Super, Natural Christians
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997
By Sallie McFague
"Most Christians either do not know how to relate to nature or they relate to it as Western culture does, as an object for our use."
The stated purpose of this book is to correct this shortcoming by teaching Christians how to love nature, something author Sallie McFague feels they are called to do. This is a book about ecology for Christians, not a book about Christianity. I don't feel qualified to comment on her Christian theology but most of this wonderful book about ecology seemed to me to be relevant to Christians and non-Christians alike.
McFague begins her exploration of Christian nature spirituality by defining these three words. Spirituality is an exploration of what it means to become more human. Christians are those who, among other things, care for the oppressed. Nature refers to the myriad individual beings in the universe and their relationship to each other. Christian nature spirituality can be achieved if the Christian circle of concern can be expanded from humans to those aspects of the non-human world that are oppressed and suffering.
McFague includes a discussion (seemingly obligatory for ecological writers) of her objections to Cartesian dualism, objectifying scientism, economism, and the other sins of modern culture. She gives this discussion an interesting twist by comparing modernism with medieval cosmology. Once she has completed this critique, the book comes to life as she leads the reader through a process whereby nature can be included in the circle of concern.
Her first suggestion is to pay attention. We cannot love something we do not know. She then distinguishes between attention with the arrogant eye which looks at other beings (including other people) as objects which may be of use, and the loving eye, which looks at others as subjects with their own worldview, interests, and needs. She suggests that we need to look at both human and non-human beings with the loving eye.
The arrogant eye sees the world as a subject-object dualism. The loving eye sees the world as a subject-subjects distinction. The loving eye recognizes that other beings exist in their own subjective universe. It recognizes that the world is plural – there are many subjects.
As she explores the subject-subjects worldview she presents a number of different metaphors and analogies to contrast the arrogant eye with the loving eye. She is clear that these are all metaphors and analogies and are not to be taken as explanations or descriptions. She draws parallels with the contrasts between the ethics of care and the ethics of justice, the sense of touch and the sense of vision, living in a maze and looking at a landscape, patriarchal and feminist perspectives, and Buber's I-Thou rather than I-It.
The analogy with vision and touch worked the best for me. We can look at something or someone without their knowledge, participation, or consent. On the other hand, when we touch something we interact with it – the other being knows it has been touched and it has the possibility of responding. With other humans we usually ask permission to touch them but seldom ask if we can look at them. Vision is an analogy for a subject-object worldview, touch is analogous to a subject-subjects perspective.
McFague is clear that while subject-object (arrogant eye) and subject-subjects (loving eye) are two ways to view the same reality, both are valid worldviews. She recommends the subject-subjects view to Christians. Her argument for this seems to rest on the pragmatic consideration that the two views are to be judged by their different consequences – one perspective can lead to exploitation and oppression of both the human and non-human world, the other can lead to concern, compassion, and care.
Nature writing is presented as a window into the subject-subjects world. She admires the way writers such as Annie Dillard or Robert Pyle focus on individual and specific aspects of nature. She admires their rich understanding of non-human beings based on careful observation and scientific study. She sees nature writing as being a clear expression of the experience of viewing the world with the loving eye.
After fully developing the idea of a subject-subjects worldview, she shows how it leads to the view of nature as a community of subjects of which we are members. As in a human community each member has different roles and brings different gifts and challenges, but each member is equally deserving of respect, care, and rights. This worldview leads to an ecological understanding of a diverse world. This, in turn, leads to a relational definition of self and an ethics of care, respect, and justice.
This book contained many important insights for an ecopsychologist, so I was surprised at her apparent rejection of romanticism, transcendentalism, transpersonalism, and deep ecology. I did not agree with her caricature of these views:
"The principal difficulty with this model in terms of our issue of how Christians should love nature is that the other as other is not taken seriously. Differences, complexity, and diversity are sacrificed to oceanic feelings of oneness with the earth."
I think she is being unfair. Diversity is a central value in the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Naess, Macy, and many others in these traditions.
In the last chapter she shows how her views can provide the basis for an environmental ethics of community with care as the highest value and justice being in the service of caring. Through the subject-subjects worldview and the close attention embodied in nature writing, we can learn to bring the values of liberation theology to the non-human natural world. I found myself in almost total agreement.
McFague's work draws heavily on feminist sources and on nature writing. I was somewhat surprised by her limited recognition that other traditions had been down this road before. Many of her ideas can be found in the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh, Carol Gilligan, William James, and the writing of ecopsychologists such as David Abram and Michael J. Cohen. The romantics and transcendentalists (whose views she rejects) invented the genre of nature writing. Most significantly, her vision of environmental care seems almost indistinguishable from the ethics of Aldo Leopold, yet she gives him little recognition. Leopold may be the best example of someone whose morality is grounded in direct and detailed observation and understanding of the specifics of the natural world.
In spite of these few reservations, I found this book to be extremely stimulating. Every chapter led me to think and reflect in new and interesting ways. Even though this is a work of theology, I found that most of it resonated with my understanding of ecopsychology. It further convinces me that there is little, other than a choice of metaphors, to distinguish ecopsychology from ecospirituality.
This review is provided by John Scull, who is a founding member of ICE, and a frequent contributor to Gatherings, the international journal for ecopsychology. Now retired from his psychology practice, John lives with his wife Linda in British Columbia and is an active environmental advocate and community educator.