A Reading of Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), Part 1.

Background, Location, and Outline

Sallie McFague is the distinguished theologian in residence at Vancouver School of Theology (Vancouver, BC), where she relocated in 2000 after thirty years at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Raised episcopalian,[1] she is currently a member of the Anglican Church of Canada.[2] All of her theological education was completed at Yale, where she enjoyed the tutelage of H. Richard Niebuhr,[3] though she also holds a Bachelors of Arts in Literature from Smith College.[4] Gordon Kaufman’s work has also been a major influence on McFague’s theological imagination.[5] McFague is a prominent feminist theologian, though the majority of her work assumes a feminist agenda or deals with it only in passing.[6] Instead, McFague’s primary agenda has been the exploration of the idea that theology consists of imagistic assumptions about the relationship between God and world.[7] Methodologically, her work centers on the role of metaphor in this exploration.[8]

Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (1987) is, in many respects, the axis of McFague’s remarkable career. Published at the midpoint of her Vanderbuilt professorship, the volume brought McFague the American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence. Models of God is the denouement of her previous methodological soundings, Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (1975) and Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (1982), and it erects the methodological framework for her subsequent constructive proposals.

In Models of God, McFague critiques the traditional models of the God-world relationship, justifies their replacement, and exemplifies the formulation of new models. The first of the book’s two parts primarily engages in critique and justification, leaving the full articulation of new models for the latter half of the book. Our focus here will be on part one, which comprises three chapters. Chapter one establishes the context of theology as “an ecological, nuclear age.” Chapter two proposes “metaphorical theology” is the kind of theology necessary for that context. Finally, chapter three exposes the inadequacy of the reigning traditional metaphors and begins, by contrast, to develop four new ones appropriate for the context. This simple progression indicates the clarity and concision with which McFague writes.

Key Claims and Arguments (which are Methodological)

One way to characterize McFague’s proposal is to locate it at the intersection of two axes. The poles of one axis are liberation theology and process theology.[9] The poles of the other axis are the two “constants” of the method of correlation (received through David Tracy): situation and tradition.[10] At the nexus of these axes is, additionally, an argument about the metaphorical nature of theology in the tradition of the via negativa. From this perspective, five key arguments undergird the reading.

Argument 1: The Analysis of the Situation (Formal Criterion). Though it is distinct enough to merit significant nuance, the claim that McFague’s theological method is essentially liberal (experiential-expressive in Lindbeck’s terms) is close to the mark. Theology’s purpose is to be relevant. The situation—which she refers to primarily as the “new sensibility” of the postmodern, post-Christian world—is the experience to which the gospel must correspond:

The formal criterion for theology, then, is that it reflect, in tough-minded, concrete ways and in the language and thought forms of one's own time, about what salvation could, would, mean now, to us. Different people and communities will spell this out in different ways: thus it was in scriptural times, and thus it should be in other times as well.[11]

The way McFague spells out the language and thought forms of “our time” is, therefore, of fundamental importance. To this end, she deploys an array of descriptors, some of which receive more reiteration. Key concepts include holism, relationship, interdependence, inclusivity, change, and ecology. Negatively, the ability to destroy ourselves in the nuclear age entails a sober sense of responsibility and a critique of power as domination. The articulation of the God-world relationship must speak in these terms and be judged by them.

Argument 2: The Nature of Theology. McFague develops her argument about the nature of theology in both prescriptive and descriptive terms. Theology is, first, constructive, both because it must be “willing to think differently than in the past”[12] and because of the “character of all human activities.”[13] That is, the situation calls for a deconstruction and reconstruction of traditional Christian symbols, but this is possible in the first place because those symbols were always already constructions. More specifically, theology is, second, metaphorical, both because metaphor is the kind of persuasiveness necessary for our time and because of the impossibility of direct reference to God. That is, the situation calls for the “persuasive power”[14] that metaphor can provide, which is the most any theology can provide, because “no words or phrases refer directly to God.”[15] 

The combination of these two descriptors leads McFague to conceive of “constructive, metaphorical theology” as heuristic. Heuristic theology, therefore, comprises a variety of characteristics that ultimately pertain to (and sometimes interchangeably describe) the constructive and metaphorical nature of theology as it is and as it must be “for our time.” A representative rendition of these characteristics includes: destabilizing, nontraditional, unconventional, novel, imaginative, experimental, imagistic, pluralistic, hypothetical, tentative, partial, open-ended, and skeptical. Considering this conception, a critical methodological upshot of heuristic theology is that “systematic, comprehensive construction seems inappropriate if not impossible.”[16]

The nature of theology as McFague conceives it applies to the theology of Scripture itself. Paul and John, for example, wrote constructive, metaphorical theology applicable and appropriate to their situation. Scriptural metaphors are, therefore, just as liable to deconstruction and reconstruction as later theology. There is no hint in McFague of a doctrine of inspiration or an ontology of Scripture that would validate the durability of its images, much less their ability to refer cataphatically to God. Instead, Scripture, along with the classics of the tradition, is a witness to the story of Jesus, involved in the same hermeneutical spiral of interpreting experiences of God’s saving love that contemporary theologians engage.[17] The earliest interpretations are “normative,” however, which means “we should take [Scripture] on its own terms as a model of how theology should be done, rather than as the authority dictating the terms in which it is done.”[18] 

Yet, in contrast to the rest of Scripture, the story of Jesus is “paradigmatic”: “The point is that one cannot, in this tradition, distill some eternal truths from the ‘story of Jesus’ and then cast the story aside; on the contrary, the events of and surrounding the life, death, and appearances of Jesus of Nazareth are claimed at the very least to be paradigmatic, that is, exemplars, models, parables of the God-world relationship, for today.”[19] Given the relationship of parables, metaphors, and models in McFague’s thought, it is not clear why the story of Jesus is formally different than the paradigms and models of those who do theology subsequently (or previously). And McFague claims that the terms in which the Gospels present the story are not universal. She nonetheless marks the difference between the story of Jesus as a model of God's saving love and the rest of Scripture as expressions of the experience of God’s saving love. The two are equally metaphorical and, therefore, liable to deconstruction and reconstruction, but they are presently relevant in distinct ways.

Argument 3: The Heart of the Gospel (Material Norm). The order of the arguments so far is important, because the situation and the nature of theology circumscribe the articulation of the gospel. In other words, whereas the “heart of the gospel” is the material norm of theology, every articulation of it must be judged by the formal criterion of the situation, and this applies equally to Scripture’s articulations. This way of putting it, though, highlights the question: articulation of what? McFague has already said that “although a heuristic theology is not limited to interpreting texts—neither the classic text nor texts of the tradition—it is concerned with the same 'matter' as those texts and that tradition, namely, the salvific power of God.”[20] But this is very general, and it remains necessary to say more about the “basic characteristics of the Christian understanding of the God-world relationship” of which the story of Jesus is paradigmatic.[21] 

For McFague, liberation theology is “a new way of understanding the relationship between God and the world, a new way of interpreting what salvation means.”[22] This newness seems to meet heuristic theology’s need for novelty, so McFague abbreviates liberation theology’s understanding of the basic characteristics of the God-world relationship and then makes them her own presumptive articulation of the heart of the gospel: “a destabilizing, inclusive, nonhierarchical vision of Christian faith, the claim that the gospel of Christianity is a new creation for all of creation—a life of freedom and fulfillment for all.”[23] From here, there is a critical hermeneutical move: McFague wishes to make a case for “a destabilizing, inclusive, nonhierarchical vision of Christian faith” by looking at the paradigmatic story of Jesus, because the theologian is constrained to return to it.[24] “What is being sought,” she clarifies, “is not primarily validation of the story of Jesus as having these characteristics but illumination of our situation by that paradigmatic story.”[25] In other words, the intention is not to impose her liberationist articulation of the gospel onto the story of Jesus but to allow the story of Jesus to norm the articulation. In practice, though, McFague examines Jesus’s parables, table fellowship, and cross and finds that a term of the destabilizing, inclusive, nonhierarchical vision corresponds to each: the parables are destabilizing, table fellowship is inclusive, and the cross is nonhierarchical.

Additionally—and despite her initial articulation of the liberation gospel—McFague also sees the need to “go beyond most of the liberation theologies to extend this vision to the cosmos and our responsibility for it.”[26] To some extent, this is an effect of the formal criterion of the situation, in which nuclear knowledge puts the whole cosmos at risk. At the same time, the cosmological monism of the “evolutionary, ecological perspective” McFague identifies as the situation is arguably a sign of her debt to process theology.[27] In the end, she unequivocally identifies the heart of the gospel—the material norm of theology, which is the paradigm of the experience of God’s salvation that theology must persuasively express in metaphors and models appropriate for our time—as a destabilizing, inclusive, nonhierarchical vision of fulfillment for all of creation.[28] 

Argument 4 and 5: The Inadequacy of the Monarchical Model and The “Persuasive Appropriateness” of New Metaphors. For brevity’s sake, I will combine the fourth and fifth arguments. The traditional model is triumphalist, monarchical, patriarchal, hierarchical, militaristic, dualistic, and escapist, though McFague settles on monarchical for short. “It has three major flaws: in the monarchical model, God is distant from the world, relates only to the human world, and controls that world through domination and benevolence.”[29] This characterization clearly makes it incompatible with the heart of the gospel, though McFague is wont to allow it might have been an appropriate expression at some other time. Other metaphors, namely, bodies, mothers, lovers, and friends stand to express the God-world relationship with “unmatched power.” In summary: “The particular metaphors of mother, lover, and friend, which come from the deepest level of life and are concerned with its fulfillment, have been suggested as illuminating possibilities for expressing an inclusive, nonhierarchical cal understanding of the gospel. It has been claimed that the object of this gospel is not individuals but the world, and it has been proposed that the world-the cosmos or universe-be seen as God's body.”[30] The arguments for these metaphors are relatively more extensive than the critique of the monarchical model, but in total they defend to the metaphors’ ability to express the destabilizing, inclusive, nonhierarchical vision of fulfillment for all of creation heuristically in the terms set out in the analysis of the situation.

Resources. It is already clear that liberation and process theologies are key resources, which function almost on the level of presuppositions. Additionally, a minimum of biblical scholarship on Jesus’s parables, table fellowship, and cross undergirds McFague’s treatment. Of course, a great deal of her understanding of metaphor—which is perhaps the most important presupposition of the work—depends on the philosophy of language. Also significant in this regard, though it does not receive a reference, is the concept of the root metaphor developed by American philosopher Stephen C. Pepper (1891–1972) in his World Hypotheses (1942). Finally, McFague’s portrayal of the contemporary situation overtly relies on a peculiar pastiche: Jesuit polymath evolutionist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), American author and disarmament advocate Jonathan Schell (1943–2014), and master of suspicion Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900).

Style and Ethos. Much of McFague’s argumet for heuristic theology is precisely about style and ethos (see the list of characteristics in argument two above). And I find her to be fairly consistent in her own style as she writes the book, even if her critique of the monarchical metaphor is something less than tentative. She is certainly deconstructive and nontraditional, though her tone is far more irenic than radical feminists might prefer. It is worth noting, additionally, that her consciously postmodern project is markedly modern (see the virtually triumphalist optimism of Teilhard de Chardin), and her construal of the nuclear, ecological situation is, one might say, apocalyptic. Overall, however, I perceive that her intention is to exercise a fundamentally exploratory style, which shows clearly throughout the reading.

Relation to Christian Tradition and Contemporary Theology 

Overtly and intentionally, McFague is nontraditional. Models of God contains scarcely a reference to historical theology and none to McFague’s own ecclesial tradition. Her location, in her own mind, is a post-Christian one that can barely maintain a connection to the biblical tradition, much less to extra-biblical ones. Representatives like Paul the apostle and Aquinas are at most fellow constructors of theologies whose situational appropriateness assumes an essential irrelevance one to another. The only theological tradition overtly taken up is the via negativa, because it serves precisely the purpose of undermining the assertoric durability of every tradition’s metaphors.

The book’s relation to contemporary theology has already been charted to a significant degree. It is an essentially liberal proposal with a liberation lens on one eye and a process lens on another. McFague’s feminism is sublimated into that liberation perspective and rather muted. For a proposal that is largely methodological, Models of God curiously ignores contemporary alternatives, even failing to approve the methods implicit in liberation theology.

Assessment, Evangelical and Otherwise

A few critiques from an evangelical perspective are relatively obvious. First and foremost, McFague proposes a role for Scripture that is untenable. Some evangelicals have certainly envisioned Scripture’s role on the analogy of a case-book (e.g., Charles Kraft), but it is something else to say that “our primary datum is not a Christian message for all time which becomes concretized in different contexts.”[31] Moreover, it is not clear that McFague’s novel expression of the gospel has actually avoided a kernel/husk approach, however adamantly she rejects the “translation of ancient creeds and concepts to make them relevant.”[32] Second, some evangelicals may appreciate McFague’s critical realism, in that she affirms the existence of a reality to which metaphors refer and rejects unmoored deconstructionism. Yet, she leans far more strongly in the critical direction than in the realist direction and might easily be taken to advocate a constructionism that makes the existence of reality irrelevant. At the very least, evangelicals will tend to find her epistemology too sketchy to be helpful. Third, though both her depiction of metaphor’s theological centrality and her critique of traditional imagery are compelling, McFague seems to have represented the hierarchical model—particularly in its biblical iteration—uncharitably, to say the least. Her argument fails in two key respects. One, her anti-traditionalism prevents her from affording traditional metaphors the nature she wants her own to enjoy: tentativeness, partiality, “the character of ‘is’ and ‘is not.’”[33] They instead fail utterly to express God’s love appropriately in our time. Two, her construal of the “concepts” of the monarchical model fails to locate its imagery narratively. Idolatrous, harmful concepts ostensibly linked to “the kingdom of God” have marred Christian history. But that says nothing about what the metaphors convey in the context of the narrative. It can hardly be argued that Jesus’s kingdom language, leveraged intentionally in the context of Caesar’s rule, meant to convey domination, violence, and dualism. In this, McFague seems, oddly, to overlook one of the indispensable ways metaphor actually functions in the subversion of the status quo and the generation of novel experiences and expressions. Lastly, apart from the many methodological questions that remain unaddressed in Models of God, it is worth noting one that McFague answers implicitly: theology is public and makes a difference—perhaps the difference—for the world. She expects the continuance of life in the nuclear era to depend on the persuasive appropriateness of Christian theology. If there is no vision whatsoever of the church in theology, at least it is clear that whoever is doing theology is engaged with the world, and the stakes are salvation. Unfortunately, salvation has nothing to do with forgiveness or reconciliation with God, making prospects for the outcome of the ecological, nuclear age bleak indeed.

[1] Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 5.

[2] Vancouver School of Theology, “Dr. Sallie McFague,” People, http://vst.edu/people/dr-sallie-mcfague.

[3] McFague, Life Abundant, 5.

[4] David B. Lott, “Introduction,” in Sallie McFague: Collected Readings, ed. David B. Lott (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013), ix.

[5] McFague, Life Abundant, 6–7.

[6] Lott, x.

[7] Ibid., vii.

[8] Ibid., ix.

[9] Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), see argument three below.

[10] See ibid., Kindle locs. 602–7.

[11] Ibid., Kindle locs. 665–67.

[12] Ibid., Kindle locs. 349–352.

[13] Ibid., Kindle locs. 363–64.

[14] Ibid., Kindle locs. 450–52.

[15] Ibid., Kindle locs. 511–12.

[16] Ibid., Kindle loc. 560.

[17] Ibid., Kindle locs. 622–32.

[18] Ibid., Kindle locs. 639–40.

[19] Ibid., Kindle locs. 610–14.

[20] Ibid., Kindle locs. 549–50; emphasis added.

[21] Ibid., Kindle locs. 672–74.

[22] Ibid., Kindle locs. 683.

[23] Ibid., Kindle locs. 706–8.

[24] Ibid., Kindle locs. 718–19.

[25] Ibid., Kindle locs. 726–27.

[26] Ibid., Kindle locs. 710–11.

[27] See esp. ch. 1, fn. 14.

[28] Ibid., Kindle locs. 707–8, 710, 714, 719–20, 786–87, 805, 812–13, 815–21, 824, 840, 1098–99, 1175–76, 1220.

[29] Ibid., Kindle locs. 904–6.

[30] Ibid., Kindle locs. 1215–17

[31] Ibid., Kindle locs. 647–48.

[32] Ibid., Kindle locs. 349–52.

[33] Ibid., Kindle loc. 509.