Saturday, 17 March 2007

Herbert McCabe: Faith within Reason

Herbert McCabe, Faith within Reason, ed. Brian Davies (London: Continuum, 2007), 173 pp.

Reviewed by Kim Fabricius


Here is the latest collection of unpublished papers of the late Herbert McCabe, and what a treat it is. The combination of crystal logic, sparkling wit, and interrogative fides quaerens intellectum, deeply informed by Aquinas and richly modulated by Wittgenstein, are again on bravura display. McCabe was rather slipshod about his own work – we learn in the Forward by Denys Turner “how the first page of Herbert’s celebrated lecture on the politics of John’s gospel was eventually retrieved from his shoe where it was plugging a leaky sole” – so we must be immensely grateful to Brian Davies for his labour of retrieval.

McCabe defines theology as “thinking about what God has told us,” and, following Thomas, sees theology as a practical matter. Reason serves revelation properly (a) when it tests church doctrine to make sure that it is about God’s love and does not degenerate into a test of confessional loyalty, and (b) when it is concerned with human well-being. Wisdom is basically en-lightened common sense

“A Very Short Introduction to Aquinas” is just what it says on the tin (a mere eighteen pages), but it is packed with goodies. “Thomas Aquinas thought that theologians don’t know what they are talking about,” McCabe says. “He was, I suppose, the most agnostic theologian in the Western Christian tradition.” McCabe gives a helpful thumbnail sketch of Aquinas on virtue ethics, making clear that Aquinas believed that the foundation of Christian morality is our friendship with God. In turn, human society, when it is functioning rightly, is a community of friends. McCabe provocatively describes Aquinas as the first Whig (though, knowing McCabe, he might have said Marxist), declaring that he “would undoubtedly have welcomed the welfare state.” And how’s this for a great “Did you know?”: “Aquinas says in one place that separation from God by sin has so distorted our emotional life that we do not enjoy sex enough.”

Then there is “Forgiveness”. It must be a sermon. And, boy, does McCabe nail grace. How’s this for a winsome start: “It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this, that God deals out to us what we deserve.... You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like this at all.” In fact this image of a punitive God is “the view of God as seen from hell,” such that damnation “must be just being fixed in this illusion.” This is the illusion that defines the sinner. To see that this illusion is an illusion is to recognise that one is a sinner, and in this very self-knowledge one ceases to be a sinner.

This, in short, is McCabe’s take on the prodigal son as he comes to his senses. “The rest of the story is not about the father forgiving his son, it is about the father celebrating.... This is all the real God does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us.” So it is not that if we are contrite, God will forgive us our sin. On the contrary, “You confess your sin, recognise yourself for what you are, because you are forgiven.” Thus confession becomes a celebration, where you “come to put on the best robe and the ring on your finger and the sandals on your feet, and to get drunk out of your mind.” Could Barth himself have put the case for grace more vividly?

For a third taster, the outstanding “On Evil and Omnipotence”. McCabe says RIP to the theodicist’s free-will defence, agreeing with Antony Flew that it is “worthless”, but disagreeing why. It is not, as Flew argues, because freedom is not incompatible with determinism – it is, insists McCabe – but rather because there is a mistaken understanding of freedom at work here, namely that God’s activity and ours are in competition, as if (as I would put it) freedom were a zero-sum game. But as McCabe states: “The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature – a part of the world.” For the same reason “the famous ‘Argument from Design’ (commonly attributed to William Paley) is a silly one.”

McCabe is also excellent on evil as a privatio boni – and at his best with the funny example. Some people, he writes, assume that when we have described evil as a negation we are saying that evil isn’t real. “But we (or I anyway) do not mean this at all. If I have a hole in my sock, the badness of this consists in the absence of wool where there ought to be some. This does not mean that the badness is illusory or unreal. If I jump out of a plane and discover that I have not got a parachute, it is of no comfort at all to be told that the absence of the parachute is not a real thing at all.”

But McCabe concludes modestly. He hopes to have “disentangled a puzzle,” but “When all is said and done, we are left with an irrational but strong feeling that if we were God we would have acted differently. Perhaps one of his reasons for acting as he did is to warn us not to try to make him in our own image.”

Had I read McCabe two months ago, I would have written my Ten Proposition on Theodicy differently. But that’s just what a readerly tutorial with McCabe on any theme always does: sends you back to theology differently.

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