Robin E. Caldwell
McFague, Sallie. Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997
Sallie McFague was inspired by a tourist advertising slogan for British Columbia, which read, “Super, Natural British Columbia”. When she read it, she thought it was the most proper use of the word “supernatural”, which uplifts the natural world – God’s creation - to the level that she believes God intended. Christians, as a part of God’s creation, “should not only be natural, understanding ourselves as in and of the earth, but also super, natural, understanding ourselves as excessively, superlatively concerned with nature and its well-being. Christians are those who should love the oppressed, the most vulnerable of God’s creation, for these are the ones according to the Gospel who deserve priority.” (6) McFague discusses the idea of how the Christian mission of caring for the poor could be extended beyond the human poor, to caring for nature, which, in its poor condition, requires action on the part of people in order for creation to prosper. Christians have a “religious tradition that has had a reputation for being supernatural as well as anti-natural” (7), so McFague explores how this attitude could be changed to encourage more “super, natural Christians” to emerge. McFague explains that the culture of the West has evolved as a “subject” versus “object” model in the way that people understand self, world, and God. It is this view that needs to be overcome in order for Christians to act super, natural. This model “is implicitly dualistic, hierarchical, individualistic, and utilitarian”(7), in which “the other” (that is, person, nature, or God) has value which is dependent upon the benefit which it has for the human subject. The alternative that McFague suggests is a “subject” versus “subject” model, in which the other has intrinsic value because of its existence within creation. The importance of the other is not dependent upon recognition by humans, but upon the idea that all living things have been created by God, and maintain value as a part of creation.
Most Christians have not loved nature over the past 2000 years, due to an association with paganism and Goddess worship, but McFague believes that Christians should love nature simply and emphatically because the Christian God is embodied in creation, in the physical reality of a human being. The Christian faith has an incarnational theology, with its emphasis on God’s presence with us in the body of Jesus, with the presence of Christ at the Eucharist, and with the body of the church.
Westerners tend to view nature as an object, with “the arrogant eye”, as if one is a spectator on a hill, observing the landscape from a distance as a spectacle that exists only for the use or enjoyment of the observer. An alternative idea is to consider nature as a maze, of which we experience with more than just our sense of sight. The sense of touch is an intimate way of experiencing the other, whereas the sense of sight can be the most distant sense. Sight can be deceptive, in that, independently from other senses, one assumes that what is visually perceived is truth. This is not the most objective way of obtaining knowledge, because one has pre-conceived ideas and experiences that color the interpretation of what is seen. The belief that truth is based upon the visual has its basis in the ideas of Plato, who believed that sight was the means to knowledge, and Rene Descartes, the father of objectivity. The development of perspective art during the Renaissance, the appearance of nudes in Western art, and photography, have all contributed to the attitude of the arrogant eye.
The loving eye, opposite the arrogant eye, would require a radical shift in Western attitude, in which the primary sense used for learning about the other is touch instead of sight. “Unlike sight, it is two-way, for one cannot touch without being touched. Touch reveals the world to be both resistant (other people and things are there, taking space) and responsive (the world affects me-the wind feels cold, this human hand feels good).” (93) The person who has the loving eye embraces intimacy, but also recognizes and respects differences; sharing the pain or happiness of the other while maintaining individuality and independence.
In our modern lives, many do not have the attitude of the loving eye toward nature because the largest of our population now reside in cities which have been constructed with only the human species in mind. In order to love nature, one must have experience with nature in accessible places. It does not have to be in fenced off preserved areas, but can be found in one’s backyard, at a city park, or with a goldfish in a bowl of water. Christians who do not have personal experience with nature may learn from nature writers, who write down their experiences in descriptive and emotional ways which stimulate the senses and awareness of nature for the reader. Nature writers see the other respectfully, as fellow subjects, by acting patiently and attentively while maintaining their individual identity.
Knowing and understanding the other through the loving eye influences the way that the other is treated. “The ethic that emerges from the ecological model is care for all those in the community.”(151) Within a community, one needs to have respect for the other members if for no other reason than for their “other-ness”. This can be a difficult ethic because living in community is not all joy and happiness. Living in community and respecting those who are different than oneself is not without conflict and other challenges, but, as one cares for the individuals, one cares for the whole, thus promoting the health of all. “An ecological ethic of caring does not deny the self in subservience to the other nor use others for self-aggrandizement. An ecological ethic of care is like friendship, which is built on both respect for the other and fulfillment of the self.”(155)
The ethic of care recognizes that the whole is greater than its parts, and understands that nature cannot return to its virgin state. It recognizes that all communities are unique and will evolve over time. It recognizes that, with much of our wilderness lost, and with most of our population existing in cities, communities now need to focus on gardens as places for people to experience nature as sources of hope. The ethic of care sees individuals as social beings existing in relationship, creating a larger sense of self, making it possible to rejoice as others feel joy, and to mourn as others despair. All in community affect each other.
Ideas from the ecological model and Christian spirituality can influence each other. Respect and relationship within a community are ideals from the ecological model that Christians also try to achieve with other human beings. The challenge is to extend this model of community to include nature. “The writer of the first chapter of Genesis leaves no doubt but that the goodness of creation is its message: it is repeated seven times in the space of thirty-one verses.”(165) Christians should not allow the two other secondary attitudes toward nature to dictate our actions – domination and stewardship. “We have heard, ‘Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . . ‘ which is not mentioned seven times but only once.” (165) “The message of Genesis is not domination but appreciation.” (166) McFague sees no reason for excluding nature from the circle of our Christian community.
Christianity can make significant contributions to the subject-subject model: (1)“justification acknowledges the depths of human sin, while sanctification insists that once free of it we have a task to do.”(169); (2) Christianity goes beyond the community care ethic by giving preference to the needy, which can consider people or nature; and (3) Christianity believes that we can find signs of God in nature, in that God’s being and glory are mirrored in creation, as He is in each human being.
Sallie McFague has ideas for Christians that had to be challenging and radical for the audience she wrote for in 1997, but are even more so in 2008. The nineties were pre-9/11, pre-patriot act, pre-immigration issues, and pre-climate change panic (which did not seem to gain huge public notice in my mind, until Vice President Al Gore went on speaking tour, wrote a book, and created the movie “An Inconvenient Truth”, after his terms in the White House). Reading about her ideas now, for Christians in the 21 st century, it seems clearly dated. Our political climate is extremely polarized and divided after the significant event of 9/11 and the ensuing reactions that our government had in the name of fighting terrorism. Christianity itself has a different public face now, than it had in 1997, when Super, Natural Christians was published. Like our politics, polarization exists within Christianity, with the environmentally-conscious Christians stereo-typically following the left wing, and the conservative Christians following the right wing of politics. It is an extremely discouraging picture, in which the community of believers sometimes appears to be so broken that some do not like to identify with the Christians who have made themselves more politically public. The assumption that McFague had regarding the call all Christians have to extend love to other human beings using a subject-subject model appears to be a false assumption in this age, when our Christian president states openly with language that is very exclusive of other people, his justification for fighting the war in Iraq. The current immigration issue has divided people within our own country enough to make any legislative action impossible. The words “global” and “warming” in the same sentence can cause metaphoric walls to rise up between otherwise friendly fellow Christians from the same community. McFague expresses the hope that the Christian community, who already presumably includes other human beings, just needs to expand the circle to include the natural world within this community of care. In this current political and social climate, this idea appears to be even more radical now than it was a decade ago. Our circles of care appear to be diminishing, excluding other human beings, rather than expanding beyond them to nature, as she hoped. Does a super, natural Christian need to be supernatural to conquer these divisions?
“Is God big enough to save the planet?” a classmate questioned when discussing the climate crisis. He thought not. With the despair sometimes felt when realizing the conflict and oppression that appears in our world, it is not easy to keep faith in a God who is “big enough”. Is God big enough to save the planet? Is it possible that we have an image of God that is too small? One concept that McFague expresses in her final chapter relates to this question. She thinks that Christians should see a bigger God. She suggests that Christians add a new sacramentalism that would “see all things in God”(172) as we experience nature. Instead of seeing “God in this tree”(172), Christians should see “this tree in God”(172). The medieval view used nature as a means for humans to see God. The world was centered upon humankind, and all things were believed to be created for human use and benefit. Now that we are past the age of enlightenment, humans realize that we are not the center of the universe, however, the medieval model can be modified for our use today. The medieval model used nature as a vertical means to know God, a new model would allow us to find God by looking horizontally at the incarnate in our midst. With this shift in our view from the vertical to the horizontal, we can see and experience a bigger God. In this new way of experiencing, all of creation is in God. God surrounds us. God is in our neighbor. God is in the water. God is in the air. God is in the soil. God is in the song. God is in the leaves. As creation rejoices, so does God. Likewise, as people suffer, so does God. As the earth suffers, so does God. As animals suffer, so does God. As creation suffers, so does God. With this kind of sacramentalism, God is incarnate. God is suffering with us, and, as we know from Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion, God can be resurrected with us. With faith like this, we receive our salvation. With faith like this, we are free. With faith like this, we must witness to others by caring for the poor – human and other created beings. Christians need to express their faith by praising God, respecting the other, and recognizing that each of us in creation is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) within the community of God.
Christian theology is and has to be counter-cultural. Christian theology is radical. If Christians are bold enough to continue to proclaim the Gospel and live the life that God intends of us in community, regardless of the current political and social climate, Christians can continue to share the hope of their beliefs and experiences with the poor of humanity, the poor of the environment, and really make a difference while doing it. McFague expresses her hope that Christianity can continue to be strong enough in its belief that God’s image is present in all of creation, and that in helping the other, Jesus is served.
Christians who feel called to spread the Gospel of Christ to others who believe that God will reconcile himself with creation through Christ in the end are people who truly embody what super, natural Christians are. The subject-subject model and the community of care do not represent a romantic or even an optimistic view, necessarily, yet Christians who live their lives for God serve anyway. Super, natural Christians are realistic, yet they are hopeful. It is these Christians who see resurrection when looking at the crucifixion. It is these Christians who see new life in the midst of death.