We at WIT join the broader theological community in mourning the passing of Sallie McFague. As an important voice in the theological world for many decades, Sallie McFague has made an impression on many a bright-eyed student of theology. My more recent work hasn’t brought me in conversation with that of Sallie McFague, but she was on the syllabus in my Thinking Theologically course at the beginning of my MTS program in 2010. Reading and reflecting on her piece on “Creation and Providence” in William C. Placher’s Essentials of Christian Theology was an important part of me coming to have a broader understanding of the task of theological work. Rather than only explaining links between bible verses (as my then-very-earnest-evangelical-self thought was the point), theology could spark imagination and wonder, as well as challenge. Below I have shared an excerpt from an assignment where I engaged with her ideas. Years later I can now recognize how that specific piece of hers helped me develop a theological imagination; even my brief encounter with her work had a significant impact. As other members of the WIT community (some of whom will likely have more deeply and recently engaged her work) remember Sallie McFague and reflect on the impact of her work you may see further tributes and discussions of her work and legacy. How have Sally McFague’s ideas affected you? What impact has she had on your theological journey? Let us know by leaving comments on this post.
McFague, in her article discussing the relationship between Creation and Providence, seeks to provide not only a different outline for the relationship between the two, but also to add a whole new set of questions to the discussion. The point of departure for her argument is the following question: What would happen if we stopped focusing on Why questions about the world and instead asked what is this world?and how should I/we live in it?She seeks to provide a framework that enables Christians to “pay more attention to…the world we actually inhabit.” It isn’t as though she feels that Why questions are wrong to ask in and of themselves. Her argument is reacting to the consistent pattern of theological reflection on Providence and Creation that focus on questions for which there are no certain answers and that, in turn, distract people from paying attention to (and being engaged in) a reality they can actually know and experience. She seeks to propose a corrective or remedial way of understanding the role of God in Creation that demands attention turn to areas and questions of the Christian life and its relationship to the world that have been neglected for far too much of Christian history.
Her conversation partners in this article are numerous. Explicitly, McFague draws the voices of the First Vatican Council, and the seventeenth-century Deistic movement, as well as proponents of the dialogical and monarchical models of God-and-the-world into the conversation. Implicitly, she might also be conversing with “other-world” minded Christians and environmentally-minded non-believers by trying to demonstrate that Christian thought does not preclude concern for the environment–in fact, moving towards a sustainable relationship to creation is an essential aspect of the Christian story.
As various forms of environmental conscientiousness have moved from the fringe to the spotlight, many have asked the questions as to the origin of the problem. How did we get to this point where such dramatic repentance is required in terms of how we relate to the physical world in which we live? There are a variety of answers to this question; many include pointing a finger at the church and the Christian tradition. It is argued that the church is responsible for advocating an attitude towards the environment that is at best irresponsible, rapacious at worst. Even for those who see the direct influence of the church in decline, the argument states that the cultural legacy it has left in the Western world provides the basis humanity’s sense of entitlement over creation. McFague, I don’t think, nor myself, would deny that traditional theology has served to ratify the understanding of Creation as the subordinate plaything of humanity. She, and I, would deny however that this understanding of Creation is goodtheology. That is, the vision of God being distant from Creation, as having left it entirely subject to the whim of humans who have no accountabilities to how that Creation is treated is neither a valid picture of “the Christian thing” nor an operational theology regarding God and humanity’s relationship to creation.
Her response to models that posit God as distant as from creation (or that undermine the role of human agency and responsibility within and to creation) is to propose a new model that intimately links God and the created world. She wants to shift discussion of ecology and creation to discussion of “Creation.” She posits that there is immense value in considering the world as God’s body. This model of understanding God/Creation carries with it three important implications: 1) It highlights the interconnectedness of reality and supports what McFague calls “a radically ecological view of the world“in which everything is understood as “interrelational” and interdependent.” For McFague this argument both includes and stretches beyond “eco-rhetoric.” While it does create an imperative for Creation-care, it also offers a pointed corrective to the persistent cultural understanding of humanity, embedded in nearly all of our societal institutions, that sees humans as individual by default and as completely independent units. 2) It emphasises humanity’s dependence on God by allowing God to be thought of both as incredibly transcendent and incredibly immanent. In McFague’s conceptualisation, transcendence and immanence are not characteristics of God that have to operate in tension with one another but can peaceably reinforce one another. “It allows us to meet God in the garden, on the earth, at home. We do not have to go elsewhere or wait until we die…we [can] meet God in the nitty-gritty of our regular lives.”3) It creates space for God and humans to share responsibility for what happens increation and tocreation and orients humans to a particular set of manageable responsibilities. As McFague points out, this does not paint a picture of the world that is “neat, nice or romantic.”However, “if we see ourselves as within God’s body, as tending the garden, as doing home economics for God’s household, we can relax about something and get busy with others.”If you choose to value the pursuit of justice and sustainability this understanding of Creation may provide a helpful theological framework. On the whole it seems that McFague would like Christians to begin to turn their attention to earthly things, to understand Creation as home – not as an intermediary holding tank that we must grin and bear our way through.
I appreciate many of the things that McFague discusses here; her ideas can illuminate issues that are not explicitly discussed in her paper in Essentials. I imagine that some feminist theologians would find the validating view of the earthy, created reality helpful in discussion that seek to reverse the low opinion of women who are seen as earthy, body-bound creatures. In McFague’s paradigm none of those adjectives can be seen negatively. Particularly for the white North American church, which in many places seems wrapped up in the individualistic paradigm, I think her statements about the interdependent nature of humanity provide are an especially necessary remedial comment. This seems especially true with respect to the notions of sin as having both personal and systemic dimensions– developing a better understanding our interconnectedness may help us see how we have been unwittingly reinforcing sinful misunderstandings of our “createdness.”
Is it complete or entirely sufficient theology? No. As is evident in the somewhat incomplete and non-cohesive discussion of the role Jesus at the end of her article, her thesis does not have the capacity to serve as a full out substitute for all existing Christian thought. That it is difficult to factor Jesus in a central role makes it pretty easy to “de-Christianise” her theology. Perhaps that is her point, but I see it as a weakness. However, McFague herself does not strive to sketch a “one-stop-shop” theological paradigm that accounts for everynuance or explains everytheological question. “No one model is adequate, for each allows us to see some aspects of the God-world relationship, but shuts out others.”Perhaps we can forgive McFague for “shutting out” particular aspects because they are ones that have been rehearsed again and again. I would argue that, though not comprehensive, McFague’s article is effective theology. What is mean by that is, McFague posits a theological construction that evokes poignant reflection on the Christian theological tradition and its ramifications, as well as lively discussion about the central issues of Creation and Providence, humanity and the created world in which it lives, human relationship to God, and numerous other questions. The bold propositions in her paper (and readers’ reactions to them) seem to be a great place for jolting conversation about beliefs that many people might not have even known that they had. Indeed, I would not be surprised if some would read her work as being, in some ways, heretical. However, their antagonism towards her arguments (one can hope) has the potential to spark reflection/discussion around tacit beliefs about the distance of God from creation or the ways in which humans are to relate to their world. By proposing an idea that is quite different from the traditional understanding of the subject, a theologian like McFague is able to chip away at the silent hegemony of that tradition. People may still defend the traditional or dominant conceptualisations – such as individualism being true of human existence – but they won’t be able to do so without deliberately choosing them.
Sallie McFague, “Creation and Providence,” in Essentials in Christian Theology(Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 112.
McFague 114 – 115.