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Symposium: Herbert McCabe

As some of you know, my latest theological fascination is with Herbert McCabe, the twentieth century Dominican priest, Marxist sympathizer, and potent social critic. Here is a smattering of his statements on various topics.

On Prayer:

People often complain of “distractions” during prayer. Their mind goes wandering off on to other things. This is nearly always due to praying for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be proper and respectable and “religious” to want it. So you pray high-mindedly for big but distant things like peace in Northern Ireland or you pray that your aunt will get better from the flu–when in fact you do not much care about these things; perhaps you ought to, but you don’t. And so your prayer is rapidly invaded by distractions arising from what you really do want–promotion at work, let us say. Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer for edifying but bogus wants. If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted. People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer (God, Christ and Us, 8).

On God and Freedom:

The only true God is the God of freedom. The other gods make you feel at home in a place, they have to do with the quiet cycle of the seasons, with the familiar mountains and the country you grew up in and love; with them you know where you are. But the harsh God of freedom calls you out of all this into a desert where all the old familiar landmarks are gone, where you cannot rely on the safe workings of nature, on springtime and harvest, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring. This God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the old traditional shrines and temples of your native place, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way. You are forbidden to make an image of him by which you might wield numinous power, you are forbidden to invoke his name in magical rites. You must deny the other gods and you must not treat Yahweh as a god, as a power you could use against your enemies or to help you succeed in life. Yahweh is not a god, there are no gods, they are all delusions and slavery (What Ethics is all About, 118-119).

On Marxism:

The quarrel of the Christian with the Marxist about God is not a matter of the validity of the ‘five ways’, nor is it a matter of whether a man should have the right to worship whatever way he likes in his spare time, it concerns the nature of revolution and the interpretation of Jesus. If the Marxist is right and there is no God who raised Jesus from the dead then the Christian pre-occupation with death as the ultimate revolutionary act is a diversion from the real demands of history; if the Christian is right then the Marxist is dealing with revolution only at a relatively superficial level, he has not touched the ultimate alienation involved in death itself, and for this reason his revolution will betray itself; the liberation will erect a new idol (What Ethics is all About, 135).

On Sex:

There is a depressing tendency on the part of both conservative and liberal Christians to assume that the discussions of Christian morality are going to be mostly about sex. Sex is obviously a profoundly important mode of human communication, but to treat of it in isolation from all the other social, political, and economic relationships between people is asking for trouble – asking for intellectual trouble I mean; in the practical field it is asking for a quiet life. So long as Christian morality is thought to be mainly about whether and when people should go to bed, no bishops are going to be crucified. And this, as I say, is depressing. If the Christian moralist is doing his job properly he has been promised that he will encounter the hostility of the world, of the established power structure (What Ethics is all About, 163-164).

On Love and Hierarchy:

Let me put it this way: we grow up into loving. It is not something we begin with. It is something that, if we are lucky, we learn. To be able to love, to recognize the equality of another, to recognize another person for who she or he is in herself or himself and not just as an object to me, as recipient of my favour or subservient to my command – all this is something that comes with maturity; indeed it is maturity. The infantile world is a hierarchical one and we stay in it for most of our lives (God Still Matters, 5).

On the Cross:

It is Christ’s blood, God’s blood, shed in agony and weakness and failure, that liberates us from darkness into light. It liberates us because it is the sign, the sacrament, of God’s vulnerability: the weakness and vulnerability that belongs to human love.

For the cross is about the triumph of human love; that strange triumph that comes not through asserting yourself, not even defending yourself, but by losing yourself in giving yourself to another. The truth about being human is in the love that God has, the love that God is, the triumph that God has by taking our humanity and losing himself in giving himself for us. The triumph of the love of God incarnate, the truth about humanity, was revealed when God was spat on and beaten and hanged from a cross – because that is what in truth we do to the one of us who is really loving. God was made flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we killed him because we fear to admit love, and because he loved us too much to resist us. But simultaneously the truth about humanity is triumphant because in Christ it refuses to be defeated by us, by our scorn and contempt, our cynicism in the face of God’s appeal to us. God will be among us, united with us, at any cost, even at the cost of being totally rejected and killed (God Still Matters, 34-35).

On Jesus:

Jesus in the future destiny of mankind (to which we are summoned by the Father) trying to be present amongst men in our present age. He offers a new way in which men can be together, a new way in which they can be free to be themselves, the way of total self-giving, and he offers this in amongst the various makeshift ways in which men have tried to build community…he is offering himself as the centre of this new society, as the source of a new kind of personal relationship. He provides a new mode of communication and one which you can only recognise by participating in it (What Ethics is all About, 129-130).

On Christianity:

Christianity alone, because it is the articulate presence of Christ, the future of mankind, cannot (however hard it sometimes seems to try) wholly betray its mission. As it seems to me, like St Peter and the twelve, we remain Christians because there is nowhere else to go: if Christianity is not the revolution, nothing else is (What Ethics is all About, 172).


  1. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Wow. All powerful quotes. Sigh. I’ll have to add McCabe to the huge list of “must reads.” I read very quickly, but the stack just doesn’t seem to get much smaller.

    Sunday, August 26, 2007 at 9:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Jon wrote:

    I’ll be honest, as a general rule I prefer older Christian writers like the Fathers, or say Martin Luther, compared to modern or contemporary Christian writers; however reading these quotes I’m captivated by them. You’ve piqued my interest, I must learn more.


    Sunday, August 26, 2007 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Ben wrote:

    Great quotes! The one on prayer reminds me of the prayer advice of C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard, actually – very similar veins of simply and humbly praying about the things you actually give two hoots about, and trusting that your desires will be shaped by God in prayer so that you will (eventually) come to want those things that are actually best.

    Monday, August 27, 2007 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  4. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    I first came across McCabe’s work by reading Terry Eagleton, who often and fondly recalls the impact McCabe had on his thought. I’ve read through quite a bit of McCabe’s work lately — I’m writing an essay about him for Books and Culture that should appear in the spring. I highly recommend the latest collection of essays, Faith Within Reason, edited by Brian Davies and introduced by Denys Turner.

    Oh, Halden, by the way, thanks for the free publicity about my review of Hitchens, and for your kind words about my work in general. I’ve only recently discovered this blog, and I’m extremely impressed both with the quality of your posts and with the quality of the responses they elicit. Godspeed!

    Tuesday, August 28, 2007 at 5:54 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Gene, thanks much for the kind words. I agree very much with your enthusiasm for Faith Within Reason. I’ll look forward to your essay in Books and Culture.

    Continue your good work!

    Tuesday, August 28, 2007 at 8:19 am | Permalink
  6. kim fabricius wrote:

    Thanks, Halden. I love McCabe (I did a “theologians I love” post on him for Ben at F&T, as well as a short commendatory book review of Faith within Reason). And I’ve heard some great stories about him from former acquaintances (not least concerning his love for Scotch whisky!). Along with Marx, don’t forget the influence of Wittgenstein. In turn, McCabe’s influence on the likes of Nicholas Lash and Rowan William was immense, while Fergus Kerr carries on his legacy. His posthumous reputaton will continue to grow and grow, as his unpublished stuff is ferreted out from strange places and published.

    Tuesday, August 28, 2007 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

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