Tag Archives: Herbert McCabe

Herbert McCabe on de-centering God

I’m not sure what to make of the following remarks from Herbert McCabe’s God Matters. They make moves I wouldn’t have anticipated from him. This is of course part of their charm, but also their opaqueness. At the same time they both foreground the seemingly impersonal character of the classical theist account of divine being and in a way broach the question of theological realism.

Consider then the following two passages (others could have been included). The emphases are my own.

Exhibit A

The Christian holds that in so far as the world receives the Spirit, in so far as it lets itself be destroyed and re-born in grace, the distance between God and man disappears. And this means that in the kingdom to which he looks forward when the love of God for mankind is fully revealed, when all are taken up into the divine life, not only will there, of course, be no religion, no sacraments, no cult, no sacred activity set aside from human life, but there will be no God in the sense of what is set above or apart from man. God will simply be the life of mankind.

Then, but only then, we shall be able to blow the dust off all those books written by the atheists and humanists and even some of the curious works written by the God-is-dead theologians, and find that at last they have come true in an odd way. They all thought that talk of God was just a convoluted and misleading way of talking about man; what we will come to see when we come to the kingdom of divine love is that talk about man is then the only clear and luminous way of talking about God. (23-24)

Exhibit B

First of all what God is about is not making but loving — especially loving Jesus. In other words the primal divine activity is not dealing with a dependent, as creativity must be, but an exchange of love with an equal. For love, at least in the sense that Christians came to understand it, is only possible between equals. With the New Testament, then, we make the fundamental move away from the picture of the boss-God, the supreme being in charge of the world. Instead we have the exchange of love in which it is given to men and women to share. We move from seeing God as up there or out there, to seeing an exchange of love between Father and Son — what we call the Holy Spirit — as the life to which mankind is destined. God begins to be seen as a certain kind of exchange between men. God has been ‘decentred’.

The caricature of this position is of course, humanist reductionism: the notion ‘God’ is just a name for human relationships. The essential difference, which turns the whole thing on its head, is that for Christians it is this relationship that defines what a human being is, this is what gives significance to his or her life, and the relationship is not in any obvious sense present. Humanism on the other hand is the canonization of the current world, the ‘obvious’ world (it is in any case the product of bourgeois optimism, the ideology of capitalism in its self-confident phase), while for Christianity the exchange of love is hard to find, it is to be found definitively in one man, Jesus Christ, and in the future for mankind, not (except very oddly and paradoxically) in the present. Human beings are defined, therefore, by the love to be found in Jesus: by the exchange between Jesus and his Father. (174-175) [emphases added]

This is some provocative theology. It’s telling that McCabe does object to the conflation of his position with “humanist reductionism.” He’s aware of how his remarks might be received. My question, though, is, does his disclaimer suffice to ward off the allegation? Is it not possible to fall victim to precisely the error one is trying to oppose?

The nearest I can get to making McCabe’s line of thought more easily digestible is by reading it alongside remarks like the following.

  • Nicholas Lash

What does God look like? The Archangel Raphael, you will remember, suggested: ‘courage and truth and mercy and right action.’ We can now be a little more specific. God looks like the action of the ‘holy spirit’ that God is said to be: like forgiveness and non-violence, solidarity with the victims, the achievement of communion in the one world to which all of us belong. … according to the Christian story of the world, God also looks like a young man, tortured, strung up on a Roman gibbet.

from Holiness, Speech and Silence, (Ashgate, 2004), 44.

  • Irenaeus

“the glory of God is a living man [human being].”

from Against Heresies (bk 4; ch 20; §7).

It’s standard fare in Christian theology to confess that human beings are made in the image of God. Often this doctrine is taken as a point of instruction about humanity, to the effect that humans enjoy a certain intrinsic dignity or set of natural powers. Though this isn’t his way of putting it, I take McCabe to be inquiring into the extent to which this doctrine also works in reverse. To what extent, that is, can humanity’s creation in the image of God, its endowed capacity to reflect divinity, instruct us about God? I think McCabe, Lash, and Irenaeus, in their own ways, are suggesting that attending to humanity–not necessarily on the terms of natural theology–can yield some knowledge of God. I don’t think this is a particularly original or controversial claim. To be sure, McCabe is also careful to add a point of christological determination: he isn’t interested in attending to humanity in some supposed natural state, or as limited by the scope of natural reason. Rather, he’s interested in the humanity of Christ and the human form of life as it stands informed by Christ’s mission and ministry. Not a trivial qualification! Nevertheless, I would still have questions for McCabe when it comes to his suggestion that talk of humanity could somehow provide an adequately evocative resource for all that our talk of God aims to accomplish. If we’re going to grant that reflection on creation can generate knowledge of God, it seems to me a curious decision to limit the scope of creation we would take into consideration. It’s just harder for me to imagine how even talk of glorified humanity could succeed talk of God without remainder.

Fergus Kerr on Cornelius Ernst and Herbert McCabe as readers of Wittgenstein

How, as theologians, did Cornelius Ernst and Herbert McCabe read Wittgenstein’s Investigations? Neither held the standard view that the Investigations is intended as a contribution to something  called “philosophy of language.” That (Ernst would have thought) is [a] kind of “trivialization” of Wittgenstein … . That only corrals Wittgenstein in a crowded field of professional philosophy. His work is much more revolutionary and iconoclastic than that. Neither Ernst nor McCabe believed that the Investigations was any more responsible for ordinary language philosophy, linguistic analysis, and so on, than the Tractatus for logical positivism. Such outgrowths they regarded as the product of radical misunderstandings. They did not believe that his advice to “Let the uses of words teach you their meaning” was the cure-all for philosophical problems. They believed, as we have seen, that the later work initiated “the demise of the Cartesian epoch,” as McCabe said and, as Ernst said, offered relief from “the absurdity of the empiricist theory of meaning.” They held that the point of Wittgenstein’s distinction in the Tractatus between what can be said and what we must be silent about was made in order to protect the realm of ethics and religion — the mystical — from misapplied ideals of science.

from “Anscombe, Ernst, and McCabe: Wittgenstein and Catholic Theology.” Josephinium Journal of Theology 15/1 (2008): 67-86.

Herbert McCabe on the sesquiguous

I should, perhaps, introduce here my invention of the sesquiguous, which lies between the ambiguous and the plonking or flat statement. The plonking statement is one-dimensional, clear, unarguable and unimportant: in theological terms it belongs to the pre-conciliar world of what were thought of as clarities and certainties. The ambiguous statement on the other hand has two meanings, and is eminently suitable for conciliar documents, in particular for ecumenical documents, which have to be read in at least two ways by ex-opponents who are moving cautiously towards each other: ambiguity is the style of the liberal. We need, therefore, a word for what has neither two meanings nor one meaning, but one-and-a-half meanings, and ‘sesquiguous’ therefore springs to mind; a sesquiguous utterance is one in which the speaker both commits himself to a position and is simultaneously aware of the inadequacy of what he is saying, and of his own position in saying it: it is as I say really a form of irony. It involves shifting slightly to one side and taking a critical look at what you are and what you are saying, and at who is saying it. It is, in fact, the effort to overcome the ineluctably alienating character of signs and language as such. […] Nothing can really be said plonkingly, truth can only be conveyed ironically with an eye to the nearly always comic inadequacy of the signs used. (You cannot convey that you love someone except sesquiguously, or as we say, with a sesquiggle.)

from God Matters (Geoffrey Chapman, 1987), 176.

Herbert McCabe on crucifixion and resurrection in Trinitarian perspective

Jesus lived before his crucifixion in an imperfect society, a community of fear in which two men could never finally meet each other. He was confronted by two forms of ‘settling for’ this sort of society, two forms of idolatry: on the one hand the Roman colonial empire, on the other the Jewish religious leaders. In this context he offered himself as a new medium of communication between men. This we must be clear about. Jesus did not offer a new social theory, or a new religion, he did not offer even a full analysis of the contradictions of his society, he did not provide an ideal for a new kind of human community. He offered himself. The new kind of community was to be founded upon him, upon the new relationships he was able to establish with his friends, which released them from themselves, freed them from sin and made them open and able to risk becoming human. Jesus offered not a doctrine about what friendship of this kind might be, but the friendship itself. Such an offer involves, of course, a total vulnerability, Jesus put up no barriers to defend himself against others, he was absolutely at their disposal. When, therefore, the colonialist regime and the clerical establishment recognized him as a subversive threat and sought to liquidate him, he put up no defense and he was destroyed. So far we may see this purely within history; I will not say in humanist terms because the story is deeply pessimistic and the humanist is normally unreasonably optimistic. But we may see the story, without reference to God, as a commentary on the history of man. If you love enough you will be killed. Mankind inevitably rejects the only solution to its problem, the solution of love. Human history rejects its own meaning. Mankind is doomed. In this way we may look on the crucifixion and despair. The resurrection changes the whole perspective. It says that Jesus is not only a man who happens to offer love in its absolute form, but that he does so in obedience to the Father, that this solution to the problem of mankind, the problem of communication, is the Father’s plan, and that though men may reject it the Father does not. God comes into the picture for the Christian as ‘He who raised up Jesus from the dead.’ The love Jesus offers has its source outside history. Jesus, we discover, is not only totally for others, he is also totally of the Father. The spirit he makes available, what I have called the friendship that frees men, his own spirit, is the spirit of the Father. The communication he makes possible is a living into the Father’s communication of himself. From one point of view the resurrection is a revelation of the Trinity, we see Jesus and his Spirit in relationship to the Father. For this reason there is for the Christian no Unitarian halfway between atheism and the Trinity. Any worship of the gods other than as revealed in the resurrection of Jesus is idolatry.

From God Matters, (Geoffrey Chapman, 1987), 123-124.

Herbert McCabe on natural kinds

I do not know how to give an account of the way we have come to divide up our experienced world into what John Locke would have called ‘natural kinds’ or natural units; it is evidently an extremely important part of the business of living with things and interacting with them in all sorts of ways. It seems to me that the idea that we are completely free to reclassify the objects of experience in just any way at all, or (what is the same thing) to use just any names at all to express what is to be a unit in our world, rests on the idea that we are simply spectators of something that stands over against us called the ‘world’, and we are at liberty to put just any kind of grid we like between the world and our eyes. In fact we are not just spectators, we are involved with and have to cope with things. And recognizing the natural units is part of coping. […]

We distinguish true from false statements by living in our world and talking with others in our world, arguing and so on. We could call this ‘experience’ had not the word been hijacked by empiricists who imagine that experience is simply being hit by sense-data.

from On Aquinas, (Continuum, 2008), 10-11, 22.

On the Soul

A. Nicholas Lash

“Any attempt to speak sensibly of God as ‘spirit’ must first take the long road through an effort to recapture a less distorted understanding of what being human means.

“Discussion about how ‘consciousness’ is best understood is at present a very lively field in a wide range of scientific disciplines and in philosophy. Are ‘mind’ and ‘matter,’ for example, best understood as different kinds of thing, as different entities? Those who answer ‘Yes’ are ‘substance dualists,’ because they think of mind and matter as two substances, or things. Unfortunately, most scientists and many philosophers are poor historians, thus perpetuating by assertion the widespread but quite mistaken belief that traditional Christianity is committed to some form of substance dualism. In a conference in which he and I took part a few years ago, I took issue with the philosopher John Searle for referring to ‘traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on.’ Where mind and matter are concerned, I pointed out that, in the tradition going back to Aristotle, ‘mind’ might be best defined as ‘the capacity for behavior of the complicated and symbolic kinds which constitute the linguistic, social, moral, economic, scientific, cultural, and other characteristic activities of human beings in society.’

“Think of your mind, then, not as a ‘thing,’ stuck somewhere in your head, but as your abiliity to do the kinds of things that human beings, distinctively and characteristically, do: they make plans, tell stories, dream dreams, and construct elaborate systems of organization and behavior. And then try to think in a similar way about the distinction between the ‘body’ and the ‘soul.’ In a similar way, but not identically. The distinction is similar because to speak of ourselves as ‘souls’ is, like talk of ‘minds,’ to speak of our ability to do the kinds of things that human beings, distinctively and characteristically, do. However, talk of ‘minds’ stops there, where as to talk of ourselves as ‘souls’ is (if what we say is to be within earshot of classical Christianity) to go further. To speak of ourselves as ‘souls’ is to recognize our creatureliness, to acknowledge that everything we are and have is gift; that we are ‘gift-things’ that have been given the capacity and duty to return the gift we are in praise and celebration.

“There is a quite straightforward distinction between, for example, a pineapple and its shape. But nobody supposes that its ‘shape’ is a second, different kind of thing, somewhere inside (or perhaps on the surface of) the pineapple! Think of the soul as the ‘shape’ of a human life: the body’s history, identity, direction — and, we hope, its destiny in God.

“As well as the distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘matter,’ and the distinction between ‘soul’ and ‘body,’ there is another distinction familiar to every reader of the Scriptures, between ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh.’ To recover some sense of the way in which this distinction works, however, we have to get back behind not only the ‘substance dualisms’ of modernity, but also behind all forms of the distinction between the body and the soul. The biblical distinction is not between living systems and their capacities (as distinctions between mind and matter, souls and body, are) but between things coming alive, and things crumbling into dust; between not-life, or life-gone-wrong, and life: true life, real life, God’s life and all creation’s life in God. The central metaphor is that of wind, the breath of life, the breath God is and breathes. Whether, sent forth from God, breathing all creatures into being, renewing the Earth and filling it with good things; whether whispering gently to Elijah, or making ‘the oaks to whirl, and [stripping] the forests bare’; or breathing peace on the disciples for the forgiveness of sins — it is one wind, one spirit, which ‘blows where it wills’ and we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. To confess God as Spirit is to tell the story of the world as something, from its beginning to its end, given to come alive.”

from Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, (Ashgate, 2004), 34-36.

B. Herbert McCabe

To say, then that the cat ‘has a soul’ or ‘has life’ is not to say that there is an extra invisible organ or an ‘entelechy’ that the Pavlovian or behaviorist has overlooked. It is not to add to the description of the cat; it is to say what sort of descriptions are appropriate to it; it is to say what sort of being a cat is; it is to say ‘what it took for it to be a cat’ in the first place. It is to say which investigative techniques are appropriate to it and which are merely dealing with abstractions from the total reality.

from On Aquinas, (Continuum, 2008), 30.