Skip to content

Love and Equality

One of the points that Herbert McCabe makes frequently is that love, for it to be truly love must exist between equals.  McCabe is emphatic that “love begins and ends in equality” (God Still Matters, 4).  There may be all manner of good and non-dominative relationships of authority and obedience, but those are not love.  Love can only be a relationship between equals.

This contention is foundational to McCabe’s theology of the Trinity.  When the Christian gospel proclaims that the Father loves Jesus, it is making the radical claim that this human being, Jesus is equal with God. “In Jesus the Father has found his beloved son, found an equal to love: not just a creature to treat well (evidently Jesus is not treated very well) but an equal to whom the Father can give himself in love” (God Matters, 18). It is this act (which of course, for McCabe is eternal) of the Father loving Jesus that both is and characterizes the Holy Spirit, the event and mediator of the love of the Father and Son.

The problem for McCabe, then is how can God love the world if love, properly speaking is something that only can occur between equals?  For McCabe the answer is an incarnational understanding of divinization in which we, through union with Christ are taken up into the Father’s love for the Son.  Be being united to Christ by the Spirit we are loved with the same love that the Father has for the Son in the Spirit.  “God cannot, of course, love us as creatures, but ‘in Christ’ we are taken up into the exchange of love between the Father and the incarnate and human Son, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we become part of the divine life.  We call this ‘grace’.  By grace we ourselves share in the divine and that is how God can love us. (God Still Matters, 7).

The radical implication of this for McCabe, is that human persons are actually made to be equal with God in Christ.  By being brought into the divine exchange of love between the Father and Son we actually become equal with God through being divinized by grace.  McCabe is quick to underscore that distinctions remain.  We become divine by grace, whereas Christ is divine by nature, and we likewise remain creatures.  However, our existence vis á vis God is no longer on the basis of the Creator-Creature relationship, but grounded in the Father-Son relationship in the Spirit.  He strives to safeguard any sort of eschatological pantheism by insisting that “we are divinised but Jesus is divine” (God Matters, 22).

The question I have is whether this scheme fully works.  I think it might, but there are some questions that seem important.  First, is it really the case the love requires absolute equality?  I’m hard pressed to dispute that it sure seems like love requires equality, but can we establish that that is always the case?  And what does equality even really mean?  Surely it can’t mean the absence of difference, so what then is it?  The other big question I have pertains to the role of worship plays in McCabe’s theological imagination here.  Worship seems to be an eschatological reality, one the characterized the age to come.  But is not worship predicated on the recognition that God is God and we are not?  Does that not obtain throughout eternity, even as we share in God’s Triune life by grace?


  1. coldfire wrote:

    The first thing that popped into my mind when reading was “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus poured out his love for those who killed him. When God comes in human flesh, human beings want to kill him. The relationships does not seem equal. Perhaps, however, I am missing the point.

    I do think that I tend to have a theological superiority–that my theology is better than someone else’s theology–and this is a dangerous mindset to have. I think that true community takes love, but community takes place between a mother and a son where the mother is clearly an authority (unequal).

    I am just not quite sure of the implication of this. I think McCabe could have his idea of us being caught up in the divine and becoming part of the divine movement without the idea of equality. I don’t think it is necessary or a prerequisite. I think that we, even we are inherently unequal with God, are still welcomed by God through his son and given his spirit to join in the divine embrace. This does not necessarily have to make us equal with God.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  2. nick wrote:

    Does he give any examples of how his conception of love might work out or demonstrate itself in human community?

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Nick, he addresses some of those sorts of questions, though perhaps not in the specifity for which you are looking. I think that some of his attachement to the language of equality is realted to McCabe’s nuanced advocacy of Marxism (I emphasize, nuanced).

    Most of his discussions about equality and community relate to a critique of hierarchy as in some sense intrinsically opposed to love, and focuses on comunal mutual love (conceived cruciformly) as the shape of the Christian community.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  4. nick wrote:

    What about the example that coldfire mentioned. Would McCabe understand the family relationship between mother and son as one of love? Would he see it as a different kind of love? They just seem like such open ended words, equality and love. I have a difficult time imagining what he’s getting at (in other words, what he’s arguing against).

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  5. Richard wrote:

    I’m in agreement that “equality” needs some kind of definition. Clearly, love is complicated when it moves across power lines. It is hard for the lower to love the higher because fear and need for praise complicate. It is hard for the higher to love the lower as it is complicated by paternalism. But do these complications negate the possibility of love?

    Clearly, Jesus comes “down” to demonstrate God’s love, but does he become equal or lower? I think it is lower, that love isn’t about “equality” but a transcendence (or, to make up a word, “decendence”) of all things that might be even used to define “equality.” That to even pose the love/equality question starts moving in the wrong direction.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Well here’s what he says about the relationship of parents to children:

    “Evidently there is an inequality and a relationship of deep dependence between parents and young children, but what characterizes the relationship as one of love is precisely the growing mutual sense of equality. The possessive parent who can only see the child in function of himself, the child who can only see the parent in function of himself, are both failing in love.”

    Here is also how he defines equality:

    “Evidently it is not true that lovers have to be of exactly equal height or equal intelligence or equal sensitivity to music. The equality I speak of is not an equality on some common scale against which they are both measured; it is, so to speak, an equality where each is the scale for the other. A large part of love is a recognition of this equality, a recogntion that the other’s existence as as valid as one’s own, a recognition that the other does not exist simply in function of you, but is there equally.”

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  7. Derrick wrote:

    Obviously I have little to no contact with McCabe’s theology, but it was curious to me that this concept of theosis seems to carry very little significance for the humanity of Christ other than it is almost that which is “overcome,” by salvation because our relation “is no longer on the basis of the Creator-Creature distinction.” I hesitate to call it “docetic,” both because of its pejorative connotations, but also because I am sure this runs absolutely counter to everything McCabe wants to accomplish. Nonetheless it almost seems to defeat his own claim: “This contention [that love is found only between equals] is foundational to McCabe’s theology of the Trinity. When the Christian gospel proclaims that the Father loves Jesus, it is making the radical claim that this human being, Jesus is equal with God.” While I can understand this syllogistically (i.e. love is only between equals, God loves Jesus who is a man, therefore this man Jesus is equal to the God who loves him) the soteriological McCabe has follow the syllogism, namely the equality of theosis, makes one almost picture that, from an ontological (rather than epistemological) viewpoint, it entails that there is at least a tendency to view the humanity of Christ as something which is assumed only to be transcended. The incarnation, running its soteriological course, overcomes the creatureliness of humanity, and hence (unless McCabe wants to affirm that humanity is not essentially a creaturely concept, which is important because if he does then my observations are weakened) our salvation is in a sense the overcoming of our immediate particularities as human, which of course would mean that the syllogism (God loves Jesus, Jesus therefore = God), in light of McCabe’s soteriology, ultimately undoes, or at least weakens, the humanity of Christ. This is of course just another portion of the problem of the Creator-Creature distinction which you already identified, but I couldn’t help but think that McCabe is just reversing the relation that Anselm posited: whereas Anselm essentially made Christ’s divinity that which enables his humanity to function as universal satisfaction, McCabe makes Christ’s humanity a function of the divinity, and hence, especially in light of his understanding of theosis as an “equalization,” between us and God, there is a reduction of humanity proportionate to the increase in equality. It almost posits an almost Antiochene duality of the natures that Im sure McCabe wanted to overcome.

    On another note, putting aside for the moment the question of whether or not love must truly be between equals, it seems that the “apologetic” quality of this argument, which, as you say, is “foundational for McCabes view of the Trinity,” is formulating an argument that is not really found in the Bible, but places far too much weight on the concept of love as that which occurs only between equals. I would want to say that the Trinity, and the equality of this man, Jesus, to God the Father, are based much more upon, say, the dynamics of Jesus life in relation to the apocalyptic verification of the Resurrection, than from the concept of the equality of love. If anything, the concept of the equality of love, if it is to escape the subjectivism of mere assertion, seems in fact to be based upon this prior observation of the apocalyptic in-breaking of the eschaton in Jesus resurrection, and cannot, strictly speaking, be used as an argument for the Trinity or the equality of Jesus to God.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Derrick, I think that McCabe would distinguish between creatureliness-as-such and humanity-as-such. Due to the somewhat ad hoc nature of his work (being mostly essays and sermons) its hard to say for sure, but he has a persistent emphasis on the centrality of the humanity of Christ (See the other quote I posted from him a couple days ago).

    I think he would say that it is not humanity that is transcended, but rather the inequality between God and humanity. It is precisely as human being that we are made “equal with God by grace.” This may ultimately not be a coherent concept, but I don’t think its docetic.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  9. nick wrote:

    So perhaps his approach might be that God loves us for who we will grow up to be and that’s where our equality lies, not in our present states of immaturity, but in our final cause. Is he much of a Thomist?

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    He’s a total Thomist.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  11. roflyer wrote:

    It seems to me that equality for McCabe is the ability to treat the other as other despite differences. For McCabe it is always something we “grow into.”

    In terms of God’s love for humanity, McCabe thinks that God can be kind to humans but can’t actually love them because of the Creator-creature chasm. Jesus makes it possible for God to fill this chasm. This is grace in McCabe’s thought. So it is only “in Christ” that God can love us. McCabe notes that it is not because we are sinners that God can’t love us – it is because we are creatures. And this is where the importance of divinization comes in to play. What is interesting though is that for McCabe this lies at the heart of humanity. To be truly human is to participate in the divine life. It is certainly not a sort of escape from humanity.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Yes, well spoke, Ry. That’s an important point for McCabe.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  13. roflyer wrote:

    He’s the best kind of Thomist: a Marxist and Wittgensteinian leaning one…

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  14. Richard wrote:

    Is this a fair paraphrase of McCabe’s position?: To really love something/someone you have to recognize it as being the same type of thing as yourself. That is, to love another person I have to recognize the fundamentally shared humanity between us. We are all human, full persons.

    So, according to McCabe, for God to love us, and for us to love God, something similar needs to happen: We need to know each other as being the same type of thing.

    That is, we don’t love a person we consider to be sub-human and God, by analogy, can’t love anything sub-divine.

    The issue of “equality” has less to do with power than ontology.

    Is that a fair summary?

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    I think it’s close, if not completely right. Ry might have something to say about this as well. I don’t think the issue for McCabe is recognized the otehr as “the same type of thing as yourself”, it is rather, as the quote I just posted illustrates, to vew the other’s being as just as signficant as one’s own. It is to say that they are just as much “there” as you are and as such are valued as much as oneself is valued.

    In other words, equality is not predicated on an underlying sameness, but rather on recognition of the other as just as significant as oneself. Maybe we could take it one step further and say that true equality in the Christian sense is to “regard others as better than yourself” (Phil. 2:3).

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  16. roflyer wrote:

    Richard, I think equality is a matter of ontology. God can’t love because God is wholly other ontologically. In McCabe’s view, God can’t love us anymore than a human can love an ant. It is important to understand as Halden pointed out that McCabe is an “occasional” writer, so it is difficult to get anything “systematic” out of him.

    On the human level, McCabe speaks of love as giving others themselves and giving them nothing. In other words, love is providing the space or freedom for others to be other, to become more themselves.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink
  17. Fr Alvin Kimel wrote:

    I am so delighted to see this discussion happening. I have been immersed in McCabe the past two months, and I have been struggling precisely with McCabe’s notion of equality and love. McCabe’s argument appears to lead to a very strong construal of theosis.

    One question: Does McCabe’s argument entail the position that God would have become incarnate even if man had never sinned? I think it might.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 8:31 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    I think it might as well. Do you know, Fr. Kimel what Aquinas’ position was on this issue?

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  19. vassilip wrote:

    as far i can see, here McCabe does not speaks about equality in absolute terms, but (like the Fathers) about equality-in-relation:
    we human beings are equal among us in relation to our common Father and to our common image (nature);
    and we are equal with Christ in relation to our common nature;
    but we are not yet equal with the Father: we will become through the Son [1Cor.15:28].
    that is, we love because we are equal, but also, we are equal because we love and we love in order to be equal.
    (though the word equal-equality has problems ’cause has the tendency towards absolute-quantitative meanings.)

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 11:45 pm | Permalink
  20. Fr Alvin Kimel wrote:

    Alas, my acquaintance with Thomas is quite limited and I would be hesitant to publicly state the little I hink I knox, as it is probably quite wrong.

    Friday, March 7, 2008 at 4:37 am | Permalink
  21. Mark Olson wrote:

    Hierarchy and equality are not incompatible. Son and Spirit are subordinate to the Father, but equal.

    On the other hand, can you love your dog or cat? Can it love you back. Certainly.

    Friday, March 7, 2008 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  22. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Mark, actually, McCabe does seem to think that love and therefore equality does indeed subvert hierarchy. And no, I don’t think McCabe would say you could love your dog or cat. I think he’d refer to the whole ontological difference between humans and other animals. Perhaps the soul thing is necessary, though I do know some people who would say dogs have souls.

    Friday, March 7, 2008 at 8:56 am | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Friday Highlights on Friday, March 7, 2008 at 6:12 am

    [...] Having missed the memo that equality and hierarchy aren’t incompatable. [...]

Switch to our mobile site