Sallie McFague on the truth of theology

Sallie McFague, Models of God:

I begin with the assumption that what we can say with any assurance about the character of Christian faith is very little and that even that will be highly contested. Christian faith is, it seems to me, most basically a claim that the universe is neither indifferent nor malevolent but that there is a power (and a personal power at that) which is on the side of life and fulfillment. Moreover, the Christian believes that we have some clues for fleshing out this claim in the life, death, and appearances of Jesus of Nazareth. (p. x)

Later she writes:

It is evident that fundamentalism does not accept the metaphorical character of religious and theological language, for its basic tenet is the identification of the Word of God with human words, notably the human words in the canonical Scriptures of the church. The essence of metaphorical theology, however, is precisely the refusal to identify human constructions with divine reality. (p. 22)

And in a footnote to that last sentence:

Metaphors and models relate to reality not in imitating it but in being productive of it. There are only versions, hypotheses, or models of reality (or God): the most that one can say of any construct, then, is that it is illuminating, fruitful, can deal with anomalies, has relatively comprehensive explanatory ability, is relatively consistent, has humane consequences, etc. This is largely a functional, pragmatic view of truth, with heavy stress on what the implications of certain ways of seeing things (certain models) are for the quality of both human and nonhuman life (since the initial assumption or belief is that God is on the side of life and its fulfillment). This is obviously something of a circular argument, but I do not see any way out of it: I do not know who God is, but I find some models better than others for constructing an image of God commensurate with my trust in a God as on the side of life. God is and remains a mystery. We really do not know: the hints and clues we have of the way things are–whether we call them experiences, revelation, or whatever–are too fragile, too little (and more often than not, too negative) for much more than a hypothesis, a guess, a projection of possibility that, although it can be comprehensive and illuminating, may not be true. We can believe it is and act as if it were, but it is, to use Ricoeur’s term, a “wager.” At the most, I find I can make what Philip Wheelwright calls a “shy ontological claim” with the metaphors and models we use to speak of divine reality . . . . (pp. 192-3)

According to McFague, religious language and concepts–as irreducibly metaphorical–do not represent divine reality in any straightforward way, but they can still refer to that reality. And their adequacy can be tested by certain criteria such as the ones she mentions. This “critical realism,” as she calls it, is meant to offer a middle way between a naïve realism about religious language and the kind of full-blown anti-realism associated with certain forms of deconstruction.

I’m not very far into McFague’s book, so I don’t want to make any premature judgments. But in general, I find this approach pretty consistent with how I think about these things. I think where I might find myself more challenged is by McFague’s argument that traditional models and metaphors–such as those inherited from the Bible–need to be significantly revised (or maybe even replaced).


3 thoughts on “Sallie McFague on the truth of theology

  1. Wow–those are good quotes. I agree with what she says here and have said similar things regarding our inability to speak either comprehensively or authoritative about who and what God is. The via negative insists that all we have to offer are models, not reality, and that the difference between the two must be constantly remembered. However, I’d argue that due to our embodied, incarnate nature models are necessary for us to even begin the process of grappling with the divine and that we can never properly abandon them no matter how refined we are able to get with or without them.

    My sense is the utility and disposibility of our models—particularly traditional models—is where McFague and I part ways fairly significantly…

  2. Yeah, I think you and I would be largely in a agreement there. As I said on Twitter, I think she’s often right in what she affirms (e.g., that we need additional models and metaphors to create a richer picture of God) but not necessarily in what she denies (e.g., that Christ is not a savior as traditionally conceived but primarily a “parable” or exemplar of a particular life-style). I may try to write this up in a blog post at some point.

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