From Pyramid to Circle: A Review by J. Milburn Thompson

Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril
By Elizabeth A. Johnson
Orbis Books, 2018
$25.00   238 pp.

Can the core Christian belief in salvation include all of creation? This is the new and important question addressed by Elizabeth Johnson, SSJ, Distinguished Professor of Theology Emerita at Fordham University, in Creation and the Cross. The crisis posed by climate change has prodded the development of an ecological theology and an environmental ethic that did not exist previously. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, is a contribution to this ecological theology, as is this book.

When Johnson looks at the field of soteriology (the study of the doctrine of salvation) from an ecological perspective, she finds a long-standing obstacle to theological development. The field has been dominated by Saint Anselm’s satisfaction theory of salvation for nearly a millennium, and this theory has no room for the natural world or creation. Thus she first constructs Anselm’s satisfaction theory of salvation based on his 1098 treatise entitled Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human) in its feudal context, then deconstructs and critiques it. She then develops an alternative “theology of accompaniment” that can more fruitfully address ecological concerns. She adopts the “winning style” of Anselm’s treatise, which is a dialogue between Anselm and a theologically astute and curious younger monk named Boso. Elizabeth dialogues with Clara, a composite of her students. Both Anselm and Elizabeth effectively reach a wide audience.

In the feudal culture of the 11th century, violations of the law were also offenses against the honor and dignity of the ruler, and punishment or compensation was necessary to rectify the situation and restore honor and order. This payback was called satisfaction. Thus, Anselm argued that it was necessary for Jesus, the God-man, to die to appease the honor of the infinite God from the offense of human sin. The cross was a necessary payment for sin. While this satisfaction theory of salvation may have made sense in a feudal society, it is deeply problematic today. Its morally repulsive image of God who demands a pound of flesh contradicts the gracious and merciful God presented in the Scriptures. Anselm’s focus on the cross eclipses the ministry of Jesus and the resurrection. It resulted in a morbid, toxic spirituality that glorified suffering and justified submission in the face of injustice. It is silent about creation and the natural world. The satisfaction theory is inadequate, irrelevant, and erroneous. God’s mercy is a gift; it does not require Jesus’s death, which is not necessary for salvation.

Johnson’s alternative theology of accompaniment is based in the Christian Old and New Testaments and in the unfolding of the Christian tradition. In trying to understand the identity and meaning of Jesus, the early Christian community used a variety of metaphors that creatively communicated their interpretation of what God was doing through Jesus, but did not address how this happened. They relied on the mercy, power, and mystery of God, who was Creator and Redeemer. Contemporary theological reflection has arrived at a notion of “Deep Incarnation” (coined by Danish theologian Niels Gregersen) in response to “the Word became flesh and lived among us” in the prologue to John’s Gospel. In becoming flesh, the creator God who saves is connected to the whole community of life and the whole material universe, to the biological world of evolving living creatures and the cosmic dust of which it is comprised. Thus God is in solidarity, not only with all human suffering, but with the groaning of all creatures. The transcendent God is present to the cruciform finitude of all creatures offering the hope of new life.

In the final chapter Johnson offers five thought experiments aimed at converting our hearts and minds to this new vision that everything is connected and God is accompanying the whole earth community. One of these reflections, “From pyramid to circle,” attempts to overcome the dualistic and hierarchical thinking bestowed on the West by Hellenistic culture. Unless we replace this domination perspective toward the natural world and each other with a Franciscan sense of kinship, relationship, connection, and community, there is little hope of living constructively with the natural world or peacefully with each other. It is not easy, however, to step down from the privilege of the pyramid into the mutuality of the circle, to include all of creation in “us.”

Creation and the Cross can serve as an interesting introduction to contemporary theology; it is informative, accessible, and wise.

Milburn Thompson is professor emeritus of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. The Third Edition (Revised and Expanded) of his book Justice and Peace: A Christian Primer was published by Orbis Books in June 2019.

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