On Religious Pluralism
An Interview with Sister Elizabeth Johnson
By Megan Townsend
Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ
Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, is often referred to as a ‘feminist theologian’ because of her popular writings on Marian theology, but she also publishes and teaches on ecological theology and the idea that Christ is alive in the animal kingdom. Her attention to these topics, her efforts to struggle with contemporary justice issues and bring the Church into a more modern context, and her reputation as a patient and humble teacher ensured her popularity among students at Fordham University, where she enjoyed a long teaching career.
As an undergraduate theology student I was fortunate enough to take a class of Johnson’s called Christ in World Cultures. We read various authors and their different interpretations of the living Christ and historical Jesus, from Julian of Norwich to M. Shawn Copeland. We spent much of the class reading theologians who study Christ in cultures abundant with other faiths. I remember struggling to understand Sister Johnson’s explanations of religious pluralism held in balance with Christian teaching. As a student of Catholic schooling who had been taught to study catechisms and Scripture, I had never been asked to question Christ as savior or consider Christ alongside anything else. We spent much of our time asking whether the discovery of truth in non-Christian religions should change the Christian teachings of Christ as universal savior, or alternatively, whether Christ as a universal savior contradicts the truth of non-Christian religions. I visited Sister Johnson’s office that semester to spend more time with these questions, and the conversation we had changed the way I experienced my Catholic faith – it certainly renewed my enthusiasm and ability to continue being Catholic and studying Catholic theology. My hope for this interview was to recreate the power of that conversation, for readers who might struggle to understand or teach these same concepts of contextualizing Christian theology amidst true religious pluralism.
Megan Townsend: Can you start by talking about your own experiences working with communities of faith? Is there any specific community you’ve worked with that you feel embodies religious pluralism?
Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ: Let me start close to home. Over the years I have been part of the Lutheran Catholic dialogue in this country, trying to put together the fracture between churches that happened in the 15th and 16th centuries – but that group is very Christian. I’m not part of any current interreligious group, but there are two areas where I have encountered true pluralistic dialogue. I encountered the first when I was in India, for an international conference sponsored by the Vatican. It centered around the meaning of Jesus Christ as savior, in the midst of the saviors of other world religions. At the end we had an interfaith prayer service by the river, and each group processed from a different starting point with a torch and their own sacred scriptures and converged at the river. We listened, and it was like God was bigger than anybody’s god, it was so inclusive and very powerful. Prayer reaches a level that intellectual discussion doesn’t, because it reaches your heart and your mind. At the end of the ceremony we found almost no one could talk. And then there’s another group I have been a part of in Jerusalem, of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women sponsored by the sisters of Zion. These are lay people, not theologians. They are really heartbroken over the divisions there and try to find ways as women to reconnect, for the sake of peace and for their children. It’s an interreligious faith group, so they are not only peace workers, they are there to bring faith to the table. I have to say that experiences I have had, both inter-Christian and outer-Christian, have opened my mind and awareness as a Catholic theologian, to – let me put it this way – to ‘what God has been up to’ outside of the Catholic Church.
MT: When you come to interfaith groups – in academic or non-academic contexts – what do you feel you are bringing, as a Catholic?
EJ: Well, I bring myself. And so I come as a Catholic of a certain age, who has been exploring what this faith means for many decades. I also come in relationship to the questions that younger people are bringing, that I know from being a professor. The essence of it is a sense of God with us as utterly and beautifully merciful. With all of the pain and suffering advertised in Jesus Christ. Seeing that the God I bring with my faith, to each meeting, is relevant to everyone there. It is not trying to make everyone Christian, but just bringing the heart of the gospel, without apology, into the group or space. In short, the beauty of it.
MT: One of the things I struggled with while I was in your class, and still do, was the idea of Christ as savior, and acknowledging that in its fullness, while acknowledging the truth of other faiths and not retracting from them. Holding those two ideas is still one of the hardest things for me.
EJ: And no wonder, because that notion was interpreted within the Church as it became more powerful, from the days of the Roman Empire. All of these ideas existed about no salvation outside of the Church, and it was hierarchical, and patriarchal, and focused on empire. So Jesus of Nazareth crucified as King of the Jews, risen from the dead by the power of the spirit God, became the emperor of the world religions, in an oppressive way. I of course struggle with this too, but I think the key is the incarnation as kenosis, as self-emptying. And if you have a sense of Jesus Christ as the savior who washes feet, then anyone who excludes other people for their faith, does not understand what they are saying when they say that Jesus Christ is savior. He is savior by being with us in the simplest and the most humble way. In the Christian view this is God with us. To acknowledge the truths of other religions doesn’t detract from Jesus as savior in any way, but it does uproot the notions of empire.
MT: When you teach students at Catholic universities, do you ever face challenges from students when teaching about religious pluralism—perhaps students who have been educated in Catholic schools before college, who have been taught certain things about accepting Christ as ‘the only answer’ or the ultimate savior? I’m speaking a lot from my own education and experience in Catholic education.
EJ: The answer is yes, all the time. How could I not? Let me be very clear that this way of thinking about Christ [as pluralistic, coexisting with other world religions] is rooted in the gospel, but in our world today it is mostly coming out of Asia. Because Asia is so pluralistic in its religions, and Christians are only 3% of the whole continent, the deep faith of Asian Christians has had to ask these questions in ways that not all of us have. In our globalized world, there are many people of different religions living everywhere—New York for example, there is every religion here. But it’s a not a question that the Catholic Church has lived with for centuries, and people in the US with a more traditional religious education, they have never thought about it. When they do hear it, it can sound like I am trying to relativize Christ or diminish Him, rather than rethinking what it means to say that Christ is Savior. The context is crucial: if you are a Catholic in a Catholic environment, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to question or contextualize Christ’s place among world religions. That’s the beginning of my answer.
MT: What are your thoughts on the relationship between Christianity (specifically Catholicism) and colonialism, and the ability of Christians to atone for the violence of colonial and mission history?
EJ: We must atone—the more you learn the history, the more appalled you should get. We are living with the effects of that as US Catholics, with the destruction of Native American spiritual rituals and practices. Conquerors and missionaries came with the cross, which they thought was a good work. This came from the influence of a theology that believed that baptism was the only way to salvation. These missionaries were the right hand to colonial governments which were looking for wealth, and they aided in cultural and religious destruction. In the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council addressed the sin of this destruction in Nostra Aetate, that wonderful document, saying in 1965 that the Church rejects nothing that is true and good in these religions, they reflect a ray of the holiness of God. Nostra Aetate then opened the door to this question really, there was an explosion—a flood—of Catholic religious thinking on the meaning of pluralism. There were theologians working through the question, are non-Christians religions helping believers get to God in a subordinate way, implying that it would still be better if everybody was Christian, or are they different ways in which God has been revealed through other cultures? We are making progress on that question, as a Church, and it’s time to embrace that the Holy Spirit is working in the Church, and that tradition is a living tradition that grows. The better it is at dealing with contemporary questions and the contemporary search for God in our own time, the stronger it will be.
MT: Have you had any experiences where you’ve felt it is possible, or do you believe it is possible, for Christian religions to interact with indigenous spiritual practices in a way that is positive, or does not represent the harmful power dynamic that exists?
EJ: There has only been one time where I have experienced a positive interaction [between indigenous spirituality and Catholicism], and that was in Australia, with Aboriginal people. There are Catholic Australian leaders who are incredibly sensitive to their colonial history, and advocate for reparations for Aboriginal groups. Especially in regard to the land ethic, there are Catholic ecological leaders in Australia that are in dialogue about this question, and asking indigenous spiritual leaders for their help.
MT: Do you think the key, then, for avoiding the appropriation of other religions by Catholic or Christian groups, is being firmly rooted in one’s own faith tradition?
EJ: Yes, I would say that’s right. So long as you’re depleting another world religion, or pretending to be coming from another religious perspective than your own—you are who you are—but there are always others who have a different way to God that can be beneficial for everyone to learn.
MT: And my last question – what do you think a multi-faith approach to climate justice looks like?
EJ: There is already a lot happening at the grassroots level and at the levels of highest leadership. And there isn’t any one religion that I am aware of that has as a part of their teaching that the Earth is worthless or that it is not sacred. Back in the day there was Christian Gnosticism, that taught material reality is far from God and should be fled. But I think currently, if you want religious unity on any one issue, ecological justice is it.
Megan Townsend is a Cofounding Editor at the The Flood.