Che Guevara once wrote that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. For some—especially those over fifty—that remark will call up the illusions of the 1960s, when many a callow undergraduate succumbed to the charms of revolution. And remember liberation theology, in which left-wing Christians discovered a modern variation on the Exodus tale? To such Christians, imbued with the spirit of the time, a vision of peasants and workers seizing state power became an augury of the heavenly kingdom.
Worn down by political repression and condemned by conservatives in the Vatican, the alliance of Marx and God broke apart with the triumph of neoliberalism, creating a large cohort of spurned and sometimes angry ex-revolutionaries.
One such enragé was the Irish Dominican Herbert McCabe. (Born in England, McCabe renounced his citizenship as an act of solidarity with his ancestral homeland, and subsequently spoke of “your government” to his English confreres.) McCabe, who died at age seventy-five in 2001, possessed an extraordinary personal and intellectual magnetism, and over the decades befriended or instructed an impressive array of philosophers, theologians, and writers, including Alasdair MacIntyre, Fergus Kerr, James Alison, Seamus Heaney, Anthony Kenny, and Terry Eagleton, to name just a few. His sometimes tumultuous tenure as editor of New Blackfriars, the Dominican journal, is the stuff of legend. Removed from his post in 1967 for stating the obvious—that the church “is quite plainly corrupt”—he was reinstated three years later, and his return editorial led with triumphant drollery: “As I was saying before I was so oddly interrupted....”
Since McCabe’s death, thanks to his former student and literary executor, Brian Davies, OP, and to the editors at Continuum Books, no fewer than two new books and four collections of his essays, articles, and sermons have appeared, along with reprints of earlier work. Leavened with wit and intellectual brio, McCabe’s homilies are now available, along with his reflections on Aquinas, Wittgenstein, virtue ethics, the Eucharist, the Incarnation, and petitionary prayer. The literary critic Terry Eagleton captured McCabe’s paradoxical style in a 1996 tribute: the priest-philosopher’s work “combines cognitive force with self-delighting jest, displaying the capacity of language to dismantle and transfigure the world.”
There’s a productive perversity about his writing, which illuminates orthodoxy by putting an idiosyncratic spin on the commonsensical. It is hardly accidental that he was the first semiotic theologian in this country, the first to grasp how a certain anti-Cartesian understanding of the sign could be used to explore the mystery of the sacramental. “Christ is present in the Eucharist as the meaning is present in a word” is, one might claim, a bon mot about a bon mot.
Could the vogue for Herbert McCabe portend a renaissance of liberation theology and the revolutionary spirit of the ’60s? For the most part, his admirers have not linked his Catholic faith and his socialist politics, and McCabe himself denied an intrinsic connection; he advocated socialism, he once wrote, “not because I am a Catholic but because I am a socialist.” There exists nonetheless an intimate bond between his theology and his radicalism, a bond particularly worth examining today. For almost forty years, the horizon of Christian political hope has been “democratic capitalism,” in which God and Mammon settle their differences and negotiate a lucrative partnership. That firm now looks headed for bankruptcy, barring a bailout from heaven. But liberation theology? Socialism? Revolution? Dismissed, maligned, or half-remembered now, these ideas once held promises of love and justice. Faced with our current system’s brazen failures, we might well find hope in the rekindling of liberation theology and the associated view of the gospel as a revolutionary movement. As McCabe once mused, “If Christianity is not the revolution, nothing else is.” A sign of contradiction to the idolatry of the present, Herbert McCabe’s theology of revolutionary love bears a dangerous, hopeful memory.
Born in 1926 in Yorkshire, John Ignatius McCabe was a grandson of Irish immigrants. Despite their devotional conservatism, many Anglo-Irish Catholics harbored republican and socialist sentiments, and their schools were notably liberal. Aquinas and the philosophes mingled freely; the Penny Catechism might sit on a table next to an IRA pamphlet; churchgoers marched in both Corpus Christi processions and Labour Party parades. McCabe grew up in this mélange of Catholic orthodoxy and leftish politics, where St. Patrick shared a spiritual stage with Jim Larkin and James Connolly. (After Bloody Sunday in 1972—when British soldiers killed fourteen unarmed civil-rights protesters in Derry—McCabe said a Mass for the dead at which he recited the names of the massacred. For a while afterward, some Oxford residents believed that the monks at Blackfriars were raising money for the IRA.)
Enrolling in Manchester University to study chemistry, McCabe soon gravitated to philosophy, coming under the spell of Aquinas and other medieval philosophers. After graduation in 1949, he entered the Dominican order, where his novice master renamed him Herbert.
The Order of Preachers was the perfect choice for intellectual and political mavericks. The Dominicans were moving well to the political left of most Catholics, who were expected to support the center-right or “Christian Democracy.” The English Province had a history of radicalism. In the 1930s, Vincent McNabb championed distributism; Conrad Pepler published Eric Gill in Blackfriars and supported PAX, the regiment of Catholic pacifists; Bede Jarrett wrote about “medieval socialism.” McCabe’s novice master, Columba Ryan, had carried a cross through Burgundy on a “peace pilgrimage.” (Decades later, in his nineties, Ryan would march in the London protest against the invasion of Iraq.) On the continent, French and Belgian Dominicans led the ill-fated “worker-priest” movement, in which young clergy removed their collars and cassocks and labored alongside dock and factory workers. The Vatican barely tolerated these worker-priests, and suppressed them in 1953, but they left an indelible mark on the Catholic political imagination, extending its boundaries beyond the social encyclicals.
An even more adventurous Left was then emerging among English Catholics, who perceived in the Vatican’s harassment of worker-priests and other reformers a hierarchy complicit with fascism, deferential to elites, and indifferent or hostile to the aspirations of postcolonial peoples. Dismissing the social encyclicals as tepid manifestos of compromise, and the Labour Party as merely the left wing of the establishment, these left-wing Catholics turned increasingly to Marxism. By the early 1960s, Blackfriars Hall at Oxford and Spode House, a Dominican conference center in Staffordshire, had become salons for Catholic Marxists, with Friar Laurence Bright presiding over sessions on class struggle and nouvelle théologie. The new Catholic Left arranged a concordat between Marx and Jesus, socialism and the gospel, revolution and ressourcement.
Already inclined to the Left, McCabe was radicalized after his ordination in 1955. After three years spent pastoring an inner-city parish in Newcastle, he was appointed chaplain of De La Salle College, where one pupil was none other than the young socialist firebrand Terence Eagleton. (Years later, at Oxford, the two began their close, lifelong friendship.) During that time, McCabe became a regular at Spode House and Blackfriars, and honed his ideas lecturing on philosophy and theology to student groups in England and Scotland. That itinerant teaching informed his first book, The New Creation (1964). A meditation on the church pervaded by the eager spirit of Vatican II’s aggiornamento, it heralded the radical left-wing turn in political theology. Marxism appealed to moderns, McCabe suggested, because it “fills a gap left by our inadequate preaching of Christianity.” In a passage that should have tipped off the Dominican censors—who, a year later, would send him to Cambridge to edit New Blackfriars—McCabe compared communism to the heavenly city. “Just as the Marxist looks forward to...the final withering-away of the state,” he wrote, “so the Catholic looks forward impatiently to the withering-away of the organized church.”
That analogy, with its bold eschatological affinities, reflects the paradox of McCabe’s career: a vibrant orthodoxy wedded to a revolutionary political vision. Much of McCabe’s subsequent work lay in showing that it was truly a paradox and not a contradiction. A liberation theologian avant la lettre, he deserves to be ranked with James Cone, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Jürgen Moltmann, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. Yet he was arguably a more incisive theorist of revolution than any of these contemporaries, and the reason lies in his creative fidelity to orthodox Catholic theology. McCabe’s socialist commitment was bound up with his devotion to the gospel and the church; almost all his remarks on politics appeared in reflections on theological matters. In his essays and sermons—and especially in Law, Love, and Language (1968), his most lengthy and compelling reflection on ethics—he explained and advocated revolutionary change in terms of orthodox theology, not as its repudiation, but rather as its fulfillment.
In the process, he recoiled from the faddishness that marred so much “progressive” Catholicism. Rolling his eyes at liturgical innovations, McCabe once quipped that he couldn’t accept crackers and grape juice as Eucharistic elements because he didn’t consider them food and drink. And just as phony consumables couldn’t pass for bread and wine, so too was liberal Christianity, in his view, a bourgeois perversion of the gospel. Theologically vapid and politically timid, liberal Christians—Protestant and Catholic alike—held “not very innocent illusions” about the nature of capitalist democracy. They believed that people should be “basically rather nice, and changes, if any, [should come] about by talking round a table and exercising your free choices at elections.” In McCabe’s view, the liberal attitude rested on hopes that were in equal parts naive and banal: “If only people would talk together,” they held, “it would be all cleared up.”
In contrast, and however tarnished by the mendacity of the hierarchs, it was classical theology, McCabe insisted, that as an ark of the covenant held abiding and liberating truths. In the New Blackfriars editorial that got him sacked, McCabe praised the renegade priest-theologian Charles Davis for his “act of witness” in leaving the church, but cautioned that ecclesial structures, corrupt as they plainly were, still “link us to areas of Christian truth beyond our own particular experience, and ultimately to truths beyond any experience.” Forty-five years later, in God Still Matters (2002), he remained convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity “announces the most ultimate liberation of people...their liberation from mere creaturehood,” their “divinization.”
Immune to political trendiness, McCabe remained in the church when many of his left-leaning comrades walked out. By the mid-’60s, the “Marxist-Christian dialogue” was on, and the English Catholic Left took part in this conversation through New Blackfriars and Slant, a Cambridge journal with Eagleton at the helm. For over a decade, Slant and New Blackfriars published some of the most brilliant theology of the Cold War era. Articles covered such topics as postcolonial “wars of national liberation,” student insurgency, episcopal servility to business, the priest as revolutionary leader, the Eucharist as prologue to a classless world, the liturgy as cultural critique. Audacious and energetic—and more than a little self-important—the new Catholic Left served as incubator for a motley array of intellectuals, from Eagleton and philosopher Charles Taylor to theologians Brian Wicker and Denys Turner.
It’s too easy to dismiss the new-left Catholicism of the era as radical chic in theological drag, an overreaction to the old idea of the church as a sacred club in which you follow the rules and practice the rites and St. Peter punches your ticket to heaven. McCabe took Marxism seriously as an account of alienation and transcendence, and defined the affinities between the gospel and left-wing politics with great nuance. Modest and yet powerfully eschatological, his account of the church underlined its provisional character. The institutional church, he observed, is like the tent in which Abraham dwelt on his way to the Promised Land; Abraham, McCabe insisted, “didn’t make the mistake of thinking that what he built was the real thing,” and neither should we. Because we inhabit a sinful world alienated from God, we need “a special sacred language, a magic.” But we escape fetishizing these “magical” features of the church by remembering that they point to their own supersession. Just as, for Marx, communism marks the end of conditions that made religion necessary, so the Kingdom, for McCabe, is “the abolition of religion”—the fulfillment and transcendence of sacrament in the heavenly city, where there is no temple. “Then,” he predicted, “there will be no more Eucharist, no more sacramental religion, no more faith or hope.”
In reminding us that sacraments hint at the eventual eradication of religion, McCabe nicely linked them to eschatology. Transacted in the sacraments, “the business of the church,” he wrote, “is to ‘remember’ the future. Not merely to remember that there is to be a future, but mysteriously to make the future really present.” “Christians are people who proclaim that they belong to the future,” he wrote in God Still Matters. “They take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come....” Sacraments are thus not just “outward signs of inward grace” or mechanisms by which “grace is conveyed to our souls,” they are also glimpses of eternity, foretastes of a banquet at which everyone will dine. McCabe insisted on the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist in particular. “We begin with a ceremony in church,” he mused, “and find ourselves in the Kingdom.” For McCabe, the Eucharist is the premiere revolutionary sacrament. When bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, he reasoned, they do not “change into something else”; rather, they become “more radically food and drink” while retaining their material qualities. The continuity consists in their materiality; the radicalism or revolution of the change consists in their “belonging to a different world”—the Kingdom of God, which is the body of Christ.
If the Eucharist was a prototype of revolutionary change, Christian theology shed light on both the meaning and the limits of political transformation. In Law, Love, and Language, McCabe asserted that “every revolution draws upon powers that are not catered for in the preceding society, powers which therefore seem to be invisible.” Revolutionaries are visionaries, and as such are realists in the proper sense—people who see what’s really there. Like revelations and epiphanies, revolutions transform the criteria of moral and historical intelligibility; they generate the standards by which the past and the new future are to be understood. Thus, because revolutionaries herald things that are invisible or impossible from the viewpoint of the present, “revolution requires faith.”
Yet in these very terms, McCabe thought Marxism insufficiently revolutionary. Christians cannot identify their faith with radical politics, he cautioned, because they and secular radicals really do differ about the ultimate nature of things. If Marxist atheism is correct, he mused, then Christian faith is truly “a diversion from the real demands of history.” But if Christian faith is right—if death and resurrection constitute “the ultimate revolutionary act,” the transfiguration of our creaturely condition—then Marxism remains at “only a relatively superficial level.” What McCabe called “the Christian revolution” goes deeper, “to the ultimate alienation that is sin and to the ultimate transformation which is death and resurrection.” The Christian desires more than a classless society, as venerable a longing as that is. She yearns to abide in the Kingdom, where the body has undergone a revolutionary change akin to that of eucharistic bread and wine. It’s no wonder, McCabe concluded, that “Christian belief cannot be adequately stated in today’s political terms,” for it preaches “the ultimate revolution.”
It followed for McCabe that Christians must engage in political struggle, but not on the same terms as other radicals. The gospel is not “a program for political action,” he observed, but rather “a critique of action itself, a reminder that we must think on the end.” Take the class struggle, for instance. Class conflict, McCabe realized, isn’t something anyone starts; it’s simply an endemic feature of any class society. The issue isn’t whether there is or is not a class struggle, but rather how you go about waging it. Christians must fight by a code of love prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount, which provides “the appropriate revolutionary discipline for effective action.” Because she does not believe that radical politics can spark the ultimate revolution, the Christian can be more patient and compassionate than her secular comrades. She realizes—as did Martin Luther King Jr.—that “the revolution is for the sake of the exploiter as well as the exploited.” Thus the Christian revolutionary greets success “not with triumphalism but with forgiveness and mercy, for only in this way can the victory won in the fight remain related to the kingdom of God.” Like Hannah Arendt, McCabe understood that forgiveness is a political virtue, enabling us to cancel the debts of the past and inaugurate something new.
From this eschatological perspective, McCabe’s attempt at a nuanced endorsement of political violence seems both surprising and untenable. Conceding that violence was not “a perspicuous manifestation of love,” he countered that neither did it necessarily indicate “lack of love.” That’s so awkward a rhetorical pirouette that one imagines McCabe wincing even as he performed it. Surely, at any rate, he occupied higher and firmer ground when he wrote that, by accepting death on the cross, Jesus “refuses to compromise his mission by using the weapons of the world against the world.” Indeed, in Jesus, who rejected violence, McCabe sees the icon of revolutionary action. Significantly, Jesus preached and died in the midst of an imperial occupation, yet did not advocate the forcible ejection of the Roman imperialists. He didn’t need to: Jesus and his fellow ambassadors of the future lived the life of love in a foreign country; and because love strikes fear in those obsessed with power, the gospel could not help but have political implications. As McCabe writes, “The work of Jesus, although not political, and his teaching, although also not political, had a de facto political effect.”
Indeed, it was in Jesus’ death and Resurrection that McCabe discovered the meaning of revolutionary love. Wary of most “satisfaction” theories of atonement, which turn God into a kind of divine Abuser, McCabe proposed instead that Jesus “died of being human.” God sent his only Son into the world to be fully human—utterly reckless and complete in self-giving, as befits the imago Dei. That’s a death sentence in a sinful world like ours, where we are routinely duped, insulted, and exploited. Love makes us too vulnerable. “God’s love can do terrible things to you,” McCabe observed wryly. “It may make you kind and considerate and loving.” The Christian’s revolutionary discipline entails the knowledge that love will not conquer all, and that the barriers erected to sustain injustice may not melt in the warmth of agape. McCabe warned against any saccharine illusions that love would evoke the world’s admiration. “When it sees how these Christians love one another, the world usually goes for its gun,” he wrote. If you want a reminder of what can happen to people when they love, “just look at a crucifix.”
But then there’s the Resurrection. For McCabe, the Cross and Resurrection are tokens of God’s invitation to love and friendship. If the Cross is “the manifestation, the sacrament, of the sin of the world,” it is also “the manifestation, the sacrament, of the redeeming act of God.” If Jesus showed us what it means to be fully human by allowing his murderers to kill him, God affirms this by allowing it too—and by raising him from the dead. If we love like Jesus, we may well be killed—but we’ll certainly be like his Father. Redemption is God’s offer of full humanity by partaking of his loving nature. Thus the Resurrection confirms that, for the gospel, “our fundamental relationship to God is not that of creature to creator”—not the God of legalists and atheists, to whom we are as “servants to masters.” Quite the opposite, in McCabe’s view. “For the gospel, our fundamental relationship is that of lovers, of lovers in equality.” I no longer call you servants, I call you friends, as Jesus told the disciples after washing their stinking feet. The Resurrection is the first fruit of the Revolution.
For McCabe, divine friendship transfigured the meaning of socialism. Marxists saw human antagonism as a painful historical necessity, since the class struggles of capitalism drive the development of productive forces. But McCabe’s objections to capitalism remained moral and spiritual. Capitalist economics and culture form a system “based on human antagonism,” and he never ceased to be appalled by the fact. It was simply “bizarre,” he complained in one sermon, that the market had become the paragon of human life. In contrast, he upheld friendship as the proper model for political and economic life. As philia, love is political as well as personal, thriving among those who devote themselves to the building and maintenance of a polis. Like Aquinas, McCabe believed that political life was bound up with the highest good of humanity—blessedness, or beatitudo. Because philia partakes of caritas—the love that God shares with us—political friendship is inseparable from our vocation toward the heavenly polis. “There is no way to build a human society that is really human unless it is more than human.”
Socialism, in McCabe’s view, was the political economy of friendship: a taste, however imperfect, of beatitude. Joining a lineage extending from John Ruskin to E. F. Schumacher, McCabe sensed that economics itself must be revolutionized, with the dismal science of scarcity giving way to a joyful art of abundance. Beatitude is limitless love; philia and caritas thrive in the knowledge that our world is a realm of plenty. In one of his most magnificent sermons, “Poverty and God,” he deconstructed the dichotomy of riches and poverty. Recalling the tale of Jesus and the rich young man, McCabe accused most Christians of wandering off with the sad young man, and of trying to justify doing so. There’s nothing wrong with being rich, they say, so long as you have poverty of spirit. McCabe had no tolerance for this bourgeois twaddle. The whole point of the story, he contended, is that there is indeed something wrong with being rich—and something right about being poor. “There is something less than human about needing to live with riches,” he preached, and “there is something godlike about being able to live in poverty.” Possessions are things that benefit their owner; since God needs no benefit, God has no possessions—therefore, God is poor. At the same time, God creates without owning; the only beneficiary of God’s creation is creation itself, which arises from God’s sheer joy and delight. God makes without becoming richer; thus, his plenitude and poverty are one.
Because we are creatures, we need some possessions; but because we’re also the imago Dei, we can imitate God’s poverty, and thus his creativity, by living for others. Possessing as little as possible, we can offer our talents to others in imitation of God’s joyous self-expenditure. “The one who aims at poverty knows that we can only live by throwing ourselves away,” McCabe asserted. As the condition of true personhood, self-expenditure connected the political virtue of friendship and the socialist practice of poverty. “Personal friendship is an illuminating image...for a human living which would be an imitation or reflection of God’s creative poverty.”
If we hope to revive liberation theology—whether in league with “socialism” or some other, new form of radical democracy—there’s no better backdrop than Herbert McCabe’s portrayal of God’s exuberant generosity. We’re now reaping the harvest of an era when our hopes were meted out in pecuniary measures. To overcome that false way of seeing the world, we must aim for its replacement with a human standard of flourishing. Our leaders will cast such sentiments as improvident folly. But there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on Wall Street and inside the Beltway.
From the Archives: The Validity of Absolutes, by Herbert McCabe
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