Why I love Herbert McCabe

by Kim on February 24, 2011

Mendip recently mentioned in the thread of “Questioning as unbelief?” that Herbert McCabe is a must-read contemporary theologian (specifically referring to the book God Matters). Here is a post I did for Ben Myers in July 2006 as part of a series: “Why I love Herbert McCabe”. (I also did one one on Rowan Williams and Stanley Hauerwas, also mentioned by Mendip, who clearly is not far from the kingdom of God.) One cannot read too much Herbert McCabe, and it is fantastic that Continuum is continuing to roll off the press stuff of his that either was never published or is out print.

It was love at first (sound) bite: a nineties newspaper article on “spirituality” referred to a Catholic spiritual director named Herbert McCabe, who defined prayer as “wasting time with God”. Exactly, I smiled! Prayer, like play, is useless; it is not necessary – it is much more important than that. I’ve got to find out more about this guy, I thought!

But there wasn’t a lot to discover. There was a book called God Matters (1987), but over a quarter of it was on transubstantiation. My separated brothers and sisters, forgive me, but that was one way I did not want to waste time with God! Eventually I came across an obituary – McCabe died in 2001 – and posthumous collections of his writings, lectures and sermons suddenly began to appear.

The style is engaging – elegant and exact, conversational and caustic, reflecting McCabe’s rigour of thought and nose for humbug: rightly it has been compared to that of Chesterton.

And the expanded content (I am happy to report) transcends transubstantiation. The influences of Marx and Wittgenstein are evident, as McCabe speaks passionately about the incompatibility of Christianity and capitalism, and writes insightfully about sacramental language and faith’s forms of life. But there is always a “dumb ox” in the room – the presence of Thomas Aquinas. And out of the mix on ethics and virtue, prayer and liturgy, evil and atonement – all the old loci – McCabe always brings new mint, coined in the memorable phrase.

And what a character! As befits a don of Dominic, who founded his order in a pub, McCabe liked his Scotch. He was zestful and jestful, and at home at high and low table alike. And no jobsworth was McCabe. A colleague tells me that so radical were his leaders as editor of one particular journal that he was sacked. But the unemployment of such a class act was temporary. Re-hired, McCabe began his first leader back: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted …”

Among those inspired by McCabe are not only theologians like Eamon Duffy and Nicholas Lash, and philosophers like Anthony Kenny and Alasdair MacIntyre, but also critics and poets, including Terry Eagleton and Seamus Heaney. Testimony to a man lazy in publication but powerful in presence.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }


Mendip Nomad 02.24.11 at 12:53 pm

Thanks for (re-)posting this, Kim. I first encountered McCabe last term, when more than one chapter of God Matters was recommended on Supervision Essay reading lists. Like you, Kim, it was love at first sight - the cover of the edition I have on almost constant renewal from one of the Federation libraries here has on it the very last paragraph of the final chapter of the book, which is a commentary on Matthew 1.1-17:

“Jesus did not belong to the nice clean world of Angela Macnamara or Mary Whitehouse, or to the honest, reasonable, sincere world of the Observer or the Irish Times; he belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars — he belonged to us and came to help us, no wonder he came to a bad end, and gave us some hope.”

While only particular chapters were mentioned in the reading lists, I read it all, even the quarter of it on Catholic understandings of the Real Presence - and as a student of Church & Sacraments in an ecumenical setting his writings on transubstantiation have actually helped.

As someone who is certainly a young doctrinal scholar above all other theological disciplines, if I ever manage to write anything even half as challenging, witty, engaging, deep and grounded in reality as McCabe wrote then I will be more than happy!


Mendip Nomad 02.25.11 at 12:47 am

Oh, and I know Eamon Duffy (well, I’m taught by him anyway - he’s the main lecturer on my Christian Image & Icon paper) and I think he would laugh in genuine mirth at being described as a theologian - he is most assuredly an historian, of both church and art history! :)

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