Sallie McFague – Falling In Love With God and the World

I  am delighted to be here today—and that you all are here also. I have decided to share a brief section from the last major essay I have written.  A longer version is included in my Collected Readings (Fortress Press, 2013), which  was originally published in The Ecumenical Review,  a publication of the World Council of Churches in preparation for its 10th assembly, November 2013, in Busan, Korea.  The title of the conference and of  this special journal issue is “The God of Life.”  It provided me with a good chance to summarize some reflections about God and the world over the several decades that I have been thinking about the subject.  My essay is entitled:



Sallie McFague


I have been asked to write an essay on the doctrine of God and ecology. It is a monumental task; it is also one that could be done in a number of different ways.  But since I am eighty years old and my horizon is shrinking, I have decided to use my own story as the context of how the standard doctrine of God has changed into an ecological one over the last seventy or so years. My story and the rising up of the “ecological God” cover approximately the same time frame; hence, sketching the journey of the big story within my small one may provide a few modest but hopefully honest insights.

Seventy three years ago I was seven years old and experienced God for the first time.  Coming home from school one day, I suddenly realized that some day I would not “be here” for Christmas, and even more shocking, I would not be here for my birthday, May 25th.  I was becoming conscious that I was contingent, that I did not create myself, that I would not live forever, and that I was dependent on something else. I believe now that such a radical sense of non-being with the accompanying gratitude and awe at what did create me—and sustains me in life—is one of the quintessential religious emotions.  It underlies a profound sense of radical transcendence and radical immanence that has been the theme of my religious journey and I believe is the central issue facing any Christian doctrine of God.

For me and for most of my cohort seventy years ago, it was the transcendent dimension that dominated our view of God and did so in a comfortably personal and often individualistic way, with a picture of God as a supernatural father who both judged and forgave his wayward children. My “theology” and the implicit theology of this era, the forties and fifties in the Western, Christian world, was unapologetically anthropocentric and anthropomorphic.  God was the God of human beings, and especially individual human beings in their personal and public joys and woes.  “Human beings” were essentially all the same under the skin as the National Geographic instructed us and loving your neighbor was practiced by charity and the Social Gospel.

At about the same time as my first experience of transcendence, I was also opening up to the natural world.  My family owned a one-room cabin without running water or electricity on Cape Cod and I was free to run wild all day in the woods as long as I turned up for dinner. I fell in love with the world in a way similar to Annie Dillard’s description of her waking up to it: “Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along….They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning….”[1] Such an awakening to the world was a conversion of equal strength and importance to my sense of radical contingency.  Simultaneously, I was waking up to experiences of transcendence and immanence, but they were not connected.  Years later when I read that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin at seven years old wrote that he had a passion for God and a passion for the world and could not give up either one, I knew my theological journey mirrored his[2].  However, it took many years before I could see the way that radical transcendence and  radical immanence might be one. Along the way I met once again the transcendent God when, as a college sophomore, I read Karl Barth’s Preface to the 2nd edition to his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans. Here he identifies himself with Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative distinction” between time and eternity….’God is in heaven, and thou art on earth’, claiming that this is the “theme of the Bible.”[3] When I read these words I can recall feeling a conversion to a whole new level of what divine transcendence meant, blowing wide open my cozy view of a supernatural father who judged and forgave his wayward children. Radical transcendence meant the otherness of God in ways I had never imagined.  But soon, while studying theology at divinity school in the fifties and sixties, I met the feminist critique of the distant, patriarchal, transcendent God and had my faith shaken: a supernatural being who controlled the world “in heaven” was not only not credible to me, but oppressive. Barth had given me the cold mountain wind of radical transcendence, but what of the world—that wonderful feel of earth on my bare feet as I ran in the woods, hunted turtles from a tipping canoe, and had close encounters with caterpillars and pine trees?  What of my other love?  There was no connection. Soon, however, with the help of my undergraduate degree in literature, I began to question the type of language that we were using to talk about God.  It sounded like description, but I began to suspect it was metaphorical.

And it has been a long journey for me (and for many others over the last fifty years) to move toward an understanding of God and the world in which one’s passion for the world and  passion for God can come together.  Like Teilhard de Chardin, I discovered that I did not have to give up either; in fact, 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.

So we begin our sketch of a Christian doctrine of God not with the creation of a world separate from God, but with the incarnation—the “face” of Jesus of Nazareth, his message, actions, and especially his cross.  Here, Christians, those who base their lives on faith in Jesus as a limited but persuasive revelation of God, claim that the first thing to say about God is self-emptying love. Jesus’ whole life was a lead-up of total giving to others, culminating in the cross where he gave his life, not for the atonement of humanity’s sins, but as a witness to the totally unexpected and overwhelming gift of God’s own self as the answer to our questions about who we are and how we should live. The cross of Jesus tells us that God’s own life is also our life (for we were made in the “image of God” to live as God lives).  And the most important characteristic of God’s life is “love.”  Here, we have the one word that we use to talk about God that is not a metaphor; that is, every other word we use to express the divine reality is something drawn from our world and used—stretched—to function somehow for God.  Thus, when we call God Father or Mother or the body of the world, etc. we are taking meanings that we understand and substituting them for the silence that inhabits God-talk.  We do not know how to talk about God, so we use metaphors from ordinary life.  But with this one word—love—we make a statement that is open, blank, unfilled: we need God to define what “love” means. And this, I believe, is where “faith” enters: “faith” is not belief that God “exists,” that God is a “being” (even of the highest sort).  Rather, “faith” is the willingness to turn to the “face” of Jesus of Nazareth for intimations of what “love” means.

And here we find a strange thing.  Rather than the traditional story of an absolute, all-powerful God who relates to the world by controlling and demanding its allegiance, we see God as the one who relates to the world in a new and astounding way: as self-giving love for the well-being of all creatures. The Christian tradition has called such total self-sacrificing love “kenotic” (after the Greek word for “emptying”). We have hints of this kind of love in the saints, sometimes in mother love, and here and there even in the biological world where give and take, reciprocity, sacrifice and even hints of altruism emerge. But it is in the story of Jesus that Christians find both the fulfillment and the paradigmatic expression of this counter-cultural love.

However, the kenotic theological story does not stop with Jesus—it points to God in God’s self.  The doctrine of the Trinity—that seemingly abstract and often irrelevant notion that God is “three in one”—becomes central now. This is the case because Christianity is not Jesus-worship; it is not about him, but about God, and not just about how God relates to the world but how God is in God’s self. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity—

Here, “love” is not a property or characteristic of God, some attribute added on to God, but love is who God is as well as who we are ( made as we are “in the image of God.”)  In other words, we choose self-emptying love or nothing; we are not created beings who then choose love, even as God is not “God” who then decides to love.  Rather, who God is and who we are is defined by love, by the self-emptying action of one into the other, of God into the world and of all parts of the world into each other. What it means to be a human being is simply to choose to be what one is: a participant in the God’s very own life of love.  Thus, the Christian view sees the Trinity, the inner life of God, as an eternal divine round dance  in which there is no inferior or superior, no first or second, but an eternal self-emptying and re-filling of each by each.  Here we see the glimmers of mutual reciprocity evident at all levels of evolution epitomized in the Godhead itself, now understood (for Christians who see God in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth) as the very nature of reality.



What have I learned in the seventy or so years since I first “woke up” at seven years old? First of all, I have learned to slow down and pay attention.  In Jericho Park where I walk I often stop and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the trail, rejoicing in the present moment.  I have learned to appreciate the sacrament of the present moment, how every bit of creation mirrors and indeed “rings out” that unique aspect of the divine that one is.  What I have learned and rejoice in is that we do not live in two worlds, but in one: we live here and so does God!  The world lives within, for, from, and toward God every minute of every day.  Hence, we do not live now on earth away from God, but always, whether in life or death, we all live within God.  Death is not to be feared nor is it the only time we meet God.  God is the milieu of earthly existence and “heaven” is here and now.  To live in heaven, one must practice the presence of God, but that is not impossible since we are constantly, everywhere and always, surrounded by God in our earth, God’s body.  Whether in pain or beauty, backache or a walk in Jericho, I live within God.  My death will be a seamless transition to living more fully within God.

Let me reflect a bit on this statement more fully.  It began when I was seven years old and “woke up” for the first time.      To say Yes to this alternative is, I think, what “believing in God” means.  It means that waking up, acknowledging one’s radical contingency, is not just a cruel joke, but an invitation to participate consciously in the cosmic dance of self-giving love one to another, of accepting life as a gift, living that gift joyfully and gratefully, and then passing it along to others.  One goes from the active to the passive stage of this dance.  This means one must “let go” of the active phase, be willing to step back and let other dancers lead.  However, one still plays a part—a part similar to a “nurse log,” a tree that has fallen down and now allows oneself to serve as nutrients for others to have their turn to grow in the sun.  As Teilhard says in his prayer on death, in the passive stage one allows God to part the fibres of one’s being so as to bear each of us away within the divine self.  So, “waking up,” becoming a conscious human being, is an experience of both terror and beauty.  One experiences the astonishing beauty of the world (from plankton to penguins, including human beings) along with the horror of losing it all.  However, “believing in God” means that we all continue as a part, a nurse log, in the cosmic dance of self-giving love.




[1] Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), 11

[2] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War, trans. Rene Hague (London: Collins, 1968), 14.

[3] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns  (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), 10.

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