My last paper for Contemporary Christian Theology is coming up pretty quick, and the assignment is to compare the views of Sallie McFague and Kathryn Tanner on God in Creation in the chapter “Is God in Charge?” in William C. Placher’s Essentials of Christian Theology. Last night I read McFague’s essay, and wrote out a mini-review to try to collect my thoughts on it. Here’s what I wrote, and I’ll add some questions at the bottom. My questions deal with an essay that obviously isn’t provided here, but I do try to outline her basic concepts in here; I don’t know how edifying this post will be for you, but your responses would be most edifying for me 🙂
Sallie McFague’s essay is fraught with problems, glosses over important distinctions, and completely sidesteps the question contained in the chapter’s title, namely “Is God in Charge?” She begins her discussion of the level of God’s control in creation by criticizing traditional views and doctrines of creation and providence. She does so by isolating them from the Biblical texts from which they were formed and simplifying them in such a way as to emphasize their weaknesses, criticizing not only the assumptions that she appears to have largely read into them but also the doctrinal errors and inappropriate actions that sometimes arise from or concerning them – and then mentions that they are not necessarily incorrect, but are not as useful in our 21st century context. Her own understanding of God’s relationship to his creation is what she prescribes as important for this context.
McFague’s view of God’s interaction with creation can be classified as panentheism, as the introduction itself states. She decries doctrines of creation and providence that depict God as somehow separated from creation, and sees this element somehow in each of the other models or doctrines she examines; to her, God is intimately and internally related to creation, yet still distinguishable from it. In her own language, creation is God’s body: God is related to creation as a human being is related to their body, intimately and inseparably and yet not identically. Just as I am not my body, so God is not creation, though the connection between myself and my body is of the deepest order. In this way, her view of God’s relationship in creation and providence avoids pantheism (the belief that God is everything and everything is God), but only just: though God is not everything, neither is God other. The distinction grows less clear as she describes the interactions within creation, finally getting to the point of natural and moral evil as she notes that God shares his power with all of his creatures, even as they compete with and kill one another in the processes of life and evolution. Her answer to the question of “is God in charge?” is that he shares power with all of creation as he is incarnate in all creation, and thus we are all in charge, and God, who is present in all of creation, in no way stands above any created thing. While this viewpoint seems to elevate humanity (rather than debasing us, as she claims other models do), if we were to continue with her model of all of creation being the body of God then sinful humanity, which goes against God’s created order, is a cancer, or at our best, on par with the lowest life forms or even with minerals and basic elements.
The outcomes of McFague’s model are largely positive: she uses her position to argue for a more ecological and sustainable worldview and lifestyle, a view of God’s creation that emphasizes goodness and stewardship, and even emphasizes God’s transcendence and immanence. The outcome that relates most to the topic, however, points to the flawed means by which she arrives there: by stating that creation is God’s body, she ends up with a panentheism that gives human beings the power of God and at the same time giving that power to plants, animals, and viruses. Her description of this model lived out is paradisiacal and ideal, but to achieve it she must ignore clear themes in scripture, which she seems to refer to only when it supports her view. Perhaps she means to cover this by her reminder that all models are incomplete and only serve to emphasize certain important points, but the points raised by this model that are true do not require such an elaborate stretching of scripture to produce. The entire model smacks of dissatisfaction with a particular view (which is articulated quite specifically and seems to represent a mixed batch of the more negative views of creation) and a radical departure from it, starting from the desired outcome and filling in the blanks.
So the things that I’m curious about are: do you think that there’s something to be said for a model of creation as God’s body? Does it actually avoid pantheism, and if so is the distinction between pantheism and panentheism enough to allow us to appropriate it? Even if so, is this a biblically justifiably position? I’ve identified some of the problems I find in it; are there other issues that this obviously brings up? McFague is obviously a smart lady, but I can’t help but think she’s starting with her own conclusions and then trying to justify them. I’m all for being more eco-conscious and focused on stewarding God’s creation, but is it not possible to come to those conclusions with current models, or even a bare reading of the actual text?