Most people who know Sallie McFague’s work don’t immediately think of her as a process theist. They think of her as a feminist theologian, an ecotheologian, or a metaphorical theologian, and she is of course all of these.

I would say that her central preoccupation, which I share, is how to continue speaking of the God of her Christian faith community, not just credibly, but responsibly and justly, when you no longer buy into dualisms, or patriarchy, or anthropocentrism. If others call her a radical, that only means that she is critically engaging the very roots (radices) of all Christian ways of being. In other words, she refuses to be a half-assed theologian. Shouldn’t anybody?

But she can also be considered a process theologian, at least of a sort. That’s because of her insistence on continuing to understand our relationship with God in dialogical, interpersonal terms. What allows us to continue understanding our relationship on those terms, she says, is “a movement toward taking the human self and the relationship between the self and the body, as a, if not the, prime model for imaging God and God’s relationship to the world … Much of the reason for this shift lies in the current understanding of persons not as substantial individuals, separated from one another and from the world, who enter into relationships of their own choice, but as beings-in-relationship of the most radical and thoroughgoing nature” (Models of God [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987], p. 81).

In this crucial movement, she acknowledges, “process theologians are perhaps the leaders here” (p. 202, n. 23). And if we understand persons in such intrinsically relational terms, “then, as Schubert Ogden says, God as ‘the Thou with the greatest conceivable degree of real relatedness to others—namely, relatedness to all others—is for that very reason the most truly absolute Thou any mind can conceive’” (p. 83). (Ogden is one of the most widely known process theologians.)

I think it is to her credit that she introduces process terms only after drawing on all sorts of other resources to defend the irreducible and indispensable truth-value of nonliteral, tension-fraught models, metaphors, and other types of “language-stretching,” not just in theology, but in the natural sciences too. Interestingly, however, even here much of her work over the years is crucially dependent on Ian G. Barbour’s Myths, Models, and Paradigms and later works. And Barbour, like McFague, also turns to process thought at crucial points. (As I’ve said, Barbour was also a major influence on me.) All that said, I still think it is to both her and Barbour’s credit that they do not put all their eggs in the process basket. I try not to do that either, much as I love exploring its implications.

And it seems to me that McFague recognizes, far more clearly than some process theologians, that we are always involved in some sort of language-stretching when we try to say anything about the fundamental nature of reality as such. As I say elsewhere, “All such terms are inadequate gestures toward what exceeds every classification (even the fluid classifications of process thought).” 

I don’t especially care whether we call this language-stretching metaphorical, analogical, symbolic, or paradoxical. One writer’s  “metaphor” is another writer’s  “analogy” is another writers “symbol.”  What matters is to recognize that language is being stretched, and that there is an irremovable tension, an “is” and an “is not,” involved. Did you notice that “language-stretching” is an example of language-stretching?

For example, here’s how I think McFague would respond to Schubert Ogden’s insistence on some kind of literalism. Ogden argues that to know what a metaphor or symbol or analogy really means, like “God is boundless love,” we have to anchor it in a literal statement, like “ultimate reality is a distinct center of universal interaction that, being acted on by all things as well as acting on them, is their sole final end as well as their only primal source” (The Point of Christology [New York: Harper & Row, 1982)], p. 145). On the one hand, Ogden’s more abstract, technical formulation does indeed clarify what he means when he says that God is boundless love. But I think McFague would say (as would I) that there is still language-stretching involved here. What does this crucial word, “center,” mean here? I know pretty straightforwardly what it means in a sentence like, “There’s a monument at the center of Monument Circle.” But I’m not quite sure what it means in a sentence like, “Ultimate reality is a distinct center of universal interaction.” Does universal interaction literally have a “center”? I think Ogden is saying something true here, talking about something real. But he is still speaking somewhat figuratively, engaging in language-stretching.

A similar sort of language-stretching is happening when I elsewhere say that “process thought views all things and persons and even properties as uncontainably flowing patterns in the uncontainable flow of reality as such, ‘eddies in the continuous flow of process’”; or, “every experience flows faster than we can track.” Clearly, I am using “flow” and “uncontainable” somewhat figuratively. But I can’t think of a less figurative way to say this. And I don’t think I need to for you to understand my assertion that every experience flows faster than we can track. People can tell what I’m getting at simply by paying attention to their own experience.

In any case, this is why I appreciate McFague’s work, not just because she is a process theist, but because she is a metaphorical process theist. In this, she is following through more consistently than Whitehead ever did on his own admonition: “Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generality foreign their ordinary usage; and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap” (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, [New York: Free Press, 1978 (1929)], p. 4).

Fr. Charles