Laura Hauptman

Book Review

McFague, Sallie. Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

In her book, Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature, Sallie McFague offers an alternative cosmology for Western cultures that changes our understanding of and relationship with nature. Her book asks how Christians can live in right relationship with nature. She criticizes the current functioning cosmology of our society, which looks at the world in a strict dualistic hierarchical dichotomy. Humans are the subject, and they see the rest of the as objects. Viewing the world this way has had drastic and terrible consequences for the environment. Human beings must change how we perceive the natural world by operating out of a cosmology that defines our relationship with nature as a subject-subject relationship.

Sallie McFague first looks at how we view nature in our society and culture. We have lost our connection, and view nature as objects for our own uses and purposes. We do not see them as subjects in their own right with their own purposes. Therefore, we have developed habits that cause us to neglect the needs of nature. She argues that a change in sensibility will change our actions. Her approach is counter to the scare tactic that is used by many in the environmental movement. Instead of using statistics to overwhelm and emphasize the problems we face, McFague focuses on our relationship with nature. McFague says we must first pay attention, noticing the details and differences of these different subjects, and understand that they are beings in their own right and require our respect. She says that we must pay attention if we are going to live out our call to love nature. If we do not pay attention to nature, then we will not know nature, and we cannot love what we do not know (29). In order to pay attention to nature, we must realize that our current cosmology will not allow us to develop an intimate, loving, caring relationship with nature. She says we must change our functioning cosmology, and this begins by starting at the most basic level; with ourselves. If we start by changing the way we understands ourselves in the world and our relationship with creation, then a more environmentally conscious attitude will develop naturally. If human beings change how they see and understand themselves, then the way they see and understand the rest of creation will also change.

Sallie takes the elements of liberation and feminist theologies and applies them to her Christian environmental ethic. We construct our world view through the minds eye, knowledge through the sense of sight, which is known as reason. Things become objects when we only observe and know them through the minds eye. They are kept at a distance. In Western culture there is a dichotomy of reason versus nature. Other dichotomies that exist in our culture are male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, white/people of color. There is an extreme separation between the two sides of the dichotomy, where the group on top is associated with reason and the group on bottom with nature. The one on bottom is only defined by and known through the one on top. The one on bottom becomes less, and objectified for the needs and power of the one on top. Those on the reason side of the dichotomy develop a colonizing attitude toward the other side of the dichotomy. McFague suggests the construction of an alternative world view, which breaks down the ability to create such radical separation and distinction necessary for the reason/nature dichotomy.

To live out of a subject-subject understanding of our relationship with nature would require us to have a new understanding of our sense of self. The author says that to construct a new cosmology that causes us to relate to the natural world differently we must start at the most basic level. This is, start with how we come to know and understand ourselves. McFague describes two ways of knowing, and associates one of the five senses to each way of knowing. The current world view is constructed on a model where sight is the primary and first sense. For humans to establish the subject-subject model with nature, we cannot begin with sight. The subject-subject model requires us to be aware of our intimate connection with the rest of creation. This begins by seeing the world through the eye of the body, and forming a cosmology that uses the sense of touch as primary as opposed to the Western world uses of sight.

McFague explains that there are several ways of knowing that humans use to construct a cosmology. In her book she contrasts the “Arrogant Eye” with the “Loving Eye.” The arrogant eye is disconnected, and sees others only in how they are related to the self. Therefore, beings in nature are only known as objects that are either for or against me (38). The “arrogant eye” uses sight as the primary sense, and this is associated with the minds eye or reason. Christians world view should start with a ‘loving eye’, which uses touch as the primary sensory tool. The loving eye allows us to know other objects as we would another human being. The author uses the analogy of a friendship to describe our relationship with other being in nature. Through touch, the intense separation and distance allowed through sight is not possible. Also, touch is interdependent on another as opposed to sight. With sight, others can exist in the abstract without any contact. If the sense of touch is primary, the distinct boundaries established using the minds eye are not possible. With touch there is a relationship and our being is defined through our relationship through contact. This makes our interrelationship with nature, and dependency on nature more obvious. We recognize that all creatures were created with their own teleology, and not just for our benefit. Every being has its own intentions, even if that being is not conscious of it, and they can influence our well-being. This is important for creating a Christian, environmental ethic. Seeing the world through the “loving eye” causes us to see that we ought to care for nature, and develop our relationship with nature. We should because we recognize the value of these creatures in their own right, apart from how we can use them for our benefit. Also, these beings can affect humans, because they act as agents with their own intentions.

The subject-subject model is not only better from an environmental standpoint, but allows Christians to live out their call to live rightly with nature. The uses the term ecological model interchangeably with subject-subject model. This model is ecological because it allows us to know creation in relationship. The distinct line drawn between humans and the rest of creation in the subject-object model is blurred and fuzzy. We can no longer clearly establish ourselves apart from nature, because we see our intimate connection and dependency on nature. Our understanding of ourselves in dependent on nature when we use touch as our primary sense. Our own boundaries and limits are set for us, and touch demands that we be responsive to other beings. Touch involves action of both beings, and forces us to be responsive. The “arrogant eye” allows us to view others as object, because the sense of sight does rely on the one being viewed to participate or give permission. Sight and touch involve relationship because they depend on the actions of the other being. Using touch as the primary sense causes us to really see other beings as subjects, because we are dependent in someway on them. This leads us to a relationship of respect, which calls us to acknowledge the otherness of the other (151). Recognizing other beings as other subjects is respecting them. This model allows us to be super, natural Christians in our world today. To be a super, natural Christian means to extend Christian practice of love and care for one’s neighbor to the rest of creation. We are called to view other human beings as subjects, and this extends to all of nature. Christians have always been called to view other human beings as subjects, but seldom has this been applied to how we should treat nature. McFague examines Genesis creation account and finds that it calls for an ethic of care for all of creation.

An ethic of care emerges from the subject-subject model. Sallie McFague says that the ethic that arises from the “loving eye” calls us to care for all those in the community. This model extends the community from other human beings to the entire creation. Therefore, we are to called to love and care for nature just as we are called to love and care for other human beings. The community ethic is now extended to all of God’s creation. We respect other creatures and we recognize them as members of the community. McFague uses the community model because it is the best metaphor for describing the relationship we have with other beings in creation. We are all subjects, and the subjecthood of all creatures is respected in the model. She is opposed to the deep ecologists metaphor which recognizes us as all parts of the on subject, which is the earth. The subjecthood of the different life forms in creation is lost in the deep ecologists model (152). Through the new model, we recognize that we have a relationship with the rest of creation. The “loving eye” allows us to see our deep connection to our environment. We are impacted and changed by nature, and we influence nature. We are intimately a part of nature. McFague notes that “we are, literally, bone of the bone, flesh of the flesh of nature” (153). We come from nature, are completely dependent on nature and will return to nature when we die. Therefore, a super, natural, Christian ethic does not stop at respect. Recognizing our relationship with nature calls for an ethic of care. Here, the model of creation is so important. If we recognize that we live in community, and that our influence is mutual, then we must have an ethic of care. The concept of community alerts us that our actions influence those around us, and that as part of a community, our health and survival is dependent on the health and care of the whole. To care for another requires a deep understanding and knowledge of that other. We must gain a deep knowledge of their needs. We must be informed about the needs of the natural world when we make our decisions. Taking the needs of others into consideration, rather than just our own, is acting out of an ethic of care. McFague notes, that caring for the earth locally can lead to global ethics of care. She notes that it is difficult to care for the earth on a global scale if one has never cared for a small piece of it, like a garden. She says that teaching a child to care for and appreciate a particular pet or plant, is a far more effective way to develop an ethic of care than a lecture.

She notes that the Christian faith makes great contribution to the ecological model. As Christians, we are called to treat God and other human beings as subjects. We now understand that this calling also includes treating nature as subjects. However, as Christians recognize that this is impossible for us to achieve. Throughout history, we have used and continue to use other people, nature and even God as means for our own ends. This is our understanding of sin, objectifying others, nature and God for our own purposes. It is here, that the Christian faith can offer something valuable to the ecological model. The doctrine of justification acknowledges that though we are called to treat others as subjects, we will fail. However, God forgives us this failure, and through grace we are made righteous. We are made right to God through grace, and God accepts us as we are. God recognizes us as subjects, when he accepts us as we are. Justification recognizes the sinful reality of human nature, and frees us from it. God’s acceptance is a gift that we cannot earn. We are free from trying to earn God’s acceptance through our own actions. And, once we recognize this, and accept God’s acceptance of us, we are encouraged to do the same to others.

Sallie McFague looks at how Christians can learn to love nature. This begins by paying attention to nature. Recognizing its intrinsic value, and respecting beings in nature as creatures of God with their own teleology. In order to do this, we must live out of a cosmology that allows us to see our intimate relationship with nature. This begins by changing how we see ourselves. In contrast to seeing the world from a distant objective point of view, McFague says we must get close to nature. She presents two ways of seeing the world, one that begins with sight and the other with touch. We must begin with touch, if we are to become super, natural Christians. Beginning with touch, makes us aware of our relationship with nature and we are able to move from a subject-object view of the world to an ecological, subject-subject model. This model offers a way for Christians to love nature. The Christian faith also offers this model a way to avoid the anxious self which seeks to either objectify or fuse with nature. Through the doctrine of justification and sanctification we are able to avoid both. McFague begins by saying we must pay attention to nature, we have to be in nature, learn about nature in order to fall in love with nature. We can only love what we know. By seeing the world through the “arrogant eye” human beings can keep nature at a distance. This distance allows us to acknowledge nature without knowing nature. We only know nature in relation to how nature meets our needs. By crossing this void or gap, and embracing our relationship and mutual dependence on nature, we are then able to care for nature. Caring for a small part of nature, means getting to know a creature such as a goldfish or a plant intimately. Only by getting to know a piece of nature and caring for nature locally are we then able to care think of ways to care for nature globally. Sallie McFague offers some practical steps for how Christians can develop an ethic of care that includes nature, without being overwhelming. She says we must begin by simply acknowledging, embracing and learning. We must start at the very basic level of changing how we view ourselves. We must change our understanding in a way that opens us to an intimate relationship with other subjects in nature that calls for love and care.