Some of you expressed interest in the paper I was writing for my Theologies of Liberation class. Here it is, for you to enjoy. If you are interested, my good friend wrote an EXCELLENT paper on God's sexuality, and a critique of queer theology, and posted it on her blog here.
The challenges my albeit short life has brought me have required me to develop a highly minimalistic theology of God and God’s interactions with the world. While I originally took this perspective as a way to both deny myself of a need for God, as well as provide God an out for not saving me from my trials, it has grown to be an a truly faith saving theology. For my redeeming theology over the past four years has been this: God is Love, and God is found wherever Love is felt or expressed. What may appear as too minimalistic is really marking a way for theology to be all encompassing and inclusive. Until taking this course of Theologies of Liberation, I had felt alone in my single-phrase expression of faith. Teaching Sunday school, and attending seminary while holding tightly to this miniscule seed of trusting faith felt farcical to me. However, upon reading the liberating reality of Sallie McFague’s metaphorical theology, as well as Kelly Brown Douglas’s and James B. Nelson’s womanist and sexual theologies respectively, I felt undeniably liberated by newfound models of God. I now have the language I couldn’t express myself, and feel renewed and strengthened in my journey to know God and know myself.
I am a young, white, married, life-long church going mother and small business owner who has spent many years being uncomfortable with the seeming tangibility Christianity tries to market to my advantaged “type.” While my visible social location is coated in privileges – some earned, most not, I have never been a comfortable Christian. Even as a cradle progressive Lutheran, being fed with compassionate readings from Scripture on how to care for the marginalized, there has always been a disconnect between the ideas and chatter we have about loving the unloved within our Euro-American congregations, and the conscious choices I saw being made to live in comfort rather than the solidarity with the other. It was easy to be a Lutheran Christian because no one I knew was struggling openly with anything that prayer wouldn’t make “feel better,” or even solve for them. However, when in my adult life, I experienced multiple personal tragedies that led me to know loss and grief beyond that which I had ever believed possible; I learned that my tradition of prayer and ‘it will be okay’ statements was more hurtful than helpful.
Through my rediscovery of self and my Lutheran roots, I soon realized that a masculine Father God, talk of answered prayers, and a ‘just have faith’ trust was a stumbling block for many besides myself. I needed a God who was struggling alongside me, who knew my sorrow and longing for relief, who was present in my joy and met me in all the raw honesty of my self. Truthfully, what I needed to know the most was that, after all of my body trauma, I was still an embodied creation of God, and it was not wrong that I could only believe that during expressions of my sexuality. This paper will include insights from sexual, womanist, metaphorical, and eco-theologies that will help emphasize the underlying and connective thread that God is bigger and greater than any of our power structures can comprehend. God IS present and God IS love.
Dr. Sallie McFague’s theology is metaphorical. While it has evolved into including, and even focusing on Christian ecological responsibility, the root of her perspective is that God is bigger and more indescribable than we can accurately comprehend. The only way humanity can even attempt to grasp concepts and truths about what and who God is, is by utilizing metaphors - a word or phrase which belongs properly in one context but is being used to hopefully benefit the understanding of another. McFague reminds us that “when we hear a fresh metaphor, our imaginations are immediately sparked. (McFague 1987, 33)” We can’t help but think of the possibilities opened by the new image, and our realities shift. This is a profound way to relook at theology and refashion who God is and therefore, what God means to humanity and creation.
To envision theology as metaphorical means to identify metaphors and models from contemporary experience that will express Christian faith for our day in powerful and illuminating ways. This provides the opportunity to know that images and realities of God are not sacredly placed in a theological box for patriarchal Christianity to dole out when it deems appropriate. There is a freedom in McFague’s theology that allows us to find our own expressions of Love and Reality. According to McFague, we are in an unprecedented situation, a post-Christian world, and we cannot –nor should we, accept currency from former times as our truth (McFague 1987, 31). Metaphorical Theology is necessary for the understanding of the interconnected relationship between God and the world, and how that relationship addresses our current/present day situations.
The major assumption of metaphorical theology is that all talk of God is indirect: no words or phrases can actually refer directly to God because nothing is accurate enough. God-language can only be understood through the detour of a metaphor that properly belongs elsewhere (McFague 1987, 34). This is an enormous risk to our sensibilities, and a risk many Christians are unwilling to take with their ideas of God. But the rub is that many other people find it hard to believe in God at all because Christians struggle to give them any imaginative pictures of the way God and the world as they know it are related (McFague 1987, 31). Particularly in the Pacific Northwest, Christianity is associated (and in my opinion, deservedly so) with the curse of black and white thinking. For people who witness and experience the gray realities of society, no static images of a God on a throne somewhere “else” are going to provide solace or comfort in their lives. The need for metaphor implies an absence theology will always be reckoning with, however, for McFague –and for me personally – it seems to be the only honest way to communicate the mystery of God.
The next step of McFague’s theology is that it images God as being mind and body. She imagines a God who is both all spirit and all matter in the world. The actual world is seen to be God’s body – in that the world is infused by, empowered by, loved by, given life by God. McFague’s world is seen to be within God, like a baby in the womb (McFague 2008, 71). This theology has been dismissed by many as pantheistic, but that is an inaccurate understanding, for pantheism is God being divided into everything. In world as God’s body theology, Gods self encompasses everything, and all that in encompassed participates in the revelation of Gods self. Each and every iota of God’s creation bears witness to the glory of God. In the world as God’s body, God is the source of all that lives and loves, all which is beautiful and true. Since we are not the source of our own being; we can and must acknowledge our radical dependence on God for all that is. God is never absent for God is reality.
What makes this model of the world a God’s body appropriate for our time is that it encourages us to focus on the here and now of where we meet God. It understands the doctrine of creation to be not primarily about God’s power, but about God’s love: about how we can live together, all of us, within and for God’s body. It focuses attention on the earth, on meeting God not later in heaven but here and now. We meet God in the flesh of the world: in feeding the hungry, healing the sick, building relationships, and being intimate in love gifted from God. This incarnational understanding of creation says “nothing is too lowly, too physical, too mean a labor if it helps creation to flourish (McFague 2008, 73).” God is everywhere. God is right under the surface in everything. God accompanies us everywhere we go and are. “The divine presence announced itself in a breeze rustling through leaves, in the sound of a birds call, in the face of a starving child, in a clear cut forest. God is in birth and in death and everything in between. God is wherever I am and wherever each and every tidbit of creation is (McFague 2008, 163).”
“To feel in the depths of our being that we are part and parcel of the evolutionary ecosystem of our cosmos (McFague 1987, 9).” Sallie McFague deems this knowing essential to contemporary Christian theology. McFague challenges us to overturn an outdated worldview of “Jesusolatry ,” that limits our God and denies our intrinsic interdependence. She offers a holistic, evolutionary, ecological vision that encourages mutuality and promotes justice and care of each other and our earth. This vision opens us to a profoundly sacramental and embodied relationship with the Reality in whom we live and move and have our being. Susan A. Ross adds to this discussion by recognizing that sacraments are, at their heart, “celebrations of what women do naturally – give birth, feed, and comfort (Ross 1993, 193).” This can only lead us to the assumption that the body – and that includes the body’s expressions of sexuality – must be revered according to sacral value as well as McFague’s theology of creation as God’s body, and treated and regarded as giving witness to God. Such a view of the body/sexuality is in keeping with the incarnational identity of Christianity (Douglas 2005, 215).
A feminist theology takes seriously human embodiment, in all its various forms, as the place where humans encounter God (Ross 1993, 203). Womanist theology would affirm the necessity for sexual expression to be relationally right – that is, an intimate expression of loving/harmonious relationality. Mary Aquin O’Neill reminds us that the human body is at the center of God’s revelation (O'Neill 1993, 153). That the body is called from the beginning to become the manifestation of the spirit, and therefore is, in a way, a sacramental sign (O'Neill 1993, 153). Through the human experience of conjugal union, men and women can discover the deep meaning of the human body – the meaning of being embodied as male and female enables both to exist as givers and receivers because “in and through the body, human beings have something to give and something to receive from each other… (the) twofold donation that all human beings are called to make with their bodies are the gift of life and the gift of love (O'Neill 1993, 154).” Being physically intimate is the only complete expression I have available to promise me I am an embodied image of God. All the images Christians use to communicate fulfillment in God are surpassed by the embodiment of God in physical love. Not only does my physical expression of intimacy bear witness to my personal commitment of mutuality to my partner, but it completely characterizes the commitment God makes to me – God’s promise of respect, presence and grace.
There is a need to move beyond the confines of “sexual ethics” into sexual theology which “takes seriously the human sexual experience in our time and place as an arena for God’s continuing self-disclosure (Nelson 1978, 16).” The incarnational understanding of sexuality is frequently lost, and virtually ignored by mainline Christianity by virtue of its privatized expression. The categorically forced separation of body and soul, of sexual expression and spirituality, has been thrust upon virtually all Christians, while society often plays out the incarnational responsibility of the world successfully! We have categorically denied our sexuality as a sign, symbol, and means of our call to communication and communion, when in fact; the mystery of our sexuality is the mystery of our need to reach out to embrace others both physically and spiritually. “Sexuality thus expresses God’s intention that we find our authentic humanness in relationship. But such humanizing relationships cannot occur on the human dimension alone. Sexuality, we must also say, is intrinsic to our relationship with God (Nelson 1978, 18).” In love, the body is a means of grace. In varying emotional states, in frustration, depression, joy, grief, and bliss, our sexuality invites us to participate in communion with others so that we may know God’s presence.
Traditionalist platonized theologies and literal “interpretations” of scripture teach women especially to repress our sexuality. They require us to “wage war against (our) sexual bodies in an effort to safeguard (our) souls and hence secure (our) relationship with God (Douglas 2005, 175).” We are taught from a very young age that giving in to our sexual desires outside the confines of procreative wedlock jeopardizes our souls. In routinely demonizing body and flesh, a platonized Christian tradition denies recognizing the incarnation. “That God became embodied in Jesus attests that the body can provide – and in the case of Jesus did provide – a perfect vehicle for divine presence (Douglas 2005, 75).” Platonized theology also presents a dualistic perspective on sexuality. Sexuality is viewed as either procreatively good or lustfully bad. “There is no third sexual option in a platonized tradition. Sexuality is not granted the theological space to be relationally right…. In this respect, platonized theology objectifies sexuality (Douglas 2005, 214),” and in turn, marginalizes women and men’s natural affinity to relate to one another sexually and relationally.
However, as James Baldwin points out in virtually all of his writing, “denying the fullness of one’s sexuality is to forfeit personal and intimate relationality, and hence happiness and well-being (Douglas 2005, 175).” If sexuality is that aspect of the human person that allows for and prompts one’s communion and community with themselves and others, then to virtually reject one’s sexuality is to reject that which cultivates healthy relationships. What needs to be retrieved is what platonized theology abandons – the connection between sexuality and loving relationships (Douglas 2005, 214).
Douglas states “when sexuality is expressed in a way that provides and nurtures harmonious relationships – that is, those that are loving, just, and equal – then it is sacred (Douglas 2005, 215).” It is exactly this sacredness of human sexuality that is missing in our churches and needs to be affirmed! “If we meet God most truly as the ‘beyond our midst,’ as the One whose continuing incarnation is expressed through creaturely relationships, then our sexuality is a sacramental means for the love of God (Nelson 1978, 105).”
The collective perspective of these theologians reiterates my initial theological thought – that, when boiled down to a minimalistic theory that God IS Love, the truest and most holy places we meet God and experience grace and presence are in relationally significant moments. These moments do not exclude people, perspectives, bodies, or physical, genitally expressed relationships. When the cultures we live in participate fully in the marginalization of the other, while at the same time, the faith traditions we practice marginalize those whose experiences alienate them from God, metaphorical and relational theologies of body, sexuality, and community can be minimalistic, yet highly encompassing and inclusive. For my experiences past and future, I know I can be included and accepted wherever I may be while carrying tightly this understanding of God’s relationship to the world and myself.
Douglas, Kelly Brown. What's Faith Got to Do With It? Black Bodies/Christian Souls. New York: Orbis, 2005.
McFague, Sallie. A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
—. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.
Nelson, James B. Embodiment. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978.
O'Neill, Mary Aquin. "The Mystery of Being Human Together." In Freeing Theology: The Essentials of THeology in Feminist Perspective, by Catherine Mowry LaCugna, 139-160. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Ross, Susan A. "God's Embodiment and Women." In Freeing Theology: the Essentials of THeology in Feminist Perspetive, by Ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, 185-210. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.