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.
10 thoughts on “EcoJustice and Our Relationship with God by Gina Messina”
“The Anthropocene” or “The Age of Humans” is destroying us all. I don’t see where “salvation” human or otherwise comes into this picture – I think it’s am outmoded anthropocentric concept.
The appalling image of the dead whale – an animal with a brain larger than ours – an animal that communicates in complex ways, an animal whose inteeligence surpasses our own says it all.
The email link for today is not working. I came here by going to the FAR site and clicking on today’s post.
Gina, the questions you pose are so necessary for today. I think the “existential crisis” your student recognized is a sign of spiritual growth. Unfortunately, some people seem, even young people, to have reverted to old images of the Divine Mystery. So we resurface and reinforce a spirituality that is self-centered and even contrary to the teachings of Jesus.
May the blessings of Wisdom impregnate all in your classroom and lead to renewed understandings of the One we call “God”.
What a stunning picture! Is that a real photograph? I certainly can believe that a whale might have swallowed–and probably vomited up–all that human trash. It’s heart-breaking.
As for becoming “God’s partners rather than God’s children,” I can’t recall any verse in the Bible (which I have not read in several years) that says that deity has any interest whatever in ecology or in taking care of our Mother Planet. I seem to recall he named us “stewards” in one of the translations. Stewards often run things, yes? That doesn’t tell us Jehovah has any real interest in any part of the planet outside his garden. Nevertheless, being a partner of a deity while working to preserve the planet and cherish other people seems like a really good idea. Go for it!
Very important, deeply moving essay, thank you Gina Messina for your thoughts on EcoJustice here at FAR today. The photo of the whale brought tears to my eyes, so painful to see, but nevertheless, so very important to face that situation exactly as it is, the cruelty done to our environment and the suffering it can cause.
One hopeful thought is also that environmentalism is special to our era, we have begun to face into it, taking responsibility for it, and there are now many important environmental laws in place (and hopefully many more to come). I remember a time when smoke stacks were endlessly pouring black soot into the air, but that isn’t the case any more. Hooray. Also as I was writing this I remembered that planet Earth is of course already in the heavens — that’s where our planet resides, and thus, thanks to her, that’s where we live too — WOW.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sarah, your comment reminded me of a lovely, albeit poignant, audio interview that Krista Tippett did with oceanographer Sylvia Earle; Sylvia said that, in spite of the devastation of the oceans and sea creatures, she feels hopeful because, before, we were ignorant and egoic, but now *we know better* and many more people every day are *wanting* to help. Blessings!
Thank you for introducing me to Sallie McFague; I hadn’t heard of her, although I see on Amazon that she’s written many books. Mostly, I’ve read Thomas Berry (and his allies) and recently picked up a copy of Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing” – and as I get older, I do feel that the sacred, the mystery, the mystical is what is missing from our relationship to our Blessed Universe and we can’t think ourselves into shifting, although intellect can help us move in that direction, rather the shift needs to come from our hearts and souls, and that means living into the sacred on a personal, intimate level, so that we can share it with others from there. So much to say … Blessings!
Thank you so much, Darla, I completely agree with your insight here, and where you say: “As I get older, I do feel that the sacred, the mystery, the mystical is what is missing from our relationship to our Blessed Universe.”
LikeLiked by 1 person
This wonderful, insightful essay makes me think of the moment when I realized that I was not separate from the Earth. Even to think of myself as having a relationship TO the Earth was too dualistic for my new understanding – I am of the Earth, just like the spiders, whales, ferns, water, fire, and air. When I, as a member of the human species, exploit the Earth I am ravaging not just another entity, not just myself, but all that is. That was a wake-up call.
Congratulations on your course in this liberation theology of the environment.
Our misuse of the Genesis myth — “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it;” (I/28)– has added to the speciesism that has separated us from the rest of creation.
On the contrary, so many of the origin stories and other myths of Native American tribes stress the intimate relationship between humans and the other species of flora and fauna. I think of the Cherokee myth of the water beetle diving deep in the waters to loosen mud that would be the solid earth for the animals and for humans. Of the buzzard whose flapping wings created the valleys and mountains.
We need a humble holistic humanism that starts with the unity we have as humans with the whole web of life. That humanism, infused with faith, then finds God incarnate in that web of life and in our actions of love.