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.

Readings on Theology and Realism

Readings on Theology and Realism

As I understand the realist dispute, the crux of the matter is captured in the following question tersely posed by Austin Farrer:

Tell us what middle position is tenable between a serious personalism in religion, and that pious atheism which has no other god than the backside of human nature? (Faith and Speculation, 1967: 48)

Farrer’s unstated point is that there is no such position. There is either (1) a traditional realist picture of God as a self-existing reality, or (2) some species of a constructivist picture of God as an artifact of human religiosity. (It might be worth noting: Farrer’s “personalism” is a separable point, e.g., a pantheist could still be a realist.) In any case, Farrer leaves us before two stark alternatives.

Others, however, have wondered whether more nuanced options might not be available. In another study, for instance, E. H. Henderson took up the question of whether D. Z. Phillips in fact articulated a third position. In the end, Henderson doesn’t think Phillips succeeded, for the reason that Phillips’ position seems to Henderson entirely translatable into the terms of the second picture. And so Henderson leaves us back where we started, with Farrer’s disjunction.

The story might have ended there, were it not for Denys Turner. Commenting on Don Cupitt’s retrieval of medieval theology, Turner claims:

The common thread which may be identified as running between the speculative mysticisms of the Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Eckhart … is to be found … in their critique of those antinomies of thought and those deformations of spirit for which there can be no alternative to a naïve realism except in a naïve non-realism. At the level of theological language, those antinomies show up in the naïve polarizations of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective,’ ‘realism’ and ‘non-realism’ (God and Reality, 124).

For Turner, the only thing as naïve as ‘naïve realism’ and ‘naïve non-realism’ is the naivety of the supposition that these two antithetical theses exhaust our options. Turner, that is, wants to leave the door open to the prospect of a more varied landscape. An intriguing claim (cf. Wittgenstein, OC §37). So for those with an interest in furthering this conversation, I’ve compiled a list of readings on realism as it bears on philosophy and theology.

Realism in Philosophy

  • Cora Diamond, The Realistic Spirit (1991).
  • Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face (1992).
  • William P. Alston, ed., Realism and Antirealism (2002).
  • Stuart Brock and Edwin Mares, Realism and Anti-Realism (2014).
  • Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor, Retrieving Realism (2015).

Realism in Theology

(listed chronologically — since Honest to God)

  • John A. T. Robinson, (1963) Honest to God.
  • Donald MacKinnon, “Idealism and Realism: An Old Controversy Renewed.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 77 (1976): 1-14.
  • Don Cupitt, (1980) Taking Leave of God.
  • Charles M. Wood, “On the Reality of God.” Iliff Review, 39/1 (1982): 3-8.
  • Rowan Williams, “ ‘Religious Realism’: On Not Quite Agreeing with Don Cupitt.” Modern Theology 1/1 (1984).
  • Edward Henderson, “Austin Farrer and D. Z. Phillips on Lived Faith, Prayer, and Divine Reality.” Modern Theology 1/3 (1985): 223-243.
  • Fergus Kerr, (1989) “Idealism and Realism: An Old Controversy Dissolved,” In Christ, Ethics, and Tragedy: Essays in Honour of Donald MacKinnon, edited by Kenneth Surin, 15-33.
  • William Alston, “Realism and the Christian Faith.” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 38 (1995): 37–60.
  • Colin Crowder, ed., (1997) God and Reality: Essays on Christian Non-realism.
  • Andrew Moore, (2003) Realism and Christian Faith: God, Grammar, and Meaning.
  • Christopher Insole, (2006) The Realist Hope: A Critique of Anti-Realist Approaches in Contemporary Philosophical Theology.
  • Francesca A. Murphy, (2007) God is Not a Story: Realism Revisited.
  • Eds. Scott and Moore, (2007) Realism and Religion: Philosophical and Theological Perspectives
  • Robert A. Cathey, (2009) God in Postliberal Perspective: Between Realism and Nonrealism. [This would be the book to start with if you can find a copy. I could nitpick, but I won’t. Its strength is the survey of the conversation it provides.]
  • Roger Trigg, (2010) “Theological Realism and Antirealism,” In A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Eds. Taliaferro, Draper, & Quinn, 651–8.