The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology

Index of Articles
MWT Course

Weird Wild Web

Other Courses

McFague, Sallie


The Theology of Sallie McFague (Wesley J. Wildman, 1988)
(This dictionary article is from my first year of graduate school at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. It is posted here for my students, unchanged from the original, so that they can feel good about picking on me for the errors they find and for my ignorance of bibliographic conventions. If they agree to post their juvenile material in public, then it is only fair that I post mine, too.)

Sallie McFague: Mann's Quick Notes (Mark Mann, 1997)

See: Feminist Theology: Rosemary Radford Ruether/Sallie McFague (Rolf Bouma, 1997)

The Theology of Sallie McFague

Wesley J. Wildman, 1988


Sallie McFague was born on May 25 1933 in Quincy, Massachusetts. She received her B.A. degree in English Literature in 1955 from Smith College, and her B.D. degree from Yale Divinity School in 1959. At Yale University she received her M.A. in 1960 and her Ph.D. in 1964. A revised version of her doctoral thesis was published in 1966 as Literature and the Christian Life. She received the Litt.D. from Smith College in 1977. After marrying Eugene TeSelle in 1959, they had two children. McFague’s published work appears under the name of McFague after 1977 and in the name of TeSelle or McFague-Teselle before that date.

During the time at Yale, she was deeply influenced by the dialecticaltheology of Karl Barth, with its emphasis on the role of theologian as aiding the hearing of God's word, as being the helper and critic of the preacher. She gained a different perspective from the person and thought of one of her teachers, H. Richard Niebuhr, with his appreciation of liberalism's concern for experience, relativity, the symbolic imagination and the role of the affections. The major insights into the character of theology which McFague gained from these two people are never lost in her work.

An Introduction

If Paul Tillich is a borderline thinker, bridging philosophy and theology, then Sallie McFague is a borderline thinker spanning theology and literature. The diversity of her interests is reflected both in her being the founding editor of the intentionally interdisciplinary journal Soundings, and in her publications. The early books ([1966], [1972], [1974]) display this diversity in their topics: literature and the Christian life, ethnicity, and family, communes and utopian societies. Moreover, literary criticism is an ever-present tool for analysis throughout her published work. McFague's later books lie decidedly within the sphere of theology, and here she turns her hand to philosophy of religion (particularly religious language), theological method, hermeneutics, biblical exegesis, literary criticism, ethics and extremely important practical issues such as the critiques of theology from feminism, ecology and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

In spite of this diversity of interest, McFague's thought is actually highly continuous and sharply focussed. Her eclecticism is clearly the servant of an overriding sense of direction and intention which permeates and unifies her published work. This unusually strong continuity is a consequence of the tight logic which underlies McFague's theological thinking as it evolves from her distinctive starting point towards the addressing of weighty practical matters. She is certainly not without her changes of direction and emphasis, but it is the continuity in her thought which will provide the framework for this paper's attempt to describe her theology.

The Starting Point for Metaphorical Theology

The starting point for McFague's theological work appears to have beenformed early in her career and has remained sharply defined throughout. At least the following four aspects can be identified.

Firtly, theology is to be carried out in service of the hearing of God's word. This is perhaps the point at which the theology of Karl Barth most strongly influenced McFague's own work. It is the conviction which tolls like a great bell through her thought. If theology fails in its task to facilitate the hearing of God's word or, worse, if it inhibits that hearing, then it is false; it has lost touch with its reason for being.

Secondly, in her doctoral work (Literature and the Christian Life, 1966), McFague tried to articulate the complex, tenuous relation which exists between theology and literature in a way which compromised the integrity and unique character of neither. She was deeply affected by the insight of Erich Auerbach into the distinctive mode of Christianity's secularity: God's being in Jesus Christ means that the problematic, historical, ambiguous reality of human life is the realm of the truly significant. This conviction that the dichotomy between the sublime and the secular is overcome in the person of Jesus Christ led eventually to a study of the parables of Jesus and lies behind McFague's judgement that the parables are one of the most important biblical genres for proclamation and theology in the present day.

Thirdly, theology needs to be constantly renewed in order to avoid the traps of idolatory and irrelevance. God-language is always under threat of solidifying around certain well-worn and powerfully effective images. The effectiveness of these images for explaining and expressing religious experience then makes easy the overvaluing of the image, and hence the tendency towards idolatory. Simlarly, the overvaluing of certain inevitably inadequate images will result in the exclusion of other important perspectives and added difficulty in interpreting religious experience when the context for that experience shifts, ie. irrelevance. What is refreshing about McFague's insistence upon resisting this well understood and ancient phenomenon is that she offers a penetrating critique of theological language as it stands now: the dominant models used in theology foster the exclusion of non- white, middle class males, they frequently mitigate against a sense of responsibility amongst individuals and groups for each other and for the world, and they are desperately irrelevant to a world which is highly secularized.

Fourthly, McFague is convinced with the later Wittgenstein and many other philosophers, that the human world is, in essential ways, the world of language. This is why it matters that theological language needs to be renewed: language is powerful. Language does not exhaust human reality but it qualifies it in many profound ways. For example, at the very heart of human knowing and expressing is the metaphorical movement which simultaneously affirms and denies that this is that: metaphor is a form of knowing. Another example is that all language, whether scientific or religious, abstract or concrete is ultimately metaphorical in character; it originated in the actions of comaparing and contrasting, noticing similarities and dissimilarities, using familiar words in unfamiliar contexts to express and cause new insights, and it is used by humans who still experience and come to know the world in this way. This is the very same view of language which underlies the feminist critique of culture, and of Christian theology in particular. Indeed, McFague is strongly influenced by precisely this critique. On this view, the use of language is not just a harmless game, the result of arbitrary and easily changed decisions. Metaphor is not just a useful literary device which says colorfully what could have been said differently. Rather, metaphors are irreducible ways of knowing; they bring understanding and thus knowledge which could be had by no other means in precisely the same way. So McFague insists with Paul Ricoeur that metaphor (which in McFague's sense is by no means identical with, but carries some of the same force as, Ricoeur's symbol) is powerful.

From this beginning, McFague advocates in forceful but simple fashion anapproach to theology which she describes as metaphorical. Having recognized that the straight-forwardly metaphorical language of religious experience is continuous with the abstract conceptual language of systematic theology, theology must seek to overcome the tendencies toward idolatory and irrelevance which are inherent in the use of systematic, conceptual language if it is truly to operate in service of the hearing of God's word. This is the rationale for metaphorical theology.

Metaphorical Theology on the Way

How then is this theological enterprise, called metaphorical or intermediary theology by McFague, to be understood? There are several intertwining aspects to her argument. Before mentioning any of them we should pause to note a terminological ambiguity. McFague uses the word "intermediary" to qualify theology, thereby seeming to suggest that there really is a systematic theology with which metaphorical theology may be contrasted. On the one hand, this seems sensible because she is advocating that intermediary (or metaphorical) theology should use language which is less abstract and closer to its metaphorical origins. But on the other hand, it seems to be the renewal of, and not merely an intermediary alternative to, systematic theology which is at stake, because a consequence of her arguments about the universal metaphorical character of knowledge and language is that metaphorical theology is really the only way to do effective systematic theology. McFague does not resolve this ambiguity. In fact it is sharpened in her latest work Models of God (1987) by her continued insistence on the distinction between abstract and metaphorical language as two points on a linguistic continuum, at the same time as her production of what is, in effect, a new systematic theology in the course of doing what she calls metaphorical theology. McFague is obviously well aware that the best systematic theology has always been strongly conscious of the metaphorical character of its language, so the overall impression created by this ambiguity is that theology which does not incorporate this awareness into its method of procedure is likely to be, roughly speaking, irrelevant and uninteresting.

The first aspect of understanding what metaphorical theology could be iscomprehension of the movement from the first order language of religiousexperience to the abstract, second order language of concepts, remembering ofcourse the essential continuity which exists between these forms of language. This aspect is traced most clearly in Metaphorical Theology (1982). The key term in what is really the philosophy of language aspect of the argument is model. There has been some discussion as to the detailed meaning which McFague intends model to have in her work, but the general thrust is clear enough. A model is a systematic, extended and relatively permanent metaphor and, as such, is a unique combination of first and second order language, allowing the insights brought by live metaphors to be systematized, organized and related to practical living. Models in theology are controlled by root metaphors and function within paradigms which serve to mark out which models will be acceptable, and which will not. For example, the root metaphor of Christ as the parable of God would seem to affirm models like God as loving friend, but exclude models of God as bank manager or murderer. It is models which allow metaphorical theology to be at once systematic and close to both the content and form of the first order language of religious experience. McFague envisages theologians one day being as skilled in handling metaphorical form and content as they are already adept with abstract language, far removed from first order language by a long process of stabilizing of metaphorically rooted meanings.

A second aspect of the argument is the relating of these insights to thebiblical tradition. McFague wants to do this through her affirmation of the parable as one of the chief literary genres in the New Testament. The parables are extended metaphors, according to her interpretation of them, one which has been formed by the work of biblical scholars R. W. Funk and W. F. Wilder. They are examples of ordinary language, people and situations being used to bring insight into the strange and the significant. As such, they are good starting material for metaphorical theology, and both their content and form should partly determeine how metaphorical theology is to proceed. Moreover, the secular, everyday character of the parables is thought by McFague to be well suited to our own time, which is highly secularized in many parts of the world. To the criticism that the interpretation of parables which she is adopting is too narrow in its exclusion of allegory, McFague insists with Funk that the many examples of allegorization of parables in the New Testament are the contribution of the early church; the parables of Jesus were rarely if ever intended to be allegories. This being granted, it appears that McFague is proposing that metaphorical theology should be hermeneutical; it should link itself to the Christian tradition by taking actual biblical content (at least some of it) as its starting point and then understanding and interpreting it for the present context. This is especially important in view of the irriducibility of metaphor; since metaphors (and so extended ones) cannot be expressed in other ways or reduced to "ordinary language", it is important to return to the original biblical metaphors again and again.

A third aspect of the argument concerns the locating of suitable sources of new metaphors for Christian theology to use. McFague, especially in Speaking in Parables (1975), draws special attention to the potential of other literary forms in this regard: poem (the language of insight), story (the language of coming to belief) and autobiography (the language of the unity of life and thought). Moreover the imagination, informed by exposure to the biblical parables, to other sources of metaphor, to the Christian religious tradition and to religious experience, should generate new metaphors which are relevant to the theological enterprise. For example, in Models of God, McFague develops the metaphors of God as mother, lover, and friend, in the context of the world as God's body. These metaphors originate in sources as diverse as the bible, the tradition of Christian thought, the world of literature and the human imagination.

After all this, and especially after the substantive work of her latestbook, it remains a little unclear how McFague understands the continuity of new metaphors appropriated in theology with the Christian tradition of thought. She is quite clear that she intends the New Testament parables, the scriptures in general and the Jesus as the parable of God to be normative in the sense that a classic piece of literature is normative, drawing on the work of David Tracy in The Analogical Imagination. She is equally clear that "no holds are barred" a priori, and that metaphorical theology will be radical. In her own substantive work, the emphases among the biblical metaphors are ignored as the iconoclastic drive of metaphorical theology works against the patriarchal models dominant in most of scripture. McFague herself does not speak a great deal about the precise way in which she intends her own models to relate to the biblical images of God, and the degree to which the theologian should be free to critique or ignore the biblical models and their connections with each other. One cannot help feeling both that this move is justifiable, and that the precise justification still needs to be given.

The Endpoint of Metaphorical Theology

If McFague is incomplete at the level of methodological description, she is far from leaving us in doubt about how she intends metaphorical theology to function in practice. This is most clearly seen in her latest book (Models of God, 1987), but also in the last chapter of Metaphorical Theology (1982) where she offers a critique of the model of God as father and explores the possibilities of the model of God as friend. In Models of God, McFague further pursues the model of God as friend, and also examines the models of God as mother and lover. This is metaphorical theology in practice, tackling issues of momentous significance (viz. ecological and nuclear irresponsibility).

McFague observes with Gordon Kaufman and Rosemary Reuther that thedominance of patriarchal, hierarchical models of God in the Christiantradition is now past the point of being idolatrous and irrelevant.Ironically, it has regained relevance by becoming positively dangerous. This dominant family of models encourages escapism, indifference and inaction, rather than what is needed: a clear sense of responsibility amongst humans for each other, for the human world-home and to God. It is at this point that the power of her theological approach becomes evident. Although critics have questioned the coherence of her proposal in Models of God (for example, McFague herself raises the problems for coherence inherent in such possibilities as God the Mother creating or giving birth to her own body, the world), the end result is effective both because it succeeds, just as a good metaphor should, in opening up new insights - and ones which have extremely important practical applications, as has already been mentioned - and because the models she proposes are susceptible of a high degree of systematic interrelation, in spite of a few problems.

In the relevance and power of her theology at this point, McFague produces the best possible confirmation of the correctness of her theological starting point and good evidence in favour of her claim that metaphorical theology is an appropriate form for systematic theology in our day. Her achievement thus far in her carreer is, however, best judged on totally different criteria, in view of the perilous situation in which humanity has placed itself: it needs to be assessed in the light of what it has to offer the world in its current crisis. It is here that the character of McFague's theology as one in service of the hearing of God's word becomes highly important. The methodological questions which so interest academic theologians are overshadowed to the point of fading from sight by a theology in action which shouts reality to a world on the brink of self-annihilation, a theology which is determined to break what theological idols it must in the process of declaring that humans, even humans crazed by fear and hate, are one with the world and have a home in the heart of God the father, mother, lover and friend.


As noted above, McFague’s published work appears under the name of McFague after 1977 and in the name of TeSelle or McFague-Teselle before that date.


1966: Literature and the Christian Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966)

1972 (ed.): The Family, Communes and Utopian Society (New York: Harper and Row, 1972; from the Spring 1972 issue of Soundings; the proceedings of a conference on this subject)

1974 (ed.): The Rediscovery of Ethnicity

1975: Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975)

1982: Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982; 2nd edition with new preface in 1985)

1987: Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987)

Selected Articles

1974: "Parable, Metaphor and Theology" Journal of the American Academy of Religion 42 630-45 Dec 1974

1975: "Intermediary Theology: In Service of the Hearing of God's Word" Christian Century 92 625-9 Jun 25 1975

1975: "The Experience of Coming to Belief" Theology Today 32 159-65 Jul 1975

1976: "Between Athens and Jerusalem: The Seminary in Tension" Christian Century 93 89-93 Feb 4 1976

1976: "Learning for the Whole Person: A Model from the Parables" Religion in Life 45 161-73 Summer 1976

1978: "Conversion: Life on the Edge of a Raft" Interpretation 32 255-68 Jul 1978

1978: "Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads: Realism in Fiction and Theology" Semeia 13 241-61 1978

Sallie McFague: Mann's Quick Notes

Mark Mann, 1997

  • Chief concerns: nuclear and ecological crisis of today
  • Essence of Christianity: that there is a personal power in the universe that is on the side of all life forms and against whatever impedes life’s flourishing (she takes this from the Xn scriptures)
  • Three sources: scripture (the heart of tradition), tradition (codified experience) and experience
  • Metaphorical theology: her primary interest is to affect religious imagination:
  • Metaphor (from Riceour) exploits the difference between the referent and what figures it producing meaning through a "twist" (i.e. "War is a chess game." highlights that war involves strategy.)
  • All religious language is metaphorical; language about God does not describe God’s being but attempts to articulate human experience of God
  • Models are extended metaphors that—because of their explanatory power—have become paradigms within which Christians think religiously
  • For Christians, she believes that God as Father has become the central metaphor, though we have forgotten that this is a metaphor and it has become an idol, and as monarchial it has led to legitimating ill treatment of the environment, of women, etc.
  • In seeking to advocate care for the world, she proposes using other models for God that are less dangerous/destructive and will support positive Christian involvement in the world
    1. Mother: God as ground and source of all that is, God’s creativity is continuous, the world not separate from God but part of God’s being
    2. Lover: God is passionate for the world, not distant from it, holds the world/people in high esteem
    3. Friend: implies mutual commitment to a common project, promotes an ethic of solidarity
    4. Earth as God’s Body: stresses interdependency of God and world, leads to positive valuation of bodies
  • Critique: she needs to take in more consideration of the interrelationship between conceptual theology and metaphorical theology

The information on this page is copyright 1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.