This semester I am teaching the course EcoJustice and chose Sallie McFague’s A New Climate for Theology as our foundational text. Something I greatly appreciate about McFague is that she continually calls us to radically redefine our understanding of the Divine and of our roles as human beings — fundamental questions that could easily lead to an existential crisis as one student reminded me.
My class and I ponder these questions, discussing our own interpretations of God, why we exist, what it means to pray, and understandings of salvation. Not surprisingly, many of us have an anthropocentric theology — one that puts ourselves at the center. We are so focused on what we need from God, we forget to ask what God needs from us.
The result of such a theology has led to massive ecological impact and an altered state of the earth’s systems. In fact, the global footprint has been so severe that our current geological time has been named “The Anthropocene” or “The Age of Humans.” Our consumer habits and capitalism place value on profit and materialism that damages the ecosystem. We want what we want and when we want it without considering the consequences.
We’ve developed value hierarchical thinking and oppositional value dualism — either or pairs that are at odds with each other. For instance, we place masculinity over femininity, the spiritual over the physical, and humans over nature. This has resulted in the idea that humans have the right to take from the planet, destroy land, displace animals, and leave our mess for someone else to clean up. We reap life giving gifts without considering our own responsibilities using Christian theology as a justification.
We also believe salvation means entering the Kingdom of God, going to heaven, living on in the spiritual realm for all of eternity. This interpretation is legitimated by the dualistic notion that the spiritual is above the physical and devalues the Earth making it a place for now, rather than home.
We are so set in our ways and the damage is so extensive, it seems impossible to turn things around. And although there have been some attempts by governments to address climate change, the current administration in the U.S. denies these issues even exist. Nonetheless, we have a responsibility to continue to work towards positive social change. But how?
Certainly, ideas about changing laws must be considered – what other ways can we encourage all citizens to participate in a common effort? However, my focus here is theological approaches to sustainability. Returning to McFague, we must radically shift our ideas about who God is and what kind of relationship exists between God and human beings.
First, given that the Earth is a life giving source, can we consider our planet the body of God? Coming to understand the Earth as sacred disrupts forcing nature to the underside of dualism. Likewise, moving toward a cosmological theology – one that puts God at the center – no longer allows us to consider ourselves “God’s little darlings.” Instead, we become active agents in a sacred world where our focus becomes what God needs from humans. We begin to recognize that the world is not here for us. We are here for the world.
And finally, what about salvation? Our understanding of this concept must also radically shift. If the planet is sacred, then salvation is possible on Earth. McFague calls us to envision planetary and human flourishing as achieving this ultimate goal.
I am drawn to McFague’s theology because I appreciate that it reminds us that we are part of a larger community that is responsible for the care of one another. If we want to attain salvation, we must ensure that every person attains it with us.
I write this not to chastise, but instead to challenge, particularly myself. As someone who struggles with mindfulness, I have been working on instilling these notions into my daily life. Change is uncomfortable, especially for Westerners who are accustom to living with privilege. Yet, if we do not change our habits, this sacred world will seize to exist.
McFague’s proposal to shift our thinking about our relationships with Earth and with God offers an important starting place. Perhaps if we can recognize ourselves as God’s partners rather than God’s children, we will also recognize our capabilities to address such challenges. After all, it is our actions today that will change the future of our planet.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, activist, and mom. She serves as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is co-founder of FeminismAndReligion.com. She has written for the Huffington Post and is author or editor of five books including Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again and Women Religion Revolution. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives of women around the world. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for peace building and spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram: @GinaMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.