Theologian Sallie McFague: Hope for a Planet in Peril
Theologian Sallie McFague of the Vancouver School of Theology led off a Feb. 28-March 2 conference at Yale Divinity School by painting a disheartening picture of humankind’s contemporary relationship to the Earth but arguing that religion can be a powerful force in efforts to save the planet.
In a lecture delivered in the Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel, McFague pointed to the “astounding egocentrism” that leads to the “ruthless laying waste of our planet and its other inhabitants” and declared, “We have become the rogue elephant, rampaging across our planet in reckless fashion.”
However, in keeping with the conference’s overarching theme, McFague argued that there is much reason for hope – she used the word as a noun or verb nine times in her talk -- by tapping into religious traditions that celebrate the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of creation, shifting away from an exclusive focus on salvation of the individual.
The interdisciplinary conference, which drew scores of participants from across the country, was entitled Renewing Hope: Pathways of Religious Environmentalism. It was organized by the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University.
“It is not simply an issue of management; rather, it demands a paradigm shift in who we think we are,” McFague observed. “This is certainly not the only thing that is needed, but it is a central one, for without it we cannot expect ourselves or others to undertake the radical behavioral change that is necessary to address our planetary crisis.”
Quoting author Gary Gardner, McFague noted, “Religions provide the cosmologies, the worldviews, that orient us in the world and our role in it. They answer the most profound questions human beings ask: ‘Who am I? Why am I here? What are my obligations to the world around me?’”
“If this is a primary role for religion,” McFague said, “then religion is obviously central to addressing the environmental crisis epitomized in climate change.”
In the Christian context, she argued, it is essential to recover the central core of theology, which she identified as the “cosmological” – emphasizing the earth as a whole – over against the two other primary contexts of Christian theology, the political and psychological.
“Both Christian theology and contemporary science,” said McFague, “are telling us that we must start with the world in order to understand ourselves: who we are and where we belong.”
She cautioned that a shift in paradigm is no guarantee of a change in behavior but “at least gives us a chance to behave differently.” Observed McFague, “One of the most important forces behind behavior change is the belief that things can be different, that what we do makes a difference. A common motto of many NGOs—‘A different world is possible’—rests on this belief in the human ability to imagine alternative worlds and to work for their realization.”
McFague is the retired Carpenter Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School and is currently distinguished theologian in residence at the Vancouver School of Theology. She holds a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and a Ph.D. from the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
A prolific author, her books include Models of God, The Body of God, Super, Natural Christians, ýnd Life Abundant. Her most recent book, due out in May, is A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming.
The conference, aimed at exploring the opportunities for religiously engaged environmentalism, was jointly sponsored the Divinity School; the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale; the Food, Farming, and Faith Project of the Humane Society of the United States; the Yale University Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics; the Yale Department of Religious Studies; and the Office of the Provost at Yale.