Tag: Herbert McCabe

Politics and faith: fragments



Life at the moment is dominated by strike action I’m taking at work. Read about (and, if you can, support) our dispute here. This inevitably raises for meĀ  the issue of conflict – how do those of us who sign up to a gospel full of the language of peace and unity reconcile this with the reality that, in a situation like this, someone like me is committed to fighting, and to winning, against a management that are, in respect of this at least, my enemies. At the risk of becoming a McCabe-distribution agent, his The Class Struggle and Christian Love remains the best thing written directly on this. I looked at similar issues from an intra-ecclesial perspective some time back.

Also on the subject of Christianity and politics, there’s a nice piece currently up on the Morning Star website on the Christian heritage and socialism. (Anyone familiar with the internal divisions of the left will realise that it takes a lot for me to recommend something from the Morning Star, but this really is worth a look!)


McCabe on Almsgiving and Justice

I am, honestly, reading authors other than Herbert McCabe this Lent. But this, from an Ash Wednesday sermon, struck me as succinctly getting right the purpose and dangers of Lenten almsgiving. Having already spoken about fasting, McCabe says:

The other side of fasting is almsgiving, helping those in need. But here, too, remember that we are engaged in a drama, a symbolic act. We do not give alms in Lent because we are under the illusion that almsgiving will solve the problem of world poverty; and by the same token we do not think it foolish to give alms just because we know it will not solve that problem. The point is again to dramatize for ourselves the reality of poverty and oppression and need, and of our responsibility in the face of it. Almsgiving is not a substitute for political action. Art is not a substitute for reality.

(God, Christ, and Us. p. 77)

McCabe on sin

Contemplata aliis tradere, to hand on to others that which is contemplated, is a central part of the Dominican charism, the Dominican way of being Christian. This, of course, implies that the person doing the handing on sometimes does some contemplating. With that in mind, Lent for me is going to be more about reading than about writing for this blog. I will try to share each week something that has struck me in my reading.

In one of McCabe’s sermons, in the collection published as God, Christ, and Us, he returns to an appropriately Lenten theme that he discusses in several other places: sin, and our tendency to confuse different senses of the word ‘sin’, ending up as a consequence with an understanding of sin which is too harsh on ourselves and our failings and damaging to our growth as Christian.

Sin proper, mortal sin, is the rejection of God’s friendship, into which we entered by our baptism. It is the rejection of the life of charity, hence the word, mortal. Ordinary everyday venial sin (which – he emphasises elsewhere – is what we work on in Lent) is a different thing altogether:

[Venial sins] do not destroy, or even diminish, the divine life of charity within us. Aquinas, most encouragingly, says that it is not possible for the life of charity to be diminished by any action of ours since the life of charity is the work of God. We can lose it altogether by real, serious, mortal sin. But that is all. Sin, in this [venial] sense, is simply failing to grow in charity, missing the opportunities of growth. And its remedy is simply trying to be a bit more caring towards those we live amongst.

Marxism and Christianity: Chapter Two

Wittgenstein became fond of a line from Goethe, “In the beginning was the deed”. The reason for his attachment to this saying was that it reverses a certain picture of language as something discarnate and inert, somehow floating apart from embodied human life and action. Against this, the later Wittgenstein insisted that language arose out of and lent meaning to particular forms of human life: “to imagine a language game is to imagine a form of life” he writes in the Philosophical Investigations. Action is meaningful, not least because some actions are linguistic (speaking, writing…), but also because the wider array of actions we can perform are incorporated into our lives as linguistic, meaning-bestowing animals – thus kisses, handshakes, salutes, sex, and shared meals, amongst much else. On the other hand meaning is a bodily, practical, matter, incarnate in our somatic lives, which limit its possibilities just as it extends theirs.


Undoubtedly influenced by Wittgenstein (whose thought reached the English Catholic left of the later 20th century through McCabe), Turner adopts this view of the interconnectedness of meaning and corporeality (a corporeality which, because governed by conventions is of necessity social). He uses it to supply an exegesis on Merleau-Ponty’s take on a key Marxist notion, praxis: “…the meaning which works itself out spontaneously in the intercrossing of the activities by which man organises his relations with nature and with other men”. He poses an agenda setting question: if thought is so intimately related to social practice as the applicability of the concept of praxis and the operative picture of meaning might suggest, how can it be that thought misrepresents social reality, as many understandings of ideology seem to suggest that it does?

I am unapologetically signed up to the Wittgenstein/ Turner approach to understanding meaning, but it has a dated feel in the context of contemporary discussions of relationships between Christianity and the political left. Between Turner’s writing and now the reception of postmodernism took place, followed by its disintegration into a myriad of identity politics. Common to these is a stress on the arbitrariness of meaning: why need a kiss mean “I love you”; why need this piece of paper be a banknote? In one sense, of course, this is uncontroversial – things could have meant otherwise. But on the other hand, the line of questioning can become obsessional and perverse. (Wittgenstein remarked that the language-game is “just there, like life”.) Meaning comes to be thought of as too plastic an affair, its rootedness in social practice is either forgotten or written off as inherently oppressive (that some social practices are oppressive does not, of course, entail that all are). Similarly the extent to which we are limited by our bodies is understressed. Whereas Christianity and Marxism alike see hope in the constrained possibilities contained within (or in the case of Christianity, given to) frail fragile bodies, our corporeal natures are now viewed as potential sites of limitless transformation.

The unfortunate thing is that, as far as I can see, the impetus to recover a view in which meaningful bodiliness is a source of some stability is, within contemporary politically-aware Christianity the preserve of reactionaries. Think, for example, about a particular kind of anti-feminist reception of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Yet surely the left needs just as much a better picture of language (and, dare I say, a less ideological one) than that bestowed by the intellectual fads of recent decades. Solidarity is a matter of socially instanced meaning, bodies move with purpose in demonstrations, and words of revolt arise out of lives of toil. It is no small irony that Turner’s favoured picture has the resources to explain its own demise: as the violent upheavals of neoliberal capitalism uprooted the more stable forms of life of the past, people became less able to speak and think of themselves as the linguistic animals they in fact are. The challenge is to recover that ability.