Scott’s Column: Sallie McFague
Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
November 18 2019
One of the great theologians of our time has died. Sallie McFague was Distinguished Theologian in Residence at Vancouver School of Theology after spending twenty years as the Carpenter Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
I was introduced to McFague as an undergraduate at Oklahoma Baptist University. Dr. Warren McWilliams taught Contemporary Theology, a senior level course that one could only take after other prerequisites like Systematic Theology. Even before I was able to take the course, I looked every year at the books in the bookstore he had assigned. That’s what led me to buy McFague’s 1993 book The Body of God: An Ecological Theology.
At the time my academic interests were focused on the intersections between theoretical physics, philosophy, and theology and particularly how our concept of God was being reshaped by scientific understanding. A piece of this was a growing interest in ecological issues, my own interests aligning with those of some of my professors. I had not yet fully embraced Process Philosophy, though that was part of the intellectual adventure I was on. So, McFague’s book appealed to my various interests, and I bought it, despite not being in Dr. McWilliams course that semester. And sometime that year, maybe over Christmas break, I read the book. It was probably the most “liberal” theology I had yet read. Definitely the first book of feminist theology I read and the first book of eco-theology. McFague, then, was a formative and lasting influence on my thinking.
In the Introduction she wrote, “The organic model is not only a fundamental way to reconceive Christian faith but an offering that Christianity can make to the planetary agenda of our time, the agenda that calls for all religions, nations, professions, and people to reconstruct their lives and their work to help our earth survive and prosper.”
McFague proposed a focus on the incarnation, and particularly viewing the earth as God’s body, with ramifications for how we think about most theological topics. For example, “Sin is living falsely, living contrary to reality, to the way things are.” This matters for ecology, because we have lived outside our limitations, unsustainably, exploiting the earth. Another example is the emphasis she placed upon Jesus’ healing ministry as indicative of his focus that “Bodies count.” She also was the first person I read who emphasized that Jesus invited everyone to the banquet. She wrote, “It is a vision of salvation as wholeness, characterized not by the overcoming of differences, but by their acceptance and inclusion.”
As I’ve been writing this, my copy of the book is coming apart. It has been falling apart for many years now from overuse. I guess I need to order a new copy and then take the time to transfer all my notes and annotations!
Later in my ministry I went back and read her major work Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, published in 1987. I referenced this book in my September sermon on “Our Father” that started our Lord’s Prayer series. McFague opens with the importance of names, in particular the names for God and that we must “look at at them carefully to see if they heal or hurt.” The first part of the book demonstrates how all talk of God is metaphor, including our traditional names. Those traditional metaphors have served a purpose, but probably aren’t helping us in the contemporary world. In part two, she proposed Mother, Lover, and Friend as metaphors for God that will meet our current needs.
We mourn this important thinker who has helped to guide the Christian church into a new and better sensibility, a richer understanding of the Gospel, and a deeper commitment to the issues of the world.