Sallie McFague

Theological Education as a Learned Ministry

Interview with Sallie McFague

What is your connection to Vancouver School of Theology?
I have been connected with the school for almost 30 years, which is amazing. I came here first in 1991 to teach in the summer school. Then I met Janet Cawley, who is my partner. I came for the next 10 years, although I was employed at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. I moved [to Vancouver] permanently in 2000. I was teaching at [Vancouver School of Theology]. Since I have retired, I am the Scholar in Residence. Fortunately, I still have my office, which I love, and I feel very fortunate to have. I have seen quite a few changes and been part of the school for a long time and have a very positive feeling about it.

I want to say something about Richard Topping’s time with the school. I had encouraged him, as many other people did, to take the principalship, although it means giving up some things that one loves. For instance, from focusing on teaching to more administration. I had done that myself. I was the first woman to be dean of a major divinity school in North America. I did this in 1975 at Vanderbilt University Divinity School for five years. I know something about both sides of the aisle. The joys of teaching, and the joys of administration. I think Richard Topping has done a very fine job in so many ways. For instance, he has turned the school around financially and made it much more solid on its foundation. And that was a great gift.

How have you seen theological education change over your career?
I want to focus on one aspect of ministry and why I think VST is doing an interesting job, and that has to do with a learned ministry. This means people who are well informed not only about the tradition but also about contemporary issues and problems. It fits the three classic professions; law, medicine and divinity. They were sort of the ones that originated all of our thinking. The thing about each of these, they have their foundations in text, in the past, but they have to be contemporary also. And so there is an “old story,” and there is a “new story.”

For divinity this means, for Christians, the story of Jesus – who for us is the face of God. That story needs to be told in light of the changing story of the world. Not giving over to it, but understanding it so that people don’t have to hang their heads at the door of church and stop thinking. They can be fully contemporary people at the same time that they are profound Christians, or I think it should be the case.

Today’s Christian story is not the same as the medieval or the 18th century one, and often it’s confused with them. Both of these older stories imagine a supernatural god abiding somwhere above the earth. Most people can no longer believe in such a view of god. The story today is a very complex one, having to do with evolution, and the radical interdependence of all creatures and systems. This makes a very different setting for theology than either the medieval picture or the 18th century picture.

The 18th century picture is the one that most people go with these days. It’s radically individualistic and you see it very clearly in American culture more so than in Canadian culture – which is a more community-oriented picture. The radical individualism of the 18th century – which was a belief of the founders of the American democracy – at that time it was a great insight to see people not simply as members of a group but as individuals. But it’s been taken to the absurd level so that individualism is now almost a creed in the United States.

I think VST is trying to address this contemporary situation not only with its core denominations, but also with its new partners: UBC Sauder School of Business, Durham University, St. Mark’s College, and Huron [University]. The school is reaching out to try and make sure that its students have a broad picture. There is undergraduate work, distance work, business availability, and a Ph.D. program. As far as a learned ministry is concerned, I think this school is heading in the right direction.

It’s trying to speak about the basic Christian story, which is the story of Jesus as the face of God, but to do so in a contemporary way. It’s not perfect, no place is. I think there’s a lot of energy here, a lot of insight, a lot of vision. As somebody in the margins now, as I haven’t been teaching for a few years, I think what I have seen is impressive.

Not everybody cares about a learned ministry, I’m afraid. I think it’s important to have. Law and medicine have to operate at the front end of their vision and limits in order to be contemporary. I think theology has got to do the same thing. It doesn’t fit to simply repeat the same old creeds and stories that have been told in the past. This is one of the reasons I think the church is losing members, because it’s no longer speaking at the level that people expect. Often, they may have good traditional language, but they’re not paying attention to, for instance, the radical interdependence of all that we are now aware of.

It’s in a different worldview than either the medieval or the 18th century. It’s a very challenging one but very exciting for theology because rather than the focus on the hierarchy of medieval times or the 18th century on the individual, we’re now focusing on the planet and our relations not only to other human beings but to all life-forms. This is not a new thing for Christianity, but it’s taking incarnation with radical seriousness. It means that not only Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate God, but God has been incarnate in creation from the very beginning.

As Thomas Aquinas says, “it isn’t that simply human beings are made in the image of God, but all creatures are to some extent because the glory of God needs the whole creation in order to express God’s glory.” I think that was a very nice comment. That’s my basic position and why I’m grateful to be at VST, and find it an interesting and potentially a politically and theologically exciting place.

Why is theological education still relevant?
One can only do a little bit to contribute to the well-being of any field. I was an English major in college. From that I became interested in the way that language operates and controls us to varying [degrees]. We are the only animal that has such a complex and distinctive vocabulary. It’s because we are self-conscious that we can reflect on the fact that we reflect. Other animals are conscious of course but not necessarily self-conscious to the degree that we are; that we know that we know something, that’s an interesting position to be in.

Therefore, one of the things theology needs to do is to make sense in terms of our belief and our interpretations. What I realized soon on was that language is deceptive because it can look like a description. Some Christians, some fundamentalists, think that what they are saying theologically is a description of the Divine. Well, no one has seen God, so there are no descriptions. It’s similar to other things like love, and death, and beauty; we express these through metaphors. The best language that we have is not descriptive but metaphorical language, language that says something positive but doesn’t say the whole thing.

For instance, if you say, “war is a chess game,” you’re talking about certain aspects of war, the cleaner aspects. You’re not talking about the blood and guts. You’re talking about maneuverability. Our theological language is always limited, and it is most powerful and most appropriate when it is metaphorical. That is to say that God is father, mother, friend, lover. These are all rich terms that were used, but they’re all partial terms.

No one model can become a description, there isn’t any such thing. This means we’re constantly having to rely on the best interpretations that we have, and different interpretations.

I’ve always counselled students who want to go into this field to make sure that they are operating on their passion, what they really love, what they’re good at, and what they’re willing to spend their whole lives doing, so that they become reasonably competent in one area. I have seen the world in a storied way, a language way. They are complementary I think, the visual and the story motifs, but they’re not the same. I’m neither visual nor musical, I can’t sing and I can’t draw. But I have been able to write, so that’s what I’ve done. I feel fortunate to have had a lifetime of doing what I love.

What are the greatest accomplishments of your career?
That’s interesting. I don’t think of accomplishments, I think of privilege. It’s been a great gift to work at what I love. Not all people these days have the joy of finding such work. I’m amazed, for many years, I was paid do what I love to do. Teaching, being able to read, publish, and think about these things, is just a great treasure and delight. I feel very fortunate to have had the life I have had. I don’t think of it is as accomplishment. Any one of us can only do a small thing. You have to find your niche, whatever it is, and my niche was coming from a background in literature. Being fascinated by the power of stories and language, and the way [it] influences people. I feel fortunate to have had a life time of doing what I love.

Sallie McFague is the Scholar in Residence at VST. She did her graduate work at Yale University (B.D., Ph.D) in the area of religious language and the way it influences our actions. Sallie has published several books in this area, the most recent one being Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (Fortress Press, 2013).