Julia BRUMBAUGH and Natalia IMPERATORI-LEE, editors. Turning to the Heavens and the Earth: Theological Reflections on a Cosmological Conversion, Essays in Honor of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2016. pp. xlvi + 289. $34.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8772-7. Reviewed by Stephen S. WILBRICHT, Stonehill College, Easton, MA 02357.


“A true friend of God and a prophet, this disciple of Wisdom has prepared theological feasts and nourished women and men hungry for meaning and hope in a secular, suffering, and violent world since the early 1980s” (xvii).  These words of esteem and praise for the eminent theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, offered by Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP in her concise foreword, provide insight into the valuable contents of this festschrift as a whole. The fifteen essays that comprise Turning to the Heavens and the Earth are boldly “prophetic,” filled with stimulating, theological “nourishment,” all aimed at healing a “violent world.”  Celebrating Elizabeth A. Johnson as a distinguished pioneer who challenges us to see creation as a friend to be consulted rather than an object to be exploited, this book aims to further the cosmological conversation across the disciplines in order to protect and promote this world’s fragile future.

            Editors Julia Brumbaugh (associate professor of religious studies at Regis University in Denver, Colorado) and Natalia Imperatori-Lee (associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York) have organized these essays according to three broad “turnings”:   (1) to the Wilderness, (2) to Ethics, and (3) to a “New” Creation.  The reprinting of Beth Johnson’s presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1996, titled “Turn to the Heavens and the Earth:  Retrieval of the Cosmos in Theology,” serves as the book’s foreground and foundation.  Here her prophetic voice calls into question all forms of victimization and poverty:  “If nature with its own inherent value before God be the new poor, then our compassion is called into play.  Solidarity with victims, option for the poor, and action on behalf of justice widen out from human beings to embrace life-systems and other species to ensure vibrant communion in life for all” (xl).

            Here is just a sampling of the ways in which this book’s essays promote a “vibrant communion” between heaven and earth and within all of creation.  Denis Edwards calls for a reappraisal of the biblical notion of being made in the divine image and argues for an inclusive view of creation, in which “chimps and bonobos too can be said to be made according to the Image of God” (24).  Eric Daryl Meyer proposes an apophatic theology in which humans attempt to “listen” to a creaturely experience of the world; he writes: “Since many animals communicate regularly, we must acknowledge that they have something to say—even when it is not to us” (36).  Colleen Mary Carpenter contrasts the biblical idea of desert wisdom with a “forest spirituality” and demonstrates how trees “teach us of the risks and rewards of connection, of sharing, of community” (59).  Kevin Glauber Ahern offers an alternative to the destructive social sins of domination and passivity in the form of “magnanimity,” which he defines as “empowered yet humble agency, exercised in a relationship with others that seeks to accomplish great things with a specific concern for those on the margins” (126).  Finally, John F. Haught turns to a “new creation” with hope:  “Evolutionary biology and contemporary cosmology, if taken seriously, can have the effect of deepening human self-understanding, heightening our sense of freedom, expanding the horizons of hope, and giving new zest to our spiritual lives” (173).

            A profound achievement of Turning to the Heavens and the Earth is the simple fact that, unlike so many festschrifts, the fifteen essays contained herein read as a seamless communion, building upon one another and repeatedly referring to Johnson’s wisdom as the inspiration for each unique contribution.  Readers will surely be struck by the immense gratitude these scholars, both seasoned and newly minted, exhibit for Johnson’s work and worldview.  As the book’s editors state in their introduction, “Elizabeth Johnson’s theology—her power to reveal (to us) how our symbols function to shape us—is likewise an effort that turns tradition a few degrees on its own axis to reveal meaning, hope, and promise that had been shadowed or veiled” (xxiii).  This book makes certain that theology can no longer shadow or veil the cosmos in its dealings with the mystery of God.