jesus story so as to eliminate the teachings and life, and indeed the possible meanings of the incarnation, focusing entirely on sin and crucifixion.

Book II steps back and looks at the testimony of the Hebrew scriptures with respect to God’s commitment to the creation, the nature of God’s forgiveness, the actual role of sacrifice, and the covenant of God “with all flesh,” ending with the reminder of the unity between the God of the Hebrew scriptures and that of the Christian scriptures.

Book III returns to a series of deep reflections on the gospels as “narratives of faith,” and three core ideas: the kingdom of God, the meaning of “messiah” (Christos), and the resurrection of the dead. This brings the dialogue to a reconsideration of the crucifixion/resurrection story, and a refreshment of the meaning of “salvation,” which many Friends will find welcome.

Book IV returns to the theologians’ argument about “what it all means,” by showing how Anselm’s idea of the Atonement, though dominant for a thousand years, is far from the only account developed to explain the meaning of the Jesus event. Rather, it is seen to be one metaphor among many, each with its own implications and invitations to the seeker. Johnson explores military and diplomatic metaphors, financial and legal metaphors, cultic and family metaphors, creation metaphors, and “servant” metaphors, ending with the declaration, “Let [Anselm’s] satisfaction theory retire.”

Book V, entitled “God of All Flesh: Deep Incarnation,” explores more deeply the idea of God’s participatory companionship with all creation as the core message of Jesus’s witness, teachings, suffering, death, and resurrection. Building on the ancient connection that was made between the figure of Sophia in the Hebrew wisdom books and the Logos of the Greek scriptures, Johnson argues forcefully that, in our times at least, the compassion of God, the Divine present with those that suffer and struggle—including the earth burdened now by human impacts—must be seen as the central fact of the Christ event, which event is a continued process. Our own reconciliation with the Divine is not independent of (maybe is dependent upon) our reconciliation with creation.

This leads at last to Book VI, which discusses the implications of this for Christian life and action: “Conversion of Heart and Mind: Us.” For Friends who are thinking of, or engaged in, the Lamb’s War in our times, this chapter will sound familiar and strengthening. The quote from Paul with which I began takes on fresh meaning at the end of Johnson’s discourse: “The creation waits eagerly for the children of God to become manifest.” As our faithfulness grows, so that we are more and more manifest as the children of God, the waiting creation will share the reconciliation, and therefore share the liberation.

I started off by saying that in this book, I felt I’d found an ally in a personal theological quest, but in closing, I’d like to suggest that it can be a powerful companion for Friends who are seeking to be in dialogue with people in other Christian groups. Though many specific parts of Johnson’s account are not new, she has brought them into powerful and moving alignment, making fresh associations motivated by spiritual longing and passion, rather than academic interest. This book, cast as a searching dialogue, could well serve as the basis of more such dialogues among Friends and beyond.

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