In the following essay Sallie McFague, (1933 --) E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Theology at
Vanderbilt Divinity School, proposes the thoughtful analogy, as a response to the ongoing harm being done to the earth and its
components of life by human industry and expansion.
As I now consider McFague's essay I tend to agree with her that speaking of The World as God's Body is an
appropriate image for God when one considers the fragility of all life that God has created and our human capacity to destroy that life.
The earth as a metaphor containing our existence and interdependence with other creatures, speaks to us about reciprocating and
celebrating the kindnesses and generosity extended to us.
Thus, we do well to consider the extensive grace given to us in all of the abundance of earth's beauty and
resources. On the other hand, if we ignore "God's Body" and seek only our own gratification and desires to the detriment of the earth,
then, within the scope of McFague's metaphor, this is a "forsaking the Lord" and there are repercussions for forsaking the One who
brings us into being and has nourished us. In the real world we know there are natural outcomes (of a negative nature!) that follow
abuse, misuse and exploitation - earth's grace is a finite entity!
However, perhaps it is at this point that the metaphor breaks down, since we know that God is forgiving, slow to
anger and abounding in steadfast love, i.e., God's love surpasses earth's ability to nurture us beyond a certain level of our abuse.
However, if global warming, desertification, ice age, or rises in ocean levels do not take place as predicted, then maybe we can
continue to explore the earth's similarity to the gracious and forgiving God whom we know through his Son, Jesus Christ.
"The World as God's Body"
Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School
I spent my last sabbatical leave in England, that green and pleasant land, where in contrast to our countryside
there are no billboards and little trash. I recall an early-morning bus trip to Coventry; the lovely, gently rolling hills, quaint
villages and thatched-roofed cottages. There were sheep dotting the hills -- but also something else: huge, concrete towers of nuclear
plants rising up through the morning mist. It seemed a strange juxtaposition: sheep and nuclear towers, life and potential death.
U.S. Cruise missiles were also a part of the countryside, though I did not see them. These towers and missiles
symbolize a situation unique to our time: we are the first generation of human beings who have the responsibility of nuclear knowledge.
In perverse imitations of God the creator of life, we have become potential uncreators. We have the knowledge
and the power to destroy ourselves and much of the rest of life. And we will always have this knowledge even if nuclear disarmament
occurs. Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth speaks of the "second death -- the death of life. The first death is our own individual
one, and difficult as this is to face, we at least know that others will take our place. But the death of birth is the extinction of
life-and that is too horrendous to contemplate, especially when we reflect that we would be responsible for it.
Our nuclear knowledge brings to the surface a fundamental fact about human existence: we are part and parcel of
the web of life and exist in interdependence with all other beings, both human and nonhuman. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts it, "I
realized that my own poor trifling existence was one with the immensity of all that is and all that is in process of becoming." Or as
the poet Wallace Stevens says, "Nothing is itself taken alone. Things are because of interrelations and interconnections." The
evolutionary, ecological perspective insists that we are, in the most profound way, "not our own." We belong, from the cells of our
bodies to the finest creations of our minds, to the intricate, ever changing cosmos. We both depend on the web of life for our own
continued existence and in a special way we are responsible for it, for we alone know that life is interrelated and we alone know how to
destroy it. It is an awesome and unsettling thought.
What does all this mean for theology? Well, what is theology? Theos/logos: talk about God. Theology has special
responsibility for the symbols, images and language used for expressing the relationship between God and the world in every age. We must
ask, given our unique situation which I have just described: Can we continue to talk about God and ourselves as we have in the past? Do
we not need to look at the traditional language to see whether it is helpful or harmful in our time'?
The Christian faith claims, most basically, 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 its fulfillment -- and that we have some clues to
specify and flesh out this claim in the life, death and appearances of Jesus of Nazareth. In what images and metaphors has that claim
been expressed throughout Christian history? The dominant imagery has been monarchical. The classical picture employs royalist,
triumphalist metaphors depicting God as king, lord and patriarch who rules over and cares for the world and human beings.
Gordon Kaufman points out in Theology for a Nuclear Age that divine sovereignty is the issue with which
theologians in the nuclear age must deal. In its cruder versions, God is the king who fights on the side of his chosen ones to bring
their enemies down; in more refined versions, God is the father who will not let his children suffer. The first view supports militarism
-- the second supports escapism. As Kaufman states, two groups of American Christians currently rely on these images of God in their
responses to the nuclear situation. One group claims that if a nuclear holocaust comes, it will be God's will --the Armageddon -- and
America should arm itself to fight the devil's agent, communist Russia. The other passively relies on the all-powerful father to take
care of the situation.
Is divine sovereignty the appropriate imagery to express salvation in our time? It may have been for some ages,
but in our time, when the interdependence of all life and our special responsibility for it need to be emphasized, is it for ours?
Different imagery is needed in order to express Christian transformation in different times. There is a basic
point here that needs stressing. Images of God do not describe God but express ways, experiences, of relating to God. We must use what
is familiar to talk about the unfamiliar; so we turn to events, objects, relationships from ordinary, contemporary life in order to say
something about what we do not know how to talk about -- the love of God. This is what biblical language about God is as well: It was
contemporary to its time, relevant and secular -- God as shepherd, vinekeeper, father, king, judge and so forth.
How should we image God and the world in an ecological, nuclear age? If not in the monarchical model --God as
king and the world as his realm -- what other possibilities are there?
Needless to say, there are many, for no metaphor or set of metaphors can exhaust the varied experiences of
relating to God. But I would like to suggest very briefly an alternative to the picture of the world as the king's realm: let us
consider the world as God's "body." While that notion may seem a bit shocking, it is a very old one with roots in Stoicism; it
tantalized many early Christian theologians, including Tertullian and Irenaeus: it surfaces in a sacramental understanding of creation
-- the world charged with the glory of God, as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it. Moreover, remember that a metaphor is not a
description. To say that the world is God's body is to use the same kind of language we use in saying the world is the king's realm.
Both phrases are pictures, both are imaginative constructions, both offer ways of thinking about God and the world.
Christians should, given their tradition, be inclined to find sense rather than nonsense in body language, not
only because of the resurrection of the body, but also because of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist
and the images of the church as the body of Christ. Christianity is a surprisingly "bodily" tradition. Nonetheless, there is a
difference between these uses of body and the world seen as God's body: the latter is not limited to Christians or to human beings and
it suggests, as the others do not, that embodiment in some fashion be extended to God. It is possible to speculate that if Christianity
had begun in a time less dualistic and antiphysical than was first century Mediterranean culture, it might given the more holistic
anthropology and theology of its Hebraic roots, have been willing to extend its body metaphors to God.
In any event, what would it be like to think of the world as the body of God? This metaphor suggests several
(1) In this way of thinking, God is not a distant being as in the monarchical model, but being-itself, the One
in whom we live and move and have our being and not just our so-called spiritual being, but our bodily being as well. It means thinking
of God as somehow physical even as we are. Is it more difficult to imagine a personal agent -- one who wills and loves and so forth --
as having a body than as being bodiless? After all, the only personal agents we know (ourselves) have bodies. God's body need not be --
should not be -- thought of as like ours. To use the metaphor of body to speak of God is not to describe God, but it is a way of
thinking about God on the basis of something very important to us, our bodies. To see the world as God's body brings us close to God.
God is not far off in another place, a king looking down, as it were, on his realm, but here, as a visible presence. The world is the
bodily presence, a sacrament of the invisible God.
(2) Were we to think this way, we would overcome a very important dualism in the Christian tradition -- the
split between spirit and body, with salvation totally concerned with the former (except for the resurrected body). If God is in some
sense body (and the world taken as a manifestation of that), then bodies would matter to God -- God would love bodies -- and salvation
would be as concerned with such basic needs as food, clothing and shelter as with matters of the spirit. Salvation would be a social,
political and economic matter and not just a matter of the spirit's eternal existence.
(3) Moreover, were we to imagine the world (the universe) as God's body, then God would be, in some sense; at
risk. If we follow out the implications of the metaphor, God becomes dependent through being bodily in a way that a totally invisible,
distant God would never be. The world as God's body may be poorly cared for, ravaged and, as we are becoming well aware, essentially
destroyed, in spite of God's own loving attention to it, because of one creature, ourselves, who can choose or not choose to join with
God in conscious care of the world. Presumably, were this body blown up, another could be formed; hence, God need not be seen as
dependent on us or on any particular body as we are. But in the metaphor of the universe as the self-expression of God
-- God's incarnation - the notions of vulnerability, shared responsibility and risk are inevitable. This is a
markedly different basic understanding of the God-world relationship than in the monarch-realm metaphor, for it emphasizes God's
willingness to suffer for and with the world, even to the point of personal risk.
The world as God's body, then, may be seen as a way to remythologize the suffering love of the cross of Jesus of
Nazareth. In both instances, God is at risk in human hands. Once upon a time in a bygone mythology, human beings killed their God in the
body of a man. Now we once again have that power, but, in a mythology more appropriate to our time, we would kill our God in the body of
Could we actually do this? No, because God is not in our power to destroy. But the incarnate God is the God at
risk -- we have been given central responsibility to care for God's body, our world. If we thought of the world as God's body, would we
not begin to think of the world as somehow sacred ground, not as something to be used and misused but treasured and protected just as we
treasure and protect the bodies we love?
What this experiment regarding the world as God's body comes to, finally, is an awareness, both chilling and
breathtaking, that we, as worldly, bodily beings, are in God's presence. We do not have to go to some special place --a church, for
instance --or to another world to find God for God is with us here and now. This view provides the basis for a revived sacramentalism -
that is, a perception of the divine as visible and palpably present. But it is a kind of sacramentalism that is painfully conscious of
the world's vulnerability. The beauty of the world and its ability to sustain a vast multitude of species cannot be taken for granted.
The world is a body that must be carefully tended, guided, loved and befriended both as valuable in itself -- for like us, it is an
expression of God -- and as necessary to the continuation of life.
Needless to say, were this metaphor to enter our consciousness as thoroughly as the royal, triumphalist one has,
we would live differently. We could no longer see God as worldless or the world as godless. Nor could we expect God to take care of
everything, either through domination or through benevolence.
We see through pictures; we do not see directly. The picture of a king and his realm and of the world as God's
body are ways of speaking, ways of imagining the God-world relationship. The one pictures a, vast distance between God and the world;
the other imagines them as intrinsically related. At the close of day, one must ask which distortion (assuming that all pictures are
false in some respect) is better, by considering what attitudes each picture encourages. This is not the first question to ask, but it
may well be the last.
The monarchical model encourages militarism, dualism and escapism; it condones control through violence and
oppression;, it has nothing to say about the nonhuman world. The model of the world as God's body encourages responsibility and care for
the vulnerable and oppressed; it is a nonhierarchical image that acts through persuasion and attraction; it has a great deal to say
about the body and nature. Both are pictures: which distortion is more true to the world in which we live and to the good news of
I am suggesting that we must think differently about what the saving love of God means if it is to speak to our
time, addressing the question of the possible end of existence raised by, ecological deterioration and nuclear escalation and that we do
this by thinking in different images. The-one I have, suggested is just that -- one image. Many others are needed. We must be careful,
very careful, of the imagistic glasses through which we interpret God and the world. As Erich Heller, " the German philosopher and
literary critic, said: "Be careful how you interpret the world. It is like that."
Some attempts to raise consciousness about the ecological, nuclear situation paint a picture of nuclear winter
or the extent of death and destruction that can occur. But it is even more telling in terms of our perception of the world, of how
wondrous it is and how much we do in fact care for it, to think small. Most anything will do -- those sheep on the English hillside in
the morning mist, a child's first steps, the smell of crisp air on the first fall day. We should dwell upon the specialness, the
distinctiveness, the value of these things until the pain of contemplating their permanent loss, not just to one individual but to all
for all time, becomes unbearable. This is a form of prayer for the world as the body of God, which we, as lovers and friends of the
world, are summoned to practice. This prayer, while not the only one in an ecological, nuclear age, is a necessary and permanent one. It
is a form of meditation to help us think differently about the world and to work together with God to save our beleaguered planet, our
beautiful, vulnerable Earth.
Now that you have read McFague's essay I invite you to consider your church's sacramental theology. This is
important because it is in the Church's understanding of the sacraments that the recognition of Earth as God's Body may have more than a
metaphoric relationship. Below I attempt to describe a Lutheran understanding of the unique participatory nature of our relationship
with God that takes place through created things. This relationship is most well expressed through the Church's understanding of its
In the elements of water, wine, and wheat we have representations of all earthly things and human activities. In
and of themselves these substances are nothing more and nothing less than the created forms that we know them to be. They come from the
earth, they come to us by our participation in their accrual, cultivation, and refinement; because of human involvement - these earthly
goods can be affiliated with blessing and/or exploitation of neighbors as well as earth and its resources. In the Holy Eucharist and in
baptism, through the unseen action of the Creator/Savior God, these ordinary elements become sacralized, that is, they take on an
additional quality in their substance - by Word and faith, they are imbued with the power of God and as such they become the body and
blood of God, holy in their inner essence. Though they are still earthly forms they are now: the life-giving water affecting salvation;
the true body and blood of Christ, strengthening us for life and service in the world -- saving us from eternal death. Through the
mystical action of God the elements of earth become extraordinary, and yet in their ordinariness we are able to experience the living
Christ who nourishes us, and who bids us welcome into the eternal kingdom.
Herein we gain an appreciation of creation's unique position in the middle of the Divine-Human relationship.
Recognizing earth's expressive value, as medium, icon and metaphor for God can serve to engage our "earthkeeping" in more deep and vital
ways. After reading McFague's theology perhaps you too will agree that in the light of our potential to annihilate life on this
wonderful planet, it does not seem so heretical to view the World as God's Body is an appropriate theological metaphor. After all, if we
do not take care of the Earth and of our neighbors, we will no longer exist to proclaim any other understanding of who God is.
Peace to all, Jon