An ecological shift needs a theological shift

by Rich Heffern

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By Sallie McFague
Published by Fortress Press, $21

“Climate change is the central issue of the 21st century,” says Protestant teacher and author Sallie McFague. She’s professor in residence at the Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia and is emeritus professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., where she taught for 30 years.

“It is not one issue among many. ... All the other issues we care about -- social justice, peace, prosperity, freedom -- cannot occur unless our planet is healthy. It is the unifying issue of our time.”

Her latest book presents her belief that the environmental crisis is a theological problem, coming from a view of God and ourselves that encourages or permits our destructive, unjust actions.

Deep down at the level of our fundamental religious beliefs, if we picture God to be a super-being residing somewhere apart from the world, who created and judges the world but is otherwise absent from it, then we will conduct our affairs largely without day-to-day concern about God. “If the God I believe in is supernatural, transcendent and only occasionally interested in the world, then this God is not a factor in my daily actions.” Whether I buy that high-emissions Hummer is certainly not a concern for such a God.

McFague points out that such a view of God is essentially Gnostic in nature, separating spirit from matter in a drastic way. It’s not complete, nor is it the image of God that should belong to an incarnational and sacramental Christianity.

“An ecological model means a shift not from God to the world, but from a distant God related externally to the world to an embodied God who is the source of the world’s life and fulfillment.”

McFague offers a balanced view of the best science on climate change, and then asserts that though she cannot offer what scientists, engineers and various innovators can in the way of practical applications that change the way we do business, she must deal with her area, theology, in light of the environmental crisis.

She wants to change the way we think about ourselves, about God, and about our relationships with the rest of life. Ultimately, she favors a recognition of our interconnection with all of life. It’s not “us” and “nature.” We are part of nature, which is ultimately all within the “body of God.” She effectively argues not only for interconnection of all life, but for our call to live responsibly within this interconnection, to act as good caretakers, since we are the ones who created the problems.

Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

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