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Essays Details
Published:  May 1, 2005
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Author Details
Author:  Bo Liles
Bo Liles is a graduate student of the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth, Texas.
by Bo Liles
"Accuse not nature, she hath done her part; Do thou but thine, and be not diffident of wisdom, she deserts thee not, if thou dismiss not her, when most thou needest her nigh, by attributing overmuch to things less excellent, as thou thyself perceivest." These words by Milton, in his Paradise Lost, might capture a sentiment that has recently begun to draw the world community’s attention to the reality of an ecological crisis. As one of a growing number of concerned voices, Sallie McFague presents us with a context for analyzing the ecological crisis and its impact on theology. This essay will focus on the context in which she presents the relationship between ecology and theology, the resulting modeling that evolves, and the ensuing implications for theology. In addition, the nature of the author’s language and theological background will be emphasized as we explore each facet of her argument.

The importance of ecology and the present crisis in the world today is highlighted by McFague’s use of strong language; for example, she compares the deterioration of the earth with that of nuclear annihilation and holocaust. The primary difference for her is that the seemingly less threatening of the two, ecological deterioration, occurs in a more subtle and gradual manner over time. Thus, it could prove to be a greater crisis in that it is not so easily defined and limited to the traceable actions of a few military and political leaders. It is a universal problem, one that is contributed to by most—and yet affects all—of humankind. The impact of this concept has practical importance, as one is faced with balancing lifestyle with responsibility. Readers must decide how they will personally respond to the ecological crisis.

According to McFague, the manner in which humankind contributes to the crisis is divided along lines of economic privilege. Those who seem to contribute the most to the destruction of the earth and its resources tend to be the least affected by the outcome. One could also conclude from McFague’s definition of the crisis that the accelerants for the growing problem in the world’s ecology lie in the mindset of “first-world cities,” and their disregard for the increasing high level of energy use that this lifestyle demands. This argument lays the responsibility at the feet of the more developed Western countries of the world, and in some ways ignores the less regulated (yet industrialized) second and third world countries. However, McFague is careful to point to the more immediate affects of ecological abuse on the less fortunate, in speaking of injustice in regards to the language used to define the roles of humanity in ecology. This is a valid point, but purposely narrow in its selection of her target reader: “middle-class Westerners.” In some ways, the result limits the broader, global responsibility implied in the outset of her argument.

The fact remains that the crisis is real, and as such will eventually affect all of humankind. With that in mind, McFague speaks with strong, passionate language of the future that generations not yet born will face: “They will, among other things, learn to live with ‘much beauty irrevocably lost,’ but by then they may not even miss it.” With this call for a change in the current mindset, McFague presents the need for a “planetary agenda.”

This planetary agenda is central to McFague’s paradigm of personal responsibility for human beings. The idea of a “universal vocation” is outlined by the functions of universality and particularity. Specifically, it states that all human beings must take responsibility (universality) and work to a specific goal (particularity) within that sense of responsibility. Despite McFague’s strong support for a universal responsibility for preserving the earth, difficulties arise when she acknowledges that the needed change “may well be too great a task for all of us together, even if we put all our parochial, selfish concerns aside and gave it our best will, intelligence, and imagination.” This admission is disheartening in some ways, since until this point, McFague has successfully promoted the need for change in our own daily actions by the manner in which she frames the picture of the ecological crisis. However, the intricate details and scope of the agenda is both overwhelming and apparent. Clearly, a framework or model is required for visualizing what is needed to face the crisis head-on.

The first model mentioned by McFague is the conversation model. It could be defined as a universal, non-exclusive dialogue of every voice represented on the planet concerning this ecological crisis and the health of the planet. According to McFague, this model must include the “lived experiences” of all peoples of all backgrounds and diversities, as well as the non-human elements of planetary life. In contrast to the benefits provided by diverse contributions in such an inclusive model, McFague concedes that the non-human voices are, nevertheless, subject to inherent elitism and perspective filters placed on their input by their human interpreters.

The next model mentioned by McFague is termed the quilt model. It is best pictured as an emerging and diverse (if not complex and random) pattern constructed of a broad number of viewpoints. While this model values diversity even more so than that of the conversation model, this metaphor of the quilt vividly illustrates a definition of the ecological situation. However, McFague offers little hints to any solution that might succeed in regards to the ecological crisis itself. Conversely, further insight about humanity’s role in ecology is made available in the theological model next presented by McFague – that of the body model.

In defining the model of the body, it is critical to understand the theological context that influences the authorship. McFague’s proposal is written in a socially charged (and somewhat political) language that is both targeted and narrow in its focus. She admits, to some degree, that her position relies on her personal theologies, which are feministic and ecological in nature, and viewed through the lens of the Western Christian tradition. Because her theology is firmly grounded in feminism, it is valid and important in analyzing her work to more specifically define the body of God. For McFague, the body of God must not discriminate against any form of life, but rather embrace it. Specifically, she uses this viewpoint to speak of the oppression that still exists in the ways in which we speak about the models of God. Also, her passion for the ecological crisis becomes a defining influence on the way she chooses to shape the context for the model.

The body model is useful in that it speaks of ways to redefine the concepts of embodiment in Christianity, embodiment and nature in relation to feminism, and interrelations of species. The language McFague uses is strong in its criticism of traditional definitions of the body in these contexts. She argues that “the ambivalence and at times abhorrence that we see in Christianity, feminism, and ecology in regard to the body – in all its manifestations – indicates a deep sickness in our culture: self hatred.” This is her way of contrasting our current way of thought with what she deems an appropriate language and thought process concerning the body. In McFague’s view, this self hatred is exemplified by Christian thought in conjecture about what may occur after death. She maintains that the body cannot be separated from the soul and devalued as a mere vessel. Rather, the body is intertwined with the whole being, and therefore, should not be devalued and hated, for it is the “main attraction.”

Specifically, changing these viewpoints of indifference or even hatred of the body – by expanding it to a connection with the earth and its inhabitants – will facilitate the lifestyle changes that are needed to change the course of ecological disaster. In reference to this context, she states: “The ecological crisis will not begin to turn around until we change at a very basic level how we feel about bodies and the material creation in all its incredible variety and richness of forms.” Her concept of the body must be seen in a universal perspective, encompassing and valuing all life forms, if not all matter in the universe. The advantage of this mode of thought is that it allows a way of connecting all things in both an intimate and universal way. In this sense, it speaks to the ideal of justice that does not ignore the most remote elements that exist in the universe. Such a framework provides, in McFague’s words, “equal value” for all bodies in the ecological system.

For theology, McFague’s body model extends to the concept and language of the “body of God” as the source of creation and life. She suggests that by extending the universal notion of the body to the concept of God as the source of all that is, one ceases to relegate God to simply an entity separated from and transcending life. Rather, God becomes intertwined with all life -- the “inspirited body of the whole universe.” This view allows one to speak of God in a way that rectifies both the immanence and transcendence of God by a shift in the way we view the relationship of God to the world.

McFague’s description of the importance of the body and the resulting impact of such a view on ecology is commendable. Undoubtedly, the body does matter. However, it is worth mentioning that the scope of her argument is, by her own admission, very narrow. The problems that one may encounter with McFague’s viewpoint are the theological questions that arise from the way she frames her argument. In using such a unique language about God in relation to the whole of creation, she raises concerns about biblical theology in regards to creation history in the Bible, and its examples of interaction between God and creation. While her model defines the importance of the ecological crisis and the value of the body of the universe, the language used affects the way such a model interacts with other areas in the broad scope of Christian theology. In spite of such challenges, one must “accuse not nature” and become comfortable with the status quo, but, like McFague, attempt to reconcile one’s lifestyle to personal responsibility as a part of the whole of creation.
  • McFague, Sallie. “The Context: The Ecological Crisis,” The Body of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993)