Images of God, Roles of Humanity, and Ecological Ramifications
Naïve optimism pervades theological literature regarding human responses to ecological crises. What is needed is both hope and realism--despair will not resolve anything, but neither will an ecotheologian's vision of a "redeemed," harmonious restoration of the divinely intended natural order. A comparison of two theologians whose views seem at first to be in irresolvable conflict with one another may help to show what a "realistic hope" could look like. How do James M. Gustafson and Sallie McFague conceive of God as relating to human beings, and what do their conceptions imply for how humans should relate to nonhuman creation? These questions will necessarily examine their respective models of God, and how they utilize those models or images in their ecological ethics. I will argue that a synthesis of their views provides hope (despite the claims of those who dismiss McFague as naïve and Gustafson as overly pessimistic) through a third perspective akin to Douglas Ottati's notion of "hopeful realism." For Gustafson, the primary model of God is a sovereign, rather distant power--yet, Gustafson claims that humans are still responsible for attempting to discern what God enables and requires us to be and do. The weakness of his model is that it could lead to a sense of isolation from God as we strive to respond to the cries of creation seemingly on our own. Its strength is a realism that allows us to persevere in the face of ecological crises. Divine grace is present and enables human activity, even if this activity does not effect the changes we think it should. In contrast, for McFague, the primary model of God is an immanent deity whose compassion extends to all of creation--for her, the earth can be seen as God's body, and humans can be seen as co-caretakers or even partners with God as we seek to protect the earth. We should relate to non-human creation as we relate to God and to other humans--as subjects, and as "good" in and of themselves. We get the sense that God is with us in the trenches of ecojustice. The weakness of her model is its possible naïveté regarding historical possibilities and their theological significance. Its strength is its appeal to the inspiring nearness and salvific activity of God in this world, here and now. Divine grace is concrete and almost visible in its clear intention. Their models conflict, and yet these theologians share an ecological concern that is informed by their theological influences and their personal experiences of nature and human relationships. To demonstrate the complementary aspect of their views (and the relevance of this project in addressing ecotheological naïveté), I will also explore the practical application of their views to land ethics in primarily urban settings.