Through a glass darkly – 56

Unlike Jonathan Goodall, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet [and a wholly invisible contemporary at Wycliffe Hall in the late-mid 1980s], who has just left the Church of England to join the Church of Rome,  I’ve never had any desire to be a Roman Catholic. Much as I like several Catholic priests, mainly French,  there are aspects of the institutional church that I am very uneasy with;  an underlying misogyny, an over-attachment to clerical garb, usually in funereal black with a Masonic tinge;  and a wholly inappropriate possessiveness towards [and a presumed ownership of] the sacraments.

But, as someone pointed out to me the other day, most of the Christian writers whose works I have appreciated in the past couple of years are Catholics; Hans Küng, Jürgen Moltmann, and now Herbert McCabe. I guess that my reading has always been pretty random. And/or maybe I’ve been reading the wrong kind of Protestants ?

Herbert McCabe

McCabe, who died in 2001 at the age of 74, was a Dominican priest, theologian, and philosopher. After time as a pastor in Newcastle, three years as Chaplain at De La Salle College, and a spell in Cambridge, he spent many years teaching at Blackfriars in Oxford. His lifelong work concerned the study of Thomas Aquinas, and he combined a radical, left-wing approach to political questions [he was a powerful critic of the Vietnam War] with an otherwise orthodox faith. When he died the obituaries said that he was a better speaker than a writer, who produced sparkling sermons but no major books. Thanks to the omniscient Abe Books, I’ve been looking at an old copy of Love, Law, and Language, based on his 1967 lectures at the University of Kent. 

Law, Love, and Language

I didn’t know when I bought the book that it is an exploration of Ethics, based on lectures given in 1967. We did a certain amount of ethics when I was at Wycliffe, taught by David Atkinson who subsequently became Bishop of Thetford. The course, as I recall, consisted of a series of lectures, and the writing of essays on some familiar topics; divorce and re-marriage [only men and women in those days]; the rights and wrongs of abortion; work and unemployment. And the first port of call for most of these topics was John Stott’s 1984 book Issues facing Christian Today, a careful look at questions that face Christians and non-Christians alike.

McCabe starts somewhere else. He starts by identifying three ways of thinking about ethics: as a matter of loving;  as a matter of obeying the law;  as a matter of talking to people.

Situation ethics

He acknowledges that the proposition ‘all you need is love’ is increasingly popular [in 1967] among Christian theologians. Partly because Jesus makes a strong contrast between the gospel and the legalism of the Pharisees.  But, McCabe insists [following Aquinas], Jesus does not set aside the moral law in favour of love. He only sets aside the customs and ritual practices of Israel.

The moral good act is not the act prescribed by some moral law, it is whatever love demands in a particular situation’ is the mantra of situation ethics. But there are major problems with this approach: first, the situationist may be setting aside major moral issues; and, second, he may be allowing concern for people he knows to take precedence over others. “Every moral problem is a problem about who is to get hurt” [McCabe]

Ethics as Law

To be subject to law implies membership of a community. Mankind is thus constituted by biological exchanges and by linguistic exchanges. In a biological community, members seek their own survival and refrain [largely] from killing each other.  Though McCabe, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War comments: “man seems to be the only animal that goes in for infra-specific violence on a really large and destructive scale.”

In a linguistic community, things are not so clear-cut. Road signs may give information [Beware of the sheep] or commands [30 mph]. Laws exist both for my welfare and for the welfare of the group as a whole. Why should the community make decisions for me ? Is it that they are more intelligent ? Or is it the need for predictability. Hence driving on the left, speed limits etc. 

If a linguistic community needs laws, does mankind need laws ? Aquinas sees ‘natural law’ as coming from God; the Ten Commandments are both a definition of man and a revelation of God. McCabe says that natural laws help us to be the people we really want to be. He quotes approvingly [if surprisingly] DH Lawrence: man has a double set of desires, and it is the business of Chief Thinkers to tell us how we ought to want to behave.

Ethics as Language

McCabe insists that language is what distinguishes man from other animals. Communication is in essence about sharing a common life. All shared vital activity is some form of communication. In man communication reaches a new intensity, it becomes language. Learning to live with strangers is a matter of adopting the rhythms of their life. [Wittgenstein: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”] Language is a product of the community, not of the individual. Meanings are ways of being with each other. [Wittgenstein: “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life”.]

Ethics is almost universally supposed to be concerned with the difference between right and wrong; but McCabe insists that “this however is a mistake”. The purpose of ethics is about “enabling us to enjoy life more by responding to it more sensitively”. Bad cheap behaviour devalues the structures of human meaning.  [Was he anticipating the present UK government ?] Morality is rather the attempt to live our lives in meaningful, deep communication with others.

The word as love

The centre of the gospel is that in Jesus Yahweh communicates himself wholly to us. “The coming of Jesus is not just the coming of a virtuous man; … it is the coming of a new humanity.” Jesus offers himself not just as a blueprint for a new kind of society; but as the centre of this new society.

Resurrection means that, because of his link with the Father in Christ, a man can [re-] discover his identity on the far side of death. In Paul’s writings, resurrection is always about sharing in Christ’s resurrection.

In a striking phrase, McCabe insists, the business of the church is ‘to remember the future’.  The sacraments are there as symbols of the presence of Christ in a future world. Thus baptism is not about church membership; it is the sacrament of  the membership of mankind [cf Romans 6:3]. Sacraments are the intersection of the present world with the world to come. “Those who share the sacraments form a community, or better a movement, in the world.”

The Christian reaches out beyond this world, to a world of freedom  and of real communication between men. The Gospel is not about the soul, not about a private and interior world. Morality is not primarily about sex; not about whether and when people should go to bed together. For McCabe, Christianity is not about proposing a set of moral principles [although such principles are a part of our Christian faith]. “Christianity is essentially about our communicating with each other in Christ, about our participation in the world of the future.” 


I guess I’m still trying to come to terms with some parts of this quite short book.[And I am totally unschooled in both Aquinas and Wittgenstein, who are McCabe’s principal points of reference.] We are given a bigger vision here than those books which rehearse the for and against arguments of key moral issues.  Language is for McCabe clearly the distinguishing feature of humanity. We are all intrinsically in conversation with others, and ethics is what guides our actions and interactions. 

Obituarists say that McCabe was a better speaker and preacher than writer, and that his written output was quite modest. It would be good to hear more [know mpre] of his thinking on the role and nature of the church.  I am both challenged and inspired by the notion that our central business is to “remember the future”. Especially when some churches seem determined to reinvent the golden age of the past. And I suspect that his radical understanding of the sacraments would not have endeared him to the church which he served.

September 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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