“Speaking about the Living God” by Elizabeth Johnson
Background: Elizabeth Johnson is a Roman Catholic theologian, currently teaching at Fordham University. She is also a nun and a feminist. The book from which this selection is taken, She Who Is, was awarded the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 1993.
This selection begins (289) by considering the appropriate way to translate the passage from Exodus 3:14, which contains the “tetragrammaton” YHWH. Why do you think Johnson would consider this biblical passage in a work designed to reflect on what we might legitimately call God?
Before she provides her own interpretation of this passage, Johnson offers four traditional readings (289-90). Identify each of these, including the one which she claims has been the most significant for Western culture. Since she is eventually going to provide her own interpretation, why do you think that she engages in such an exercise?
In her analysis of Thomas’ interpretation (290) of this passage, Johnson claims that the standard way of translating this — which faithfully captures the sense Aquinas intended — is androcentric. [To understand the meaning of this term, recall the reading from Simone de Beauvoir: the “human” is defined in Western culture, usually without explicit acknowledgement but nonetheless normatively, in terms of the male of the species, with the result that women are always the “other,” deficiently human in some important way.] Do you agree that the translation of YHWH as “He Who Is” functions in an androcentric way? Why or why not? Try to provide evidence, from personal experience or from stories you have heard or from other social or cultural practices, which would support your judgment.
After noting that the standard translation of “qui est” could just as easily be rendered “the one who is,” then, Johnson contends (290-1), how one conceives of the antecedent of this clause (e.g., as Sophia-God) could be open to a feminist reading. What is her basic claim here? How would you assess its validity?
How does Johnson defend her claims that naming God “She Who Is” is legitimate linguistically, theologically, religiously, spiritually, and politically? (291) What is the basic “content” of this name, according to Johnson?
What is the point Johnson is making when she approvingly quotes Metz that the “idea” of God is a shorthand for the “stories” associated with God? (292) Do you think Bonaventure would have agreed? Why or why not? Make sure you consider the points she raises in the final paragraph of this reading.