This past weekend, I was searching online for the latest book by Sallie McFague. She was a prodigious author and I wanted to make certain that I kept up on her ideas. Sadly, I discovered that she had passed away on November 15.
She was one of my theology professors at Vanderbilt Graduate Department of Religion and her lectures and her books have made a profound impact on my life and thought. I, of course, was not the only one. Nor was it just Protestants that found themselves persuaded by her ideas.
Franciscan Sister Shannon Schrein, professor of theological studies at Lourdes University in Sylvania, Ohio, and general councilor for the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, wrote: “Sallie McFague was not Catholic, but her work in eco-feminist theology influenced generations of Catholic theologians and students. I read Models of God and The Body of God in graduate school, and they still sit on my bookshelves. Both books profoundly changed how I imagined God and God's relationship to the natural world, sparking alternative models for the Divine and ones that highlight care for the planet.
“McFague, who spent much of her professional life at Vanderbilt Divinity School, died Nov. 15 in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she had been distinguished theologian in residence at the Vancouver School of Theology since 2000. She was 86.
“Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, McFague graduated magna cum laude from Smith College in 1955 with a bachelor of arts in English literature. She earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in divinity and theology from Yale University, and began teaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1970. When she was named dean of the divinity school in 1975, news reports said she was the first woman to hold such a position in the United States. She returned to teaching full-time in 1980 and retired as professor emerita in 2000.”
Sister Shannon studied McFague and wrote her doctoral dissertation on McFague's work.
Sallie McFague was a fascinating person. She was driven and she required her students to be just as driven as she. Vanderbilt was a place where I found my thinking challenged and changed. Professor McFague was a key player in those great changes that came to pass. For one thing, she had a wicked sense of humor and she showed to us over and again how much pleasure, indeed joy, she derived from speaking on and debating about theology. The task, the challenge, of theology is to find new metaphors, new concepts, for doing theology even while we use the Scripture as the basis for doing so. In fact, the Scriptures themselves offer us exemplars for doing this very thing.
She explained that in her now-classic book, Models of God. When I first read that, it reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, in one of his letter from prison, where he said that “We need a new language, not just the old slogans of the Church, and that language must be powerful and shocking, just like the words of Jesus.”
That use of language through metaphor and symbol was especially fascinating for me, the linguist. In his book, Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein bemoaned that philosophy and theology were now nothing more than discussions of words and their meanings. Nothing could excite me more and McFague worked that theme over and over. I still approach theology that way—through language, metaphor, and history.
The work of theology is "the elaboration of key metaphors and models," she wrote in her award-winning book Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. New metaphors are required to give substance to new ways of conceiving God.
The power of metaphor, when talking about God, is found in the flash of discovery, a moment that offers a different way of thinking about God. Suddenly, the traditional image of God as father, for example, is recognized as no longer sufficient for our time. While father may work for some, it is a disastrous model for others.
With the use of those new metaphors, old idols are destroyed and new and hopefully transformative symbols and metaphors take their place. Tried, old metaphors, especially those that have become so concrete over time, lose their ability to speak, to move, to change and to transform us, just as Bonhoeffer cautioned. McFague understood that the immensity of God demands that no single image is sufficient for understanding God's grandeur.
In Models of God, McFague explores a Trinitarian revolution of Copernican impact, considering God as mother, lover, and friend. While some call this a radical theology, it is also constructive, relevant, and maybe a little disturbing. It is a frontal assault on the more traditional view of God as father, son, and spirit and invites Christians to pioneer new ways of thinking about God and God's relationship to the world. That is McFague's legacy. Her approach to theology included imaginative and eye-opening ways of conceiving God's action in the world.
In her remarkable book The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, McFague embraces a new and powerful metaphor of the body in order to underline the importance of seeing differently. God is not a distant being but one with us. We are able to meet God in all things and everywhere. Again, it sounded like Bonhoeffer’s refutation of the “God of the gaps” idea. God is ever-near, ever-present, and utterly involved with the world.
Her approach using the metaphor of the body of God is one of the most significant gifts McFague offers. She brings God closer to us and she elevates all creation, like St. Francis of Assisi did, for in her vision all creation is brother and sister.
For Professor McFague, theology was vocation. She shared her religious autobiography in Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril, in which she relates four moments of conversion that changed her thinking and transformed her heart.
Wonder and gratitude in and for life in all its forms was the initial life-changing piece of her journey. Karl Barth's wisdom led her to a new way of understanding God, namely, that "God is God and nothing else is," as she wrote.
Sallie McFague’s life was ever-growing, ever-evolving. Some theologians never move past this or that landmark. For her, landmarks were something to be acknowledged, thanked, and moved past. I can hear her say, even now, don’t stop with me—move on to a better understanding.
I got to see her after she moved to Vancouver in 2000. I had moved to Portland in 2002. She was pleased that I was teaching theology and church history at the time. She had read two of my books and was very complimentary. I remember feeling the rush of excitement at one of my great influencers commending me on my approach to theology.
Thank you, Sallie McFague, for your life of learning, growing, and teaching.
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