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Sunday, November 28, 1999

More than models: Is tentative theology religiously adequate?

Sallie McFague introduces a fascinating method of theological work in The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. "When one decides to live as if something is the case," she writes, "there are usually many reasons for doing so, of many different sorts, and at many levels of consciousness. . . . It has to make sense not just to our minds, but to our bodies, our feelings, our needs, and even our hopes and dreams" (85). She proposes to live as if it is the case that the world is God's body. As a theological method, it is notable that McFague does not argue that it is the case that the world is God's body: she merely proposes a model of the world and presents a variety of criteria by which her model can be seen to be especially useful and meaningful. McFague's method elevates nothing to the status of an absolute or certainty: "No one reason, one basis or foundation, exists for being willing to live according to the organic model, but a variety of reasons and feelings, as well as hunches and hopes, come into play" (85). Here we have a non-absolutistic religious doctrine, considered meaningful from a variety of vantage points, with an ethical dimension and an aesthetic immediacy, which is not in clear conflict with scientific understanding. This doctrine has special virtue in its value for feminist, ecological, and process understanding of the human body and the world. On these and a variety of other grounds, McFague's model would seem especially appealing to religious liberals.

But I wonder if intellectual humility requires McFague's degree of tentativeness. In answer to the question, "Is reality really organic?" she writes, "If enough of us were so to live, reality would become more like we believe" (90-91). How could we know that such an outcome were actually true — that the world had become more like we believe — unless there are ways of knowing how the world happens to be? Are we able only and ever to live as if? Or might we also live because it is so? Our religious commitments do involve a wager about what is most real, and we call it "faith." But we don't experience our ultimate commitments as choices. Instead, we experience them with with a sense of compelling urgency, a kind of obviousness, even in the midst of all that remains inscrutable. People of integrity cannot easily exchange one ultimate commitment for another. It may not be theology's role to speak with the kind of urgency that would animate one's faith. But what form of religious thought should then speak with the urgency theology can no longer provide? How shall theology, as a tentative enterprise, account for the non-tentative feeling of urgency which can be recognized in a person's religious commitment?

McFague acknowledges at the start that she is attempting "to look at everything through one lens," although not everything can be made visible through that lens. In other words, everything she says in the book is described in terms of her one model, but this model does not allow everything important to be said (vii). Theology is only one way of speaking, and McFague's theology is only one theology; other theologies and other ways of speaking and other models of the relationship between God and the world may also be significant. McFague explicitly claims that "we always and only have constructs with which to interpret reality" (90), and although she proposes that reality appears to be "relatively patient" with certain models, all models are only more or less useful as experimental tools. Truth becomes true enough for particular purposes. Truths are not arbitrary or strictly relativistic, however, because models do not emerge in isolation but must be coordinated with and made sensible in terms of other available models.

For McFague, science is the most important of the contemporary models with which any theological model must be correlated. Science is not theology, nor is theology science — which, among other things, distinguishes McFague's theology from Ralph Burhoe's work — but a theology which ignores science, refutes it, or cannot be understood sensibly in light of science has little hope of commanding the loyalty of educated people. McFague understands science as constructive and interpretive, perhaps the most successful method of research in human history, but not as a proven view of how the world "really is" (92-93). Even though many people assume that science tells us how the world really is, McFague argues that the importance of science is its method, not any of its conclusions. Science, in other words, gives us an important method for exploring the world, but we should not confuse the explanatory models scientists produce with the actual working of the world.

One of the most helpful features of McFague's argument is her acknowledgement that choices are always multidimensional, and that religious commitments especially are multidimensional. There are social, aesthetic, political, socio-economic, ethical, intellectual, and many other dimensions to a person's faith or religious commitment. She writes:

We do (or should) base our judgment on many factors, among them, our own concrete, embodied experience; the insights and beliefs of the communities commanding our deepest allegiance; the picture of reality current in our time; and also whether the model will help us live so that human beings and other creatures can thrive and reach some level of fulfillment. (89)

Arbitrary or unreasonable models might be those unrelated to other important models current at the time, or which are clearly irreconcilable with other relevant models. There is no absolute criterion of truth, including science, but rather a range of criteria which can help us to see the usefulness of a particular model coordinated with other models in the service of important commitments.

Have religious liberals actually adopted such a position regarding theological claims? To a large extent, I think our non-credalism, our tendency to prefer the empirical to the speculative, and our professed interest in learning from all the world's religions suggest that we do acknowledge multiple criteria for religious truths. But even among liberals, the religious desire to know the world as it is overwhelms our more critical acceptance of multiple approaches to truth. Several varieties of popular religious thought in the Unitarian Universalist tradition seem to regard either scientific authority or individual opinion to be the sole judge of religious truth. There are, it seems to me, at least two broad countervailing tendencies in liberal religion: an attitude of openness to a multiform world and to multiple criteria for truth — and a countervailing attitude of earnest devotion to a uniform and comprehensive criterion for truth, whether idiosyncratic or scientific. McFague also says that the "communities commanding our deepest allegiance" provide one of the chief criteria for the models we select. I think many liberals would be surprised to see communities described this way when ideas (especially scientific ideas) are not. McFague sees theology, science, and philosophy as tentative, but says that our communities and our personal experience are commanding.

Here we meet the religious difficulty of McFague's method. As an academic discipline, theology should be cautious not to overstate its conclusions. But as a religious enterprise, theology is also a form of religious thought, a way of responding to ultimate commitments with one's mind as well as with one's heart and will. To take the "leap of faith," to make an ultimate commitment, is to commit to what we take to be truly real, to aspire beyond mere appearances, to seek some anchor more secure than "as if." Gordon Kaufman acknowledges in the introduction to his book, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology, that theological constructivism is tentative in a way that may be less than religiously satisfying:

The carefully qualified, and in certain respects agnostic stance elaborated in [this book] does not provide the intense emotional satisfaction, or the sort of personal empowerment, characteristic of positions which believe themselves justified in proclaiming more concrete and specific certitudes about God, humanity, and the world. (xiii)

As a religious liberal, I am more inclined to side with agnostics than with the infallible prophets, but I must still ask whether religious liberals should adopt constructive theology's tentativeness in all forms of our religious thought. Kaufman elsewhere suggests one way for constructive theologians to articulate a doctrine of revelation, which is something McFague does not provide in her work. Kaufman writes in An Essay on Theological Method that even if theological knowledge is produced through the development of intellectual models, it must still be understood "as rooted ultimately in the divine activity of self-disclosure" in order to be "consistent with the notion of God as fundamentally active being" (82). Kaufman proposes that "it is precisely through the constructive work of the human imagination that God — ultimate reality understood as active and beneficent, as gracious — makes himself known" (82).

If religious thought must, for the good reasons McFague introduces, become more self-critical and tentative in its claims about the world while also proposing models which require coordination and criticism from other relevant models, then some form of high religious valuation of this kind of mental activity must go along with it. Seeing the human imagination as revelatory may be the only way that a religious community might maintain its sense of ultimate commitment while also embarking on the kind of intellectual adventure that constructive theology demands.


Adapted from an essay written for Unitarian Universalist Theologies, Paul Rasor, Andover-Newton Theological School, November 28, 1997. This essay is the intellectual property of Christopher L. Walton and must be fully and properly cited when used as a source in your own writing or you are committing plagiarism. The proper citation is:

Walton, Christopher L. "More Than Models: Is Tentative Theology Religiously Adequate?" Philocrites. 28 Nov 1997. <>.

1. See Ralph Wendell Burhoe, Toward a Scientific Theology (Belfast; Dublin; Ottawa: Christian Journals Limited, 1981). See also Yoking Science and Religion: The Life and Thought of Ralph Wendell Burhoe, by David R. Breed and Roger W. Sperry, Zygon Books No. 2 (Zygon, 1992). (Return to text.)

Works cited

Sallie McFague. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Fortress Press, 1993.

Gordon Kaufman. An Essay on Theological Method: Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion. Third ed. Scholars Press, 1995.

Copyright © 1999 by Philocrites | Posted 28 November 1999 at 5:00 PM

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