May 19, 2014 / Theology
The way we usually talk about the “winners” and “losers” of church history influences our imagination and makes it harder to understand contemporary theological debates.
November 6, 2017
Contamination of drinking water, air pollution, loss of species and habitat, rising sea levels, and catastrophic weather events due to climate change have implications for every human being on this planet. Yet studies show that the majority of pastors rarely address environmental issues in their preaching.1 My own research likewise indicates that clergy are very hesitant to speak about environmental issues in their sermons. I conducted a survey of over 1,200 mainline Protestant pastors in early 2017, and as part of that survey, respondents were asked to indicate topics they had mentioned in a sermon in the previous twelve months, drawing from a list of thirty-eight potentially controversial issues. Environmental subjects, such as species extinction, pollution, and environmental racism, ranked at the bottom of the list—in fact, fewer than 10 percent of the pastors reported preaching on an environmental topic in the last year.
It may be that clergy feel ill-equipped to preach sermons that tackle environmental justice. If this is the case, it is important to identify models, theological frameworks, and scriptural resources to help pastors craft sermons that address ecojustice issues. I have argued that such resources should help pastors craft sermons that are (1) informed by an environmental hermeneutic for Scripture, (2) consistent with ecological theology, (3) attentive to the context of their hearers, and (4) creatively inspired to include the “voice” of Creation.2 More specifically, I assert that ecofeminist preaching that acknowledges the joint and interrelated oppression of women and Creation may be uniquely equipped to cultivate an ethical responsibility toward “the least of these” on our planet (Matt. 25:40) and, furthermore, that the work of Sallie McFague offers a rich resource for preachers looking to frame their sermons in the context of Creation care.
The term ecofeminism, which is a compound noun made from the co-informative terms ecology and feminism, indicates both the application of feminist principles to ecology and ecological principles to the feminist movement.3 As Ivone Gebara explains, “This positive word is born of two negative situations: the destruction of the natural world and the oppression of women. Ecofeminism is a recent word created by women as a reaction against the destruction of life carried out by patriarchal systems. It is a clear position that makes connections between the struggle for the dignity of women and respect for the different processes of life.”4 Thus, just as feminists generally tend to value interconnectivity, ecofeminists recognize the fundamental connection between humans and the natural world. They are therefore committed to efforts to protect and save the planet and its oceans, land, sky, and inhabitants—human and other-than human alike.
Ecofeminist theologians take ecofeminism in the direction of religion and spirituality.5 They interrogate Scripture, Christian history, theological doctrine, ecclesiology, and practical theology to discern if such resources support a positive theology of nature and the emancipation of women. Or they may find, as we will see with McFague, that the orthodox and traditional metaphors, symbols, stories, motifs, and dogmas need to be reinterpreted, reimagined, or even rejected if they contribute to the dualistic, patriarchal, or oppressively hierarchical othering or diminishment of women.6 Stated in a positive way, ecofeminist theologians perceive potential for the renewal of the church and human society through their emancipatory work, as well as for Earth’s community and all marginalized peoples. McFague, in particular, holds that theology itself—when undergirded by ecofeminist commitments that are framed within the constructs of metaphor—can aid in this process of emancipation.
As an ecofeminist homiletician, I argue that we can—and should—preach in a way that is responsible to the gospel while also being responsive to the values and concerns of ecofeminist theology. Furthermore, I contend that the preacher’s attention to ecofeminist theology is not merely an imposition of external ideological concerns on the church’s proclamation. Rather, it arises out of—and is a natural extension of—the gospel’s concern with “the least of these” and the good news about the coming of God’s peaceable community.
From Metaphorical Theology to Sallie McFague, Climate Crisis Prophet
Sallie McFague’s pioneering work, Metaphorical Theology, raises epistemological questions regarding theological language.7 Inspired by postmodern challenges that upend traditional interpretations of religious experience, her book strikes the fault line between patriarchal religious language and imagery and feminist critiques, splintering outward in quiet but liberating cracks. McFague seeks to “understand religious/theological language in terms of metaphors and models. Religious language is largely metaphorical, while theological language is composed principally of models.” For McFague, models are the means by which we build our religious metaphors and structure our spiritual and ecclesiastical realities. Her method is to first critically examine traditional models of God to deconstruct their literalism and return them to their proper place as mere metaphors which “are not descriptions but indirect attempts to express the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.”8 She then proposes alternative models that are based on the parables of Jesus, which she sees as being primarily relational.
McFague argues that traditional images of God as monarchical and militaristic perpetuate themselves in how we construct our relationships with family members, churches, countries, the environment, and our enemies. She explains that the pattern in each of these patriarchal models involves an understanding of power as domination. She writes that “the monarchical model is dangerous in our time [because] it encourages a sense of distance from the world; it attends only to the human dimension of the world; and it supports attitudes of either domination of the world or passivity toward it.”9 Such entrenched hierarchical language creates paradigms of domination that lead inexorably to modes of destruction such as war and nuclear annihilation. Her task, then, is to deconstruct and then reconstruct the models by which we understand our relationship with God and the world. Thus, she advocated using “thought experiments” that result in different models for contemporary theology and that are holistic, ecological, evolutionary, relational, and healing.
For preachers, these kinds of “thought experiments” have intriguing implications for sermons. Following her method, preachers can help their listeners critically examine traditional models of God and deconstruct those that might perpetuate patterns of hierarchy, domination, or destruction. The preacher can then propose alternative models. McFague suggests constructing these models based on the parables of Jesus, which she sees as primarily relational. These models more accurately reflect the “personal, relational images [that are] are central in a metaphorical theology—images of God as father, mother, lover, friend, savior, ruler, governor, servant, companion, comrade, liberator, and so on.” For preachers, these images of God can help provide models of “kinship, concern, and affinity.”10
In developing this way of thinking, McFague reminds us that there exists an “is and is not” within every metaphor.11 She means that no metaphor is meant to be taken literally or as a stable truth for every application. For instance, even McFague’s proposed image of God as mother, while liberating for some, might be unhelpful for individuals whose mothers were absent, abusive, unavailable, mentally unstable, addicted, neglectful, or smothering. Thus, it is important to remember that metaphorical images of God do not describe God but articulate the experiences and modes in which we can relate to God.
In her book The Body of God, McFague dedicates her efforts to exploring the thought experiment of the body as a model for an ecological theology.12 She is quick to point out that this model is not based on the human body, lest it inadvertently reinforce the patriarchal assumption that the head has a privileged position over the rest of the body, which would reinstate yet another problematic hierarchy. Instead, she is envisioning this body to be that of Earth itself and inclusive of all other “bodies”: mountains, oceans, forests, insects, birds, and humans, to name a few. More importantly, she argues that Earth is God’s chosen embodiment, which has ethical implications for how humans relate to Earth itself and how it is treated.
For example, a recent study on the state of the planet’s oceans by the Georgia Institute of Technology reveals that rapid warming due to climate change is leading to deoxygenation. According to a report in the website Science Daily, “The amount of dissolved oxygen contained in the water—an important measure of ocean health—has been declining for more than 20 years.”13 Using McFague’s model of Earth as body to understand such a study and its implications for God’s Creation, we might say that not having enough oxygen in Earth’s “bloodstream” is going to lead to a kind of environmental hypoxia, a condition that, for humans, results in organ damage and even catastrophic failure. This affects “the least of these” at the foundational level of the ocean’s food web—phytoplankton. These organisms are known as “primary producers” because they feed everything from microscopic zooplankton to small fish, invertebrates, and whales. If phytoplankton die off, this will have devastating effects across the entire food chain—right up to the dinner plates of human beings. Thus, the survival of human bodies is interconnected with the survival of even the smallest bodies of the ocean.
Preachers wishing to address these kinds of issues can employ McFague’s metaphorical language to craft sermons about environmental issues in a way that helps listeners see their vital link to all of God’s Creation in a very intimate way. The preacher can then make the case that all bodies have value, which can, in turn, foster an orientation toward justice. For McFague, this orientation has real-life consequences that can “change sensibilities, change the way voters, consumers, and organizers engage in political and economic action, from an individualistic, short-term profit mind-set to one that takes the broad view and the long view—the well-being of the planet as its foremost consideration.”14 She also believes that changing lifestyles is insufficient without a corresponding change in what we value—a belief certainly shared by preachers. Because as most preachers would likely agree, one’s hope is that a sermon will have holistic influences, pushing one’s congregation to think differently, consider new possibilities, and even take concrete action. Preachers working with McFague’s model of embodiment, then, have a key role to play in helping listeners reorient themselves and how they see the world, transforming our vision from a top-down, dualistic, utilitarian paradigm to one in which we belong to and with Earth—loving, respecting, and protecting it.
McFague’s next book, Super, Natural Christians, continues this trajectory, adopting an ethic of Earth care from Saint Francis of Assisi, the preacher who had an uncanny gift of seeing the “thou-ness” in all creatures, plants, and nonliving forms.15 Preachers taking their cue from this Franciscan Earth ethic, can employ a green hermeneutic in their sermons. By viewing every bird, pond, flower, mountain, tree, rocky cliffside, and fish as a holy brother or sister, we are neither forced to impose deification upon Creation nor to accept the mechanistic view of nature as an object to be used and abused according to our whims and wallets. Instead, we see in nature “the face of Christ in the needy sister or brother” and thus see “a vision of God.”16
In her following two books, Life Abundant and A New Climate for Theology, McFague focuses even more strongly on the real-world consequences and implications for her theological models.17 Both books include a scathing critique of the consumerist socioeconomic worldview that seeks cancerous financial growth while exploiting the poor, women, children, and the natural world. In Life Abundant, she offers an ecological economic Christology. Based on the radical ministry of Jesus to the oppressed, this Christology reorients believers to the way in which Jesus invites all to fully participate in the banquet of God’s kingdom. This, she demonstrates, is a revolutionary invitation, one that seeks to remove all economic and hierarchical barriers to that table.
Then, in New Climate for Theology, she addresses the underlying theological worldview that has resulted in the rampant climate change which now threatens the very systems that enable life on this planet. McFague urges the church to fully engage the political arena, which is, admittedly, fraught territory for preachers. But the grounds for this political involvement is not partisanship. Rather, it is to proclaim the presence of God in the midst of our broken, poisoned, and damaged world. This preached word may at first seem laughably insignificant and ineffective in the face of the growing onslaught of environmental devastation and rampant climate change. However, this small word is exactly what preachers are called to announce. As she explains,
In the worst of times, people often say, “All we have is God.” Indeed. Here “God” is the thread of hope that desperate people hold on to. God is that scrap of life and goodness still in us. God is what keeps us from giving up. God is not a being, but whatever life or love there is, no matter how small. We hold on to whatever shred of hope is left. It is very small indeed sometimes—but it is enough.18
For McFague, then, any way forward must be grounded in an unfaltering faith in gospel hope against existential despair.
Implications of McFague’s Work for an Ecofeminist Homiletics
From a homiletical perspective, there is much to appreciate in McFague’s work, especially in regard to her concern for how words articulate our faith, simultaneously limiting and expanding our understanding of the divine. Engaging McFague will challenge preachers to question the underlying foundations of our language, especially within the overarching paradigm of patriarchy. Her writing also helps preachers to understand why using female imagery for God is not only allowable but necessary to disrupt entrenched patriarchy. Particularly important for an ecofeminist homiletics is the way in which McFague gives permission to conduct further thought experiments and imagine even more metaphors for God.
So what might preaching look like that employs such thought experiments in addressing ecological issues? Interested preachers might employ an eco-narrative to preach a series from the perspective of one of the other-than-human “characters” in the Bible. For example, for Holy Week one could try preaching as one of the stones “crying out” along the Palm Sunday road, as the water in the basin on Maundy Thursday, as one of the trees used for the cross on Good Friday or as Earth itself, cradling Jesus’s body until the resurrection. An ecofeminist preacher in the mold of McFague could show the picture of a tree stump, river, flower, or rock that is mentioned in the biblical text or preach a series on Jesus’s parables about or interactions with Creation (e.g., what are the “birds of the air” and the “flowers of the field” in Matthew 6:25–30 teaching us?). Such a preacher might provide time in a sermon for listeners to share about the places in Creation that hold sacred significance for them, such as a favorite mountain stream, a city park, or an outcrop of rocks in the desert. This strategy not only allows congregants to hold an image in their mind but also helps to foster a relationship between the listener and some aspect of Creation within the context of preaching. I also suggest telling the story of a natural habitat local to the church, framed within a biblical context or concept, thereby incorporating Earth’s story with the biblical story and connecting those stories with the community’s stories. Or one might do a sermon series on features of nature in the Bible, such as rivers, mountains, or the wilderness. Or even preach outside; this is a natural way to decenter the congregation and directly address the larger “congregation” of the Earth community.
In any green sermon, when preachers forestall the desire to speak so that we may first attend to other-than-human perspectives, this helps listeners to slow down and allow other heretofore ignored or silenced voices to be heard. In keeping with McFague’s example, such a shift may be one strategy for widening the fault line of patriarchal language and imagery, leading to parable-like cracks through which God’s light and love for other creatures may be seen.
In the last chapter of my book Creation-Crisis Preaching, I include a trilogy of sermons in which I speak from the perspective of a nonhuman character in the biblical text. Drawing on McFague to undergird an ecofeminist hermeneutic for preaching, I intentionally listen for the nature characters that are not given voice in the biblical text but are nonetheless present and are affected by—and have an effect on—the narrative. For example, one of the sermons, “Earth Speaks: What’s Next?,” draws on the idea of Earth-as-body by dramatically embodying the narrative of Earth’s co-creativity with God. The goal of the sermon is to help congregations or readers develop empathy for Earth by seeing their own relationships with its flora and fauna, other human beings, and God through different eyes. The sermon also dramatically portrays what it looks like when the relationships between these entities are violated by human beings. This sermon is one example of what preaching might look like when it takes seriously McFague’s idea that Earth is an entity with agency in the biblical narrative. This is especially critical given that Earth-as-subject has been silenced, disappeared, and unnamed throughout most of Christian history, particularly in sermonic form. Thus, an ethical reorientation to Earth as “other” is necessary and urgent.
Preachers employing McFague’s ecofeminist theology will find themselves considering issues of gender, language, androcentrism, theological imagery, and their own unwitting complicity with the powers that hold Earth and women in thrall. Equipped with her metaphorical theology and inspired by her thought experiments, preachers can find fresh ways to address the needs of the world in terms of justice and ethics. This, in turn, can lead to sermons that are both relevant and contextual while offering the proclamation of the gospel in a uniquely life-giving way.
Leah D. Schade
Leah D. Schade is assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky, and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, where she has served congregations in rural, urban, and suburban settings. Schade earned both her MDiv and PhD from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Her dissertation focused on homiletics and ecological theology, two themes she examines in her 2015 book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecological Theology and Homiletics and the writing she features on her ecoPreacher Patheos blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/. Schade has also served as an anti-fracking and climate activist, community organizer, and advocate for environmental justice issues, and she is a trained workshop leader for Lutherans Restoring Creation, a grassroots movement helping congregations learn how to go green.