International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Body of God: An Ecological Theology

by Sallie McFague

Introductory Essay by Ian G. Barbour

Sallie McFague is the most widely read exponent of an ecological theology that responds creatively to recent environmental crises. She writes as a theologian, but one who takes evolutionary and ecological science very seriously. Her ethical concern for the welfare of humans and other creatures drives her to examine the practical implications of what might otherwise be taken as abstract theological ideas. This book, published in 1993, is the best point of entry into her thought, which was subsequently expressed in addressing a variety of environmental problems (for example, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (2008), also included in this ISSR Library).

Chapter 1 sets forth an ecological understanding of the interdependence of all forms of life, the destructive impact of high-consumption lifestyles, and the inequalities in resource use and exposure to pollutants. Chapter 2 describes evolution as a long and complex history of interdependence and increasing diversity among life forms. In the third chapter McFague examines the role of models in both scientific and religious thought. With other feminists she holds that all knowledge is situated in particular contexts; she draws from the Christian community and especially the neglected experience of women and oppressed groups. Chapter 4 locates humanity in evolutionary history and decries the anthropocentrism of Western religious traditions.

Chapter 5 explores models of God: monarchical (God as omnipotent ruler), deistic (God as cosmic clock-maker), and agential (God as an agent with purposes and intentions). In McFague’s preferred model, the world is viewed as God’s body, stressing immanence in the world, but she is aware that this could become pantheism unless it is complemented by the agential model which distinguishes God from the world. She explores biblical images of God as Spirit, empowering creatures from within rather than controlling them externally. She extends the idea of incarnation as God’s presence in all things, not just in Christ. A chapter on Christology maintains that God suffers with us, not only in the death of Christ but in the pain of all who suffer. The risen Christ is part of a wider pattern in which life rather than death has the last word. An expanded sacramentalism can motivate our care for nature as well as for humans in need. A final chapter expresses the hope for a New Creation in which we have learned to live as partners with God in solidarity with the oppressed, and as stewards caring for creation.

If one were to compare this book with others in this ISSR Library dealing with theology and ecology in the West, the volumes edited by R. J. Berry and by Dieter Hessel (with Rosemary Ruether) include viewpoints closer to historical Protestant and Catholic thought, while Roger Gottlieb and Ursula Goodenough represent more naturalistic interpretations.  Carol Merchant gives a more detailed discussion of assumptions about nature in earlier centuries. Nancy Howell’s themes are perhaps closest to McFague’s. But I believe that McFague offers the most systematic and creative reformulation of Christian theology and practice in the light of the environmental crisis.