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Paul Tillich's Theological Influence on Sallie McFague (1933-)

Salie McFague (from here)

Article by Hyebin Hong

Sallie McFague is one of the prominent North American feminist theologians, who has devoted her career to expanding the scope of theological language by offering various metaphors and models in response to impending questions from ecological and economic crisis of our time. Even though there are more overt influences, such as Paul Ricoeur or Rosemary R. Ruether, one can also find a strong inspiration of Tillich's system in McFague's works on metaphorical theology, especially his theory of religious language as symbols.

The basis on which Tillich's system stands is what he labeled as “the Protestant principle.” Witnessing fascism and unbridled capitalism, his keen awareness of human desire to fetishize or worship something finite and conditioned as infinite had been cast in a mold of his theological ontology. What Tillich meant by the term “Protestant principle” does not refer to a specific institutional manifestation of Christainity, but the ethos of Protestantism that affirms the absolute difference between the divine and human. It is a declaration of the only absolute truth one can possibly attain: the truth that humanity can never attain the absolute truth (Tillich, 1948). Therefore, for Tillich, all God-talks must be regarded as symbolic language in order to avoid the peril of idolatry. He demystifies conventional symbols of God, which had often enthroned themselves as divine, arguing that those symbols are mediums devised by human in order to grasp certain aspects of God otherwise unknown. However, this fact does not deprive symbolic language its power or authenticity in delivering the ultimate reality. Unlike signs that are deliberately invented without any necessary correlations to which they point, a symbol has qualities of, and a relation to, what it stands. A religious symbol does and must “participate” in the ultimate reality to which it points, by expressing the correlation between existential questions and theological answers. Otherwise it becomes either a dead symbol or idolatry (Tillich, 1951).

An importance of Tillich's method of correlation and theory of religious symbols, which have had a tremendous impact on theological discussions afterward, cannot be overstated. His project has been especially helpful for feminists who try to rescue God from the confinement in the absolutized images of God. McFague's work on metaphorical theology epitomizes how Tillich's theories have been utilized by feminist endeavors in theological discussions.

In her first book, Metaphorical Theology, McFague deepens the Protestant principle with her concept of “the Protestant sensibility.” McFague states, “the Protestant sensibility tends to see dissimilarity, distinction, tension and hence to be skeptical and secular, stressing the transcendence of God and the finitude of creation. The Catholic sensibility tends to see similarity, connection, harmony and, hence, to be believing and religious, stressing the continuity between God and creation” (McFague, 1982; 13). Again, as in Tillich, these characteristics are not directly applicable to any religious institutions: they rather refer to respective views of divine-human relationship. It is a bold and risky statement, but this distinction is necessary for McFague because she believes that the reason why religious language of today lost its explanatory power of, and relevancy to, reality is that we are no longer living in the world where the Catholic sensibility prevails. In the absence of the classic sacramental understanding of the universe based on Catholic sensibility that presupposes the connectedness of this world and the divine realm, religious symbols and images that are meant to be an analogy between two worlds easily become idols, taken as literal accounts for the divine. McFague, however, does not attempt to recuperate the sacramental, analogical, or “symbolical” mentality, as she believes it is neither possible nor appropriate for our time. Rather, she seeks a new form of theology that takes the Protestant sensibility seriously, which is metaphorical.

Metaphorical language, according to McFague, is different from symbolic language: the latter thinks of “this” as a part of “that”, as in the sacramental mentality, while the former thinks of “this” as “that” (McFague, 1982; 16). Unlike a symbol, a metaphor does not rely on the continuity or similarity between two things. Rather, it creates a radical relation between two unlikely related things, disturbing the conventional way of thinking. In this sense, a metaphor is closer to tension rather than harmony, and thereby it is “protestant.” A metaphor that has attained relative stability becomes a model that enables a comprehensive and coherent system of thinking (McFague, 1989; 34). A model is riskier than a metaphor because it tends to become literalized, easily identified as the only way of understanding a subject to which it is pointing. At the same time, however, without a model, metaphors would remain idiosyncratic subversive ideas, unable to be conceptualized within an organized system of thought. Thus, models are not only necessary but also central for metaphorical theology that aims to provide pertinent and coherent explanations for those impending questions arise from concrete situations of human life (McFague, 1982; 22-29).

On this methodological foundation, deeply influenced by and in conversation with Tillich's theological method, McFague provides the metaphor of the world as the body of God, and three models of God integrating three traditional Christian categories of love-agape, eros, and philia: God as mother, lover and friend. These images function as the counter-discourse against the patriarchal, imperialistic, and triumphal ones that have dominated the theological discourse (McFague, 1982; 1989). The metaphor of the world as the body of God gains more importance in her system as her major concern has shifted from patriarchy to ecological and economic crisis (McFague, 1993): consequently her theology develops through the planetary theology (McFague, 2001), into the kenotic theology (McFague, 2013).

It is noteworthy that McFague's models put more emphasis on the immanent, personal, and even “agential” aspects of of the divine to which Tillich strongly opposed with a concern of identification between God and human-made images (McFague, 1993). It must be clarified that McFague by no means argues that God is immanent, personal, and agential. Her theology is a “Protestant” project after all, attempting to dispute any possible transgression of the divine realm by human. What McFague attempts to do is to avoid idolatry by pilling up metaphors and models that express richness and variety of the divine-human relationship. For McFague, the immanent, personal, and agential models are important and necessary for envisaging a theology that is relevant to and meaningful for today because the transcendent, impersonal, and deistic models of God have been employed to support and perpetuate the fatal structure of patriarchy and capitalist economic systems. In this sense, McFague's models of God are deeply affected by and in response to Tillich's method of correlation.

In conclusion, Tillich's influence on McFague's theology is apparent. She did not remain in the purview drawn by his system, but pushes it further, by critically engaging and critically questioning the relevance of Tillich's theory for issues of today.


Tillich, Paul. The Protestant Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948. _________. Systematic Theology: Volume I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

McFague, Sallie. Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

_________. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

_________. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

_________. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

_________. Blessed are Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.

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