Imaging a Theology of Nature: The World as God’s Body

by Sallie McFague

Sally McFague is Carpenter Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

This essay originally appeared as chapter 14, pp. 201-227, in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


McFague identifies four images that ecologically attuned Christians might find helpful: God as mother, as lover, as friend, and finally, God as embodied by the universe itself.

In this essay, theologian Sallie McFague, author of the influential Models of God: Theology for an Ecological Nuclear Age, engages in what she calls heuristic theology. The aim of such theology is to interpret God, albeit with humility, in an ecologically responsible manner. Such is the need, so McFague claims, of our "ecological, nuclear age." McFague identifies four images that ecologically attuned Christians might find helpful: God as mother, as lover, as friend, and finally, God as embodied by the universe itself. The importance of McFague’s thinking is evidenced by the many references to her work in other essays in this anthology. She is one of the leading ecological theologians of our time.

I spent my last sabbatical in England, and I think all will agree that England is a green and pleasant land. I recall an early morning trip to Coventry on the bus: the lovely, gently rolling hills, quaint villages with thatched-roofed cottages -- very pastoral, idyllic. There were sheep dotting the hills, but also something else: huge, concrete towers of nuclear plants rising up through the morning mist. It seemed a strange juxtaposition: sheep and nuclear towers -- life and potential death. Our cruise missiles also dotted the countryside, though I did not see them. These towers and missiles symbolize a situation unique to our time. We are the first generation of human beings out of all the billions of humans who have ever lived who have the responsibility of nuclear knowledge. In perverse imitation of God, the creator of life, we have become potential uncreators. We have the knowledge and the power to destroy ourselves and much of the rest of life. And we will always have this knowledge -- regardless of nuclear disarmament. Jonathan Schell in his book The Fate of the Earth speaks of the "second death" -- the death of life (Schell, 99 ff.). The first death is our own individual one and difficult as that is to face, we at least know that birth will follow and others will take our place. But the death of birth is the extinction of life and that is too horrendous to contemplate, especially when we know we would be responsible for it.

Our nuclear knowledge brings to the surface a fundamental fact about human existence. We are part and parcel of the web of life and exist in interdependence with all other beings, both human and nonhuman. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts it in a moment of insight: "I realized that my own poor trifling existence was one with the immensity of all that is and all that is in process of becoming" (Teilhard 1968a, 25). Or, as the poet Wallace Stevens says, "Nothing is itself taken alone. Things are because of interrelations and interconnections" (Stevens, 163). The evolutionary, ecological perspective insists that we are, in the most profound way, "not our own": we belong, from the cells of our bodies to the finest creations of our minds, to the intricate, ever-changing cosmos. We both depend on that web of life for our own continued existence and in a special way we are responsible for it, for we alone know that life is interrelated and we alone know how to destroy it. It is an awesome -- and unsettling -- thought.

As we near the close of the twentieth century we have become increasingly conscious of the fragility of our world. We have also become aware that the anthropocentrism that characterizes much of the Judeo-Christian tradition has often fed a sensibility insensitive to our proper place in the universe.2 The ecological crisis, epitomized in the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, has brought home to many the need for a new mode of consciousness on the part of human beings, for what Rosemary Ruether calls a "conversion" to the earth, a cosmocentric sensibility (Ruether, 89).3

What does all this mean for theology, especially for a theology of nature? Theology, I believe, has special responsibility for the symbols, images, the language, used for expressing the relationship between God and the world in every age. The sciences are also concerned with interpreting reality -- the universe or universes, if you will -- although cosmology means different things to scientists than it does to theologians. Nonetheless, here is a meeting place, a place of common interest, to scientists and theologians. David Tracy and Nicholas Lash have called recently for a "collaborative" relationship between science and theology in order to "help establish plausible ‘mutually critical correlations’ not only to interpret the world but to help change it" (Tracy and Lash, 91).4 They note that relations between science and theology are not only those posed by a recognition of analogies between the two areas on methodological issues but, more pressingly, by a common concern with the cosmos. Thus, a focus on the cosmos with the intent both to understand it better -- and to orient our praxis within it more appropriately -- is one collaborative effort for science and theology in our time.

While cosmology may mean several different things, the theologian’s contribution is concerned with "accounts of the world as God’s creation," and, within that broad compass, one specific enterprise especially needed in our time involves "imaginative perceptions of how the world seems am where we stand in it" (Tracy and Lash, vii)5 In other words. I propose that one theological task is an experimental one with metaphors and models for the relationship between God and the world that will help bring about a theocentric, life-centered, cosmocentric sensibility in place of our anthropocentric one.

This exercise would take place at the juncture between a theology of nature and a theocentric or life-centered ethic. That is, an analysis in some detail of one model of the God/world relationship -- that of the world or universe as God’s body -- would mediate between concepts and praxis, between a theoretical and a practical orientation.

As we begin this task we must keep in mind some criteria for any theology of nature pertinent to the closing years of the twentieth century. First, it must be informed by and commensurate with contemporary scientific accounts of what nature is. Second, it needs to see human life as profoundly interrelated with all other forms of life, refusing the traditional absolute separation of human beings from other creatures as well as of God from the world. Third, it will be a kind of theology that is creation-centered, in contrast to the almost total concern with redemption in some Christian theologies. It will be a theology that focuses, in the broadest and deepest sense, on the incarnational presence of God in the world. Finally, it will acknowledge and press the interconnectedness of peace, justice, and ecological issues, aware that there can be no peace or justice unless the fabric of our ecosystem is intact. What this means, I believe, is that for the first time in the history of the human race, we see the necessity of thinking responsibly and deeply about everything that is. That is a tall order, but once the scales fall from the eyes and one understands the profound relationships between issues of peace and war, justice to the oppressed, and concern for our home -- the earth -- there is no possibility of going back to piecemeal thinking. In other words, a theology of nature must be holistic.

One task that needs to be done within this overarching assignment is to imagine in some detail and depth the relationship between God and the world in a way not only consonant with these criteria, but in a fashion that would help it to come alive in people’s minds and hearts. Human behavior appears to be profoundly influenced by the imagistic, symbolical, narrative powers of human reflection. How would we, for instance, act differently if we imagined the world to be the body of God rather than considering it to be, as the tradition has, the realm of the Almighty King? That question is the basic one I want to consider in this paper.

The kind of theology I will be engaged in here, by no means the only kind, could be called heuristic theology; in analogy with some similar activities in the sciences, it "plays" with possibilities in order to find out, to discover, new fruitful ways to interpret the universe.6 In the case of an heuristic theology focused on cosmology, the discovery would be oriented toward "remythologizing" creation as dependent upon God. More specifically, I propose as a modest contribution to the contemporary understanding of a theological cosmology for our time an elaboration of the model of the world as God’s body, both as a critique of and substitute for the dominant model of the world as the realm of God the king.

The following, therefore, will be a "case study," with a theological model for reenvisioning the relationship between God and the universe. Before turning to this study, however, we will make some preliminary comments on the method employed in this kind of theology as well as on metaphors and models, their character and status.

Imagination and Theology

Christian faith is, it seems to me, most basically a claim that the universe is neither indifferent nor malevolent, but that there is a power (and a personal power at that) that is on the side of life and its fulfillment. Moreover, the Christian believes that we have some clues for fleshing out this claim in the life, death, and appearances of Jesus of Nazareth. Nevertheless, each generation must venture, through an analysis of what fulfillment could and must mean for its own time, the best way to express that claim. A critical dimension of this expression is the imaginative picture, the metaphors and models, that underlie the conceptual systems of theology. One cannot hope to interpret Christian faith for one’s own time if one remains indifferent to the basic images that are the lifeblood of interpretation and that greatly influence people’s perceptions and behavior.7

Many of the major models for the relationship between God and the world in the Judeo-Christian tradition are ones that emphasize the transcendence of God and the distance between God and the world: God as king with the world as his realm, God as potter who creates the cosmos by molding it, God as speaker who with a word brings the world to be out of nothing. One has to ask whether these models are adequate ones for our time, our ecological, nuclear age, in which the radical interdependence and interrelationship of all forms of life must be underscored. Quite apart from that crisis, however, responsible theology ought to be done in the context of contemporary science and were it to take that context seriously, models underscoring the closeness, not the distance, of God and the world would emerge. A. R. Peacocke makes this point well when he says,

There is increasing awareness not only among Christian theologians, but even more among ordinary believers that, if God is in fact the all-encompassing Reality that Christian faith proclaims, then that Reality is to be experienced in and through our actual lives as biological organisms who are persons, part of nature and living in society (Peacocke, 16-17).

For a number of reasons, therefore, experimentation with models underscoring the intimacy of God and creation may be in order and it is this task, with one model, that I will undertake. I have characterized the theological method operative here as heuristic and concerned with metaphors and models. Let us look briefly at these matters. Heuristic theology is distinct from theology as hermeneutics or as construction but has similarities with both.8 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines heuristic adjectivally as "serving to find out" and, when employed as a noun related to learning, as "a system of education under which pupils are trained to find out for themselves." Thus heuristic theology will be one that experiments and tests, that thinks in an as-if fashion, that imagines possibilities that are novel, that dares to think differently. It will not accept solely on the basis of authority but will search for what it finds convincing and persuasive; it will not, however, be fantasy or mere play but will assume that there is something to find out and that if some imagined possibilities fail, others may succeed. The mention of failure and success, and of the persuasive and the convincing, indicates that although I wish to distinguish heuristic theology from both hermeneutical and constructive theology, it bears similarities to both.

If the characteristic mark of hermeneutical theology is its interpretive stance, especially in regard to texts -- both the classic text of the Judeo-Christian tradition (the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament) and the exemplary theologies that build on the classic text -- then heuristic theology is also interpretive, for it claims that its successful unconventional metaphors are not only in continuity with the paradigmatic events and their significance expressed in this classic text but are also appropriate expressions of these matters for the present time. Heuristic theology, though not bound to the images and concepts in scripture, is constrained to show that its proposed models are an appropriate, persuasive expression of Christian faith for our time. Hence, while heuristic theology is not limited to interpreting texts, it is concerned with the same "matter" as the classic texts, namely, the salvific power of God.9

If, on the other hand, the distinctive mark of constructive theology is that it does not rely principally on classical sources but attempts its articulation of the concepts of God, world, and human being with the help of a variety of sources, including material from the natural, physical, and social sciences as well as from philosophy, literature, and the arts, then heuristic theology is also constructive in that it claims that a valid understanding of God and world for a particular time is an imaginative construal built up from a variety of sources, many of them outside religious traditions. Like theology as construction, theology as heuristics supports the assertion that our concept of God is precisely that -- our concept of God -- and not God. Yet, while heuristic theology has some similarities to constructive theology, it has a distinctive emphasis: it will be more experimental, imagistic, and pluralistic.

Its experimental character means it is a kind of theology well suited for times of uncertainty and change, when systematic, comprehensive construction seems inappropriate if not impossible. It could be called "free theology,"10 for it must be willing to play with possibilities and, as a consequence, not take itself too seriously, accepting its tentative, relative, partial, and hypothetical character.

Its imagistic character means it stands as a corrective to the bias of much constructive theology toward conceptual clarity, often at the price of imagistic richness.11 Although it would be insufficient to rest in new images and to refuse to spell out conceptually their implications in as comprehensive a way as possible, the more critical task is to propose what Dennis Nineham calls a "lively imaginative picture" of the way God and the world as we know it are related (Nineham, 201-2). It is no coincidence that most religious traditions turn to personal and public human relationships to serve as metaphors and models of the relationship between God and the world: God as father, mother, lover, friend, king, lord, governor. These metaphors give a precision and persuasive power to the construct of God that concepts alone cannot. Because religions, including Christianity, are not incidentally imagistic but centrally and necessarily so, theology must also be an affair of the imagination.

To say that heuristic theology is pluralistic is to insist that since no metaphor or model refers properly or directly to God, many are necessary. All are inappropriate, partial, and inadequate; the most that can be said is that some aspect or aspects of the God-world relationship are illuminated by this or that model in a fashion relevant to a particular time and place. Models of God are not definitions of God but likely accounts of experiences of relating to God with the help of relationships we know and understand. If one accepts that metaphors (and all language about God) are principally adverbial, having to do with how we relate to God rather than defining the nature of God, then no metaphors or models can be reified, petrified, or expanded so as to exclude all others. One can, for instance, include many possibilities: We can envision relating to God as to a father and a mother, to a healer and a liberator, to the sun and a mountain. As definitions of God, these possibilities are mutually exclusive; as models expressing experiences of relating to God, they are mutually enriching.

In summary, the theology I am proposing is a kind of heuristic construction that in focusing on the imaginative construal of the God-world relationship, attempts to remythologize Christian faith through metaphors and models appropriate for our time.

What, however, is the character and status of the metaphors and models that are the central concern of heuristic theology? A metaphor is a word or phrase used inappropriately.12 It belongs in one context but is being used in another: the arm of the chair, war as a chess game, God the father. From Aristotle until recently, metaphor was seen mainly as a poetic device to embellish or decorate. Increasingly, however, the idea of metaphor as unsubstitutable is winning acceptance; what a metaphor expresses cannot be said directly or apart from it, for if it could, one would have said it directly. Here, metaphor is a strategy of desperation, not decoration; it is an attempt to say something about the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, an attempt to speak about what we do not know in terms of what we do know.

Metaphor always has the character of is and is not: an assertion is made but as a likely account rather than a definition." The point that metaphor underscores is that in certain matters there can be no direct description. It used to be the case that poetry and religion were thought to be distinctive in their reliance on metaphor, but more recently the use of metaphors and models in the natural and social sciences has widened the scope of metaphorical thinking considerably and linked science and theology methodologically in ways inconceivable twenty years ago.14

The difference between a metaphor and a model can be expressed in a number of ways, but most simply, a model is a metaphor with "staying power," that is, a model is a metaphor that has gained sufficient stability and scope so as to present a pattern for relatively comprehensive and coherent explanation.15 The metaphor of God the father is an excellent example of this. In becoming a model, it has engendered wide-ranging interpretation of the relationship between God and human beings; if God is seen as father, human beings become children, sin can be seen as rebellious behavior, and redemption can be thought of as restoration to the status of favored offspring.

It should be evident that a theology that describes itself as metaphorical is a theology at risk. Jacques Derrida, in defining metaphor, writes, "if metaphor, which is mimesis trying its chance, mimesis at risk, may always fail to attain truth, this is because it has to reckon with a definite absence" (Derrida, 42). As Derrida puts it, metaphor lies somewhere between "nonsense" and "truth," and a theology based on metaphor will be open to the charge that it is closer to the first than the second. This is, I believe, a risk that theology in our time must be willing to run. Theology has usually had a high stake in truth, so high that it has refused all play of the imagination: through creedal control and the formulations of orthodoxy, it has refused all attempts at new metaphors "trying their chance." But a heuristic theology insists that new metaphors and models be given a chance, be tried out as likely accounts of the God-world relationship, be allowed to make a case for themselves. A heuristic theology is, therefore, destabilizing. Since no language about God is adequate and all of it is improper, new metaphors are not necessarily less inadequate or improper than old ones. All are in the same situation and no authority -- not scriptural status, liturgical longevity, or ecclesiastical fiat -- can decree that some types of language, or some images, refer literally to God while others do not. None do. Hence, the criteria for preferring some to others must be other than authority, however defined.

We come, then, finally, to the issue of the status of language about God. R. W. Hepburn has posed it directly:

The question which should be of the greatest concern to the theologian is . . . whether or not the circle of myth, metaphor, and symbol is a closed one: and if closed then in what way propositions about God manage to refer (Hepburn, 23).

The "truth" of a construal of the God-world relationship is a mixture of belief (Ricoeur calls it a "wager"), pragmatic criteria, and what Philip Wheelwright terms a "shy ontological claim," or, as in Mary Hesse’s striking remark, "God is more like gravitation than embarrassment" (Arbib and Hesse, 5). Belief in God is not taken to be purely a social construct. At least this is what a critical realist would claim. Thus, metaphors and models of God are understood to be discovered as well as created, to relate to God’s reality not in the sense of being literally in correspondence with it, but as versions or hypotheses of it that the community (in this case, the church) accepts as relatively adequate.16 Hence, models of God are not simply heuristic fictions; the critical realist does not accept the Feuerbachian critique that language about God is nothing but human projection. On the other hand, any particular metaphor or model is not the only, appropriate, true one.

How does one come to accept a model as true? We live within the model, testing our wager by its consequences. These consequences are both theoretical and practical. An adequate model will be illuminating, fruitful, have relatively comprehensive explanatory ability, be relatively consistent, be able to deal with anomalies, and so on. This largely, though not totally, functional, pragmatic view of truth stresses heavily the implications of certain models for the quality of human and nonhuman life. A praxis orientation does not deny the possibility of the "shy ontological claim," but it does acknowledge both the mystery of God and the importance of truth as practical wisdom. Thus it acknowledges with the apophatic tradition that we really do not know the inner being of divine reality; the hints and clues we have of the way things are, whether we call them religious experiences, revelation, or whatever, are too fragile, too little (and often too negative) for heavy metaphysical claims. Rather, in the tradition of Aristotle, truth means constructing the good life for thepolis, though for our time this must mean for the cosmos. A "true" model of God will be one that is a powerful, persuasive construal of God as being on the side of life and its fulfillment in our time.17

God and the World

We turn now to consider models for the relationship between God and the world. The dominant model has been monarchical; the classical picture employs royalist, triumphalist metaphors, depicting God as king, lord, and patriarch, who rules over and cares for the world and human beings. Ian Barbour, theologian and philosopher of science, says of this model:

The monarchical model of God as King was developed systematically, both in Jewish thought (God as Lord and King of the Universe), in medieval Christian thought (with its emphasis on divine omnipotence), and in the Reformation (especially in Calvin’s insistence on God’s sovereignty). In the portrayal of God’s relation to the world, the dominant western historical model has been that of the absolute monarch ruling over his kingdom (Harbour, 156).18

This imaginative picture is so prevalent in mainstream Christianity that it is often not recognized as a picture. It is a powerful imaginative picture and a very dangerous one. As Gordon Kaufman points out in Theology for a Nuclear Age, divine sovereignty is the issue with which theologians in the nuclear age must deal. In its cruder versions, God is the king who fights on the side of his chosen ones to bring their enemies down; in more refined versions God is the father who will not let his children suffer. The first view supports militarism; the second supports escapism. As Kaufman states, two groups of American Christians currently rely on these images of God in their responses to the nuclear situation: one group claims that if a nuclear holocaust comes, it will be God’s will -- the Armageddon -- and America should arm itself to fight the devil’s agent, Communist Russia; the other passively relies on the all-powerful father to take care of the situation. Is divine sovereignty the appropriate imagery for our time? It may have been for some ages, but in our time, when the interdependence of all life and our special responsibility for it needs to be emphasized, is it for ours?

As Kaufman points out, the monarchical model results in a pattern of "asymmetrical dualism" between God and the world, in which God and the world are only distantly related and all power, either as domination or benevolence, is on God’s side (Kaufman, 39). It supports conceiving of God as a being existing somewhere apart from the world and ruling it externally either directly through divine intervention or indirectly through controlling the wills of his subjects. It creates feelings of awe in the hearts of loyal subjects and thus supports the "godness" of God, but these feelings are balanced by others of abject fear and humiliation: in this picture, God can be God only if we are nothing.

Very briefly, let me summarize a few major problems with this model as an imaginative framework for understanding God’s saving love as an inclusive one of fulfillment for all of creation. In the monarchical model, God is distant from the world, relates only to the human world, and controls that world through domination and benevolence. On the first point: the relationship of a king to his subjects is necessarily a distant one for royalty is "untouchable." It is the distance, the difference, the otherness of God, that is underscored with this imagery. God as king is in his kingdom -- which is not of this earth -- and we remain in another place, far from his dwelling. In this picture God is worldless and the world is Godless: the world is empty of God’s presence. Whatever one does for the world is not finally important in this model, for its ruler does not inhabit it as his primary residence, and his subjects are well advised not to become too enamored of it either.

Although these comments may at first seem like a caricature rather than a fair description of the classical Western monarchical model, they are the direct implications of its imagery. If metaphors matter, then one must take them seriously at the level at which they function, that is, at the level of the imaginative picture of God and the world they project. And one of the direct implications is distance and at best only external involvement. To be sure, kings want their subjects to be loyal and their realms peaceful, but that does not mean internal, intrinsic involvement. Kings do not have to, and usually do not, love their subjects or realms; at most, one hopes they will be benevolent.

But such benevolence extends only to human subjects: in the monarchical model there is no concern for the cosmos, for the nonhuman world. Here is our second objection to this model. It is simply blank in terms of what lies outside the human sphere. As a political model focused on governing human beings, it leaves out most of reality. One could say at this point that, as with all models, it has limitations and needs to be balanced by other models. Such a comment does not address the seriousness of the monarchical model’s power, for as the dominant Western model, it has not allowed competing models to arise. The tendency, rather, has been to draw other models into its orbit, as is evident with the model of God as father. This model could have gone in the direction of parent (and that is clearly its New Testament course), with associations of nurture, care, guidance, and responsibility, but under the powerful influence of the monarchical model, the parent becomes the patriarch, and patriarchs act more like kings than like fathers: They rule their children and they demand obedience.

The monarchical model is not only highly anthropocentric, but it supports a kind of anthropocentricism characterized by dualistic hierarchies. We not only imagine God in our image, but those images we use for imaging God also become standards for human behavior. Dualistic, triumphalistic thinking fuels many forms of oppression.19 While the monarchical model may not be responsible alone for hierarchical dualism, it has supported it: the dualisms of male/female, spirit/nature, human/nonhuman, Christian/non-Christian, rich/poor, white/colored, and so forth. The hierarchical, dualistic pattern is so widespread in Western thought that it is often not perceived to be a pattern, but is felt to be simply the way things are. It appears natural to many that whites, males, the rich, and Christians are superior to other human beings, and that human beings are more valuable in all respects than other forms of life.

We come, then, to the third criticism of the monarchical model: God rules either through domination or benevolence, thus undercutting human responsibility for the world. It is simplistic to blame the Judeo-Christian tradition for the ecological crisis, as some have done, on the grounds that Genesis instructs human beings to have dominion over nature; nonetheless, the imagery of sovereignty supports attitudes of control and use toward the nonhuman world.20 Although the might of the natural world when unleashed is fearsome, as is evident in earthquakes, tornadoes, and volcanic eruptions, the power balance has shifted from nature to us, and an essential aspect of the new sensibility is to recognize and accept this. Nature can and does destroy many, but it is not in the position to destroy all, as we can. Extinction of species by nature is in a different dimension from extinction by design, which only we can bring about. This chilling thought adds a new importance to the images we use to characterize our relationship to others and to the nonhuman world. If we are capable of extinguishing ourselves and most, if not all, other life, metaphors that support attitudes of distance from, and domination of, other human beings and nonhuman life must be recognized as dangerous. No matter how ancient a metaphorical tradition may be and regardless of its credentials in scripture, liturgy, and creedal statements, it still must be discarded if it threatens the continuation of life itself. If the heart of the Christian gospel is the salvific power of God, triumphalist metaphors cannot express that reality in our time, whatever their appropriateness may have been in the past.

And this is so even if God’s power is seen as benevolence rather than domination. For if God’s rule is understood benevolently, it will be assumed that all is well -- that the world will be cared for with no help from us. The king as dominating sovereign encourages attitudes of militarism and destruction; the king as benevolent patriarch encourages attitudes of passivity and escape from responsibility.21 The monarchical model is dangerous in our time. It encourages a sense of distance from the world; it attends only to the human dimension of the world; and it supports attitudes of either domination of the world or passivity toward it. As an alternative model I suggest considering the world as God’s body.

In what ways would we think of the relationship between God and the world were we to experiment with the metaphor of the universe as God’s body, God’s palpable presence in all space and time? If the entire universe is expressive of God’s very being -- the incarnation, if you will -- do we not have the beginnings of an imaginative picture of the relationship between God and the world peculiarly appropriate as a context for interpreting the salvific love of God for our time? If what is needed in our ecological, nuclear age is an imaginative vision of the relationship between God and the world that underscores their interdependence and mutuality, empowering a sensibility of care and responsibility toward all life, how would it help to see the world as the body of God?

This image, radical as it may seem (in light of the dominant metaphor of a king to his realm) for imagining the relationship between God and the world, is a very old one with roots in Stoicism and elliptically in the Hebrew Scriptures. The notion has tantalized many, including Tertullian and Irenacus, and though it received little assistance from either Platonism or Aristotelianism because of their denigration of matter and the body (and hence did not enter the mainstream of either Augustinian or Thomistic theology), it surfaced powerfully in Hegel as well as in twentieth-century process theologies.22 The mystical tradition within Christianity has carried the notion implicitly, even though the metaphor of body may not appear: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" (Gerard Manley Hopkins, 27). "There is communion with God, and a communion with the earth, and a communion with God through the earth" (Teilhard 1968a, 14).

As we begin this experiment with the model of the world as God’s body, we must once again recall that a metaphor or model is not a description. We are trying to think in an as-if fashion about the God-world relationship, because we have no other way of thinking about it. No metaphor fits in all ways, and some are more nonsense than sense. The king-realm kind of thinking about the God-world relationship sounds like sense because we are used to it, but reflection shows that in our world it is nonsense. For a metaphor to be acceptable, it need not, cannot, apply in all ways; if it did, it would be a description. The metaphor of the world as God’s body has the opposite problem to the metaphor of the world as the king’s realm; if the latter puts too great a distance between God and the world, the former verges on too great a proximity. Since neither metaphor fits exactly, we have to ask which one is better in our time and to qualify it with other metaphors and models. Is it better to accept an imaginative picture of God as the distant ruler controlling his realm through external and benevolent power or one of God so intimately related to the world that the world can be imagined as God’s body? Which is better in terms of our and the world’s preservation and fulfillment? Which is better in terms of coherence, comprehensibility, and illumination? Which is better in terms of expressing the Christian understanding of the relationship between God and the world? All these criteria are relevant, for a metaphor that is all or mostly nonsense has tried and failed.

Therefore, a heuristic, metaphorical theology, though hospitable initially to nonsense, is constrained as well to search for sense. Christians should, given their tradition, be inclined to find sense in body language, not only because of the resurrection of the body but also because of the bread and wine of the eucharist as the body and blood of Christ, and the church as the body with Christ as its head. Christians have a surprisingly "bodily" tradition. Nonetheless, there is a difference between the traditional uses of body and seeing the world as God’s body: when the world is viewed as God’s body, that body includes more than just Christians, and more than just human beings. It is possible to speculate that if Christianity had begun in a culture less dualistic and antiphysical than that of the first-century Mediterranean world, it might have been willing, given the more holistic anthropology and theology of its Hebraic roots, to extend its body metaphor to God? At any rate, in view of the contemporary holistic understanding of personhood, in which embodiment is the sine qua non, the thought of an embodied divine person is not more incredible than that of a disembodied one; in fact, it is less so. In a dualistic culture where mind and body, spirit and flesh, are separable, a disembodied, personal God is more credible, but not in ours. This is only to suggest that the idea of God’s embodiment -- the idea as such, quite apart from particulars -- should not be seen as nonsense; it is less nonsense than the idea of a disembodied personal God.

We are imagining the world to be God’s body. The body of God, then, would be nothing less than all that is -- the universe or universes and everything they contain of which cosmologists speak. The body of God, as theologians would say, is creation, understood as God’s self-expression; it is formed in God’s own reality, bodied forth in the eons of evolutionary time, and supplied with the means to nurture and sustain billions of different forms of life. We give life only to others of our own species, but God gives life to all that is, all species of life and all forms of matter. In a monotheistic, panentheistic theology, if one is to understand God in some sense as physical and not just spiritual, then the entire "body" of the universe is "in" God and is God’s visible self-expression. This body, albeit a strange one if we take ours as the model, is nothing less than all that exists.

Would God, then, be reduced to the world or the universe? The metaphor does come far closer to pantheism than the king-realm model, which verges on deism, but it does not identify God totally with the world any more than we identify ourselves totally with our bodies. Other animals may be said to be bodies that have spirits; we may be said to be spirits that possess bodies.24 This is not to introduce a new dualism but only to recognize that, although our bodies are expressions of us both unconsciously and consciously, we can reflect about them and distance ourselves from them. The very fact that we can speak about our bodies is evidence that we are not totally one with them. On this model God is not reduced to the world if the world is God’s body. Without the use of personal, agential metaphors, however, including among others God as mother, father, healer, lover, friend, judge, and liberator, the metaphor of the world as God’s body would be pantheistic, for the body would be all there were.25 Nonetheless, the model is most precisely designated as panentheistic; that is, it is a view of the God-world relationship in which all things have their origins in God and nothing exists outside God, though this does not mean that God is reduced to these things.26

Nevertheless, though God is not reduced to the world, the metaphor of the world as God’s body puts God "at risk." If we follow out the implications of the metaphor, we see that God becomes dependent through being bodily in a way that a totally invisible, distant God would never be. Just as we care about our bodies, are made vulnerable by them, and must attend to their well-being, God will be liable to bodily contingencies. The world as God’s body may be poorly cared for, ravaged, and as we are becoming well-aware, essentially destroyed, in spite of God’s own loving attention to it, because of one creature, ourselves, who can choose or not choose to join with God in conscious care of the world. Presumably, were our tiny corner of this body destroyed, another could be formed; hence, God need not be seen to be as dependent on us or on any particular body as we are on our bodies. But in the metaphor of the universe as the self-expression of God -- God’s incarnation -- the notions of vulnerability, shared responsibility, and risk are inevitable. This is a markedly different basic understanding of the God-world relationship than in the monarch-realm metaphor, for it emphasizes God’s willingness to suffer for and with the world, even to the point of personal risk. The world as God’s body, then, may be seen as a way to remythologize the inclusive, suffering love of the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. In both instances God is at risk in human hands: just as once upon a time in a bygone mythology human beings killed their God in the body of a man, so now we once again have that power, but in a mythology more appropriate to our time; we would kill our God in the body of the world. Could we actually do this? To believe in the resurrection means we could not. God is not in our power to destroy, but the incarnate God is at risk; we have been given central responsibility to care for God’s body, our world.

If God, though at risk and dependent on others, is not reduced to the world in the metaphor of the world as God’s body, what more can we say about the meaning of this model? How does God know the world, act in it, and love it? How does one speak of evil in this metaphor? In the monarchical model, God knows the world externally, acts on it either by direct intervention or indirectly through human subjects, and loves it benevolently, in a charitable way. God’s knowledge, action, and love are markedly different in the metaphor of the world as God’s body. God knows the world immediately just as we know our bodies immediately. God could be said to be in touch with all parts of the world through interior understanding. Moreover, this knowledge is empathetic, intimate, sympathetic knowledge, closer to feeling than to rationality.27 It is knowledge "by acquaintance"; it is not "information about." Just as we are internally related to our bodies, so God is internally related to all that is -- the most radically relational Thou. God relates sympathetically to the world, just as we relate sympathetically to our bodies. This implies, of course, an immediacy and concern in God’s knowledge of the world impossible in the king-realm model.

Moreover, it implies that the action of God in the world is similarly interior and caring. If the entire universe, all that is and has been, is God’s body, then God acts in and through the incredibly complex physical and historical-cultural evolutionary process that began eons ago.28 This does not mean that God is reduced to the evolutionary process, for God remains as the agent, the self, whose intentions are expressed in the universe. Nevertheless, the manner in which these intentions are expressed is internal and, by implication, providential -- that is, reflective of a "caring" relationship. God does not, as in the royal model, intervene in the natural or historical process deus ex machina fashion, nor does God feel merely charitable toward the world. The suggestion, however, that God cares about the world as one cares about one’s own body, that is, with a high degree of sympathetic concern, does not imply that all is well or the future assured, for with the body metaphor, God is at risk. It does suggest, however, that to trust in a God whose body is the world is to trust in a God who cares profoundly about the world.

Furthermore, the model of the world as God’s body suggests that God loves bodies: in loving the world, God loves a body. Such a notion is a sharp challenge to the long antibody, antiphysical, antimatter tradition within Christianity. This tradition has repressed healthy sexuality, oppressed women as sexual tempters, and defined Christian redemption in spiritualistic ways, thus denying that basic social and economic needs of embodied beings are relevant to salvation. To say that God loves bodies is to redress the balance toward a more holistic understanding of fulfillment. It is to say that bodies are worth loving, sexually and otherwise, that passionate love as well as attention to the needs of bodily existence are part of fulfillment. It is to say further that the basic necessities of bodily existence -- adequate food and shelter, for example --. are central aspects of God’s love for all bodily creatures and therefore should be central concerns for us, God’s coworkers. In a holistic sensibility there can be no spirit/body split: if neither we nor God is disembodied, then denigration of the body, the physical, and matter should end. Such a split makes no sense in our world: spirit and body or matter are on a continuum, for matter is not inanimate substance but throbs of energy, essentially in continuity with spirit. To love bodies, then, is to love not what is opposed to spirit but what is one with it -- which the model of the world as God’s body fully expresses.

The immanence of God in the world implied in our metaphor raises the question of God’s involvement with evil. Is God responsible for evil, both natural and humanly willed evil? The pictures of the king and his realm and of God and the world as God’s body obviously suggest very different replies to these enormously difficult and complex questions. In the monarchical construct, God is implicitly in contest with evil powers, either as victorious king, who crushes them or as sacrificial servant, who (momentarily) assumes a worldly mien in order to free his subjects from evil’s control. The implication of ontological dualism, of opposing good and evil powers, is the price paid for separating God from evil, and it is a high price indeed, for it suggests that the place of evil is the world (and ourselves) and that to escape evil’s clutches, we need to free ourselves from "the world, the flesh, and the devil." In this construct God is not responsible for evil, but neither does God identify with the suffering caused by evil.

That identification does occur in the metaphor of the world as God’s body. The evil in the world, all kinds of evil, occurs in and to God as well as to us and the rest of creation. Evil is not a power over against God; in a sense, it is God’s "responsibility," part of God’s being, if you will. A monistic, panentheistic position cannot avoid this conclusion.29 In a physical, biological, historico-cultural evolutionary process as complex as the universe, much that is evil from various perspectives will occur, and if one sees this process as God’s self-expression, then God is involved in evil. But the other side of this is that God is also involved, profoundly, palpably, personally involved, in suffering, in the suffering caused by evil. The evil occurs in and to God’s body; the pain that those parts of creation affected by evil feel God also feels and feels bodily. All pain to all creatures is felt immediately and bodily by God: one does not suffer alone. In this sense God’s suffering on the cross was not for a mere few hours, as in the old mythology, but it is present and permanent. As the body of the world, God is forever "nailed to the cross," for as this body suffers, so God suffers.30

Is this to suggest that God is helpless in relation to evil and that God knows no joy? No, for the way of the cross, the way of inclusive, radical love, is a kind of power, though a very different kind from kingly might. It does imply, however, that unlike God the king, the God who suffers with the world cannot wipe out evil; evil is not only part of the process but its power also depends on us, God’s partners in the way of inclusive, radical love. And what holds for suffering can be said of joy as well. Wherever in the universe there is new life, ecstasy, tranquility, and fulfillment, God experiences these pleasures and rejoices with each creature in its joy.

When we turn to our side of this picture of the world as God’s body, we have to ask whether we are reduced to being mere parts of the body. What is our freedom? How is sin understood here? How would we behave in this model? The model did not fit God’s side in every way, and it does not fit ours in every way either. It seems especially problematic at the point of our individuality and freedom. At least in the king-realm model, human beings appear to have some freedom since they are controlled only externally, not internally. The problem emerges because of the nature of bodies. If we are parts of God’s body -- if the model is totally organic -- are we not totally immersed, along with all other creatures, in the evolutionary process, with no transcendence or freedom? It appears, however, at least to us, that we are a special part. We think of ourselves as imago dei, as not only possessing bodies but being agents. We view ourselves as embodied spirits in the larger body of the world which influences us and which we influence. That is, we are the part molded on the model: self:body::God:world. We are agents, and God possesses a body: both sides of the model pertain to both God and ourselves. This implies that we are not mere submerged parts of the body of God but related to God as to another Thou. The presence of God p to us in and through God’s body is the experience of encounter, not of submersion. For the saving love of God to be present to human beings it would have to be so in a way different from how it is present to other aspects of the body of the world -- in a way in keeping with the peculiar kind of creatures we are, namely, creatures with a special kind of freedom, able to participate self-consciously (as well as be influenced unconsciously) in an evolutionary process. This gives us a special status and a special responsibility: We are the ones like God; we are selves that possess bodies, and that is our glory. It is also our responsibility, for we alone can choose to become partners with God in care of the world; we alone can -- like God -- love, heal, befriend, and liberate the world, the body, that God has made available to us as both the divine presence and our home.

Our special status and responsibility, however, are not limited to consciousness of our own personal bodies, or even of the human world, but extend to all embodied reality, for we are that part of the cosmos where the cosmos itself has come to consciousness. If we become extinct, then the cosmos will lose its human, although presumably not its divine, consciousness. As Jonathan Schell remarks, "In extinction a darkness falls over the world not because the lights have gone out but because the eyes that behold the light have been closed" (Schell, 128).31

It is obvious, then, what sin is in this metaphor of the world as God’s body: it is refusal to be part of the body, the special part we are as imago dei. In contrast to the king-realm model, where sin is against God, here it is against the world. To sin is not to refuse loyalty to the king, but to refuse to take responsibility for nurturing, loving, and befriending the body and all its parts. Sin is the refusal to realize one’s radical interdependence with all that lives; it is the desire to set oneself apart from all others as not needing them or being needed by them. Sin is the refusal to be the eyes, the consciousness, of the cosmos.

What this experiment with the world as God’s body comes to, finally, is an awareness, both chilling and breathtaking, that we, as worldly, bodily beings, are in God’s presence. We do not have to go to some special place -- a church, for instance -- or to another world, to find God, for God is present with us here and now. We have a basis for a revived sacramentalism, that is, a perception of the divine as visible, as present, palpably present in the world. But it is a kind of sacramentalism that is painfully conscious of the world’s vulnerability, its preciousness, its uniqueness. The beauty of the world and its ability to sustain the vast multitude of species it supports is not there for the taking. The world is a body that must be carefully tended, that must be nurtured, protected, guided, loved, and befriended both as valuable in itself -- for like us, it is an expression of God -- and as necessary to the continuation of life. We meet the world as a Thou, as the body of God where God is present to us always in all times and in all places. In the metaphor of the world as God’s body the resurrection is remythologized as a worldly, present, inclusive event -- the offering of the world, God’s body, to all: "This is my body." As is true of all bodies, however, this body, in its beauty and precariousness, is vulnerable and at risk -- it will delight the eye only if we care for it; it will nourish us only if we nurture it. Needless to say, then, were this metaphor to enter our consciousness as thoroughly as the royal, triumphalist one has entered, it would result in a different way of being in the world. There would be no way we could any longer see God as worldless or the world as Godless. Nor could we expect God to take care of everything, either through domination or through benevolence.

We see through pictures. We do not see directly. The pictures of a king and his realm and of the world as God’s body are ways of speaking, ways of imagining the God-world relationship. The one pictures a vast distance between God and the world; the other imagines them as intrinsically related. At the close of day one asks which distortion (assuming that all pictures are false in some respects) is better by asking what attitudes each encourages. This is not the first question to ask, but it may well be the last. The monarchical model encourages attitudes of militarism, dualism, and escapism; it condones control through violence and oppression; it has nothing to say about the nonhuman world. The model of the world as God’s body encourages holistic attitudes of responsibility for and care of the vulnerable and oppressed; it is nonhierarchical and acts through persuasion and attraction; it has a great deal to say about the body and nature. Both are pictures. Which distortion is more true to the world in which we live and to the good news of Christianity?

It may be, of course, that neither picture is appropriate to our time and to Christian faith; if so, others should be proposed. Our profound need for a powerful, attractive, imaginative picture of the way God is related to our world demands that we not only deconstruct but reconstruct our metaphors, letting the ones that seem promising try their chance.

The model of the universe as God’s body is admittedly an immanental one, significant in part because it redresses the heavily transcendent imagery for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But it also suggests, in its own way, a model of transcendence -- what one might call cosmocentric transcendence -- that is awe-inspiring. The common "creation story" emerging from the fields of astrophysics, biology, and scientific cosmology makes small any myth of creation from the various religious traditions: some ten billion or so years ago the universe began from a big bang exploding the "matter," which was infinitesimally small and infinitely dense, outward to create the untold number of galaxies of which our tiny planet is but one blip on the screen. From this beginning came all that followed, so everything that is is related, woven into a seamless network, with life gradually emerging after billions of years on this planet (and perhaps on others) and resulting in the incredibly complex, intricate universe we see today.32 To think of God as the creator and continuing creator/sustainer of this massive, breathtaking cosmic fact dwarfs all our traditional images of divine transcendence -- whether political or metaphysical. And yet, to think of the transcendence of God this way would not contradict the immanental body image. Rather, the two would come together in a cosmocentric, immanental model of transcendence: God the creator of the evolving, incredibly vast and complex universe understood as the divine "body."

What I am suggesting is that we learn to think differently about what the saving love of God must mean in our time if it is to be really for our time, addressing the question of the possible end of existence raised by ecological deterioration and nuclear escalation -- and that we do this by thinking in different images. The one I have suggested is just that: one image -- many others are needed. We must be careful, very careful, of the imagistic glasses through which we interpret God and the world. As Erich Heller, the German philosopher and literary critic, said: "Be careful how you interpret the world. It is like that."

Some treatments attempting to raise consciousness on the ecological, nuclear situation paint a picture of nuclear winter or the extent of death and destruction that will occur after such an event. But it is even more telling in terms of our perception of the world, of how wondrous it is and how much we do in fact care for it, to think small. Almost anything will do -- sheep on the English hills, a child’s first steps, the smell of rain on a spring day, whatever, as long as it is some particular, cherished aspect of the world -- and then dwell on its specialness, its distinctiveness, its value, until the pain of contemplating its permanent loss, not just to you or me, but to all for all time, becomes unbearable. This is a form of prayer for the world as the body of God that we, as lovers and friends of the world, are summoned to practice. This prayer, while not the only one in an ecological, nuclear age, is a necessary and permanent one. It is a form of meditation to help us think differently about the world, to enable us to work together with God to save our beleaguered planet, our beautiful, vulnerable earth, our blue and green marble in a universe of silent rock and fire.


1. This paper is based in part on material from my book, Models of God:Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. In that work I experiment with the models of God as mother/creator, lover/redeemer, friend/sustainer of the world understood as God’s body. The present essay is written in two tracks: the central argument, which appears as the text, and the Scholarly discussion, especially as regards issues pertinent to the Annecy meeting, which appears as the endnotes.

2. Present-day concern among theologians with anthropocentrism or homocentrism is wide-spread. James M. Gustafson, in the first volume of Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, states the concern succinctly with his pithy remark that while human beings are the measurers of all things, they are not the measure of all things (Gustafson, 82). Our anthropocentrism can, he believes, be overcome only by a profound acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God, a consent to divine governance that sets limits to human life and in which we "relate to all things in a manner appropriate to their relations to God" (p. 113). Only then will human beings, he says, "confront their awesome possibilities and their inexorable limitations" (pp. 16-17). Stephen Toulmin echoes these sentiments in an elegant statement on the cosmos understood on the model of our "home": "We can do our best to build up a conception of the ‘overall scheme of things’ which draws as heavily as it can on the results of scientific study, informed by a genuine piety in all its attitudes toward creatures of other kinds: a piety that goes beyond the consideration of their usefulness to Humanity as instructions for the fulfillment of human ends. That is an alternative within which human beings can both feel, and also be. at home. For to be at home in the world of nature does not just mean finding out how to utilize nature economically and efficiently -- home is not a hotel! It means making sense out of the relations that human beings and other living things have toward the overall patterns of nature in ways that give us some sense of their proper relations to one another, to ourselves, and to the whole" (Toulmin, 272). Sigurd Daecke finds anthropocentrism to be deeply embedded in Protestant theologies of creation reaching back to Luther ("I believe that God has created me") and Calvin (nature is the stage for salvation history) and finding a twentieth-century home in the humanistic individualism of Bultmann as well as the Christocentrism of Barth ("the reality of creation is known in Jesus Christ") (see Daecke). In a somewhat different vein, Tracy and Lash, while agreeing that the anthropic principle is untenable in science, find a certain kind of anthropocentrism appropriate in theology: (1) human beings are both products of and interpreters of the evolutionary process; (2) human beings are responsible for much of our world’s ills: "if we are the ‘center’ of anything, we are the center of ‘sin,’ of the self-assertive disruption and unraveling of the process of things, at least on our small planet" (Tracy and Lash, 280).

3. James M. Gustafson and WCC materials appear to prefer the phrases "theocentric" and "life-centered" to "cosmocentric" (see Gustafson, vol. I, esp. pp. 87-113). Each phrase highlights a somewhat different focus on a set of interrelated entities: God, life, and the total environment that both supports and includes life. It is helpful, I believe, to use all three in a variety of contexts; if only one is chosen, the intrinsic interrelations are forgotten.

4. Tracy and Lash contrast the collaborative model with two others, described as confrontational and concordist, neither of which is appropriate for our time. In a similar fashion Ernan McMullin asks for "consonance" between scientific and theological views. The theologian "should aim at some sort of coherence of world-view, a coherence to which science and theology, and indeed many other sorts of human construction like history, politics, and literature, must contribute" (McMullin, 52). It is in this spirit that the present essay is written. However, those of us concerned to find such relationships between distinct fields should heed the cautious word of Cambridge physicist Sir Brian Pippard when he says that each field thrives by virtue of its own methods and not by aping those of others: "The fabric of knowledge has not been woven as a seamless robe but pieced together like a patchwork quilt, and we are still in the position of being able to appreciate the design in individual pieces much more clearly than the way they are put together" (Pippard, 95-96).

5. Tracy and Lash define cosmology in a variety of ways. "The term can refer to theological accounts of the world as God’s creation; or to philosophical reflection on the categories of space and time; or to observational and theoretical study of the structure and evolution of the physical universe; or, finally, to ‘world views’: unified imaginative perceptions of how the world seems and where we stand in it" (Tracy and Lash, vii). Peacocke finds a similarity of intention in religious and scientific cosmologies: "Both attempt to take into account as much of the ‘data’ of the observed universe as possible and both use criteria of simplicity, comprehensiveness, elegance, and plausibility. . . . Both direct themselves to the ‘way things are’ not only by developing cosmogonies, accounts of the origin of the universe, but also in relation to nearer-at-hand experience of biological and inorganic nature" (Peacocke, 31). The intention of my modest effort with the model of the world as God’s body falls within these parameters.

6. Many philosophers of science claim that science is also an imaginative activity. Max Black insists that the exercise of the imagination provides a common ground between science and the humanities, "for science, like the humanities, like literature, is an affair of the imagination" (Black, 243). Mary Hesse suggests that "art" or "play" characterizes some aspects of scientific problem-solving: "A great deal of scientific theorizing, especially in fundamental physics and cosmology, is not too distant from the creation of science fiction, which might indeed be said to be speculative theory without the full rigor of experimental control" (Hesse, 50). See also my Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, chapter 3. for a treatment of the role of the imagination in science and theology.

7. Dennis Nineham writes that it is "at the level of the imagination that contemporary Christianity is most weak." He goes on to say that people "find it hard to believe in God because they do not have available to them any lively imaginative picture of the way God and the world as they know it are related. What they need most is a story, a picture, a myth, that will capture their imagination, while meshing in with the rest of their sensibility in the way that messianic terms linked with the sensibility of first-century Jews, or Nicene symbolism with the sensibility of philosophically-minded fourth-century Greeks" (Nineham, 42).

8. An outstanding example of theology as hermeneutics is the work of David Tracy, especially The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. A fine illustration of theology as construction is the work of Gordon D. Kaufman, especially The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God.

9. How that power is understood involves specifying the material norm of Christian faith. It involves risking an interpretation of what, most basically, Christian faith is about. My interpretation is similar to that of the so-called liberation theologies. Each of these theologies, from the standpoint of race, gender, class, or another basic human distinction, claims that the Christian gospel is opposed to oppression of some by others, opposed to hierarchies and dualisms, opposed to the domination of the weak by the powerful. This reading is understood to be commensurate with the paradigmatic story of the life, message, and death of Jesus of Nazareth, who in his parables, his table fellowship, and his death offered a surprising invitation to all, especially to the outcast and the oppressed. It is 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. As Nicholas Lash has said in a variety of contexts, the story as told must be "a different version of the same story, not a different story" (Lash, 30, 44).

10. Robert P. Scharlemann uses this phrase to describe the kind of theology that constructs theological models, and he sees it as an alternative to other kinds of theology, confessional, metaphysical, biblicistic, religious thought. "It is free theology in the sense that it can make use of any of these materials -- confessional, metaphysical, biblical, religious, and secular -- without being bound to them" (Scharlemann, 82-83).

11. The relationship between image and concept that I support is articulated by Paul Ricoeur, whose well-known phrase "the symbol gives rise to thought" is balanced by an equal emphasis on thought’s need to return to its rich base in symbol.

12. There are probably as many definitions of metaphor as there are metaphoricians and one hesitates to contemplate how many of the latter there may be. In 1978 Wayne Booth, commenting on the explicit discussions of metaphor having "multiplied astronomically in the past fifty years," claimed that he had extrapolated with his pocket calculator to the year 2039 and determined "at that point there will be more students of metaphor than people" (Booth, 47). With that sobering introduction, I am grateful to Janet Martin Soskice for her straight-forward, uncomplicated definition of metaphor: "Metaphor is a figure of speech in which one entity or state of affairs is spoken of in terms which are seen as being appropriate to another" (Soskice, 96).

13. My position here is very close to that of Ricoeur, as found in The Rule of Metaphor and elsewhere.

14. The conversation between science and theology on the matter of metaphors and models is a long and interesting one, with the Annecy conference as one of its results. I am especially indebted to the work of Ian Barbour, Mary Hesse, Frederick Ferre, E. H. Hutten, Rom Harre, Max Black, and N. R. Hanson, among others, for their interpretations of this conversation. For my modest contribution to it, see Metaphorical Theology, chapters 3 and 4.

15. I find Ian Barbour’s definition of theoretical models in science serves as well in theology: "theoretical models are novel mental constructions. They originate in a combination of analogy to the familiar and creative imagination in creating the new. They are open-ended, extensible, and suggestive of new hypotheses . . . such models are taken seriously but not literally. They are neither pictures of reality nor useful fictions; they are partial and inadequate ways of imagining what is not observable" (Harbour, 47-48).

16. This perspective acknowledges with Nelson Goodman that, as Ernest Gombrich insists, "there is no innocent eye. The eye comes always ancient to its work. . . . Nothing is seen nakedly or naked" (Goodman, 7-8). This means, of course, that we are always dealing in interpretations of reality (the reality of God or anything else); hence, there are no descriptions but only readings. Some readings, however, are more privileged than others and this judgment will be made by the relevant community. New readings are offered in place of conventional or accepted ones, not with the view that they necessarily correspond more adequately to the reality in question in toto, but that they are a discovery/creation of some aspect of that reality overlooked in other readings, or one especially pertinent to the times, etc.

17. The heavily pragmatic view of truth suggested here is similar to that of some liberation theologians and rests on an understanding of praxis not simply as action vs. theory, but as a kind of reflection, one guided by practical experience.. Praxis is positively, "the realization that humans cannot rely on any ahistorical, universal truths to guide life" (Chopp, 36). It assumes that human life is fundamentally practical; hence, knowledge is not most basically the correspondence of some understanding of reality with "reality-as-it-is," but it is a continual process of analysis, explanation, conversation, and application with both theoretical and practical aspects. This understanding is not new; Aristotle’s view of life in the polis as understood and constructed is similar: such knowledge is grounded in concrete history within the norms, values, and hopes of the community. Likewise, Augustine’s Confessions is not a theoretical treatise on the nature of God, but a history, his own concrete, experiential history, of God acting in his life. On the present scene we see a clear turn toward pragmatism in the work of Richard Rorty, Michel Foucault, Richard Bernstein, and others. While I would not identify my position with the extremes of pragmatism, it is, nonetheless, a healthy reminder that religious truth, whatever may be the case with other kinds of truth, involves issues of value, of consequences, of the quality of lived existence.

18. Edward Farley and Peter C. Hodgson agree: "The Christian movement never abandoned the royal metaphor of God and God’s relation to the world. The logic of sovereignty, which presumes that God employs whatever means are necessary to ensure the successful accomplishment of the divine will, eventually pervaded the total criteriology of Christendom" (Farley and Hodgson, 68).

19. Many theologians have criticized the monarchical model as oppressive. Dorothee Soelle claims that authoritarian religion that images God as dominating power lay behind the "obedience" of Nazism and thus behind the Jewish Holocaust. John B. Cobb, Jr., and David R. Griffin view the classic Western God as "the Cosmic Moralist," whose main attribute is power over all creatures rather than responsive love that could lead to the fulfillment of all creatures. Jürgen Moltmann objects to the "monarchical monotheism" of Christianity, which supports hierarchalism and individualism, and insists instead that a social, Trinitarian doctrine of God is needed. Edward Farley claims that the royal metaphors for God have fueled the notion of "salvation history" and its "logic of triumph" (Farley 1982).

20. See the well-known essay by Lynn White which makes this accusation in its strongest form. See also a refutation of White’s argument in Peacocke, pp. 275 ff.

21. There is, however, another metaphorical tradition of benevolence that moves in a more positive direction: God as gardener, caretaker, and hence preserver of the world and its life. Here benevolence is not distant goodwill, as in the royal metaphor, but intimate nurture. Gardeners and caretakers "touch" the earth and the life they care for with the goal of creating conditions in which life other than their own can grow and prosper. Such benevolence promotes human responsibility, not escapism and passivity, and hence these metaphors are helpful ones in our time. For further analysis, see Phyllis Trible, pp. 85ff.

22. For a treatment of some of these theological traditions, see Grace Jantzen, chapter 3. The metaphor is widespread, especially in its form as an analogy -- self:body::God:world -- particularly among process theologians, as a way of overcoming the externality of God’s knowledge of and activity in the world. Theologians of nature, who take the evolutionary reality of the world seriously, also find it attractive as a noninterventionist way of speaking of God’s agency in history and nature. See, for example, Claude Stewart’s Nature in Grace. Even among more traditional theologies, the embodiment of God is receiving attention. Grace Jantzen’s position, for example, is that, given the contemporary holistic understanding of personhood, an embodied personal God is more credible than a disembodied one and is commensurate with traditional attributes of God.

23. See Jantzen’s fine study on the dualistic, antimatter context of early Christian theology (Jantzen, chap. 3).

24. John Cobb makes this point and adds that total identification with our bodies becomes impossible when they are sick, maimed, aging, enslaved, or dying. We are not our bodies at such times (Cobb).

25. At first glance, there might appear to be tension between the model of the world as God’s body and the models of God as mother, lover, and friend. Is the relationship narcissistic? Is it monistic? I firmly support Jay McDaniel’s view of "dialogical panentheism" vs. "emanationist panentheism," the former being consonant with the model of the world or universe as God’s body (McDaniel, 87), I find the kind of relationality implied in the model of the world as God’s body less narcissistic than some understandings of orthodox Trinitarianism, in which God’s "other" is God’s own self, with divine relationality seen in terms of the relations among the persons of the immanent Trinity. This solipsistic view is epitomized in C. S. Lewis’s statement that God is "at home in the land of the Trinity," and, entirely self-sufficient and needing nothing, "loves into existence totally superfluous creatures" (Lewis, 176). One might also ask about the "source" of God’s body, the world: How can someone be the mother of their own body? One must recall what this "body" is: it is nothing less than all that is -- the universe or universes of which the cosmologists speak. The body of God, then, is creation, understood as God’s self-expression; it is formed in God’s own reality (although not thereby identical with it), bodied forth in the eons of evolutionary time. What could this body be except God’s own creation? Could some other creator have made it -- if so, then that creator would be God. God could be said to be the mother of all reality, for God is the source of all that is. As Julian of Norwich writes of God as mother: "We owe our being to him [sic] and this is the essence of motherhood" (Julian of Norwich, chap. 60). The seeming incoherence here, I think, comes from the fact that our bodies are given to us, as are all other aspects of our existence. But as the creator of all that is, God is necessarily the source, the mother, of her own body.

26. Paul Tillich’s definition of pantheism is close to Karl Rahner’s and Herbert Vorgrimler’s definition of panentheism: "Pantheism is the doctrine that God is the substance or essence of all things, not the meaningless assertion that God is the totality of all things" (Tillich, 324); and "This form of pantheism does not intend simply to identify the world and God monistically (God = the ‘all’) but intends, instead, to conceive of the ‘all’ of the world ‘in’ God as God’s inner modification and appearance, even if God is not exhausted by the ‘all’ " (Rahner and Vorgrimler, 275).

27. Most theologians who employ the analogy of self:body::God:world speak in these terms about God’s knowledge of the world. Since God is internally related to the world, divine knowledge is an immediate, sympathetic awareness (see, e.g., Hartshorne, "Philosophical and Religious Uses of ‘God’ "in Process Theology: Basic Writings, edited by Ewert Cousins, page 109; also see Schubert Ogden, "The Reality of God," p. 123 of the same volume and Jantzen 1984, 81 ff.).

28. To understand the action of God as interior to the entire evolutionary process does not mean that some events, aspects, and dimensions cannot be more important than others. See, for example, the analysis of "act" of God by Gordon Kaufman, in which he distinguishes between "master" act (the entire evolutionary process) and "subordinate" acts such as Jesus’ march to the cross as an essential constituent of the master act (Kaufman 1979, 140 ff.).

29. This position is not unlike that of Boehme, Schelling, and Tillich that in some sense evil has its origin in God. In an evolutionary perspective, however, the issue of evil is so complex that to say that evil has its origin in God means something very different from what saying this means in nonevolutionary theologians such as the above.

30. The suffering of God as a way of dealing with evil of various sorts is a major topic with a wide variety of theologians, ranging from Jürgen Moltmann and Arthur Peacocke to Ian Barbour and most process theologians. In these discussions, the suffering God participates in the pain of the universe as it gropes to survive and produce new forms. It is obvious that not all species, let alone all individuals in any species, survive and flourish -- for a variety of reasons. In this kind of theodicy Gethesemane, the cross, and the resurrection are important foci for understanding the depths of God’s love, who, in creating an unimaginatively complex matrix of matter eventuating finally in persons able to choose to go against God’s intentions, nonetheless grieves for and suffers with this beloved creation, both in the pain its natural course brings all its creatures and in the evil that its human creatures inflict upon it. I find this discussion rich and powerful; nonetheless, I would raise a caveat concerning what it tends to underplay -- human sin and responsibility. By locating the discussion of evil in the context of the entire cosmic complex, one may overlook the particular powerful role that human beings increasingly play in bringing evil to their own species and to other species as well. Teilhard de Chardin in his Divine Milieu says that our lives have an active and a passive phase: in the first phase we must work with all our heart, mind, and soul to help bring about the great evolutionary project, while in the second phase we must accept the deterioration and death that always come (Teilhard 1968b). By stressing the suffering of God -- the passive side -- one may fail to underscore the peculiar position of human beings in the universe as the active agents who can choose or not choose to side with God as co-workers, co-creators. At the close of the twentieth century, with ecological deterioration accelerating and the nuclear threat ever with us, we need to feel not acceptance but the challenge to join forces on the side of life, for while we, like all creatures, are ultimately part of a universe that is brutal and may well end, we have, while we live, a part to play different from that of any other creature: we are responsible agents who can join with our loving parent to help our own and other species to survive and flourish. This means, of course, engaging in difficult and complex decisions of justice and care, as we seek to determine the economic, social, political, and cultural rights of individuals in our own species and as we pay attention to the rights of the silent, nonvoting majority which is made up of all the other species. But complexity is not the main problem, for creatures who can go to the moon, manage multinational corporations, and build nuclear arsenals have the ability to do considerably better than they do on justice and ecological issues. The main problem is the perversion of the human heart, which is turned in upon itself, as Augustine said, rather than being open to the other beings as well as to the Source of all being. In sum, divine suffering for the cosmos (including each sparrow that falls) must not obscure human responsibility for a tiny corner of it -- our earth.

31. I am indebted to Rosemary Radford Ruether for the import of this paragraph.

32. Brian Swimme, physicist and ecologist, writes in the following way of this awesome, cosmic fact: "Humans and yeast are kin. They organize themselves chemically and biologically in nearly indistinguishable patterns of intelligent activity. They speak the same genetic language. All things whether living or not are descendents of the supernova explosion. All that exists shapes the same energy erupting into the universe as the primeval fireball. No tribal myth, no matter how wild, ever imagined a more profound relationship connecting all things in an internal way right from the beginning. All thinking must begin with this cosmic genetical relatedness" (quoted in Cross Currents [Summer/Fall 1987]: 222).

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