Jesus Himself

What it’s about is Jesus Himself

Herbert McCabe

Jesus did not offer a new social theory, or a new religion, he did not offer even a full analysis of the contradictions of his society, he did not provide an ideal for a new kind of human community. He offered himself.

Austin Farrer

God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is, and it remains for us, a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives up a Son.

Ephraim Radner

Jesus’s response to the sacrificial calling of the law is to present his own body: “Lo, I have come to do thy will,” something accomplished “through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

David Yeago, unpublished notes

for Luther and other early Lutherans, it is not quite adequate to say that Christ lived, suffered and died long ago so that we might be saved now. It would be more precise to say that Christ lived, suffered, died, and rose again so that fellowship with him might be salvation. What he has done and suffered renders him the present saving person, or salvation in person.

Bruck McCormack, personal lecture notes

The theme of the Bible is not a doctrine but a person.

Telford Work

the bedrock of our tradition is not some mystical experience, archetypical figure, or compelling idea, but simply the apostles’ testimony to Jesus’ death and resurrection and the powerful outpouring of his Holy Spirit.

The body of Christ is the instrument God has chosen to rescue his reputation in the world.

Gregory Clark, The Nature of Confession (1996), 217

Worldview philosophy brings its practitioners out of fideism and naiveté, while Scripture points us to One who can bring us out of death, darkness, unbelief and falsity.

Deborah Hunsinger, Pray without Ceasing (2006), 51, quoting Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology (2004), xviii.

All ministry is Christ’s ministry, in which the church is privileged to participate. As Andrew Purves explains, “Pastoral theology is understood properly first of all as a theology of the care of God for us in, through, and as Jesus Christ. …Only secondarily, derivatively, and above all, participatively…is pastoral theology an account of the pastoral work of the church.”

Herbert McCabe on de-centering God

Herbert McCabe on de-centering God

I’m not sure what to make of the following remarks from Herbert McCabe’s God Matters. They make moves I wouldn’t have anticipated from him. This is of course part of their charm, but also their opaqueness. At the same time they both foreground the seemingly impersonal character of the classical theist account of divine being and in a way broach the question of theological realism.

Consider then the following two passages (others could have been included). The emphases are my own.

Exhibit A

The Christian holds that in so far as the world receives the Spirit, in so far as it lets itself be destroyed and re-born in grace, the distance between God and man disappears. And this means that in the kingdom to which he looks forward when the love of God for mankind is fully revealed, when all are taken up into the divine life, not only will there, of course, be no religion, no sacraments, no cult, no sacred activity set aside from human life, but there will be no God in the sense of what is set above or apart from man. God will simply be the life of mankind.

Then, but only then, we shall be able to blow the dust off all those books written by the atheists and humanists and even some of the curious works written by the God-is-dead theologians, and find that at last they have come true in an odd way. They all thought that talk of God was just a convoluted and misleading way of talking about man; what we will come to see when we come to the kingdom of divine love is that talk about man is then the only clear and luminous way of talking about God. (23-24)

Exhibit B

First of all what God is about is not making but loving — especially loving Jesus. In other words the primal divine activity is not dealing with a dependent, as creativity must be, but an exchange of love with an equal. For love, at least in the sense that Christians came to understand it, is only possible between equals. With the New Testament, then, we make the fundamental move away from the picture of the boss-God, the supreme being in charge of the world. Instead we have the exchange of love in which it is given to men and women to share. We move from seeing God as up there or out there, to seeing an exchange of love between Father and Son — what we call the Holy Spirit — as the life to which mankind is destined. God begins to be seen as a certain kind of exchange between men. God has been ‘decentred’.

The caricature of this position is of course, humanist reductionism: the notion ‘God’ is just a name for human relationships. The essential difference, which turns the whole thing on its head, is that for Christians it is this relationship that defines what a human being is, this is what gives significance to his or her life, and the relationship is not in any obvious sense present. Humanism on the other hand is the canonization of the current world, the ‘obvious’ world (it is in any case the product of bourgeois optimism, the ideology of capitalism in its self-confident phase), while for Christianity the exchange of love is hard to find, it is to be found definitively in one man, Jesus Christ, and in the future for mankind, not (except very oddly and paradoxically) in the present. Human beings are defined, therefore, by the love to be found in Jesus: by the exchange between Jesus and his Father. (174-175) [emphases added]

This is some provocative theology. It’s telling that McCabe does object to the conflation of his position with “humanist reductionism.” He’s aware of how his remarks might be received. My question, though, is, does his disclaimer suffice to ward off the allegation? Is it not possible to fall victim to precisely the error one is trying to oppose?

The nearest I can get to making McCabe’s line of thought more easily digestible is by reading it alongside remarks like the following.

  • Nicholas Lash

What does God look like? The Archangel Raphael, you will remember, suggested: ‘courage and truth and mercy and right action.’ We can now be a little more specific. God looks like the action of the ‘holy spirit’ that God is said to be: like forgiveness and non-violence, solidarity with the victims, the achievement of communion in the one world to which all of us belong. … according to the Christian story of the world, God also looks like a young man, tortured, strung up on a Roman gibbet.

from Holiness, Speech and Silence, (Ashgate, 2004), 44.

  • Irenaeus

“the glory of God is a living man [human being].”

from Against Heresies (bk 4; ch 20; §7).

It’s standard fare in Christian theology to confess that human beings are made in the image of God. Often this doctrine is taken as a point of instruction about humanity, to the effect that humans enjoy a certain intrinsic dignity or set of natural powers. Though this isn’t his way of putting it, I take McCabe to be inquiring into the extent to which this doctrine also works in reverse. To what extent, that is, can humanity’s creation in the image of God, its endowed capacity to reflect divinity, instruct us about God? I think McCabe, Lash, and Irenaeus, in their own ways, are suggesting that attending to humanity–not necessarily on the terms of natural theology–can yield some knowledge of God. I don’t think this is a particularly original or controversial claim. To be sure, McCabe is also careful to add a point of christological determination: he isn’t interested in attending to humanity in some supposed natural state, or as limited by the scope of natural reason. Rather, he’s interested in the humanity of Christ and the human form of life as it stands informed by Christ’s mission and ministry. Not a trivial qualification! Nevertheless, I would still have questions for McCabe when it comes to his suggestion that talk of humanity could somehow provide an adequately evocative resource for all that our talk of God aims to accomplish. If we’re going to grant that reflection on creation can generate knowledge of God, it seems to me a curious decision to limit the scope of creation we would take into consideration. It’s just harder for me to imagine how even talk of glorified humanity could succeed talk of God without remainder.

Kerr on Ernst and McCabe as readers of Wittgenstein

Fergus Kerr on Cornelius Ernst and Herbert McCabe as readers of Wittgenstein

How, as theologians, did Cornelius Ernst and Herbert McCabe read Wittgenstein’s Investigations? Neither held the standard view that the Investigations is intended as a contribution to something  called “philosophy of language.” That (Ernst would have thought) is [a] kind of “trivialization” of Wittgenstein … . That only corrals Wittgenstein in a crowded field of professional philosophy. His work is much more revolutionary and iconoclastic than that. Neither Ernst nor McCabe believed that the Investigations was any more responsible for ordinary language philosophy, linguistic analysis, and so on, than the Tractatus for logical positivism. Such outgrowths they regarded as the product of radical misunderstandings. They did not believe that his advice to “Let the uses of words teach you their meaning” was the cure-all for philosophical problems. They believed, as we have seen, that the later work initiated “the demise of the Cartesian epoch,” as McCabe said and, as Ernst said, offered relief from “the absurdity of the empiricist theory of meaning.” They held that the point of Wittgenstein’s distinction in the Tractatus between what can be said and what we must be silent about was made in order to protect the realm of ethics and religion — the mystical — from misapplied ideals of science.

from “Anscombe, Ernst, and McCabe: Wittgenstein and Catholic Theology.” Josephinium Journal of Theology 15/1 (2008): 67-86.

Herbert McCabe on the sesquiguous

Herbert McCabe on the sesquiguous

I should, perhaps, introduce here my invention of the sesquiguous, which lies between the ambiguous and the plonking or flat statement. The plonking statement is one-dimensional, clear, unarguable and unimportant: in theological terms it belongs to the pre-conciliar world of what were thought of as clarities and certainties. The ambiguous statement on the other hand has two meanings, and is eminently suitable for conciliar documents, in particular for ecumenical documents, which have to be read in at least two ways by ex-opponents who are moving cautiously towards each other: ambiguity is the style of the liberal. We need, therefore, a word for what has neither two meanings nor one meaning, but one-and-a-half meanings, and ‘sesquiguous’ therefore springs to mind; a sesquiguous utterance is one in which the speaker both commits himself to a position and is simultaneously aware of the inadequacy of what he is saying, and of his own position in saying it: it is as I say really a form of irony. It involves shifting slightly to one side and taking a critical look at what you are and what you are saying, and at who is saying it. It is, in fact, the effort to overcome the ineluctably alienating character of signs and language as such. […] Nothing can really be said plonkingly, truth can only be conveyed ironically with an eye to the nearly always comic inadequacy of the signs used. (You cannot convey that you love someone except sesquiguously, or as we say, with a sesquiggle.)

from God Matters (Geoffrey Chapman, 1987), 176.

Herbert McCabe on crucifixion and resurrection in Trinitarian perspective

Jesus lived before his crucifixion in an imperfect society, a community of fear in which two men could never finally meet each other. He was confronted by two forms of ‘settling for’ this sort of society, two forms of idolatry: on the one hand the Roman colonial empire, on the other the Jewish religious leaders. In this context he offered himself as a new medium of communication between men. This we must be clear about. Jesus did not offer a new social theory, or a new religion, he did not offer even a full analysis of the contradictions of his society, he did not provide an ideal for a new kind of human community. He offered himself. The new kind of community was to be founded upon him, upon the new relationships he was able to establish with his friends, which released them from themselves, freed them from sin and made them open and able to risk becoming human. Jesus offered not a doctrine about what friendship of this kind might be, but the friendship itself. Such an offer involves, of course, a total vulnerability, Jesus put up no barriers to defend himself against others, he was absolutely at their disposal. When, therefore, the colonialist regime and the clerical establishment recognized him as a subversive threat and sought to liquidate him, he put up no defense and he was destroyed. So far we may see this purely within history; I will not say in humanist terms because the story is deeply pessimistic and the humanist is normally unreasonably optimistic. But we may see the story, without reference to God, as a commentary on the history of man. If you love enough you will be killed. Mankind inevitably rejects the only solution to its problem, the solution of love. Human history rejects its own meaning. Mankind is doomed. In this way we may look on the crucifixion and despair. The resurrection changes the whole perspective. It says that Jesus is not only a man who happens to offer love in its absolute form, but that he does so in obedience to the Father, that this solution to the problem of mankind, the problem of communication, is the Father’s plan, and that though men may reject it the Father does not. God comes into the picture for the Christian as ‘He who raised up Jesus from the dead.’ The love Jesus offers has its source outside history. Jesus, we discover, is not only totally for others, he is also totally of the Father. The spirit he makes available, what I have called the friendship that frees men, his own spirit, is the spirit of the Father. The communication he makes possible is a living into the Father’s communication of himself. From one point of view the resurrection is a revelation of the Trinity, we see Jesus and his Spirit in relationship to the Father. For this reason there is for the Christian no Unitarian halfway between atheism and the Trinity. Any worship of the gods other than as revealed in the resurrection of Jesus is idolatry.

from God Matters, (Geoffrey Chapman, 1987), 123-124.