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Interview: Sallie McFague, theologian

22 January 2016

‘There’s a need for first-rate critical theology’

I’m currently teaching a small, graduate-level class at the Vancouver School of Theology, on revising Christian theology for the 21st century’s crisis of climate change. We focus on the doctrine of God, especially the difficulties that a supernatural, sovereign view of God presents for seriously addressing issues of power, change, and action regarding the role of human beings in light of the traditional view of God.


We’re reading post-modern philosophy and theology as the background for these revisions: Timothy Morton, Gilles Deleuze, Jane Bennett, William Connolly, Karen Barad, Bruno Latour, Jean-Luc Nancy, Catherine Keller, Richard Kearney, and John Caputo.


When I started out in theology in the l950s, it was assumed that people (both as readers, and as a topic) were all male, and presumably white as well. One of the most evident changes is that anyone writing a theology today must identify the social context from which they write. It’s undoubtedly one of the most heartening developments of our time. The two great theologians of that era, Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, never did. They assumed, I suppose, that they were writing for the ages à la Thomas Aquinas.


I recall a kind gentleman saying to me one day at Yale Divinity School (where I was one of three women in a class of 100 men) that I “thought like a man”. I wish I’d said: “I will find that a compliment, if you would like it if I said you ‘think like a woman’.” Alas, I didn’t.


A development that I find less constructive is that no one writing or teaching theology today can assume that their readership knows much about the Bible or the Christian tradition — or any religious tradition. It used to be that people took courses in college about the Bible because the Western canon of great literature — Shakespeare and so on — demanded such acquaintance.


One of the reasons that current debates about religion, especially on the doctrine of God, are so dissatisfying is that many of the main voices in it, like Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins, are not deeply educated in either the best traditional or contemporary theology.


A few theologians whom I find especially helpful currently are Catherine Keller, Richard Kearney, and John Caputo. They take the post-modern world-view seriously, and realise, for instance, that agency — who the actors in the world are — reaches far beyond simply human agents to include such disparate forces as climate change, the influence of other animals, and how forests “think”. We’re realising that human exceptionalism is greatly overrated. All interesting theology these days is being done by folks who focus on process rather than ontology — for both the doctrines of God and of the human being.


It’s fair to say that, initially, my work was on religious language, and more recently it has been on ecological issues. I did my undergraduate work in literature, not philosophy; so I was initially drawn to literary features of texts and traditions, such as parable, symbol, and metaphor. When the societal issue switched from the nuclear bomb to climate change, I realised how critical it is what language we use to talk about God and about ourselves.


Views of God that made sense in the Middle Ages, or even in the Enlightenment, focusing on a hierarchical ontology for both God and human beings, or a view of the atonement that uses the imagery of the punishment of the Son of God for the sins of his followers, no longer speak to people. In order for our actions to change — and they need to change, big time, with regard to climate change — we cannot stay within the same set of assumptions that created our present problem. “Father, King, all-powerful Creator and Lord” is not a suitable view of God when it’s we who are the problem — our insatiable greed at the expense of both poor people and a deteriorating planet.


The task is not so much a new theology but a rendering of the heart of Christianity in contemporary language and a world-view that connects with our 21st-century understanding of the way that the world is put together.


I don’t think that mainstream theology pays enough attention to the metaphorical nature of language. The proof of this dilemma is that most folks think that God-talk is mainly descriptive. While some are willing to admit that all other language is metaphoric, religious language is not. For instance, “Father” is seen as God’s name. If this weren’t the case, people wouldn’t be so reluctant to change the language, especially on the Trinity. How about Father, Mother, and Holy Spirit? A wonderful medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, speaks at length about our “Mother Jesus”, seeing potential in the maternal metaphor that “Son” does not suggest.


The tradition of Christian religious language is much richer than contemporary thought allows: in part because, again, people are not acquainted with many of these sources.


Theology joins up with the practice of faith from the beginning —or should do. Traditionally, theology used to be practised in churches by pastors. It’s only in the 20th century that it moved to the Academy, and now the principal audience for much theology is a tenure committee rather than people in the pews. There’s a need for first-rate, critical, reflective theology that does not insult their intelligence.


People should not have to hang their minds up at the door when they enter a church: the scandal of religion is not in its theology, but in its practice. All world religions that have lasted for centuries are counter-cultural. They tell folks to love their neighbours, whether those neighbours be great whales, old-growth forests, or human beings; and, therefore, they’re difficult to practice.


Theology should be an aid to such counter-cultural practice, and this means, I believe, for Christianity, the practice of kenotic, self-sacrificing love. This is scarcely a comforting, super-spiritual, therapeutic gospel: my last book, which is on this topic, is not a bestseller.


I was born and brought up in Boston by a middle-class family. We attended Baptist, Methodist, and, finally, Anglican churches, but in a somewhat desultory manner.


It was not until I went to college and studied religion that I began to see what religion was all about: not the cosy moral code I had supposed. After reading Karl Barth one evening in the library, I recall making my way home in the snow, realising all of a sudden that God was more like a cold mountain wind than he/she was like my image. It took a long time, and climbing many mountains, until I realised that fragile alpine flowers were also part of that insight.


A comment by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin resonated with me. He said that, when he was seven years old, he loved God and the world, and wasn’t willing to give up either. Nor was I.


I don’t really have a favourite sound, perhaps because I am partially deaf, and I’ve never been able to carry a tune, but I do have a favourite colour — blue; and a favourite animal — a turtle. Although I don’t know of any blue turtles, my most outrageous image would be such a being. I have several blue glass turtles on my office window sill.


My daughter and I also belong to an imaginary club, the TRT (Turtle Rescue Team), whose members have to save at least two turtles every year who are stranded on a busy road, in order to retain membership in the club. My daughter gave me a lifetime membership to the TRT when I moved to Vancouver from Nashville, because I couldn’t find the requisite number of turtles — mainly box turtles.


I get angry quite easily. I suppose that that is partly genetic. There are those who see the glass half empty, and those who see it half full; but ever since I learned about nuclear war, and then climate change, I’ve been appalled at how the one creature who should know better — and the only one that can know better — continues to act in ways that are making other human beings poor, and destroying our planet. We know that we know, and we’re the only creature with that unique characteristic. That alone makes us special — not our rationality or intelligence, and certainly not our compassion. Because I have been angry about this for most of my life, I have written several books out of anger; so I suppose it has some advantages, although it also makes it hard for me to live with myself, and for others to live with me.


At the age of 82, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d better be happy one day at a time, since, increasingly, I see that this is all we have — and it’s pretty wonderful to have another day on planet Earth.


I love a remark by Annie Dillard, who says that, when guests leave after a wonderful evening of dinner and conversation, the appropriate comment at the door to the host is not “More, more, I want more!” but “Thanks, it’s been great.” I hope that I can mumble that comment when my time to leave comes.


When I pray — which is most mornings during meditation — I pray that we will wake up and pay attention to the wonderful planet we have been plonked down on, not knowing why we are here or what to do, and not ruin things. It’s pathetic that much destruction of other human beings, and of our planet, is due to various religions that make claims of uniqueness or exceptionalism. My own children don’t see why I have anything to do with religion — and I can’t blame them, given our performance record.


If I could spend a few hours locked in a church with just one person, it would be my father. He died when I was 14 years old, and just beginning to know him as an adult. As a child, I worshipped him, and spent boring hours fishing in a rowboat with him, just so I could be with him. If I could have a second choice, it would be Dorothy Day, the remarkable but unrecognised saint who lived for 40 years in a New York slum, giving herself in kenotic love to others. She once said that folks shouldn’t call her a saint, because that lets the rest of us off the hook. Day insists that it’s mostly hard work. “I have done nothing well, but I have done what I could.” If only all of us could make that statement.


Dr Sallie McFague is Distinguished Theologian in Residence, at the Vancouver School of Theology. She was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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