The Body of God: An Ecological Theology

By Sallie McFague
Fortress Press, 1993, 274 pages, $13.00 paperback

If ecology is the in subject today, Sallie McFague's The Body of God could turn out to be the theological work of this decade. Building on her prize-winning 1987 Models of God, McFague's latest book would advance one of the most ancient of ideas — that the universe itself is, in some sense, the "body" of God.

No model or paradigm of anything, but especially of God, is ever adequate. A model is not a description of reality in its completeness, instead, it is only an aid to understanding, just as is our other more common models of God as "King" or "Lord", or even the deistic description of God as "Architect of the Universe" are but differing ways of trying to understand the mystery of God.

In fact, McFague's suggestion is that what this particular model is all about is not so much an attempt to describe God by means of a "natural theology" or much less an attempt to prove God's existence by those means. Instead, it is "theology of nature" or a way of looking at the world that will most of all help us to correct the widespread abuse of nature by humans, particularly by our Western civilization that has misunderstood our place in the world. For if we see ourselves as made in the image of God, then an image of God exclusively in terms of a dominating "Lord" will result in our own attempt to dominate nature for our own selfish interests instead of seeing ourselves as responsible co-creators and "stewards" of creation in partnership with God. In other words, models, and the theologies built upon them, have practical consequences.

So why not leave it at that? The real reason is that Genesis, even when correctly understood, employs a model which is no longer adequate. The only account that will pass muster today is the "Common Creation Story" revealed by contemporary science, one which is destined to supplant all the creation myths of the past. From now on we must understand ourselves primarily as bodies, and not as "enfleshed spirits", who must share this small planet with a host of other living bodies in a way that is interconnected and interdependent for the mutual benefit of all, or else we are in serious trouble. And for this to happen, nothing else will fit the bill than to envision the world itself as sacred, indeed, to think of the whole universe as "the Body of God".

But isn't using this organic body model of God to return to the paganisms of the past, or to the Gnostic pantheism against which Christianity set itself from the beginning? Would this not be, to use Maritain's phrase in denouncing Teilhard de Chardin, a "kneeling before the world"? The fact is McFague explicitly invokes the example of Teilhard de Chardin, but she also adopts, from the "process theologians", the term panentheism to describe a universe that is not itself God (or a God who is simply the universe) but a universe that is permeated with God's creative presence, or conversely, exists within God. In addition, McFague introduces another ancient model of God, one that is more directly biblical, the complementary one of God as a wind or "Spirit" animating the world. But rather than concede any ground to a kind of matter-spirit dualism that would see God merely as a "Soul of the World", she insists that both of these models remain bodily images, stressing God's direct presence and self- involvement in the fate of the universe.

What then is to be said about the explicitly Christian doctrine of the Body of Christ, or for that matter, about Teilhard's concept of the Cosmic Christ? Here McFague suggests that what we have in these ideas is a new paradigm that goes beyond or even against that suggested by the common creation story, which in terms of evolutionary struggle has no place for the weak, the poor, and the oppressed. Jesus shows us a model of loving compassion for the marginalized that introduces a new, distinct pattern for the emulation of humans who not only know, but who (as Teilhard so often said) also "know that they know" and must now show themselves responsible for the care of all other creatures, including the hitherto mistreated and oppressed environment itself.

No doubt some will object that these latter sections of her book, like "liberation theology" in general, is pressing the gospels too far, trying to deduce from them something Jesus never or at best incidentally taught. I think there is, however, a good case that, in reflecting on the meaning of the Gospel for our time, that we can hardly avoid these challenges, including that of reconciling both needs, that of a humanity that is rapidly outgrowing its living space, and that of the environment on which humanity's well-being depends. In this regard, her really excellent section dealing with the particular human responsibility for evil in contrast to cosmic suffering recommends itself. Some may find her attempt to incorporate trinitarian insights into her model to fall a bit flat, but how much can someone attempt in one slim volume? There is already enough to chew on in this one to keep our minds occupied for years to come.

If I have any second thoughts about McFague's book, it is not so much with her attempt to cover all these issues under the "ecotheology" and other trendy "liberation" themes, as its over-caution in dealing with the common creation story in the first place. Like some other contemporary theologians, McFague seems unduly reluctant to admit that the universe can tell us anything about God, but a book like this seems a strange place to take this attitude.

One can understand her fear of walking into any trap posed by a natural theology based on any "God of the Gaps", and no doubt her caution seems to make her book more credible. But at a time when the scientific community continues to engage in passionate debate about the so-called "Anthropic Cosmological Principle" it seems odd to find an author calling on Teilhard for inspiration, yet denying that evolution itself shows any distinct vector or direction of development, at least until humanity happens upon the scene.

On the contrary, according to Teilhard plus a sizeable group of evolutionary thinkers, it is the whole pattern of increasing convergence and complexity leading to consciousness that is the key to understanding the evolutionary phenomenon. So it is not the "gaps" that still seem to exist that point to a providential hand, but the overall direction of the process itself. (Teilhard, by the way, did not believe there actually were any such gaps, despite his discrete silence at one point in his masterwork, The Phenomenon of Man (sic)/ Le Phenomene humain).

This may seem like a minor fault, yet I feel that it is one that unfortunately weakens her whole argument. While this tactic enables McFague to claim that she is sticking strictly to the "common creation story" accepted by all scientists, why believe that we humans should take on any special responsibility for the future unless things were somehow "designed" to put us in charge? Or, if we are to advocate (for the purposes of ecology) a view of the universe as "God's body", would it not be equally important, in terms of credibility and the vitality of the movement, to not seem so intent on repudiating the idea that this same universe also has anything to teach us about God? While one can understand her caution, the result is that McFague seems to be stranded halfway between the supernaturalist interventionism of Barth (in whom she originally specialized) and Teilhard's more organic view of creation as God's own self revelation in time.

This shows when McFague moves to what she see as the specifically Christian contribution to the dialog. Here we are urged to adopt the "Christic Paradigm" of caring for all those oppressed beings (animals, the land, etc.) that the march of evolutionary progress normally would cast aside. But in a universe that even most scientists admit is ultimately doomed, why should we really bother to care as long as "souls" are saved? For unless all of evolution was divinely guided and the whole universe is ultimately destined to be transformed into the "Kingdom of God" or "a new heavens and a new earth" why worry about the fate of the earth and its dying species?

McFague rightly fears that such transcendentalism will alienate us and undercut any renewal of Christian theology along ecological lines. No doubt it could, especially when misinterpreted along the old unworldly and anti-humanistic lines. But so could the lack of belief that the universe has much to tell us about God, or, even more, any view which holds, as far as the evidence from nature is concerned, that we humans may only have happened by "accident".

But by no means let these criticisms keep you from reading this book. It says too many important things to be overlooked.

Richard W. Kropf
3/10/94


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