Once feminist theologian St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson decided she would retire from teaching at Fordham University, she invited current and former doctoral students, graduate assistants and mentees to help themselves to books from her personal library, many of the volumes marked with annotations in her own handwriting, and at least one containing a personal letter from the author.
The recipients, most of them just beginning their own teaching careers, were struck by the selflessness and generosity of the poignant gesture, especially when they considered how those books had influenced Johnson’s own theological thinking and development through more than five decades of studying and teaching theology.
In preparation she re-read developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s book on his stages of life, in which he describes the final stage as the time for either ego integration or despair.
Perhaps best known for the 2011 public criticism of her book Quest for the Living God by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, Elizabeth Johnson is not planning on despair.
In fact, she is retiring from full-time teaching and university-related work precisely so she can better attend to her own quest for God, both spiritually as a Sister of St. Joseph and as an academic theologian — two vocations that cannot be separated for her.
“It was a discernment process,” she said, about her decision, which has been a couple years in the making. “It didn’t happen overnight. But there was this feeling inside myself of wanting to have more time to be contemplative, to read quietly without the pressure to produce, to live in a way that’s more appropriate to my age.”
“It’s really unknown territory,” she said, recalling that even sabbaticals and summers have been for writing books for decades. “I have worked my entire life on a very high-powered schedule.”
And her students — both undergraduates and those in master’s or doctoral programs — say she is a patient and caring teacher, in addition to a world-class theological mind.
“Being a student of Beth’s is an incredibly humbling experience and a privilege, not only because you’re in the presence of a scholar who has shaped the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition but also because she’s a phenomenal teacher,” said Meg Stapleton Smith, a doctoral student in theological and social ethics at Fordham.
Johnson also has the reputation, at least among undergraduates, as being a tough but fair teacher.
She has been influential in helping to build the Fordham theology department into one of the strongest in the country, and she feels confident she is leaving the department — and theology, in general — in good shape.
“In both my own university and across the nation, I see very fine younger theologians,” she said. “This is my deep conviction: doing theology in the church is the work of the Holy Spirit. I don’t see it diminishing in any way just because I’m not doing it.”
She already has several ideas “in the hopper,” with folders of background research compiled and ready, though she is not yet writing her next book.
Her most recent one, Creation and the Cross, from Orbis Books, will be the focus of Fordham’s celebration of her retirement, to be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Monday, April 30, at the Fordham Law School. The evening will feature a free lecture — more of a “conversation,” she said, between Johnson and Jesuit Fr. James Martin of America magazine. It had to be moved to a larger venue because of the response.
In addition, Crossroad Books will celebrate last year’s 25th anniversary edition of her groundbreaking book, She Who Is at the Catholic Theological Society of America convention in June.
Johnson’s legacy is “very much in hand,” Hornbeck said, but she is not done yet.
“I relish the thought of having a stretch of time so that I can just be peaceful and find my way through it,” she said. “But I’m not going to disappear.”
Adapted from Heidi Schlumpf NCR national correspondent.
Click here: A Bittersweet Farewell to an Iconic Theologian