Friday, January 05, 2007

Crtitique of McFague's Concept of Sin

Patrik of God in a Shrinking Universe is asking for some help picking a book. His criteria includes the following:

The book should be:

1. fairly recent (post 1980-ish)

2. immensely important, a future classic

3. deal with systematic theology

4. between 200 and 300 pages

5. I prefer originality to the kind of book that claims to offer the final version or overview of some ancient debate

I especially appreciate the fifth one. For me, it is so much more exciting to read someone's developing thoughts than it is to read a historical overview which may include a couple of original ideas disguised as new interpretations of old arguments.

Anyway, I very cautiously recommended Sallie McFague's The Body of God, a treatise on the ecological implications of a particular interpretation of incarnation. I say "cautiously" because not only is MacFague's basic framework barley recognizable as Christian (a fact which in no way detracts from its value), but it doesn't really meet his need for a work of systematic theology. Rather, it is an exploration of the relationship between our concepts of God and the ethics we derive from them, with a more thorough exploration of the way in which a particular understanding of what it means to say that God is incarnate should inform our environmental ethics.

McFague's main theological project concerns a radical re-interpretation of the Christian doctrine of incarnation. In chapter 5 of The Body of God, she turns the traditional Christian concept of the incarnation on its head. While traditional Christianity holds that God was made incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and that this was a unique occurrence of incarnation, McFague holds that, in fact, the entire created universe is a part of the body of God. That everything that exists participates in God’s incarnation.

To make her argument, McFague uses a unique interpretation of Exodus 33:23b, which reads: “And you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” She interprets this as saying that all that is visible is the backside of God. The entire universe, everything that we see, comprises that backside. This avoids pantheism by saying that the universe does not comprise the entirety of God. After all, we cannot see the face of God. But, all of the universe is contained in God, and is a part of the incarnation of God.

This does not immediately jive with traditional Christian theology. After all, if the entire universe is God incarnate, then Christ is not uniquely incarnate. But, whether it is Christian or not, as a theistic model, it is very helpful. How can I pollute the rivers or the air if I view those spaces as being God incarnate? How can I stomp on the rights of another person if I view that person as part of the incarnate God? How can I exploit animals if I view each one as being, in nature, God incarnate? How can I look down on anyone if I see in them the nature of God?

According to McFague, this is also important because whenever any part of the universe, which is the body of God, suffers, God suffers too. And this is where her theistic model begins again to mirror traditional Christianity. In traditional Christianity God, through Christ, enters into the suffering world, taking on all of the world's suffering, fully participating in that suffering. So, whether or not the details of incarnation match, McFague’s concept of incarnation mirrors the Christian concept of incarnation insofar as it has God, through being incarnate, sharing in the suffering of the world.

McFague uses this unique version of incarnational theology as the basis for an environmental ethic, showing the essential link - at least in the lives of religious people - between theology and ethics. Simply put, what we believe about God matters, because it informs (or, at least, ought to inform) our moral attitudes and behavior.

Reflecting on McFague's book, and whether or not it was worth mentioning to Patrik, reminded me of a paper I wrote for an undergraduate course, "Religion, Ethics, and the Environment." This course, an upper level religious studies course, looked at two different books, and used those books as jumping off points for an ongoing discussion of how various religions have dealt with the natural environment, both in theory and in practice. The two books, both well worth the time and energy it takes to read them, were McFague's The Body of God, and David Abram's damning indictment of the Western philosophical and religious tradition's treatment of the environment, The Spell of the Sensuous.

Anyway, for those with nothing better to do than contemplate the merits and demerits of MacFague's theory and arguments, here is the paper I wrote in that class, a critique of her concept of sin:


In The Body of God, Sally McFague outlines an original and quite informative concept of sin. As theologians are wont to do, she takes traditional Christian terminology and turns it on its head, providing a very original ethic which may make Christianity more palatable to liberal academics; many of whom have intellectual problems with traditional Christian teachings and moral problems with the way that Christianity has traditionally been practiced.

McFague says, simply, that sin is our “refusal to accept our place.” We, as humans, need to realize the earth is our home. But, while this realization is profound and ethically informative; we also need to realize that while the earth is our home, we are not its only residents. And, not only are we not its only inhabitants, we are not necessarily its chief inhabitants. We are one of many forms of life which depend on the earth for survival. We are one of many groups on the earth which compete for the resources which the earth provides to ensure our survival. And yet, we tend to act like we own the place, and are justified in imposing our will on it. We act as though we are justified in taking more than our share of resources, harming other humans, other animals, and the natural environment as a whole. We need to understand our place within the context of the entire natural environment.

And, what is our place? It is a place of dependency. McFague points out a simple rule about the nature of life: “The higher and more complex the level [of life], the more vulnerable it is and [the more] dependent [it is] upon the levels that support it.” In other words, we depend on other forms of animate and inanimate life to support us; but that dependency is not reciprocal. They do not depend on us. If we did not exist, the world, and the less complex forms of life which occupy it, would continue to exist just fine. But, if the world, or even the less complex form of life which occupy it, were to cease to exist, then we too would cease to exist.

And so, knowing our place implies knowing the extent to which we are dependent on things outside ourselves for our survival. Knowing our place also, then, means allowing our knowledge of our dependency on others to inform our ethics and our actions. So, we depend on other humans, other animals, and the natural environment (with many inanimate or unconscious forms of life) as a whole; and we must exist in ethical relationships with other humans, other animals, and the natural environment as a whole. This is knowing our place. This is accepting our place.

And so, since sin is refusing to accept our place, sin manifests itself in our lives when we live a lie. The great sins which we commit are just this: living a lie. We can do so in relation to other humans, in relations to other animals, or in relation to nature. Our relationships in each of these realms of action, then, must be characterized by our knowing our place and by our accepting our place.

In the realm of human to human interaction, we live a lie when we pretend “that all the space or best space belongs to some so that they can live in lavish comfort and affluence, while others are denied even the barest necessities for physical existence.” In the realm of interaction with other animals, we live a lie when we fail to recognize “the interrelationship and interdependence of all living beings as well as the distinctive individuality and differences among living forms,” and so treat other animals as objects rather than experiencing subjects who exist in the context of a relationship of interdependency. In the realm of interaction with the natural environment, we live a lie when we “objectify nature so totally that [we] human beings are essentially distinct from it.” In doing so we fail to accept or appreciate that we do not exist except within the context of the natural environment.

This concept of sin, as living a lie and refusing to accept our place, is, while novel, not entirely different from the way in which sin is traditionally presented within Christianity – though some of the conclusions drawn by McFague on how humans ought to interact with other humans, other animals, and the natural environment are not conclusions that Christians traditionally draw from their concept of sin. After all, most Christians accept that sin is a violation of the will of God. They also tend to accept that individuals are given their identity by God. And so, going against your own identity (in other words, not knowing or accepting your place) would be going against the will of the God who gave you your identity; and so it would be a sin. So, McFague’s concept of sin is, while quite unique, not totally incompatible with traditional Christianity, even though the ethic that she draws from it would seem strange to most Christians.

However, is McFague’s concept of sin a good, comprehensive concept of sin? In my opinion: not really. While she has developed a concept of sin which could help inform our actions toward and interactions with other humans, other animals, and the natural environment, it is not broad enough to cover all, or even many possible ethical situations. It is also does not allow for a number of important moral distinctions.

There are several sorts of distinctions which, in my opinion, ought to be made in any comprehensive concept of sin. The first such distinction is, perhaps, the most important, and it is one which is left out altogether in McFague’s concept. It is the distinction between volitional action and situations or actions which arise from unconscious conditioning. Simply put, the motives for our actions and the intentions behind our actions are morally relevant. One cannot be held morally responsible for actions which arise totally outside one’s volition, and which are, as such, not acts of will.

We are conditioned by a great many things. We are conditioned by our genetic make-up. We are conditioned by the environment in which we were raised. We are conditioned by the experiences we have had. We are conditioned by the culture in which we live, and the religion with which we were raised. Each of these conditions on us came up totally outside our wills. We have made and can make no choices concerning the nature and identity of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. We have made and can make no choices concerning the nature and identity of our siblings or our cousins, our uncles and aunts, or even our first-grade teachers. Further, we have made and can make no choices concerning the impact that each of those people have had on our lives, or the choices which each of those people have made which have effected and continue to effect us. We have made and can make no choices concerning our genetic make-up. We have made and can make no choices concerning the environment in which we were raised. These factors, and many other like them, lie outside our volitional will, and have conditioned us to a great degree. And, we cannot be held morally responsible for our conditioning.

But, now that we are conscious, experiencing entities, we can become aware of the extent to which we have been conditioned. That state of awareness is something which can be accomplished at least in part by an act of our will. And, once we, by an act of introspection and self-observation, become aware of our conditioned nature, we can consciously change aspects of our identity. We can, through an act of our will, consciously begin to condition ourselves.

And, even within our own conditioned nature, we can be aware enough to make choices. We can commit volitional actions, and those volitional actions do have moral value. So, any comprehensive concept of sin must, while allowing for unconscious conditioning, must also hold people morally responsible for their volitional actions. As such, any comprehensive concept of sin must make a distinction between volitional actions and unconscious conditioning.

This is a problem for McFague because many of the instances of sin which she cites could be considered instances of unconscious conditioning rather than volitional action. While, for instance, the kind of commercialist capitalism found in America is exploitive of other people, other animals, and the natural environment; most Americans are culturally conditioned to behave this way and are unaware of the harm done by their actions. And so, while their actions may serve as evidence of a cultural sin, it is a different kind of sin than an intentionally harmful volitional action, such as if I were to take a baseball bat and hit someone with it. While harm is done in both cases, the nature of the acts are not the same. Any comprehensive concept of sin must allow for this distinction to be made.

Another distinction that should be made in any comprehensive concept of sin is the distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. Harm may be done by a particular action, or harm may be done by the withholding of a particular action. And, while harm is done in either case, the cases are not the same. It is not the same thing to intentionally, by an overt action, cause someone harm, such as by hitting them (again) with a baseball bat as it is to refuse to help them after they have been hurt. It is not the same thing to steal from someone as it is to refuse to give them some kind of monetary aid. Both actions cause harm. Both actions may be instances of sin. But, they are not both the same sin. They are not both accurately described by the same description.

Finally, another distinction must be made in any comprehensive concept of sin: the distinction between harm caused by action or inaction in the external realm, and the internal harm done by holding in improper state of mind. The way that we think has, in its ability to cause harm, and in its ability to influence action, moral value. But, the moral value of our states of mind is not the same as the moral value of our actions. While harm is done both by thinking about hurting someone and acting out that thought, the harm is not the same. And so, while each may be sin, they are not the same sin. Any comprehensive concept of sin should also allow for this.

A comprehensive concept of sin which makes the distinction between volitional action and unconscious conditioning, the distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission, and makes the distinction between harm done externally and harm done internally through improper mental states; is a concept of sin which can be more morally informative than McFague’s helpful but limited concept of sin, while avoiding the unhelpful tendency found in McFague to blame people for situations beyond their control and outside their volition. Such a concept of sin could affirm two precepts, which could guide most moral or ethical situations – if not all of them. The first precept is: cause no harm, by action or inaction, by act of will or thoughtlessness, by state of mind or external situation. And the second is: do as much good as you can, through you actions and your restraint of action, through your thoughts and your intentions. Cause no harm, and do as much good as you can. These do not, of course, tell us what we should do or think in each situation. That is not the purpose of a precept. But, they do help us evaluate our own actions, thoughts, intentions, and conditioning. In doing so, we can overcome some of the unconscious conditioning which has given rise to the problems which McFague attempts to address in her book. That will inform our actions toward and interactions with other humans, other animals, and the natural environment.


PamBG said...

Maybe I've been reading theology for too long, but McFague's idea of sin as not being willing to accept our place doesn't seem particularly strange to me in a Christian context. The interesting bit would be the elaboration of this. You suggest that a lot of the elaboration is very practical, which is good, but I'd also hope to see a theological/spiritual elaboration as well. Both/and rather than simply an emphasis on the practical.

I'm not exactly certain how I feel about not being held accountable for sins committed because of our conditioning. I think that, in this instance, I want to "give others a break" but hold myself accountable. (!) But I do have some sense that there have been parts of my own faith journey where God has given me the perspective to suddenly see beyond my conditioning to the sins I'd been comitting because of that conditioning.

I do think that there are some sins that are morally and ethically "worse" than others. Not soteriologically - for we are all sinners against God - but in the "here and now". Taking a pen from work is not the same as committing murder even if the former marks us as a sinner and unable to save ourselves.

crystal said...

Chris, this is all pretty much over my head. A question, though ...

a while ago I read about David Hart giving a talk at the Barth Society meeting, and the discussion that took place was about his use of the idea of Analogia Entis (analogy of being?) ... that God can be seen in nature, as well as in the incarnation - link to discussion. Is that the same as what you meant here ... the body of God ... all, if the entire universe is God incarnate, then Christ is not uniquely incarnate. ?

Sandalstraps said...


I don't think so, no.

I'm not very familiar with Hart - a gaping hole in my education, I suspect - but it seems to me that he while he is saying that God can be seen in nature, he is still making a distinction of sorts between God and nature. This is especially true when he speaks of the triumph of the infinite over the finite.

There can be a sort of analogy made between these modes of existence, and we can see the infinite in the finite, through the work of God's entering into the world. But it would be, I gather, a mistake to confuse the one for the other.

McFague is making a much stronger connection between God and nature. While Hart's ideas share some common features with her own, her view owes much more to pantheism, the notion that God is nature. She can best be seen as a kind of Christian correction to pantheism, saying that while nature is a part of God, God is not entirely nature. That is, God is nature and. Exactly what the and is is not entirely clear. It is the invisible part of God, the "backside" of God.

The asociation of God with nature is most clear in her notion that any violation of nature literally hurts God directly. God is not harmed indirectly, but directly. God is not harmed because something God cares about is harmed. God is harmed because, quite literally, God is harmed. A part of the body of God has been mutilated.

I suspect that Hart would not go quite that far.

Sandalstraps said...


Interesting comment.

In my own thinking, I have a hard time quantifying sins. I can speak of sin as a condition, and I can speak of immoral actions as participation in that sinful condition. But I cannot speak of individual sins, as though particular activities could be identified in and of themselves as sins, rather than merely as sinful.

Seems like Christian theology goes two ways on this, depending on what you're emphasizing. Sin can be a kind of existential condition, or it can be a kind of immoral action. But, because I see all actions as in some way (often unconsciously, as a result of conditioning) participating in my sinful nature, I have a hard time singling out particular actions as being sins in and of themselves, over and above their participation in the condition of sin.

This is something I've been wrestling with for some time, and I have often struggled to put it into language. As such, the paper reproduced here sometimes slips into language implying that, beyond the notion that sin is a condition which colors our actions, there can also be individual sins. Perhaps the best way to describe this, instead, is to call such actions immoral actions which are individual examples of the condition of sin.

In any event, whether or not one is morally culpable for entirely conditioned (non-volitional) actions, we should make a distinction between such actions and conscious actions which are intended to cause harm.

Additionally, I think that each of us have a responsibility to "wake up," to become aware of the extent of our conditioning, and to become aware of the harm that we mindlessly do because of that conditioning. This carries with it a responsibility to stop acting rotely, and start acting mindfully. This is, however, the most difficult thing that we will ever do, especially since the "waking up" does not happen all at once, but is instead a gradual process that lasts for our entirely lives.

We are not asleep at one moment, entirely conditioned, non-volitional agents, and then entirely awake the next moment, aware of the motives behind and implications of each and every single thought and action. As such, it is very difficult to parse out which actions are volitional and which are non-volitional. And, it is quite possible that with almost any action, aspects of it reflect volition and aspects of it reflect conditioning.

Tyler Simons said...

I'm working my way through this, but I have to comment on this:

[McFague] interprets this as saying that all that is visible is the backside of God. The entire universe, everything that we see, comprises that backside.

God's got a big ol' butt! Maybe this should be the subject of your next contest! Call forth the earnest tributes to the harmonious generousity of the magnificient ass of the Lord!

crystal said...

BTW, about one of your earlier posts on virtue and altruism, I saw an interesting article a while back at First Things that has some similar themes ... The Ethics of Self–Sacrifice by John Milbank

Amy said...

To clarify what Strappy was saying - McFague classifies herself as a "panentheist" rather than a "pantheist" - God-infuses-everything rather than God-is-everything.

She's been coming up alot recently; our Presbytery moderator referenced "Models of God" just this morning in our Sunday School class introducing our members to the nature of a Reformed identity.

I understand what you say about the incompleteness of sin "Body of God," but (to my knowledge) that wasn't the primary issue that book was covering. "Body of God" was primarily about God-nature rather than human nature. My intuition is that you might find her theology of sin more wholly sketched out in, say, "Life Abundant," which has more of a human response, ethical slant to it.

Tyler -
If we follow your chain of though, then does that make "Baby Got Back" a celebration of the glories of God's bountiful creation? Hmmm..... Food for thought....

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for contributing - it is heartening to see that someone like McFague is coming up in the life of worship of the church. Theologians should impact congregations, and their ideas should help to inform our relationship with God as we incorporate them into our own reflections on the nature of the divine.

You're right in saying that The Body of God is not primarily a doctrine of sin. However, it does contain a rather lengthy discussion of sin, and then makes use of that discussion throughout the rest of the book. I cannot say that I have accurately represented McFague's current theory of sin, as I haven't read any of her more recent works. However, based on the 17 pages that she directly devotes to building a theory of sin, as well as the work that she makes that theory do in the rest of the book, I think that I have accurately reproduced her postion as of 1993. I expect that it has evolved since then, just as the rest of her thought has undoubtedly evolved since then. However, it did have, both at the time of her writing the book The Body of God and at the time of my writing my paper, some deficiencies.

Of course, my evaluation was by no means entirely negative. I just think that, at least as she describes it in The Body of God, McFague's concept of sin is too narrow. That is not a major problem, nor is she alone in having it.

I have really enjoyed reading what little I have read of her, and will happily read more in the future. I'll look for Life Abundant.

And, personally, I'm looking forward to starting classes again. February can't come quickly enough! See you then.

Kevin said...

Hi, I came across your blog through your comment on Patrick's blog. I've been exploring alternative concepts of sin at this point in my life. McFague’s incarnational view of God still seems pantheistic if the world and its substance can be viewed as God-incarnate. It seems rather transcendent than incarnational. I haven’t read any of McFague so I don’t claim to know anything about her theology, which is why I am throwing this out to you. But it seems to me that even if everything created in the universe is seen as “the backside of God”, and that the universe doesn’t comprise the entirety of God, it does not qualify her view as pantheistic. I don’t hold to an exclusivist view of God as only incarnational or transcendent. I think God is so incomprehensible that words are insufficient to truly express who God is. I do like the concept that when humanity hurts the environment, that God is suffering too. God may not suffer as “a body” but God would suffer because we have harmed a part of God’s creation. But I have to admit that it seems like a creative way to do environmental ethics in a theological context. The body of Christ does need to be informed about environmental ethics and I do believe that the church-universal, including evangelicals, are coming around to seeing the importance of the environment. What you and Patrick said about McFague has piqued my curiosity about her theology on sin and her way of doing environmental ethics. Thanks for that link to the article. I will take a closer look at that. Good luck in your classes.

Sandalstraps said...


You're right, McFague is not a pantheist, she is a panentheist. That is, she is not one who holds that God is everything and everything is God. Rather, she holds that God is in everything, and everything is in God. The difference between this position and pantheism is that it resists the twin temptations of pantheism:

1. To worship nature, and

2. To place limits on God,

while still keeping the good of seeing a bit of the divine in everything in the natural order. God, in McFague's view, is not just the operational force or all-powerful will behind natural phenomena; God is in fact in those phenomena themselves, just not limited to them.

Thanks for dropping by, Kevin, and thanks for contributing to the discussion. Thanks as well for wishing me well in my classes. I think McFague is well worth checking out, and I agree with you about the rise in environmental awareness among Christians, especially evangelicals. We have taken the criticism of our theology - that it does not account for the here and now, and that it does not value the earthly/bodily/natural - to heart, and have reformed both it and our ethics. May this ongoing reformation continue to yield such good intellectual and especially moral and practical fruit.