An Earthly Theological Agenda

by Sallie McFague

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

This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 2-9, 1991, pp. 12-15. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


In reviewing how her mind has changed from a Barthian position in the 1950’s through the feminist and liberation theology emphases to a more wholistic and cosmic focus, Sallie McFague has experienced a deconstruction of the central symbol of God as patriarchal, hierarchical and militaristic, and a reconstruction of God as creator and sustainer of everything in his universe.

I teach a survey course in contemporary theology that covers the 20th century. When I took a similar course as a divinity student at Yale in the late '50s, it had considerable unity. We studied the great German theologians whose names began with "B" (seemingly a prerequisite for theological luminosity) -- Barth, Bultmann, Brunner, Bonhoeffer -- and, of course, Tillich. They were all concerned with the same issues, notably reason and revelation, faith and history, issues of methodology and, especially, epistemology: how can we know God?

More recent theology has no such unity. The first major shift came in the late '60s, with the arrival of the various liberation theologies, which are still growing and changing as more and different voices from the underside of history insist on being heard. While what separates these various theologies is great (much greater than what separated German theology and its American counterparts), one issue, at least, unites them: they ask not how we can know God but how we can change the world. We are now at the threshold of a second major shift in theological reflection during this century, a shift in which the main issue will be not only how we can change the world but how we can save it from deterioration and its species from extinction.

The extraordinary events of the past year or so, with the simultaneous lessening of cold-war tensions and worldwide awakening to the consequences of human destruction of the flora and fauna and the ecosystem that supports them, signal a major change in focus. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the focus of the liberation theologies widened to include, in addition to all oppressed human beings, all oppressed creatures as well as planet earth.

Liberation theologies insist rightly that all theologies are written from particular contexts. The one context which has been neglected and is now emerging is the broadest as well as the most basic: the context of the planet, a context which we all share and without which we cannot survive. It seems to me that this latest shift in 20th-century theology is not to a different issue from that of liberation theologies, but to a deepening of it, a recognition that the fate of the oppressed and the fate of the earth are inextricably interrelated, for we all live on one planet--a planet vulnerable to our destructive behavior. The link between justice and ecological issues becomes especially evident in light of the dualistic, hierarchical mode of Western thought in which a superior and an inferior are correlated: male-female, white people -- people of color, heterosexual-homosexual, able-bodied -- physically challenged, culture-nature, mind-body, human-nonhuman. These correlated terms -- most often non-natively ranked -- reveal clearly that domination and destruction of the natural world is inexorably linked with the domination and oppression of the poor, people of color, and all others that fall on the "inferior" side of the correlation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ancient and deep identification of women with nature, an identification so profound that it touches the very marrow of our being: our birth from the bodies of our mothers and our nourishment from the body of the earth. The power of nature -- and of women -- to give and withhold life epitomizes the inescapable connection between the two and thus the necessary relationship of justice and ecological issues. As many have noted, the status of women and of nature have been historically commensurate: as goes one, so goes the other.

A similar correlation can be seen between other forms of human oppression and a disregard for the natural world. Unless ecological health is maintained, for instance, the poor and others with limited access to scarce goods (due to race, class, gender or physical capability) cannot be fed. Grain must be grown for all to have bread. The characteristic Western mind-set has accorded intrinsic value, and hence duties of justice, principally to the upper half of the dualism and has considered it appropriate for those on the lower half to be used for the benefit of those on the upper. Western multinational corporations, for example, regard it as "reasonable" and "normal" to use Third World people and natural resources for their own financial benefit, at whatever cost to the indigenous peoples and the health of their lands.

The connections among the various forms of oppression are increasingly becoming clear to many, as evidenced by the World Council of Churches' inclusion of "the integrity of creation" in its rallying cry of "peace and justice." In the closing years of the 20th century we are being called to do something unprecedented: to think wholistically, to think about "everything that is," because everything on this planet is interrelated and interdependent and hence the fate of each is tied to the fate of the whole.

This state of affairs brought about a major "conversion" in my own theological journey. I began as a Barthian in the '50s, finding Barth's heady divine transcendence and "otherness" to be as invigorating as cold mountain air to my conventional religious upbringing. Like many of my generation, I found in Barth what appeared to be a refreshing and needed alternative to liberalism. But after years of work on the poetic, metaphorical nature of religious language (and hence its relative, constructive and necessarily changing character), and in view of feminism's critique of the hierarchical, dualistic nature of the language of the Jewish and Christian traditions, my bonds to biblicism and the Barthian God loosened. Those years were the "deconstructive" phase of my development as a theologian.

My constructive phase began upon reading Gordon Kaufman's 1983 Presidential Address to the American Academy of Religion. Kaufman called for a paradigm shift, given the exigencies of our time -- the possibility of nuclear war. He called theologians to deconstruct and reconstruct the basic symbols of the Jewish and Christian traditions -- God, Christ and Torah -- so as to be on the side of life rather than against it, as was the central symbol of God with its traditional patriarchal, hierarchical, militaristic imagery. I answered this call, and my subsequent work has be-en concerned with contributing to that task.

While the nuclear threat has lessened somewhat, the threat of ecological deterioration has increased: they are related as "quick kill" to "slow death." In other words, we have been given some time. We need to use it well, for we may not have much of it. The agenda this shift sets for theologians is multifaceted, given the many different tasks that need to be done. This paradigm shift, if accepted, suggests a new mode of theological production, one characterized by advocacy, collegiality and the appreciation of differences.

Until the rise of liberation theologies, theology was more concerned with having intellectual respectability in the Academy than with forging an alliance with the oppressed or particular political or social attitudes and practices. There was a convenient division between theology (concerned with the knowledge of God) and ethics (a lesser enterprise for action-oriented types). Theologians were also usually "solo" players, each concerned to write his (the "hers" were in short supply) magnum opus, a complete systematic theology. As the deconstructionists have underscored, these theologians also strove to assert, against different voices, the one voice (their own–or at least the voice of their own kind) as the truth, the "universal" truth.

Our situation calls for a different way of conducting ourselves as theologians. Like all people we need, in both our personal and professional lives, to work for the well-being of our planet and all its creatures. We need to work in a collegial fashion, realizing that we contribute only a tiny fragment. Feminists have often suggested a "quilt" metaphor as an appropriate methodology: each of us can contribute only a small "square" to the whole. Such a view of scholarship may appear alien to an academy that rewards works "totalizing" others in the field and insisting on one view.

The times are too perilous and it is too late in the day for such games. We need to work together, each in his or her own small way, to create a planetary situation that is more viable and less vulnerable. A collegial theology explicitly supports difference. One of the principal insights of both feminism and postmodern science is that while everything is interrelated and interdependent, everything (maple leaves, stars, deer, dirt -- and not just human beings) is different from everything else. Individuality and interrelatedness are features of the universe; hence, no one voice or single species is the only one that counts.

While I realize that the focus for this series is on how one's mind has changed, the way mine has changed demands that I focus not on mapping my individual journey but on specifying how our minds ought to change, both now and in the future. If advocacy, collegiality and difference characterized theological reflection and if the agenda of theology widened to include the context of our planet, some significant changes would occur. I will suggest three.

First, it would mean a more or less common agenda for theological reflection, though one with an almost infinite number of different tasks. The encompassing agenda would be to deconstruct and reconstruct the central symbols of the Jewish and Christian traditions in favor of life and its fulfillment, keeping the liberation of the oppressed, including the earth and all its creatures, in central focus. That is so broad, so inclusive an agenda that it allows for myriad ways to construe it and carry it out. It does, however, turn the eyes of theologians away from heaven and toward the earth; or, more accurately, it causes us to connect the starry heavens with the earth, as the "common" creation story claims, telling us that everything in the universe, including stars, dirt, robins, black holes, sunsets, plants and human beings, is the product of an enormous explosion billions of years ago. In whatever ways we might reconstruct the symbols of God, human being and earth, this can no longer be done in a dualistic fashion, for the heavens and the earth are one phenomenon, albeit an incredibly ancient, rich and varied one.

If theology is going to reflect wholistically, that is, in terms of the picture of current reality, then it must do so in ways consonant with the new story of creation. One clear directive that this story gives theology is to understand human beings as earthlings (not aliens or tourists on the planet) and God as immanently present in the processes of the universe, including those of our planet. Such a focus has important implications for the contribution of theologians to "saving the planet," for theologies emerging from a coming together of God and humans in and on the earth implies a cosmocentric rather than anthropocentric focus. This does not, by the, way, mean that theology should reject theocentrism; rather, it means that the divine concern includes all of creation. Nor does it imply the substitution of a creation focus for the tradition's concern with redemption; rather, it insists that redemption should include all dimensions of creation, not just human beings.

A second implications of accepting this paradigm shift is a focus on praxis. As Juan Segundo has said, theology is not one of the "liberal arts," for it contains an element of the prophetic, making it at the very least an unpopular enterprise and at times a dangerous one. The academy has been suspicious of it with good reason, willing to accept religious studies but aware that theology contains an element of commitment foreign to the canons of scholarly objectivity. (Marxist or Freudian commitments, curiously have been acceptable in the academy, but not theological ones.) Increasingly, however, the hermeneutics of suspicion and deconstruction are helping to unmask simplistic, absolutist notions of objectivity, revealing a variety of perspectives, interpretations, commitments and contexts. Moreover, this variety is being viewed as not only enriching but necessary. Hence the emphasis on praxis and commitment, on a concerned theology, need in no way imply a lack of scholarly rigor or a retreat to fideism. Rather, it insists that one of the criteria of constructive theological reflection--thinking about our place in the earth and the earth's relation to its source is a concern with the consequences of proposed constructions for those who live within them.

Theological constructs are no more benign than scientific ones. With the marriage of science and technology beginning in the 17th century, the commitments and concerns of the scientific community have increasingly been determined by the military-industrial-government complex that funds basic research. The ethical consequences of scientific research -- which projects get funded and the consequences of the funded projects -- are or ought to be scientific issues and not issues merely for the victims of the fall-out of these projects. Likewise, theological reflection is a concerned affair, concerned that this constructive thinking be on the side of the well-being of the planet and all its creatures. For centuries people have lived within the constructs of Christian reflection and interpretation, unknowingly as well as knowingly. Some of these constructs have been liberating, but many others have been oppressive, patriarchal and provincial. Indeed, theology is not a "liberal art," but a prophetic activity, announcing and interpreting the sacrifice love of God to all of creation.

A third implication of this paradigm shift is that the theological task is not only diverse in itself (there are many theologies), but also contributes to the planetary agenda of the 21st century, an agenda that beckons and challenges us to move beyond nationalism, militarism, limitless economic growth, consumerism, uncontrollable population growth and ecological deterioration. In ways that have never before been so clear and stark, we have met the enemy and know it is ourselves. While the wholistic, planetary perspective leads some to insist that all will be well if a "creation spirituality" were to replace the traditional "redemption spirituality" of the Christian tradition, the issue is not that simple. It is surely the case that the overemphasis on redemption to the neglect of creation needs to be redressed: moreover, there is much in the common creation story that calls us to a profound appreciation of the wonders of our being and the being of all other creatures. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that such knowledge and appreciation will be sufficient to deal with the exigencies of our situation.

The enemy -- indifferent, selfish, shortsighted. xenophobic, anthropocentric, greedy human beings -- calls, at the very least, for a renewed emphasis on sin as the cause of much of the planet's woes and an emphasis on a broad and profound repentance. Theology along with other institutions, fields of study and expertise, can deepen our sense of complicity in the earth's decay. In addition to turning our eyes and hearts to an appreciation of the beauty, richness and singularity of our planet through a renewed theology of creation and nature, theology ought also to underscore and elaborate on the myriad ways that we personally and corporately have ruined and continue to ruin God's splendid creation--acts which we and no other creature can knowingly commit. The present dire situation calls for radicalizing the Christian understanding of sin and evil. Human responsibility for the fate of the earth is a recent and terrible knowledge; our loss of innocence is total, for we know what we have done. If theologians were to accept this context and agenda of their work, they would see themselves in dialogue with all those in other areas and fields similarly engaged: those who feed the homeless and fight for animal rights; the cosmologists who tell us of the common origins (and hence interrelatedness) of all forms of matter and life; economists who examine how we must change if the earth is to support its population; the legislators and judges who work to advance civil rights for those discriminated against in our society; the Greenham women who picket nuclear plants, and the women of northern India who literally "hug" trees to protect them from destruction, and so on and on.

Theology is an "earthly" affair in the best sense of that word: it helps people to live rightly, appropriately, on the earth, in our home. It is, as the Jewish and Christian traditions have always insisted, concerned with "right relations," relations with God, neighbor and self, but now the context has broadened to include what has dropped out of the picture in the past few hundred years--the oppressed neighbors, the other creatures and the earth that supports us all. This shift could be seen as a return to the roots of a tradition that has insisted on the creator, redeemer God as the source and salvation of all that is. We now know that "all that is" is vaster, more complex, more awesome, more interdependent, than any other people has ever known. The new theologies that emerge from such a context have the opportunity to view divine transcendence in deeper, more awesome and more intimate ways than ever before. They also have the obligation to understand human beings and all other forms of life as radically interrelated and interdependent as well as to understand our special responsibility for the planet's well-being.

My own work takes place within this context and attempts to add a small square to the growing planetary quilt.