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Environmental Book Reviews

The Body of God: An Ecological Theology Sallie McFague Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN 1993

Review by John G. Gibbs, Ph.D.:

Brief Presentation of the Book

McFague is Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School. This book is a sequel to her Models of God (1987), which received an award for excellence from the American Academy of Religion.

A major emphasis of this book, written by a feminist theologian, is its effort to recover the value of the physical body. It does this by revisiting Incarnation, especially as viewed in the context of today's ecological crisis. A "common thread" in her own life journey is "the body and all its cognate forms and associations: embodiment, incarnation, flesh, matter, death, life, sex, temptation, nature, creation, energy, and so on" (14). At stake are the relations between nature and culture, earth and humanity, body and person, creation and redemption, the immanence and transcendence of God.

In McFague’s view, there has been too much emphasis on God's transcendence. For that reason Models of God "dealt principally with immanental models—God as mother, lover, and friend of the world" (vii). Now in The Body of God she works out "a way of thinking of God’s transcendence in an immanental way" (vii). The world, she insists, "is our meeting place with God." This book focuses on "embodiment," or the relation between God and bodies, and does so by using what she calls "the ancient organic model," which is to say: "the model of the universe or world as God’s body" (vii).

A number of axes are being ground here, among them: "the planetary agenda" and what Christianity might offer to it, "postpatriarchal" feminism (x), the attack on previous transcendental theology, critique of "the classic form" of the organic model (which was based on the human body in an allegedly hierarchical, anthropocentric, androcentric, and universalizing manner), contrast with both creation spirituality and natural theology (Chapter 3), insistence on the Incarnation as the one supreme doctrine in Christian theology ("Christianity is par excellence the religion of the incarnation," 163).

The author’s dominant concern is the ethical one that humanity be "re-centered" toward caring for the earth (Chapters 4-7). Even more, the major incarnational emphasis is on "inclusion of the neglected oppressed," including oppressed nature (Chapater 6). "I will argue passionately that the organic model might help us change. This is not a balanced essay, for balance often qualifies insight out of existence" (viii-ix).

There are those who have responded enthusiastically to McFague’s argument and proposals. Rosemary Radford Ruether, for instance, states in a book notice: "…The unity of creation and redemption remains an affirmation of faith not easily reconciled with experience. McFague does not fully resolve this tension either, but more than other ecological theologies, she clarifies the issues. This is McFague’s best book so far and a significant contribution to developing the problematic of a Christian ecological theology" (Interpretation, 48/3 [July, 1994], 316).

There is much in McFague’s intention that most Christians might well support, such as: reaffirmation of bodily existence, her effort to elevate physical embodiment within theological discourse, the insistence that we must acknowledge the "neglected oppressed" status of much in the world we inhabit, her appeal to "the Christic paradigm" as providing impetus for our stewardship of bodies and "the body" which is the universe.

Some Serious Difficulties

On the other hand, there are some serious difficulties with this book, and these limit its usefulness within the Church. First, what are the primary sources for what she describes as "the classic organic model"? The basis for this model is confined primarily to footnote 15 on p. 223, where 7 secondary sources are cited. Are the sources for this organic model primarily Christian or not, and do essential components of the model rely on non-Christian sources?

Second, it is by no means clear that primary sources within Scripture and within the Patristic literature support either this "classic" organic model or McFague’s critique of it, not to mention her own new organic model. One thinks, for example, of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, also St. Francis of Assisi, and others whose lives and thoughts cared for creatures even at the cost of living in poverty, thereby following the pattern of Christ's "humiliation." Belden Lane has found ample resources within the "desert fathers and mothers" for "connecting spirituality and the environment" (title of Chapter 1 in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes; Oxford, 1998).

A review in Theology Today, 51/1, 178 [April, 1994] finds invalid forms of argument here: "For instance, McFague seriously misrepresents and reduces the Patristic tradition when she claims, ‘But any intimacy between God and matter comes to an abrupt end when, in the Nicene faith, the Logos became identified exclusively with the second person of the trinity, with the transcendent God.’ This claim is not supported or documented in any way and is a serious distortion of logos-christology as well as a reduction of the variety and diversity of the early Fathers and Mothers of the church."

Third, her model is forged at the expense of Christ's uniqueness. Leanne Van Dyk comments in the same Theology Today review: "…in the chapter on christology, McFague says that the model of the universe as God’s body excludes any claims of the uniqueness and singularity of Jesus Christ. Jesus is simply one of many ‘paradigmatic embodiments of God.’ There are ‘other paradigmatic persons and events’ that are ‘sacraments’ of the presence of God. This thinned-out version of a confessional christology is a most regrettable implication of the model."

Fourth, McFague’s attack on the mainstream of Christian tradition and theology is unnecessary for the accomplishment of her objectives. That tradition is not "a monolithic force that repressed all other voices," as Van Dyk points out, and in fact that tradition provides rich resources both for creation-theology (and cosmic Christology) and for environmental ethics. Especially this attack undercuts the usefulness of this book within the Church.

Alternative Approaches

First, we need to return to the primary sources in Scripture, the Patristics, and subsequent theology in order to rethink how creation and redemption have been inter-related.

To some extent our Episcopal Environmental Stewardship Commission has opportunity to do this in its continuing provision of commentary and reflection on the texts of our lectionary. Writers of these pieces can, if they choose, go back to the sources in search of help for environmental ethics. If personal experience may count, as I write some of those pieces I continue to find more and more sources that support our objectives and that challenge us beyond even those.

Second, as we mine our sources, we will discover many resources for creation-theology and for environmental ethics. There have been many efforts to accomplish our objectives in caring for the earth, in recovering the doctrine of creation and its long-standing prominence in Christian thought, and in experiencing the earth as theatrum gloriae dei ("theater of the glory of God," Calvin's phrase).

(Some examples: Joseph Sittler’s address in 1961 at the WCC New Delhi convention, and 1964 papers from the Faith and Order Commission, were all focused on the relation between creation and redemption. Less well known is Conrad Bonifazi, A Theology of Things [Lippincott, 1967].)

Third, in the spirit of "the Protestant principle of self-criticism" we may also retrace the development of problems especially in Protestantism's focus on "justification by faith" in individualistic ways that neglected the corporate meanings of that term, also its focus on interior or "psychological" meanings of salvation at the expense of "the Body" (i.e., the Church). We can uncover what developments had for so long eclipsed the creation and our relation to it, despite all those treasures in the tradition that have always extolled the creation and our place as servants of God’s purpose within the creation.

(Clarence Glacken’s monumental historical geography, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought [U. Calif. Press, 1967], has long since presented counter-evidence to Lynn White, Jr.’s famous charges against Christian theology in his article, "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," Science [March 10, 1967]. Cf. a brief historical survey of problems in John G. Gibbs, "Interpretations of the Relation between Creation and Redemption," Scottish Journal of Theology, 21 [1968], 1-12.)

Fourth, we may undertake constructive work, the content and form of which may not yet be clear, that can capitalize on the sources at hand, and try to work out new ways of thinking and experiencing the continuity between creation and redemption. By using our primary sources, we may do this within the Church ecumenical as a constructive theological undertaking which will also develop useful practical tools and pastoral approaches for use at the local congregational level no less than at judicatory levels.

John Gibbs, a retired theologian and author of Creation and Redemption: A Study in Pauline Theology, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), attends Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN. He originally wrote this review in 1998. He and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
MEESC c/o C. Morello 4451 Lakeside Drive Eveleth, MN 55743-4400 USA

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