In 1994, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia crafted a vision statement to articulate the outcome of our General Chapter. In that statement, we affirmed that “challenged by our broken world, we claim our prophetic voice as women, to stand with marginalized persons, and to treasure and care for Earth.” Clearly, that vision statement is as relevant today, 20 years later, as it was then. What has become all the more clear since that time is that there is a critical need for the prophetic voice of all people in the church and the world – a need to which women religious have responded decisively.
The call for women religious and for the community of faith to be a corporate prophetic voice to address injustice throughout the world is clarion. We hear the call not only from our broken world and from marginalized persons, but also from the example of people of faith. We are inspired by those who are “prophets in our own country”* in response to a church and to a nation troubled by xenophobia, human trafficking, poverty and homelessness and by racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination. We are encouraged to be a voice who “dares the truth . . . . challenges structures that exclude some and benefit others . . . .urges action and a choice for change.”** We are stretched to be “prophets . . . who . . . . refuse to shrink a vision of tomorrow to the boundaries of yesterday.”***
How do we prepare ourselves individually and corporately to answer this prophetic call? Do we go into the desert to struggle with the very temptations against which we will raise a prophetic voice? Do we broaden our knowledge of the joys and hopes, the grief and the anxieties in those who are poor and afflicted? Do we commit ourselves to advocacy and systemic change for persons who are outcast and marginalized by social, cultural or religious convention? Certainly any and all of these foster the dynamics of conversion that cultivate prophetic witness. Nonetheless, within all of these there lies a fundamental movement of spirit and consciousness that grounds and sustains such prophetic witness. It is the spirit and consciousness that affirm the essential interrelatedness of all creation and creatures in the ongoing evolution of life.
Christian theologians trace the basis for the interrelatedness of all creation to the nature of God as Trinity. As Unity in Diversity, the three Persons share one divine nature, but are distinguished as Persons by their relation to one another. The key point here is that these divine relations are not distinct from the divine nature but are, in fact, the divine nature itself. This has ramifications for both human and cosmic being. Christians profess on the basis of Scripture that humans are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, if the very nature of God is relational, the very nature of human being is relational. However, it goes further than the human. If God is the Source of all creation, all creation flows from the being of a relational God and is in itself relational. Thomas Aquinas called this essential relationship between God and creation “participation” and made it clear that it is not reserved for humans alone. As Aquinas stated, “The whole universe together participates in divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better, than any single creature whatsoever” (Summa Theologica Ia.47.1).
Of course, some rate these claims as mere theological speculation. Nevertheless, this conclusion would be ill-founded. Beyond the claims based on the relational nature of the Trinity, the relations that constitute the life of creation and its creatures have been described by the physical, behavioral and social sciences as well. Evolutionary science and cosmology point out the essential relatedness of cosmic being from the subatomic level to the expanses of the universe. Psychologists and sociologists advance theories that affirm the indispensability of interpersonal relationships. Contemporary theologians offer anthropologies that situate the fulfillment of human personhood in the context of relationality and communion. Hence, whether drawn from the sciences or theology, the claims ring with a singular resonance. They all affirm the principal point that we are, in essence, our relationships.
What does it mean to live in a thoroughly relational universe? What does our intrinsic place within the web of creation demand of humanity in relation to the cosmos? What are the prophetic ramifications of understanding all reality from the quantum to the macro to the supernatural spheres as essentially relational? I propose three types of prophetic witness that a relational and evolving universe demands: nonhierarchical relationships of inclusivity; transformation of ethical and political systems; and diversity of images for the Divine.
First, living prophetically in a relational universe entails fostering nonhierarchical relationships of inclusivity. Individuals and communities welcome the diversity of cosmic life with the realization each creature contributes a unique gift for the benefit of all. The fullness of nonhierarchical inclusive relationality is perhaps nowhere better modeled than in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth who was one with God and one with the marginalized of his time. His radical inclusivity is clearly portrayed in his habit of eating and drinking with the sinners and the outcasts of his time, which drew the critique of religious leaders. In his scandalous table fellowship, Jesus proclaimed the in-breaking of the reign of God, transgressed social barriers, and extended an offer of intimate participation to those excluded. In so doing, he constituted a community of equals, rich in diversity, which reversed role expectations in his time and place.
In our own time, Jesus’ prophetic stance of inclusive, nonhierarchical relation must expand to the cosmos. Because of our common creation story and Creator, a profound kinship exists among all members of creation. This kinship makes plain that God’s creative intention extends not simply to the flourishing of humanity, but also to the natural world. Such kinship fosters ethical responses that protect and enhance the cosmos and its creatures and engages us as collaborators in the ongoing creativity of God.
Second, living prophetically in a relational universe entails the transformation of ethical and political systems. This requires that all people collaborate in eliminating the suffering inflicted by systemic sinfulness and participate in constructing ethical and political systems that forestall such suffering. Our intrinsic relationality precludes burying our heads in our hands and bemoaning injustice or burying our heads in the sand and ignoring it. It arouses an ethic in which economic and political decision-making are informed by regard for those who are poor, oppressed, and marginalized. It demands that all patterns of relation that shore up oppressive political or patriarchal power be reordered according to just relationality – power is shared, discrimination is eliminated, and competition is neutralized.
Finally, living prophetically in a relational universe entails embracing a diversity of metaphors and symbols for the Divine – male and female, human and nonhuman, individual and communal, ancient and new. Throughout history, Christianity has used relational triads drawn from the natural order and from human experience. These images have symbolized the intimate and diverse relations of the Persons of the Trinity with one another, with the cosmos, and with its creatures. Surely, some symbols of the Triune God seem to transcend time, the symbols of Father, Son and Spirit among them. Nonetheless, the mystery of God, the yearning of the human heart, and the shifting historical and cultural landscape require people of faith to be open and receptive to the ways God reveals Godself in every era.
Undoubtedly, some question the motivation or need for novel imagery of God. However, from a prophetic perspective, the necessity is twofold. First, imagery for God derives from the very nature of God and the God-world relation. If God is truly living and active in all times and all places, then it follows that God communicates with persons of every time and place with a desire for intimate relation.
Second, imagery for God affects relationality with God, with other humans, and with the cosmos. When hierarchical or patriarchal images of God predominate, they reinforce relationships of hierarchy and domination to the detriment of relations with one another and with Earth. Images of God drawn from a variety of God-world relationships can initiate new possibilities that are liberating while they shatter existing forms that oppress. Openness to such images frees the Spirit of God to pose new questions and provoke new possibilities about whose experience shapes religious expression in a particular historical period. This iconoclastic action of the Spirit of God piques and shapes the evolving consciousness of the prophet in this and every age.
[Gloria L. Schaab, a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, Penn., is Associate Professor of systematic theology and Director of Graduate Programs in Theology and Ministry at Barry University, in Miami Shores, Fla.]
*Cf. Sandra Schneiders, Prophets in Their Own Country: Women Religious Bearing Witness to the Gospel in a Troubled Church (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011).
**Patricia Farrell, OSF, Navigating the Shifts, Presidential Address, LCWR Assembly 2012.
***Joan Chittister, OSB, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own,” 2010 Call to Action Conference, Nov. 7, 2010, Milwaukee, Wis.