Netsie N. Griffith

Book Review

McFague, Sallie. Super, Natural Christians: How we should love nature.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

In October of 2006 I had an opportunity to hear Sallie McFague lecture as part of her participation in the Without Nature? conference hosted by the University of Chicago Divinity School. I was so intrigued by what she said pertaining to sacramentalism and nature that I was hoping to find more on this topic in her book, Super, Natural Christians. Given that the lecture came nine years after the publication of the book, the lecture proved to present McFague’s further thinking on this topic rather than discussing content within the book. Therefore, after reviewing the foundational work presented in her book, I will return to important, additional points made in her lecture. I believe McFague has taken an important, next evolutionary step in her thinking which is valuable for our Christian praxis in the world today.

In the synoptic gospels Jesus reminds us that we are to love God with our heart, our soul, our mind and our neighbor as ourselves. In light of these two great commandments, Sallie McFague poses the question, “How are Christians to love nature” (1)? She argues in this book that while God and other people have traditionally been seen as subjects of our love, valuable in themselves, for themselves, nature has not been seen this way. In our discussions of stewardship, we often speak of preserving the resources of nature for future generations. Implicit in this statement is the idea that nature is useful to human beings as an object to be used not as a subject to which we relate from a position of respect and care. Nature, since the time of the Enlightenment, has been treated as the means to an end, not an end in and of itself. McFague’s intent with this book is not to contribute another ‘how-to’ book to the repertoire of environmental literature. Rather, her intent is to remind us of who we are and what God calls us yet to be as Christians in relation to God, one another and nature; it is to challenge how we see our task as theologians in relation to nature. “A theologian’s job is to help Christians think about God, other people – and nature – so that we can, will, act differently toward them. It is this neglected third – nature – that is the subject of this volume” (2).

In her first chapter McFague begins by defining the basic terms that are central to her book: spirituality, Christian and nature. She prefaces her examination of these terms with a discussion of 1) supernatural vs. super, natural, and 2) Christian nature spirituality. While supernatural primarily has been understood as that which is above or outside what is considered the natural world, McFague maintains that the inserting of a little comma between the words “super” and “natural” holds great promise for how we “live in the earth and for the earth” (5). Says McFague, “It is the thesis of this book that Christians 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” (6). The term Christian nature spirituality as used by McFague means Christian praxis extended to the natural world (9).

In spite of the many meanings associated with the term, spirituality, and its overabundant use in our contemporary culture, McFague opts for a definition of spirituality proposed in 1977 by the Scottish Churches Council: Spirituality is “an exploration into what is involved in becoming human . . . Becoming human [is] an attempt to grow in sensitivity to self, to others, to the non-human creation, and to God who is within and beyond this totality” (10). “Prayer is not one thing (practiced by contemplatives) and Christian praxis something else (practiced by activists). Prayer and action must go together” (10). Jon Sobrino’s definition of prayer is that it is “nothing more than life in the Spirit of Jesus” (10).

In regards to the term, Christian, as related to nature, it is argued that commitment to the God of Jesus Christ demands it. McFague makes a case that “the oppressed” change over time. Even though Jesus did not explicitly address his love to nature, neither did he to slaves, women, or people of color. Yet, if we believe that God the redeemer is concerned for the well-being of creation, we have to include nature within such a belief system. Says McFague, “Christian action is concerned with liberation of and care for the oppressed” (13). and “means applying ‘the liberation of the oppressed’ to nature” (12).

As challenging as it is to define the terms, “spirituality” and “Christian,” McFague finds it even more challenging to define nature. There have been and continue to be many, diverse views of what nature has been and what nature is. On one hand, she asserts that nature is not any one, specific thing but many things. On the other hand, she wants to disown destructive definitions of nature, such as when nature has been evoked to support such things as Nazi hegemony, and discrimination against women and homosexuals. In such cases what is seen to be natural and unnatural is a gross distortion of what McFague would have us understand. In contrast, for purposes of clarification, though admittedly inadequate, McFague proposes a big answer and a small answer to the question of how we should understand nature.

“The big answer is that we should think of nature in terms of the picture of the physical world coming to us from postmodern science and ecology. The natural world, according to this picture, is characterized by evolutionary change and novelty, structure as well as openness . . . relationality and interdependence, with individual entities existing only within systems, systems that can be expressed by the models of organism and community” (20).

The small answer, McFague asserts, “assumes the big answer as its context . . . but sees nature in the near neighbor, whether that be another human being, a tree, or even a goldfish” (22). It focuses in on the particular and is important in regards to the forming of relationships. “. . . We are more likely . . . to love nature if we love one small bit of it, even just a tree or a goldfish” (23). In summary, McFague emphasizes that loving nature, just as we love God and other people, means loving it as a “subject” – valuable in and of itself. She then continues to build upon and develop what she means by a subject-subjects view of Christian love for nature.

En route to developing this subject-subjects view McFague helps us to see that we must create a functional cosmology for our day and uses medieval cosmology as an example. While a medieval cosmology would not be appropriate for our time, she argues that it worked well (despite acknowledged shortcomings) for its own day. The reason for this was that, “The medieval picture was a sacred world order uniting God, human beings, and nature into a coherent whole through a complex network of interconnections” (49). For those especially attuned to nature such as Hildegard of Bingen and Francis of Assisi, nature was read like a book, and like the Bible, if read rightly, it could lead one to find one’s way to God. One’s relationship with nature was important to one’s spiritual life and very being. McFague proposes that ecological interdependence is the foundation upon which a functional cosmology might be built for our own day. “It has many of the benefits of the medieval sacred order, for it is, as that was, a functional cosmology. But it is a more appropriate one for our time, because it is in keeping with the contemporary scientific picture of reality” (51).

As McFague continues to develop a subject-subjects view of Christian love for nature, she uses two important images beginning in chapter two which she extends throughout her book – “the arrogant eye” and “the loving eye.” These images represent two different ways of knowing that are instructive for how we either relate to nature utilizing a subject-object model or a subject-subjects model. She credits feminist philosopher, Marilyn Frye, with originating these terms. The arrogant eye is defined as acquisitive, seeing everything in relation to the self in a way that excludes the other from being independent. It simplifies in order to control, thus denying complexity and mystery, since what is not understood cannot be controlled. The loving eye, on the other hand, allows for complexity, mystery, and difference and recognizes existing boundaries between the self and the other. “It recognizes . . . that the interests of other persons (and the natural world) are not identical with one’s own, that knowing another takes time and attention” (34). McFague devotes a whole chapter to “The Arrogant Eye: Knowing Nature as Object” and another chapter to “The Loving Eye: Knowing Nature as Subject.” Some highlights of each of these chapters follow.

In her chapter on the arrogant eye, McFague attributes the development of perspective which came to the fore in Renaissance painting as contributing to a distanced, outside way of knowing and seeing. With the introduction of perspective, human beings disappeared from paintings compared to medieval painting where nature and human beings are intermixed on a flat surface. Thus, in a nineteenth-century landscape painting, the point from which one views the painting is outside as an invisible spectator. The invention of the camera further objectified this way of viewing nature – as a spectator with a scene laid out before us. “It appears as an object; it is at a distance; it exists in relation to the observer” (68). In order to counter a landscape way of experiencing nature McFague offers a contrasting image – that of a maze, as in an impenetrable maze of hedges set in irregular circles. She then has one imagine that they are in the maze. In a maze one must pay close attention to detail in order to find one’s way about and thus, a different kind of vision must come into play. This kind of vision and knowing involves all of one’s senses, not just sight, but touching, smelling, hearing, and, perhaps, even tasting. Western tradition, McFague argues, has preferred the perspective of landscape, which pictures humanity, the crown of creation, in an all-knowing, all-seeing position related to the world below. This also has been the classic model for how God is often portrayed in Western tradition as seeing all and knowing all. If our understanding of imago dei, then, is based on this image of God, it validates visual knowledge that is objectifying, distancing, and controlling. In contrast to such an image of God, McFague suggests a radicalizing of Christian incarnationalism. Such an understanding acknowledges that God is here with us, in the flesh, in the earth and would imply that the image of the maze is preferable from a Christian point of view than the image of landscape. In this chapter McFague further develops how we have been conditioned in many ways (painting and photography being just two) to see the world around us through arrogant eyes. This is unsettling news indeed. It is very effective, then, in leading us to the next chapter on the loving eye and the hope this image holds for us.

Whereas the arrogant eye favors the sense of vision as primary, the loving eye, argues McFague, favors the sense of touch as primary. “Human beings,” she asserts “can exist without their other senses, but we could not exist without touch: unless we are touched and can touch, we have no way of knowing that we even do exist . . . ” (91). If we are to understand ourselves in a scheme of things which includes all around us, touch must become our primary sense. In this way a conversion can be made from the arrogant eye to the loving eye. “Our thesis is that a sense of self coming from touch rather than from sight gives us a way to think about ourselves as profoundly embodied, relational, responsive beings, as created to love others, not to control them” (92). As she continues to develop aspects of a loving eye, McFague articulates what a mature love of others involves and shares a helpful quote from Evelyn Fox Keller. A mature love, Keller claims is a “love that allows for intimacy without the annihilation of difference” (97).

The image of the loving eye and McFague’s subject-subjects model of relating to nature in Christian love are further developed in her final two chapters. She shares the importance of the genre of nature writing and gives us examples of the writings of three writers: Sharon Butala, Sue Hubbell, and Annie Dillard. Finally, she relates the ecological model to a community of care and to Christian spirituality. In regards to care, McFague contrasts an ethic of wilderness with one of garden which I found helpful. Says McFague, “We have had an ethic for the wilderness, beginning with John Muir and epitomized in the national parks movement, but we do not have an ethic for the rest of nature—the nature in our cities, the nature we use for resources, the nature we farm” (159). She does, however, point us to some innovative ways that some cities are attempting to provide park land and giving city dwellers an opportunity to experience the wild without having to travel to the wilderness. She commends New York City for its 26,000 acres of parkland in addition to Central Park. Chicago is also cited for its 150,000 acres of prairie, oak savanna, woodland and wetland only thirty minutes from the city center. She also shares the work of Bill McKibben in which he highlights Curitiba, Brazil and Kerala, India as model cities intentionally designed with the health and well being of all living things in mind – human and natural.

With regard to relating the ecological model to Christian spirituality, McFague boldly states that the living out of a subject-subjects model of relating to nature

“can and should restore nature as a divine sacrament. [Unlike a medieval kind of sacramentalism] It will be a kind of sacramentalism that focuses on the things themselves rather than on their divine message. . . . The things of the earth do not point away from the earth to God; rather, they are themselves the ‘body’ of God . . . and they deserve, as all human beings do, to be part of the language we use to speak of God” (174).

In her Epilogue McFague reminds us of what Christian nature spirituality is and is not. Love for nature is not a love that attributes salvific powers to humanity (naively believing that we can save the planet). It is not nature romanticism. Sometimes it is not even optimistic about the future. (The planet may well deteriorate.) What a Christian nature spirituality does and is, however, is reflected in the praise of God for the wonder of the ordinary and commits itself to work on behalf of sick and outcast, wonderful, ordinary creatures. “A Christian nature spirituality is also determinedly hopeful because it believes that the creator of these wonderful, ordinary creatures is working in, through, and on behalf of us all” (178).

As promised, I will return briefly to the lecture presented by Sallie McFague October 28, 2006. The intriguing aspect of this lecture for me was how McFague built on the image of the earth as the body of God, and the importance of earthly bodies, our own, as well as those of nature. She emphasized our reliance on nature as bodily creatures. She quoted 1 Peter’s interpretation of Isaiah 40:6, “All flesh is grass . . .” (1 Peter 1:24). She reminds us that, indeed, our flesh and the flesh we eat can be traced back to the grass which feeds it. We eat by the grace of nature, and, thus, we literally eat the body of the world. She discussed the appropriateness of the “body” metaphor for the earth, because, for Christians, body language has great historical and theological significance. The church is portrayed as the body of Christ on earth. Communion is a sharing of the body and blood of Christ for us. She then posed the question, “What makes for bodily well being?” She went on to say that the prophetic dimension of our faith focuses our attention on the fact that all bodies have their limits. Thus we need to treat the earth and its resources in a way that is just and sustainable. Earth, as a body, is limited, just as our own bodies have their limits. How then do we live in a way on earth in which bodies, all bodies might flourish? She looked through two lenses in responding to this question in her lecture—the lens which sees bodies that take up too much space and the lens which sees bodies that need more space. What is an equitable distribution of space in order that bodies might flourish particularly when it comes to city dwelling? How do we design our cities in a way which acknowledge the limits of bodies but also contribute to the flourishing of bodies? As mentioned in my review of McFague’s book, she does lift up examples of such cities through Bill McKibben’s work. One of the significant insights I took away from McFague’s lecture related to Christianity is that, for us as Christians, the image of the Eucharist, a banquet table spread for all of us, points us to salvation as the bodily flourishing of creation.

Thanks to the work of Sallie McFague, her teaching and her writing, I have much to ponder in regards to developing an ecological vision which sees with a loving eye. In response to the struggles and despair that the reading and lectures in the course, The Future of Creation, have caused me to experience, Sallie McFague speaks a word of truth, promise and hope which I have needed to hear. She reminds us of a sobering reality.

“The end of things is not in our hands and focusing on global outcomes can lead to despair. . . . (This does not mean, of course, that we hide our heads in the sand on planetary environmental issues, but hand-wringing over possible disasters is often an excuse for inaction.) We are energized by what we can touch, see, hear, and know—nearby nature. As we open ourselves to the bits and pieces of nature . . . we renew our acquaintance with and commitment to our oppressed Brother Earth and Sister Water” (178).

Thank you, Sallie McFague, for this liberating, life-giving word.

Sallie McFague, Conference Lecture, “Without Nature?”, University of Chicago Divinity School ( Chicago, Illinois, 28 October 2006).