By Sister Regina Siegfried, ASC
When I read Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril by Elizabeth Johnson (Orbis Books, 2018), I wanted to run to Saint Louis University, round up some random students and have a class or two to discuss the exciting, challenging, and hopeful ideas in this book. They would benefit from her new interpretation of atonement theology. So would we.
With its clear and creative dismantling and deconstruction of Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s 11th-century theology of atonement in his Cur Deus Homo, the first chapter is worth the price of the book. Johnson models her approach on Anselm’s dialogic way of proceeding by using a conversation between herself and Clara, a fictional student who questions and interprets the teacher’s explanations for a sharper understanding for herself and the reader. Together, they explore satisfaction and atonement and reinterpret Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to reach a more positive theology of our relationship with God. They expand their ideas to include all creation and the universe.
Anselm wrote from a world view, culture, and society steeped in medieval feudalism and its system of justice. Feudal overlords ruled with tyranny and absolute power; disobedience to their word and law demanded compensation and satisfaction to restore the rends in the social fabric. This pattern quickly transferred to a theology with which we are all too familiar: the overlord God, angry with his creation, demands restitution and satisfaction, so Jesus died to save us from our sins and God’s wrath. This negative atonement theology of redemption has cast a long shadow through history on our prayers, liturgy, and spirituality.
Johnson spells out a more positive and hopeful theology of creation and the cross in the remainder of her discussion, with Book II “The Creating God Who Saves,” and the following books: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” “Interpretations Blossom,” “God of All Flesh: Deep Incarnation,” and “Conversion of Heart and Mind: Us.” Drawing on Laudato Si, Johnson encourages us to: “approach the natural world with awe and wonder; realize that everything is connected, develop bonds of affection with other creatures, and grow in a deep sense of communion.”
The Church still has work to do to recast and eliminate atonement theology from our prayers and liturgy so that we have a more positive understanding of God’s infinite love for all creation. It would be a brave and necessary step for us to reinterpret our own Precious Blood spirituality in light of the focus of a positive interpretation as we work on our Constitution and formation plan.