Sallie McFague’s religious autobiography
Mature Christians have a ‘working theology’ * – a set of deeply held beliefs that actually functions in their personal and public lives. A working theology develops as we move through our lives, reflecting theologically on our experiences.
In the development of her own ‘working theology,’ McFague has had four ‘conversions’ – experiences that changed her thinking about God and her behavior. * For help with McFague’s terminology, go to “Definitions”
1. McFague’s first conversion came in two stages, when she was a small child. Her first insight: One day she realized that some day she would not exist. Eventually this turned into a sense of wonder that she was alive. (McFague observes that one of the most profound religious emotions is wonder at – and gratitude for – life in all its incredible shapes, colors, and sizes.) Her second insight: One day she realized that God is reality, and God is the source of our personal reality.
- Panentheism sees the world in God – each and every one of us, in our distinctiveness, dwells within the divine reality. (For more on panentheism, see p. 141-2)
2. McFague’s second conversion occurred in college while she reading Barth’s Commentary on Romans. Suddenly the transcendence of God took on a whole new meaning: God is God and nothing else is. (Richard Niebuhr called this ‘radical monotheism’; Paul Tillich called it the ‘Protestant Principle’.) McFague observes that this radical monotheism is a necessary component of any theology; but for years this understanding of God’s transcendence kept her from recognizing and growing into her early sense of wonder at life and its grounding in God (the ‘Catholic’ side that every theology must also have).
- God is transcendent and immanent. When she was hiking outdoors, McFague saw that God’s ‘Godness’ was manifest in and through and with the earth and all its creatures. Eventually, her early appreciation of God’s immanence joined with an understanding of God’s transcendence. God’s incarnation in Jesus (Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us’) is the key to their coming together: God is both transcendent and immanent.
3. McFague’s third conversion occurred while she was teaching theology. She read an essay by Gordon Kaufman, who argued that theology must reconstruct its central symbols because of the crises facing our planet. McFague began to ask, ‘What would Christians say about God and the world if they took the planetary ecological situation as their interpretive lens?’ She began to learn about cosmology, evolutionary biology, and ecological science. She writes,
- It has been a deeply instructive exercise, giving me some ‘ecological literacy’. My sense on the hiking trail that we humans fit into nature was confirmed by my readings, but – though we do indeed fit here, we are not at the top of the heap as we have supposed. We need a paradigm shift, to learn about our true place in the scheme of things…. But there was still a piece missing – me. Bonhoeffer commented that he began as a theologian, became a Christian, and finally grew into a ‘contemporary.’ I think what he meant was that he started as an academic Christian, became a practicing Christian, and finally became an embodied, ‘present’ Christian. From Bonhoeffer’s letters one gains the sense of a man whose faith became immediate, present and functional in the horrors and infrequent joys of prison life.
4. McFague’s fourth conversion has been something like Bonhoeffer’s. Finally, after years of talking about God, McFague writes that she is becoming acquainted with God. She has undertaken a daily pattern of meditation, ‘practicing the presence of God,’ setting aside time for relating to God. She writes,
- Since I have undertaken the daily practice of prayer, I have gradually felt my center, the center of my being, shifting from myself to God. From the burdensome task of trying to ground myself in myself, I have let go and allowed God to become the One in and for whom I live. In prayer, we do not talk about God and the world, but begin to see ourselves and the world in God.
- The active and contemplative dimensions of Christian life are deeply interconnected. God’s love is not merely for our comfort or even our spiritual growth. God’s presence in our lives should turn us into workers for an alternative world.
- The alternative world is not another, supernatural world, but a different way of living in our one and only world. For an alternative world we will need an alternative view of the abundant life. If we believe that ‘the glory of God is all creatures fully alive,’ then our current worldview and lifestyle are wrong. More than wrong, it is sinful and evil, for it is contrary to God’s will for creation.
The heart of McFague’s theology
We live and move and have our being in God. Salvation means living in God’s presence, which requires living in imitation of God’s love for the world.
All creation is ordered by God, and all creation exists in relation to God. God’s world is characterized by radical relationality – with God, with other humans, with all creatures. Reality only ‘makes sense’ when we measure it not by our own standards or worldly standards, but in terms of the love that created everything and wants everything to flourish.
The Christian way inevitably leads to an understanding of salvation as deification, becoming like God. Christ is the incarnation of God because he did that fully.
Identifying with the suffering of others is essential for North American Christians; our cruciform, ‘cross-shaped’ life will not be primarily what Christ does for us, but what we can do for others.
The world as the ‘body of God’: The cosmos, our world, exists in God; every one of us – and everything – dwells within the divine reality. In this metaphor God is highly involved in the world (though distinct from it), concerned to bring all of creation to the fullness of life; and so we also must take all creation seriously, because ‘the creation is God’s self-expression.’
Since the world is ‘God’s house’ we should abide by God’s house rules. Knowing these rules is one of the major tasks of Christian discernment; living these rules is the sign of Christian discipleship.
For adequate Christian discipleship, we need to find a different way of living in the world. And to live differently, North American Christians must grow in two kinds of literacy: we need to understand our theology, and we need to understand the ecological and justice issues that confront us.
Sallie McFague’s own credo
A credo is the thoughtful expression of what one believes most deeply and is prepared to act on. A Christian credo is not just a matter of personal experience or private revelation, but the personal embrace of beliefs central to the Christian tradition.
God and the world
- God is reality, and the world’s reality derives from God.
- God is beyond all our imaginings, thoughts, and statements.
- God is personal but not a person.
- God is incarnate – not distant and disembodied, but present and embodied in creation.
- The world can be described as God’s body.
- Through Jesus’ incarnation, we see that God loves the world – indeed, that God is love.
Jesus as the Christ
- Jesus is the revelation of God. In Jesus’ face, Christians see the hidden face of God; in Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, Christians see the way God wants us to live.
- Jesus was human; he was not a walking God.
- But Jesus was more than a human being; he was also the Christ, the revelation of God.
- Divine incarnation is not limited to Jesus, but Jesus shows us what divine incarnation means.
The Spirit of God
- God’s Spirit is the source of all life and love.
- Life in the Spirit is daily living with Emmanuel, God-with-us.
- Deification is not mystical ascent to another world, but trying to follow God’s will in this world.
- Salvation is living appropriately on our planet, consciously working to help bring about God’s beloved community.
- Sin is centering life in the self, living contrary to God’s ordering of things. Sinful living will result in disorder and chaos, and the abundant life will be seen as consisting of material things.
- Discipleship is not just a personal call to follow Christ, but a call to work with God for the flourishing of all life on our planet.