Sermon #28 (27th May 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
This is the last of four services in our month on ‘Earth and the Natural World’. Today I’m going to ever-so-briefly introduce you to the work of the eco-feminist theologian Sallie McFague and an idea that was particularly important in her work: That’s the idea of seeing ‘The World as God’s Body’ (the theology otherwise known as Panentheism).
Back in the 1980s Sallie McFague wrote an influential book called ‘Models of God’. In this book (and several others) she argues that all the language that we use about God is symbolic, or metaphorical. All of it. No single image, symbol, story, metaphor or model of God should be taken as literally or exclusively true. God is, after all, beyond all human concepts… but nevertheless, throughout the ages, all over the world, we humans have generally felt the need to say something rather than nothing about whatever-it-is we intuit to be the underlying ultimate reality of all-that-is – about the meaning of our baffling, sometimes brutal, often beautiful existence – and so throughout history we have used varied images, symbols, stories, metaphors and models to point towards something vital… which we know is all-but-ungraspable with words: That which some call ‘God’.
Christianity – the tradition that Unitarianism is descended from – has traditionally emphasised certain metaphors for God more than others. The God of Christianity has most often been spoken of as ‘Father’, ‘Lord’, or ‘King’ – masculine terms, tied up with worldly power dynamics, hierarchy, perhaps – and in mainstream Christianity, the story of Jesus is of course central. Christians speak of the incarnation of God, God ‘made flesh’, uniquely in this one man – Jesus of Nazareth – in all of history. These images, these stories, these metaphors have been dominant in the west. And they may have led many of us to conceive of God in a certain, rather narrow, way. This picture of God may appeal to some – but for others, it may have caused us to reject the idea of God altogether.
But even in the Bible there are many other images used to describe God – quite different from the ‘Father, Lord and King’ model – the ‘old man with a beard in the sky’ cliché: Instead God is described as a woman in labour, a nursing mother, a beekeeper, a potter; As a wild dog, an eagle, a bear, a lion, a lamb, a dove, and a mother hen; As a cypress tree, a loaf of bread, as the clothes we put on; As fire, water, wind, rock. All of these images are true – kind of – and none of them tell the whole story. Each one of these metaphors illuminates another aspect of God. And, in turn, each one – if we were to adopt it as our favourite ‘model of God’- would shape the way that we see reality. Ultimately, the images and metaphors we choose – and it is a choice – the images and metaphors we choose to speak of God, of ultimate reality, can influence the way we actually live our lives, as individuals and societies. Our choices can influence the way we conduct ourselves, for better or for worse.
Another wonderful theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, once said: ‘the symbol of God functions… [It focuses] a whole complex of conscious and unconscious ideas, feelings, emotions, and associations, very deep and tenacious. It is never neutral in its effects, but expresses and moulds a community’s bedrock convictions and actions.’ These words from Elizabeth Johnson highlight how the metaphors we choose to use for God both reflect a community’s current outlook – on life, the universe, and everything – and serve to shape it for future generations.
So let’s go back to Sallie McFague and see what she has to say about all this.
In the 1980s, when she first came to prominence as a theologian, Sallie McFague was facing up to two particular sets of concerns that had been largely neglected by theology. Firstly, she was a feminist, and she was all too aware of how Christianity, the church, and indeed the entire western world had been shaped by male-dominated images of God. As another notorious feminist theologian, Mary Daly, pointed out at around the same time, ‘if God is male, then the male is God’. A society which uses almost exclusively male pronouns for the divine, and ‘Father, Lord & King’ imagery, is likely to turn out biased in favour of men. So McFague started to play with different images, metaphors, and models of God – most of which had some sort of precedent in scripture or tradition but which had been overlooked – experimenting with feminine or non-gendered alternatives: God as Mother; God as Lover; God as Friend. In her book, ‘Models of God’, McFague looked into each of these metaphors in turn, and explored how imagining God in different ways led to new perspectives on reality. For many people – not just women, I should say! – who had struggled to relate to God as ‘Father, Lord & King’, these alternate models can open up new possibilities for understanding. McFague encourages us all to take up what she calls ‘free theology’: an ‘experimental, imagistic, and pluralistic’ approach to the use of religious metaphor, in which we try out new models for God, and… just see what happens when we do. It’s not quite a case of ‘anything goes’; these models and metaphors must be fleshed out, their implications explored, and tested against our lived experience. But we have got a lot more freedom in this regard than some people realise. There’s not just one valid model of God – set in stone by that we must decide to ‘take or leave’.
In addition to these feminist concerns, in this classic 1980s work of theology, Sallie McFague was responding to something else (and this is the bit that is of particular relevance to this month’s theme) – she was responding to the imminent threats posed to the planet – at that time the cold war and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation was uppermost in people’s minds – and the scale of the environmental crisis we are collectively facing was just beginning to grasp the attention of the public at large. These two pressing concerns led her to explore another model: ‘The World as God’s Body’. Here’s a little of what Sallie McFague had to say about her explorations. She said: ‘As I experimented with the model of the world as God’s body I came to see how loving the world is loving God. As a Christian, I no longer see God off in the sky (or even as an infinite abstraction), but as the spirit of the body we call the earth. God is always everywhere with each and every smidge of creation as the loving power of life to all in their sufferings and joys. The world as God’s body is a “panentheistic” understanding of God, in contrast to both theism (deism) and pantheism. In theism (and deism) God and the world are separate, abiding in different places (heaven and earth); in pantheism, God and the world are the same, without distinction. But in a panentheistic view, the world lives “within” God, insisting on the most radical transcendence and the most radical immanence…’
‘We meet God in the nitty-gritty of our regular lives, for God is always present in every here and now. God is with us as the source and power of all our efforts to live differently and live well… “God” is not, on this reading a distant, minimal, supernatural being but, rather, God is another name for “reality,” for the reality that actually creates, fuels, sustains, and saves all life.’
Words from Sallie McFague. There’s a phrase that leaps out at me: ‘God [is]… the spirit of the body we call the earth.’ I think that’s a particularly good way of looking at it, and if you’re just going to take away one thing from today’s service, perhaps that image is the neatest one. That God is to the earth (or the universe) as we are to our bodies. Not separate – it is not a dualistic view. We are embodied creatures. And God is embodied in all-that-is. God is incarnate, not just in one – short, brilliant, unique – life lived in the Middle East two thousand years ago, but in all matter and energy, all flesh and blood, roots and leaves, fur and feathers, wind and rain, that exists and has ever existed as the universe unfolds. As McFague says: ‘God is always everywhere with each and every smidge of creation.’
The prominent process theologian and panentheist John Cobb has something similar to say: ‘Every occasion in the world incorporates into its own life some aspect of the divine… meanwhile God incorporates all that happens in the world into God’s own life… Everything creatures do or say or think or feel makes a difference to God. All that they are is, for good or ill, a gift to God… That means that what human beings do to other human beings – and to sparrows – they do also to God.’
Words from the venerable theologian John Cobb (who’s still going strong at 93 years old, as indeed is Sallie McFague, aged 85 now) – according to this way of doing theology, of speaking about God: if the world, or the universe, is God’s body, then everything is interconnected, and interconnected in God, inseparably so.
Like I said before, whatever model of God we choose to get behind, the choice will shape the way we see reality, and ultimately influence the way we live, as individuals and societies. So what are the implications of understanding God in this way? How might it play out?
Sallie McFague says this: ‘The model of the world as God’s body encourages responsibility and care for the vulnerable and oppressed. 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 the 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… This implication underscores that since God is here in our world, then surely it is indeed our neighbourhood, our planet and its creatures, that we should be caring for… If we see ourselves and every other creature as parts of the body of God – and if we see that body as the universe in all its complexity which has evolved over eons of unrecorded and recorded time – then we will realise that, whatever salvation means, it must take into account the organic solidarity of our actual situation.’
Words from Sallie McFague – and I only wish I had time to share more of them – there are a few quite accessible interviews with her online if you want to learn more.
So… I wonder whether this environmentally-minded form of theology, the notion of ‘The World as God’s Body’ (or even ‘The Universe as God’s Body’) speaks to you? What do you make of the idea of seeing God as ‘the spirit of the body we call the earth’?
I hope, at least, that Sallie McFague’s call for us all to engage in this sort of ‘free theology’ inspires you to experiment and play more confidently with religious language, and to choose those constructive images, symbols, metaphors and models for God – the ones which help us see more clearly the interconnectedness of all-that-is – and which stir us up to care for our fellow beings and the planet that is, after all, our only home.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: