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Super, Natural Christians: How we should love nature.

Super, Natural Christians is the fourth (and, according to McFague, the last) in a series on religious language, beginning with Metaphorical Theology (1982) and continuing with Models of God (1987) and The Body of God (1993). These works, building on the fundamental premise that language about God must be metaphorical, developed alternatives to the dominant models of God in the Christian tradition. In Models of God, McFague explored the ideas of God as mother, lover and friend; in The Body of God, she developed a more extended analysis of the model of the world as God's body. Super, Natural Christians continues the ecological theme emphasized in The Body of God by considering the form which nature spirituality might take within the Christian tradition.

McFague offers a summary of the basic thesis of her book on the first page: `Christian practice, loving God and neighbour as subjects, as worthy of love in and for themselves, should be extended to nature'. Her book develops and elaborates this basic theme, maintaining (hence the book's rather disconcerting title) that Christians should be `super, natural' that is (p. 6) `excessively, superlatively concerned with nature and its wellbeing'.

Fundamental to McFague's thesis is a rejection of what she calls the `model of Western knowing' which, whilst allowing God and humans to be thought of as `subjects', views everything else as an object (which may consequently be used for human benefit). McFague argues that this dualism of subject/object should be rejected and that the subject model should be extended to nature as a whole and to all its parts, both those which are living and those which are non-living such as mountains and rocks. She argues (p. 2) that `everything is in some sense a subject, an entity which has a focus, an intention in itself, for itself (often an unconscious one) but is also at the same time in radical relationship with others'. She claims support for this idea of radical relationship from ecological science, and indeed maintains throughout the book (as she did in The Body of God) that her perspective more appropriately reflects the conclusions of `postmodern science' about the world than a Cartesian `subject-objects' model.

McFague develops her argument by drawing on a substantial body of work in feminist and ecofeminist writing, in particular that of Lorraine Code, Marilyn Frye and Val Plumwood. Using their work, she portrays a Christian feminist epistemology which attacks the privileging of objectifying, distancing vision as the source of human knowing (`the arrogant eye') and suggests instead the revaluation of relational, interactional touch (`the loving eye'). The `loving eye' allows nature to be known as subject, not as object, accepting that on earth others are `more similar to us than different' (p. 111) and leading to respectful, rather than exploitative relationships with them.

Having made this case, McFague goes on to explore ways in which Christians can develop their nature spirituality. She discusses the importance of childhood experiences of nature which create lifelong love for it, and how nature-writing can refine awareness of, and sensitivity to, the natural world in adult life. These reflections lead her to emphasize the significance, not only of wilderness protection but also of the development of wild areas within cities. Where wildernesses allow for the flourishing of nonhumans and provide places in which those with the time and resources can encounter nature, for many city dwellers, especially the poor, the only opportunities available for encountering the non-human are within city boundaries. The development of a more widespread nature spirituality, she argues, is dependent on the availability of wild areas within urban spaces; and for this reason, `super, natural' Christians should support the creation and protection of urban wild places.

McFague's book has a number of positive qualities, but is not without some significant (and related) problems. Amongst its positive qualities is the laudable attempt to bring together so many different sources and kinds of writing -- theological, philosophical, ecological, feminist, nature-writing -- and to weave them together into a single, coherent whole, all pointing towards and developing the main arguments. This very multiplicity, though, creates difficulties. It is impossible for McFague to represent many of the perspectives she discusses in ways which do them justice. Her negative characterization of deep ecology, for instance as being about `oceanic feelings of oneness with the earth' (p. 98) neglects the diversity and complexity of different manifestations of deep ecology. Similarly, I was left wondering whether there really was a single `Western way of knowing', a `medieval worldview', or such a thing as a widely accepted view of `postmodern science'; and whether these broad brush terms, whilst being convenient, might be presenting misleading conceptual unities -- and straw `men'. The inclusion of such a large amount of non-theological work, only lightly `theologized' in McFague's presentation, might also trouble some theologians. Whilst there is no doubt that McFague's theological perspective underpins the entire book, it could certainly not be described as (and is not intended to be) a work of systematic theology.

My major difficulty with the book, however, concerned McFague's extension of a `subject-subjects model' to nature and all its parts, both living and non-living. Although she discusses what this might mean in some detail, I am still not convinced of the appropriateness of regarding that which is non-living as a `subject' -- even when this is as part of a `model' rather than an intended description of reality. It is not clear to me what it means to speak of a mountain or a rock as `flourishing' or how one treats it respectfully as a subject (a question which has been widely debated in the environmental ethics literature, on which curiously McFague does not draw). To accept that `the raison d'etre' of mountains is not to be `objects for us' (p. 111) does not imply to me that they are subjects or should be treated like subjects. However, to accept that there are any appropriate subject-object relationships undermines McFague's insistence on the universality of the subject-subjects model of relationship (although how she thinks we should relate to artifacts is not clear).

Despite these points of debate, there is much which is interesting and worthwhile in Super, Natural Christians. McFague's clear and lively writing style means that, whilst not lacking in conceptual sophistication, the book is accessible to a large and nonspecialist audience. The linking of theoretical and practical material is carried out with skill and ease, allowing the reader to think about the implications of such a Christian nature spirituality for practical living. McFague's focus on urban areas and on the linking of issues about poverty and environmental protection within them is especially important because widely neglected by philosophers in favour of reflection on the value of wilderness. The book, therefore, provides a fitting successor to McFague's previous substantial contributions to ecological theology and, it is to be hoped, will provide a basis for further work in this area.
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Author:Palmer, Claire
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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