Sallie McFague, Theologian (1933-2019)

I just received a note from a friend that Sallie McFague has passed away. I got the news as I was rereading her Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (1975) after many years. The news saddened me, but also disturbed me in an absurd way. McFague has been important to my theological development, and I worked with her Speaking in Parables and Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (1982) early in my thesis-writing. And it was only a month ago that I discovered in all my draft edits, McFague had slipped out of my bibliography. It felt almost dishonest for her not to be there because she had challenged me so much. And, yet, I have never been reconciled to her work. It remains unfinished in me.

Perhaps some of this feeling of dislocation was that I never got to hear her lecture in the three years I was in Vancouver, while she was the Distinguished Theologian in Residence at Vancouver School of Theology (VST). I knew many of the VST students as we shared some classes–especially the joined suffering of Greek and Hebrew summers school–and VST folks would pop up to Regent College for one of our summer sessions or special events like the Laing Lectures (Margaret Visser spoke while I was there; the last two lecturers were Malcolm Guite and Stanley Hauerwas). I had attended lectures at VST by visiting scholars like Daniel Boyarin and campus professors like Lloyd Gaston. But I never got to sit at Sallie McFague’s feet and see her work dynamically with students.

I think my dislocation goes deeper, however, to the debate that I still have with McFague when I read her books. Speaking in Parables was one of my first encounters with the struggle of doing theology in and of and with literature. McFague’s Metaphorical Theology helped me define what I mean when I talk about God, how language works in theology, and the value of “God-talk” in the church and the world. As a feminist theologian, McFague helped me come to a deeper understanding of God wants for men and women. And for the last 30 years or so, her work in ecology has helped stimulate concern for creation care in ways the church is still struggling with. Every five years or so, Sallie McFague wrote a book that was a prophetic challenge to North American Christians.

Sometimes it was McFague that stimulated my questions, and sometimes I went to her work with my questions in hand. For example, I have come to believe that it is immoral to live a “normal” life in Canada or Americ: 2,000+ sq. ft. homes, two- and three-car families, a barely casual interest in where our products come from and where our waste goes, expenditures that exceed incomes, a complete lack of consideration for the thousands of invisible “servants” that contribute to our comfort, political commitments to self-interest, a disturbing commitment to “stuff” (gathering it, hoarding it, organizing it, shedding it, Instagramming about it), and a cool rejection of God’s call for us to follow through on our individual responsibilities to be stewards of the earth**. As a Christian, I believe that God will call us to account for our wasteful and hurtful ways: God’s wrath will come upon us because we have followed the patterns of this world rather than living as a perpetual sacrifice (Rom 12:1-2). In looking for resources to call Christians (and myself) to have a clearer vision about the links between creation care and social economy, McFague’s Blessed are the Consumers (2013) has been helpful–though I still struggle to find my way to healthy rhythm of living in the world in these ways.

As much as McFague has been a stimulating and helpful conversation partner, I almost never agree with her. I’ll give two examples, but readers should realize that these are cartoons of McFague’s fuller work. On Wednesday, I will share a large section on a paper I wrote on McFague early in my degree–amateur, but a little fuller in scope, at least on the first example.

First, Sallie McFague would argue that theological language is a social construct, a made-up way of people to speak about God. When McFague offers us an image of God as friend, for example, she would want to remind us that “friend” is a metaphor. While we are speaking truthfully of human experience when we call God “friend,” we are not saying anything objective about God. McFague says in the preface to Models of God that “theology is mostly fiction.” This is absolutely true in that theology is about telling and retelling the central stories of God and humanity and the world. But is theology only fiction? Is what we know of God merely metaphorical? Are the things we say about God, consequently, untrue? I appreciate McFague’s openendedness and her commitment to acknowledging the indirect, incomplete nature of knowledge. But as C.S. Lewis writes of “models” of thought in his epilogue to The Discarded Image, it is true that no model can accommodate for all truth, neither does any model lack all truth. I don’t understand how we can negate all language about God because all language is metaphorical without thus saying that all language is meaningless (including this meaningful statement).

This is often my response to McFague: I want to affirm what she says positively about knowledge of God (theology is metaphorical, and based on metaphor), but I reject the implications she draws (God-talk is only metaphorical). Likewise, in her breathtaking argument that Jesus is a parable of God–iconoclastic, inversive, and relational in ways I explore on Wednesday–she contrasts “parabolic Christology” to “incarnational Christology.” It is a reductive move that loses the root of faith, I believe, and breaks the link between the natural and the divine that is her goal to reunite. I cannot find my way through this tension in McFague; I do not think she provides this way through as she speaks quite firmly and insistently of what it means to be a friend and lover and child of God in her work.

Second, I have already noted how important Sallie McFague’s work on ecology is, and the Dalai Lama has phoned her up on this point. In Models of God she speaks of the world as “God’s body.” Imagining the earth as God’s body addresses that gap in embodied theology that occurs when she rejects “incarnational Christology.” It brings the natural and supernatural together, drawing the gaze of Christians from the heavens to the creation in which we live. This image–a metaphor, we recall–also shows the intimate result our sins against the environment.

As much as I think her work in ecotheology is important, I’m not sure how helpful this image is that has shaped an entire generation of theology, from Models of God (1987) to Super, Natural Christians: How Se Should Love Nature (1997), Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (2000), A New Climate for Theology: God, the World and Global Warming (2008), and her last major work, Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (2013). For one thing, I have never loved the “your sins make Jesus on the cross cry” kinds of theologies. Our choice to live as wasteful North Americans is a sin against God and creation, but it is also a double sin against our neighbour: 1) it will be the “least of these” that get the brunt of ecosystem damage, from dirty water and unbreathable air to shifting sands and recreated coastlines; and 2) our creation-neglect is a form of bearing false witness before the world. That is sin enough and embodiment enough to deserve our attention. These things are real, intimate, consequential.

Beyond this, though, I have a discomfort with leaning too heavily upon the image of God’s body. Why is the Hebrew Bible so resistant to idolatry? I don’t think it is because God suffers from social anxiety or a poor self-image or lover’s jealousy. Beyond the story of shaping the Hebrew peoples, idolatry is an arthritic twist in our theology. It is people that are made in the image of God, men and women. We are God’s icon. Our neighbour is (very nearly) the holiest object we will ever encounter. When we look away from our friend or foe to a statue or a cave or a landscape or a habit or a pet theology–when we take up idolatry, I mean–it is not so much that we hurt God as that we set up the necessary conditions for doing damage to our neighbour.

So, I am less concerned about how we treat God’s body–which can mean a lot of things–and more concerned about how we treat the images of God in our waking and working walkabout world. And this means, consequently, how we care for creation, how we understand gender roles, and how we do theology. I don’t doubt the metaphorical impact of the body image, and her quotation in the video below is compelling (put online by Tripp Fuller upon McFague’s death). I just happen to think there are deeper images that will be more consequential than this one–images that don’t have the danger of making God and creation one and the same, or making God a figure upon whom all of our beautiful and terrible images may stick.

It strikes me as possible that some might see a note like this as distasteful, that to disagree with a thinker upon her death will be disrespectful. I suspect that theologians won’t think that way, and will see in this post how her ideas have been generative for me, even when I can’t say “amen!” to everything she has written. On Wednesday, I will include a paper which shows how McFague’s work anticipates the transformation of evangelical theology in North America.

I began this note saying that I have never been reconciled to McFague’s work because it has remained unfinished in me. I trust that her work is now coming to completion, both in her final awakening and in the waking of the church to her prophetic voice.

**Of course, I am not saying that it is immoral for any particular individual to have a large house or many cars or whatever–though it may immoral be for you individually. It is the picture of the whole that is problematic and unsustainable.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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1 Response to Sallie McFague, Theologian (1933-2019)

  1. Pingback: Bellwethers of a New American Christianity? Sallie McFague, Rob Bell, and Evangelical (Re)Vision | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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