Lake Davis, near Woomera, 2016

Models of God



Sallie McFague's book Models of God, has two distinct parts. The first is epistemological; how do we know that we are looking at a piece of paper, how do we know it is God we feel, why do we sometimes see things differently from other people, and so on? The second part of the book then builds on how she thinks we know things and draws some conclusions about the way we should do theology.

I studied the book for a number of reasons. At a philosophical level she sees the world and understands it very much the way I do. She and I think we know things in much the same way. So I was interested to see what conclusions she would draw about the way we should think and talk about God; i.e.., how we should do theology. The way we think about the world, and how we know things, is not common in our society, which is still under the spell of popular science of the 50's and 60's and, I think, often has a rather poor way of thinking and knowing.

Secondly, her book is for our time. She is writing a theology specifically for "an ecological nuclear age". (The subtitle of the book is Theology for an Ecological Nuclear Age.) That is, for a time when, despite all the changes in eastern Europe, we still face a good chance of wiping ourselves out with the bomb. She would say, rightly, that our world is different from the world of our parents and grandparents; we, as a species, can end the world. This is a new thing in history. And also, for a time when we have so exploited the earth, we are likely to end it not by a bomb, but by suffocation, in a combination of pollution, greenhouse, and ozone layer. As a species, we need to act, and think differently, if we are to survive. This means that we as a church need to theologise- think and talk about God- differently, if we are to aid that survival, rather than be a hindrance, or even actively contribute to disaster.

These issues which Sallie McFague seeks to address are issues for me, for my children, and for us as a parish. We contribute to the degradation of the earth. we could contribute to it's survival, if we were able think and see in new ways.


McFague's first chapter is called "A New Sensibility". It sets the scene for the rest of the book. She begins by talking about the need for a "holistic" view of reality.. Here we need to remember how much of our culture has operated in the past. We have thought of ourselves as the `Lord's of the Earth', to steal a phrase from elsewhere. We were the boss; the earth was ours to use. Despite what we might sometimes say today in the church about God giving us "dominion" = stewardship in Genesis 1:28, and this being not `ownership', but `looking after the earth', our species (including the church) has often treated the earth and its animals and plants as something to use willy nilly- and still does. This is especially the case with western culture. We have always given ourselves precedence over the rest of creation. And so the earth is beginning to die. McFague is saying we need to realise we are but a part of creation, that God has created and loves all of creation, that we don't have priority over all else, and that if we don't stop living like we do, then we will kill ourselves off.

I am reminded here of Ian Malcolm, a character in Jurassic Park, who says that life is not under threat. It will go on. But we many not!

She then goes on to talk about the "Nuclear Nightmare" 2 This makes good reading for us as we have largely been insulated from this in Australia. We don't build bomb shelters on our houses; I'm told it's big business in the northern hemisphere. Again she shows how we need to change the way we think as a species if we wish to survive.

This is how we could sum up her basic thesis so far: if we are to survive, and the earth is to survive us, we need to learn to think differently about our place in the cosmos.


After this introduction, and in the second chapter, she begins to look at the way we know things. This is critical. Rather than quote her copiously I wish to try and communicate this in my own words.

When I was growing up in school we took it for granted that we just knew things by looking at them. And then in Science classes we learned that you made observations, tested them out, and then you knew you were right and not making a mistake. This reflected a philosophy called logical positivism. The name is not important, but our society is riddled with positivistic thinking. It goes like this:

The world is very complicated. But if we take very simple, self evident things like `1+1=2', we can slowly but surely build up a picture of the world by experiment. We can prove what we think to be the case to be actually true. This is the method of science. A person wonders why something happens. She makes a hypothesis about it: " I think it happens because......." and she tests the hypothesis with an experiment. As a method of discovering and knowing things it has been very powerful. But it has been very limited. It doesn't work well with how animals and people think and behave, for example. It doesn't work with poetry, for example. (If we saw Dead Poet's Society, the pages the teacher gets everyone to rip out of the book because they are stupid, were positivism applied to poetry.) And this positivism, or scientific method, can say very little about religion. It just can't cope with it.

We could say it is an enormously powerful method of knowing and discovering knowledge, but that it can only work in a very narrow sphere of human experience. It can get us to the moon, but it can say nothing about love, for example. Even in physics, it is an abandoned way of knowing in many ways.

Leaving the philosophy behind, how might we explain this in another way? It's like this. Popularly, our culture often believes in a world like this: We are standing on top of a stone tower. We have built up the tower out of science and culture and art and so on. And the tower is built down into bedrock on solid foundations. We know who we are and where we are going. And we like this picture. It makes us feel safe. We are on firm foundations. If we are religious, we sort of draw God into the picture. The bedrock sort of merges into, or stands upon God.

Well, so what? Think of the things that scare us. The things that in our white culture we call darkness, or blackness. We speak of the black abyss. We speak of the darkness, or blackness, or emptiness of death. We fear dying, and disease, and disaster. What the popular positivist way of thinking does is let us think we are sitting up safe on that stone tower. We put ourselves above the animals and the earth and disease. We are even above death and dying. We may not have the answers yet but we can explain things. We are on the way to knowing and controlling everything. Increasingly, we are beating disease and finding new cures. We have hope; people freeze their bodies with cyronics so that they will be brought back to life when science has worked out how to heal them. On our tower we feel safe from the darkness and the abyss. We want to think about the world this way because it makes everything predictable, controllable (at least in principle), and safe. And so we feel good. We feel we are able to give life some meaning if only be avoiding the meaninglessness of suffering and death.

Positivism in the church: I remember reading the Australian philosopher, John Passmore, somewhere saying, that Positivism was as dead as a philosophy could be. But in popular thought we are still very much affected by it. Suffice to say it turns up in the church in things like the insistence that things can be true in only one way, that we must have proof of things, that the stories of Jesus must all have happened just as they are written, and so on. All of these things are at least fed by positivism, if not a result of it.

But how else might we know things?

A different way of knowing: When we are born we know very little; we are perhaps like instinctual animal babies. But there is sensory data hitting our ear drums and eye balls. It is very frightening; witness the newborn child in the delivery room. We have to make sense of this frightening place in which we find ourselves. Our first comfort is the breast; it is warm and feeds and comforts us. And as we get just a little older we essentially make a hypothesis of what this world which we have suddenly arrived in is all about; we decide that there is a person called Mummy and, if we are lucky, another one called Daddy. And they know everything in the world, and will keep us safe. What we have done is to build a picture of the world, or tell a story about it. And so like the persons on top of the tower, we are secure because we have told a story which explains the world. But then, we go to school and we realise Mummy and Daddy don't know everything! It's our teacher who knows it all! So we have to change our model or story of the world a little bit to make sense of this.

It's important to realise just how much our model of the world is so very important for us. It means that up to a point we can control the world and make ourselves secure. By understanding it we make it controllable and predictable and therefore safe. This has the strange but understandable effect that when sensory data contradicts our picture of the world we ignore it or deflect it. And often, unconsciously! It is here that positivism fails us. It fails to recognise its own blinkers.

This is the sort of crisis that leads to conversion. Sociologists say that without such a crisis our view or picture or story of the world, and our reactions to it is formed by our early twenties, and rarely changes significantly

We see this with little children when they hear Father Christmas is not real. They deny the fact; it spoils their world. And so they deny against the (sensory) evidence (e.g.. what Daddy or their big sister told them,) that he is not real.

Changes in our model of the world- hopefully bringing us closer to what really is- mean we have to change too. What we hoped was real and right is not, so we must rearrange our living, which can hurt.

But the time comes when there is so much data that threatens our world view, our model, that it collapses, and we have to make another model. I remember a child crying about the tooth fairy not being real; a little part of their world was collapsing! But slowly they got over it and now they have a picture of the world without a tooth fairy.

There are models of seeing or knowing we can call paradigms . These are ideas or stories or pictures which control our model of the world. A McCarthyist American, for example, would have the paradigm that Russians are communists, communism is bad; therefore, Russians are bad. That will control the picture of the world they receive. If a Russian is doing something good it must be for devious reasons- Russians are bad. The Russian can't possibly be doing it just because it is good.

We adults do the same sort of thing; a topical example is the homosexuality debate in the church. We have grown up believing homosexuality is bad; look at the pain when our picture/story/understanding of this part of the world is challenged. Whatever the right answer in that issue, it's not a question just of the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality for most of the people who are getting so angry. I would suggest it is also a challenge to their story (paradigm) about how the world should be.

Our model of the world is like a building. It has foundations. These are the paradigms. There may be bundles of paradigms which work together; e.g., Christians have a group of ideas about God/Jesus/Bible/Faith etc, which will tend to guide how they see and react to things. There are also primary paradigms. These control everything else. In Fundamentalism, for example, the primary paradigm is the Inerrant Scriptures; inerrant in all matters historical and theological. And data not in line with this doctrine (read:`primary paradigm') will be rejected out of hand. Even the most reasonable contradictory evidence cannot be seen because it would destroy the primary paradigm and rob the whole model of the world for that person of its ultimate foundation. Our model of the world prevents us from seeing things because they are too frightening.

Stories: It seems to me that the world runs on stories. Everything is a story, and we live by a story. Even a philosophical treatise is a story, albeit one which uses a very regulated style of telling. So too, is a mathematical equation. The form of the story is very closely defined. In the more traditional story area there are still forms of stories; jokes, adventures, Mills and Boon and so on. We see form and genre.

We each live out a story. I saw a man in Rundle Mall who was living out the life of Indiana Jones. He was dressed like Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, even down to the stubble on his face. My son lives out Batman! I heard someone say adolescence is a time of trying on different personas (life stories) for fit.

There are some correlations here:

analytical, scientific description

story, less 'scientific'

more precise

less precision

narrower boundaries of relevance

often deeper meanings


poetry and story

It seems that as the form of the story becomes more analytical and more precise in what it says; i.e., more controlled, and often more positivistic, it also loses richness of meaning. As a means of explaining things it becomes increasingly barren. It is for this reason we use illustrations to explain what we are saying. The brain is set up to read and understand stories, rather than formulae. Formulae cover less of life.

A real story is the only way to live life. Formulae cannot control and define the mists and clouds, and mysterious parts of life, so they cannot help us explore them outside of very limited areas. In the end we live by a story. Hence titles and phrases like "Stories to Live By". We are each `writing our own story' of life, modelling it on other stories we have heard, and developing it for ourselves. Like the Indiana Jones man in the Mall. We are trying to make our story "real", perhaps. I express it sometimes as "trying to patch my story into the real story of the universe."

I quote the theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther:

Human experience is both the starting point and the ending point of the circle of interpretation. Codified tradition both reaches back to its roots in experience and is constantly renewed through the test of experience. Experience includes experience of the divine and experience of oneself, in relationship to society and the world, in an interacting dialectic. Received symbols, formulas, and laws [and stories] are either authenticated or not through there ability to illuminate and interpret existence in a way that is experienced as meaningful. Systems of authority try to reverse this relationship and make received tradition dictate both what may be experienced and how it may be interpreted. But the relationship is the opposite If the symbol does not speak authentically to experience, it becomes dead and is discarded or altered to provide meaning.

Religious traditions begin with breakthrough experiences that shed revelatory light on contemporary events so as to transform them into paradigms of ultimate meaning. These experiences, such as the exodus experience or the resurrection experience, are the primary data of the religious tradition. But such experiences, however new and transformative, do not interpret themselves. They are always interpreted in the context of an accumulated heritage of symbols and codes, which are already available to provide touchstones of meaning. The new revelatory experience becomes meaningful by being related to this heritage, and also it allows the contemporary community to transform, revise, and recombine the traditional touchstones of meaning in new ways, which allows the new experience to become a new insight into the ultimate nature of things.

Just as the foundational revelatory experience is available only in a transformative dialectic between experience and accumulated interpretive keys, so it, in turn, becomes an interpretive key which interacts with and continues to be meaningful through its ability to male on going experience of the individual in the community meaningful. This key then continues to live because it is able to continue to make contemporary experience meaningful, and it itself is constantly revised or reinterpreted through this same process. Traditions die when a new generation is no longer able to re-appropriate the foundational paradigm in a meaningful way; when it is experienced as meaningless or even as demonic; that is, disclosing a meaning that points to false or inauthentic life. Thus if the cross of Jesus would be experienced by women as pointing them only toward continued victimisation and not redemption, it would be perceived as false and demonic in this way, and women could no longer identify themselves as Christians.3

How could we explain all this with a story or picture which is not positivist? The picture here is quite different. We are not standing on bedrock at all. Instead, we realise that all we have done is to tell stories to make sense of things and that these stories can't be proved in the scientific sense. We can only prove them by what light they shed on reality. We are in fact standing on the polar ice cap over deep black water. We have made the ice up for ourselves. We have frozen some of this strange terrifying water into a hard solid reality. And every so often the summer comes and we get cracks in the ice and we find we are adrift on an ice floe going who knows where. Our world comes apart. There is even the fear that our little floe might crack apart under our feet. This is the sort of thing which happens when we find out the tooth fairy is not for real. Or that we are really going to die, even us! Or when there is some other crisis in life. It is frightening. And we, as always, want to be safe. But the only way we can be safe is to get to God, who is the ultimate reality. We have a vague idea of where God is. Our telling of stories helps us to walk on the water to another ice floe in the general direction of where God is on our life pilgrimage. Or to take a leap of faith out into the darkness which is cold and terrifying in the hope that their is somewhere we will land instead of falling forever.

We have said that sometimes we are drift on our own little ice floe and even that is starting to break up. By telling different stories about life we can actually make or construct another floe, or another epistemological world, on which to stand. This world will make a bit more sense of them things happening around us and help us on our way to God. It will give us a measure of security again, and enable us to live more easily.

Now, of course, most of the time life feels more like we are upon our tower on solid ground. But in crisis, the ice flow picture becomes very real. A preacher might say that the Good News of Jesus is that we can 'walk on the water', we can make new worlds in which to live, and we can get across the ice pack to God.

An example of story-telling in the above sense: Before I entered theological college I was a `card carrying fundamentalist.' I believed in the literal historical inerrancy of the Bible. I didn't like it; I felt it was wrong, but I couldn't see how I could know anything or have faith in God if the Bible was not like that.

I did some study to try and find my way out of the maze before I got to college. You can see that the ice cap on which I was standing was beginning to get some cracks in it! I grew more confused and unsettled as I read on in the book someone had given me. As I one day sat and squarely faced the question as to whether there might be `errors' in the Bible, that maybe Methuselah didn't live to nine hundred and whatever it was, I had a sudden vision which terrified me. For a brief moment I looked at the world without my inerrant Bible and felt like I was going insane. Visually, it was like being on the very edge at top of the black Grenfell tower in the city and swaying out over the edge. But somehow my shoes were stuck to the parapet and I didn't fall off; I just swayed back in. It was a horrible experience. The darkness almost swallowed me up and destroyed me. I felt as if I had fallen off there I would have fallen forever. So I was unable to face the questions about the Bible until a couple of years later. It was too psychologically dangerous. I needed my 'Father Christmas.'

But later, as I described this experience to a friend, he said, "Aha! The moment of revelation!" And I saw he was right. That terrifying blackness had been something of God showing me more of reality; showing me the reality that the world and the Bible was not the neat package I had worked out for myself. But it had frightened me because it was destroying my ordered world and offering me something different. Something that was better and more accurate, but frightening because I couldn't understand it and control it.

Now I have a new story. Theologically I would describe it as God showing me that I was not on the solid tower in our first picture. God was showing me I was on the edge of an ice floe floating out over nothingness. But God was saying, "If you trust me, you can step off. You can walk on the water of nothingness. You can walk away from your present position from which you haven't been able to escape, to somewhere better which will make more sense of life for you." And I did- later. But I had to tell new stories so that I could see the same experience of blackness as something good from God, rather than a thing of terror.

Metaphorical Theology: McFague's second chapter is called `Metaphorical Theology'. It deals with theology as a story, or metaphor. She deals with is what I have written above. There is in philosophy a movement called deconstructionism. It says that all we know is stories or metaphors. We just tell stories. And no story is better than any other. We can't tell which is true. McFague says, and I certainly agree, that this is not so.4

Some metaphors are better than others. They reveal more of reality, as Reuther says.5 She argues that we can produce metaphors which by taking into account the nuclear ecological crisis are better than those which don't.6

Is all this story/metaphor stuff for real? "To many people `metaphor' is merely a poetic ornament for illustrating an idea.... It appears to have little to do with ordinary language until one realises that most ordinary language is composed of `dead metaphors', some obvious, such as `the arm of the chair' and others less obvious, such as `tradition', meaning to hand over or hand down'. Most simply a metaphor is seeing one thing as something else, pretending `this' is `that' because we do not know how to talk about `this', so we use `that' as a way of saying something about it. Thinking metaphorically means.... using the better-known ... as a way of speaking about the lesser known

We should note here what we mean by model, and metaphor, to make clear what follows. A metaphor is an imaginative story. So we might say God is a father. We don't mean that God is literally a Father in that God is male and has a beard and so on, but that from the name Father we can analogise things about God like the power to create and beget, like the quality of love and parental kinds of caring and so on. I once preached a sermon about a little girl called jenny and her mother. Then I said God is a 'Jenny's mother kind of God.' That is God loves us in the way Jenny's mother loved her. That is a metaphor. A Model, is a metaphor "with staying power."7

It is a metaphor which has been found so useful that people have been able to use it in a wide range of situations. God the Father is a metaphor which is a model; it has been so useful in our theologising that it has been our central metaphor until now.

.... of paramount importance, is the fact that metaphorical thinking constitutes the basis of human thought and language. From the time we are infants we construct our world through metaphor; that is, just as young children learn the meaning of the colour red by finding the thread of similarity through many dissimilar objects (red ball, red apple, red cheeks), so we constantly ask when we do not know how to think about something, `What is it like?' Far from being an esoteric or ornamental device superimposed on ordinary language, metaphor is ordinary language. It is the way we think. We often make distinctions between ordinary and poetic language, assuming that the first is direct and the second indirect, but actually both are indirect, for we always think by indirection. The difference between the two kinds of language [story and ordinary language] is only that we have grown accustomed to the indirections of ordinary language; they have become conventional [and we forget that they too are story.8


Let us see if we can understand what all this means for our talking about God, and relating to God. We could start by saying that we have experiences in our lives. These are not, according to McFague (or me) "raw" experiences. They are things we have to interpret to make any sense of them. We begin this process as a little child. And slowly we build up a picture of the world. This will include ideas about God, as we hear about God in School or Sunday School and church and so on.

And then one day we have a funny feeling or experience, and we suddenly say, "This must be the God I've always heard about!" We tell, as it were, a little story to make sense of our experience and we call it God

The little story then reveals more of God to us. Imagine if we feel a sense of love and we say, "The feeling I had of love was the feelings I had when I was snuggled up to my Dad as a kid. Gosh! God is like a father!" Later we might think, "If God is like a father, then that means he will look after me like my human father did." Our metaphor or story has become revealing of God to us.

The next stage in our cycle is that we then act. Because God is like a father, and loves us and cares for us, we may choose to trust him, and do something we think he wants of us. And the way we act has an effect on the world around us; animals, plants, and people. It will also have an effect upon us, and change us a little.

Because our metaphor or story has changed us, it will effect what we can experience of God. Our story or picture of the world affects what we can see of the world. It causes us filters out things we don't like to keep ourselves safe. Take any experience. If we have no way to interpret it we may not even notice it. We have a picture of the world we filter our experiences through. (This is often called a reality construct.) I once nearly collided with a camel I had been looking at for at least two minutes as I drove down the Gunbarrel Highway; my picture of the world didn't include camels standing on the road. So I didn't see it. To take a very crude and erroneous, but common example, when confronted by the fact that for some women and men the story of the motherness of God is revealing and helpful, people often say, "Rubbish! God is a Father! He can't be a mother." The person who says that cannot feel some feminine motherly touch of God if she sits next to them; like the camel, there is no such thing in their world. If God approaches them in that way, they will not notice, or will call it `emotion', or `silliness', but never God

So to come to the end of a long story; the metaphors and models we have of God, that is, the stories we tell, will affect the way we live in the world, the way we relate to other people, and will to a certain extent, even dictate the way we can hear God. Our models of God may even cut us off from God! (For example, the person who has a picture of God who is punishing them will find it hard to hear God reaching out trying to love them.)

Now why all the stuff about standing on the tower built into bedrock being a poor way to understand the world, and being a pilgrim working her way across the ice floes being a better picture of how we know?

The tower picture implies staticity. It says there is only one way to know, and only one story to tell. There is only really one way to look at things. It leads in the church to conservatism, reactionary attitudes and eventual stagnation. It leads to what McFague calls in another book the "idolatry of religious language9." It means we can only hear God in certain ways, and not in others.

The ice floe picture (or similar) allows us to move. It frees us from the idolatry of religious language. That is, `Father is not God any more, but God can become God'. It lets us give God new names and thus see God in new ways.

McFague's thesis is that our present traditional models of God have become idols which have been damaging to us and the world. They have hidden God from us. We need to see God afresh; not to abandon the model of God as Father, but to temper it with others. We could say that at present, our picture four has been twisted. The experience of God has not been the controlling factor in our lives. Our model of God has been put at the top and blotted out our experience of God. We need to put God back as God. And the way to do that is to get down of our towers of Babels locked into their imaginedly safe bedrock and step out onto the ice pack in trust of God.


We have said that the models we have of God will affect the way we hear God. They will also affect the way we think and speak about God. Now we could think that this is all to the good. Already we have seen how naming God as like a father after feeling the love of God which was the way our human father loved us, could lead us to discover that God will also care for us like a father does. A model reveals more of God to us. However their is also a down side to all this. Because as people we want to be safe, there is the constant temptation to reify our models. That is, to make them real, even though they are only models of God. It feels safer to say God is Father, than God is like a father. And our language leads us in this way; we say `the tree is green' and seems it is! The language doesn't remind us that we have told a story. We forget that it may be just as true to say `that object reflects and absorbs light at various frequencies.' And we forget that for some purposes, this may be a more accurate and useful story. No- the tree is green, and that is a fact. We tend to act the same way about God. We often say it is true that God is Father, but "God's name is not "father" although many Christians use `God' and `father' interchangeably as if `father' were a literal description of God."10

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymics, anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a notion fixed, canonic, and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions11.     Friederick Nietzsche

When we are out on the ice pack, we know truth is conditional. We realise that it is limited, and that there might be better stories to tell. But our culture (especially our local parish culture) all the time thinks it is on the solid tower and tells us we are there too. It says there is only one truth. And so other things must be false. Therefore if God is Father, instead of like a Father, God cannot be also other things. He is only Father. Our whole way of thinking in our culture means that God the Father rules our experience of God. This model of Father goes at the top and takes precedence over any other experience of God. It prevents us seeing God in other ways. It becomes an idol because it is put in place of whoever God may be trying to reveal God's self to us as being.

Now there is nothing particularly wrong with the model of God as father when we have on `father' the emphasis and understanding of say, 'loving protective parent'. The trouble in our culture is that the model of father has been combined with some other models which very much subjugate the protective nurturing essence of Father to other ideas. We have often been so worried about `feminism' that we have not even seen this making the nurturing father model to be minor part of the model ar picture of God we actually operate with, or under.

The classic models of the Christian tradition have been and still hierarchical, authoritarian ones which have been absolutised. As feminist theologians have become increasingly aware, the orthodox tradition did a thorough job of plumbing the depths of one such model, the patriarchal, as a way of being articulate about God. Feminists have become conscious of the profound structural implications of this model as a form of ecclesiastical, social, political, economic, and personal oppression. The problem does not lie with the model itself of `God the father', for it is a profound metaphor and as true as any religious model available, but it has established a hegemony over the Western religious consciousness which it is the task of metaphorical theology to break.

We can see this subjugation in sermons where people preach on `Abba', the word with which Jesus addressed God as Father. These (good) sermons emphasise the gentleness and love of the Abba/Father/Daddy nature of God. They have to do that because `father' in our culture has been combined with , and taken over by other images. We still call someone who abuses his wife or children a `father'. We still call many unloving greedy angry jealous harsh people `father'. These are not the kind of `father' to whom Jesus related. In our society a father may be a harsh autocrat, a patriarch in the worst sense of the word. Like the student with me in Ag. College. Someone said, "I guess you'll go home and take over the farm from Dad?" And he said, "No, Grandpa hasn't let Dad have a go at running the farm yet." Dad was fifty-five. These are the men who often literally expect the wife and children to bring their slippers, wait on them hand and foot, and rule them like a lord rather than love them like a husband and father. This kind of `father' gets mixed up with our father-model of God.

Also mixed in with the model is the idea of God as King, on the model of the ancient middle eastern emperor. This involves absolute power, the imposition of the King's rule- benevolently if we are lucky, and harsh punishment. We see this in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament concept of the Kingdom of God

Also mixed in is the concept of distance. As king God must be high and mighty and distant from the people. Removed from them. Just be obedient to this kind of ruler and he will leave you alone, more or less.

The mixing is so thorough that although we may think of the father model being our dominant model, it is, in fact often thoroughly subordinate to a Monarchical model:

... it has not allowed competing or alternative models to arise. The tendency, rather, has been to draw other models into its orbit, as is evident with the model of God as father. This model could have gone in the direction of God as parent,.... with its associations of nurture, care, guidance.... but under the powerful influence of the monarchical model, the parent becomes the patriarch, and patriarchs act more like kings than fathers.....

McFague says of the monarchical model...

The monarchical model of God was developed systematically both in Jewish thought (God as Lord and King of the Universe), in Medieval Christian thought (with its emphasis on divine omnipotence), and in the Reformation (especially in Calvin's insistence of God's sovereignty). In the portrayal of God's relation to the world, the dominant western historical model has been that of the absolute monarch ruling over his kingdom12.

This imaginative picture is so prevalent in mainstream Christianity that it is often not recognised as a picture. Nor is it immediately perceived as oppressive. More often it is accepted as the natural understanding of the relationship of God and the world- and one we like. Think for a moment of the sense of triumph, joy, and power that surges through us as we join in singing the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah...... "King of Kings and Lord of Lords."... Our God is really God, the almighty Lord and King of the universe whom none can defeat, and by implication we also are undefeatable.13

We have said above that the story we tell affects how we see God. What things are claimed to come from the monarchical model? McFague's particular criticism focuses on the model's inability

"to serve as the imaginative framework for an understanding of the gospel as a destabilising, inclusive, non-hierarchical vision of fulfillment for all of creation.13

She sees in the story of Jesus someone who was inclusive of all people, someone who stood against the hierarchy, and someone who destabilised the oppressive religious/cultural structures of his time. The monarchical model of God doesn't allow us to hear those parts of the Gospel

... it has three major flaws: in the monarchical model God is distant from the world, relates only to the human world, and controls the world through domination and benevolence. .... In this picture the world is Godless: the world is empty of God's presence, for it is too lowly to be the royal abode. ... Whatever one does for the world is not finally important in this model, for its ruler does not inhabit it as his primary residence, and his subjects are well advised not to become too involved in it either. The king's power extends over the entire universe, of course, but his being does not: he relates to it externally, he is not part of it but essentially different from it and apart from it.14

McFague admits this sounds a bit like a caricature, but maintains the charges are "direct implications" of monarchical imagery.15. I would suggest that the more conservative the environment of a church, and the less open it is to the concerns of our general culture, the truer McFague's observation. My wife was told by a woman from a conservative Baptist background recently, that we didn't need to worry about the environment; we just need to have faith in God who has it all under control. Our best science and theology does not suggest this is so, but her monarchical model of God moves her in that direction.

On the subject of caricature, it is true to say that much theology done on the monarchical model is aware of its problems and seeks to counteract them. So God is preached as Abba rather than patriarch. People preach the God of Love (1 John) as against the vengeful judging God of the Old Testament. But all This is counteracting a model that at its root is based on a separated domineering God. McFague is suggesting that we should seek a new model without the faults of the monarchical model and do our theology afresh rather than be continually fighting against the bad bias of the monarchical model.

It is this sort of thing which leads McFague to want to abandon the monarchical model for something more holistic and balanced. The beauty of life out on the ice pack is that not only are we free to move from the monarchical model, which thinks it is true and is firmly bound into (illusory) bedrock, but that we can choose the direction in which we want to move. We can say, "What sort of models of God would help us in an age of ecological and nuclear crisis?" We can then try out the answers in terms of their fit or correlation with what we know of the Gospel of Jesus, and may discover a better, more helpful model of God for our time.

1. Models of God pp 7 and following.
2. IBID pp 15 and following.
3. "A Method Of Correlation" pp 111- 112 in Feminist Interpretation Of The Bible Letty Russell (Ed)
4. Models of God pp 22-28.
5. See pp above, this essay.
6 . Models of God pp 27.
7. IBID pp 34.
8. Metaphorical theology (Fortress Press 1982) pp 15- 16
9. IBID pp 4 and following.
10 . Metaphorical Theology pp 21.
11 . Nietzsche, quoted in Models of God pp 5.
12 . Models of God pp 66
13 . IBID pp 64- 65
14 . IBID pp 65
15 . IBID


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Jeff Telfer's comments
Jeff Telfer 24-12-2011
This is a very fine summary of McFague's "Models of God". It restates some of her heavy prose in more digestible ways and adds some local colour. I commend Andrew for his scholarship and insights.

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