In the rapidly changing political and economic conditions of our time, it is important that we consider existential questions of how to live as Christians. As we seek to answer these questions, historian Eugene McCarraher offers an incisive, prophetic voice from that rare vantage point of historical competency and theological literacy.
In part one of our interview with McCarraher, he talks about some salient themes emerging in the 2000s, including the credulity of the U.S. populace, Christian conservatism, the spectacle of “Obamarama,” and the Tiger Woods scandal as underwhelming distraction. Part two looks at the “Obama Doctrine,” Niebuhrian realism, and the usefulness of maps. Here, in the final installment of this interview, McCarraher talks about, among other things, the Manhattan Declaration, Radical Orthodoxy, and Herbert McCabe.
The Other Journal (TOJ): This fall a document called the Manhattan Declaration was drafted and signed by sixty prominent U.S. Christian leaders—Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical—advocating three truths: “the sanctity of human life,” “the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife,” and “the rights of conscience and religious liberty.”1 In the declaration, they claim heritage with the brave Christian heroes William Wilberforce, John Wesley, and Martin Luther King Jr. Additionally, the document appeals to universal reason and natural law, a sign of Catholic scholar and Princeton professor Robert George’s influence on the document.2
The Manhattan Declaration’s reiteration of conservative talking points is interesting given that the Christian political vision they are proffering proved anemic for many conservative and liberal Christians alike during the election of President Obama. And although there is brief mention of the work Christians have been doing in the last decade on human rights, it is cursory, and there is little or no mention of poverty in our own country, racism, just war, economic concerns, environmental concerns, access to education, access to health care, access to justice, and on and on. In your view, why the return to these talking points? And can this document offer a critical intervention into its stated concern—a culture of death—with its appeal to universal reason and natural law?
Eugene McCarraher (EM): The Manhattan Declaration is the latest encyclical from those people Damon Linker once dubbed “the theocons”: intellectuals committed to the maintenance of the United States as a “Christian nation,” an imperial hegemon, and a “free-market” capitalist economy. These thecons abhor the remaking of the sexual order that commenced in the 1960s, reject consumer culture without rejecting the political economy of which it’s a part, oppose the expansion of government to regulate business and provide social services for the poor, suspect the greater tolerance for religious pluralism and secularism that now characterizes American religious life, and desire a forceful U.S. presence on the world stage against Islam, radical or not. They aim at a cultural counterrevolution that will reestablish the sexual ancien régime within the parameters of a morally rehabilitated capitalism. (Before publishing his invaluable study of the movement, The Theocons, Linker had been an editor at First Things, so he knows whereof he writes.) Written by a troika of right-wing religious intellectuals—Robert George, Timothy George (no relation), and Charles Colson, the Nixon hatchet-man who found Jesus in prison—the Manhattan Declaration is a short and tiresome document, outlining, as if we didn’t know already, the objections made by evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox conservatives to abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, and what they consider to be assaults on religious liberty in the name of political correctness. Stylistically, it’s pedestrian; intellectually, it’s pretty thin, but then, it’s a manifesto and not a treatise. Though I must say that the best manifestos have displayed both literary flourish and intellectual heft: witness The Rights of Man, The Communist Manifesto, and The Futurist Manifesto, all of which are still exhilarating. If these guys want to ignite or re-ignite a movement, they’d be well-advised to take tips from Paine, Marx, and Marinetti.
At first, it’s hard to understand the appearance of this document—as I said, it’s not like these views aren’t already prominent in our cultural and intellectual life—but I’ll take a stab at interpreting its timing and reflect on the larger phenomenon of the religious right in general.
For one thing, the authors and signatories are freaked out by President Obama. During the election and the early days of Obama’s presidency, I heard all kinds of doomsday scenarios from my conservative colleagues, mostly about abortion and gay marriage. The level of hysteria was quite high; you’d have thought from listening to them that Obama represents the arrival of the Brave New World. So when, for instance, you read the political and cultural hysterics published on a bimonthly basis in First Things, you’re reading the highbrow version of “tea-bagging.” So one way to view this document is as a cri de coeur from a religious right whose political fortunes are at a low point.
That makes this declaration appear all the more odd, because it really does repeat a lot of Republican talking points that clearly didn’t work in November 2008. So why keep at it? One reason is that a lot of people on the religious right can’t distinguish any longer between the gospel and Republican talking points. Another reason—and this speaks to your point about the relative absence of concern about poverty, racism, ecology, health care, et cetera—is that the religious right really doesn’t give a damn about poverty, racism, ecology, health care, et cetera. This is nothing new: American Protestantism in particular has a long tradition of thinking poverty a sign of God’s disfavor, or at the very least, a sign of an individual’s laziness or incompetence. Similarly, racism, for the religious right, is usually considered simply an individual failing, not a structural issue. As the denial of global warming demonstrates, ecology isn’t even an issue with many religious conservatives: their commitment to a capitalist economy mandates indifference to its environmental consequences, and concern about the condition of the planet can be easily dismissed as secular materialism or pagan idolatry. So the religious right quite literally has either nothing to say about these problems, or as Robert George’s remarks in that New York Times Magazine profile clearly indicated, they consider them secondary to sexual and bioethical matters.3
But perhaps another reason might well be that the declaration articulates the worldview of many Christians who still long for a restoration of the America before the 1960s. In other words, the culture wars, so breezily declared to have been overshadowed by economic matters, are in fact far from over. Obama’s victory deluded a lot of people into thinking that the religious right had packed up and gone away. The tea-bagging events of last summer should have reminded everyone that the Kulturkampf lives and that the religious right is still a potent force in American life. However ill-informed and delusional, the level and ferocity of opposition to “Obamacare” was fueled, to no small degree, by fears of some secular liberal government takeover of the biological basis of life itself. Thus, I don’t think you can understand the traction of Sarah Palin’s “death panel” delusion unless you comprehend the belief that Obama represents the demise of “the Christian Nation.” I don’t know anything about Timothy George, but Robert George and Charles Colson are certainly smart and savvy, so perhaps they want to capitalize on Obama’s quickly shrinking credibility.
If they want to be the intellectual shock troops of a counterrevolution, they’re going to have to amass a better arsenal than what’s on display in the Manhattan Declaration. David Fitzpatrick’s hagiography in the New York Times Magazine made it appear that Robert George is a real intellectual juggernaut, but this document is really lame. (Having met George once, I can attest that he is indeed a learned and gracious man.) The preamble, for instance, is a farrago of half-truth, untruth, and middlebrow history. We’re told in the very first sentence that Christianity has a two-millennium “tradition” of “resisting tyranny” and “reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed, and suffering.” Not a mention of the two-millennium tradition of sanctifying tyranny—imperial conquest from the Romans to the Americans, monarchical rule from the Dark Ages to the twentieth century, dictatorships from Francisco Franco to Ríos Montt. Not a mention of the many blessings showered on feudal and industrial squalor, the oppression of slaves with the authority of the Bible, the infliction of suffering on Indians and other non-Christians. Later, we’re regaled that Christians “challenged the divine claims of kings,” but nothing about how Christians also, and more forcefully, sustained those claims. We’re reminded that Christians liberated “child laborers chained to machines,” but we’re left unenlightened about Rev. Thomas Malthus, Rev. Thomas Chalmers, and later evangelical apologists for laissez-faire and wage labor, often the very same evangelicals who fought for the abolition of slavery. And that’s not to mention the impact evangelical thinking had on exacerbating the Great Famine in Ireland. (Those interested in early 19th-century evangelical social thought must read Boyd Hilton’s The Age of Atonement.) We’re informed that Christian women “marched in the vanguard of the suffrage movement,” but not that Christians of both sexes also barred the door to the franchise for women, bolstered, I might add, by centuries of tradition. The authors think they’ve covered their backsides by writing that they “fully acknowledge the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages,” but the survey they offer betrays no sign of humility or contrition.4
The document’s whitewashing of the Christian endorsement of slavery exemplifies its intellectual dishonesty. The long Christian support for slavery remains a chapter in the history of the faith that has occasioned all manner of disingenuousness, and this declaration only encourages that. It mentions that popes excommunicated slave traders—so what? This had no effect whatsoever on the slave trade. The fear of going to hell was nothing next to the fear of losing money. And besides, doctors like Augustine had put their seal of approval on slavery centuries before. (By the way, Augustine’s remarks on slavery in the City of God demonstrate how Georgian appeals to “natural law” can be utterly irrelevant. Augustine says there that while slavery is contrary to nature, it is or can be a legitimate “punishment for sin.” I’m reminded of Gibbon’s acerbic footnote about Augustine in the Decline and Fall: “His learning is too often borrowed, and his arguments are too often his own.”) As the great historian of antiquity G. E. M. de Ste. Croix once acidly observed, Christianity, far from loosening the shackles of slaves, riveted them on even more tightly. Heroes like Wilberforce and Wesley were necessary because their historical brethren had done little or nothing for two millennia to relieve the burden of servitude. By obscuring the historical record, the declaration both confirms suspicions about Christian obscurantism—this history is well-known or easily accessible—and it perpetuates the historical amnesia that makes so depressing the praise heaped on a film such as Amazing Grace.5 Yes, many North Atlantic evangelicals were abolitionists; but in the antebellum South, most certainly were not, and as Mark Noll, himself an evangelical, demonstrates in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, the proslavery theologians often had the better of the purely biblical arguments.6
Noll also makes an incisive observation in that book that’s pertinent to our time: the controversy over slavery was the culture war of the antebellum period. In other words, our culture wars are not unprecedented, and neither are the kinds of religious arguments deployed in battle. The slavery debate was bound up inextricably with an argument over the meaning of Christianity, and so are the debates over sexuality, marriage, and bioethics. So be careful when the Bible or natural law is trotted out to justify or condemn some practice or idea.
When conservative evangelicals assert, correctly, that homosexual conduct is cursed as an abomination in the Bible, I have to ask why they don’t also advocate debt slavery, the enslavement and forcible marriage of the women of defeated enemies, or the ritual examination of women accused by their husbands of adultery, all of which are clearly permitted or enjoined in the same Bible. If they retort that “times have changed,” then I have to ask why that dispensation doesn’t apply to gays and lesbians.
When the Robert Georges of the world appeal to natural law to condemn homosexual sex, I have to ask why they don’t call for the revocation of the female suffrage in support of which Christians were a vanguard, because it’s a matter of historical record that opponents of votes for women enlisted arguments from “the nature of woman.” It’s worth adding that proslavery ideologues also appealed to natural law, citing either the inherent or the cultural inferiority of blacks. Is it not natural, they asked, for the superior to rule the inferior? And if the Robert Georges of the world retort that their predecessors misinterpreted the natural law, then they are implicitly conceding that what’s considered natural isn’t as evident as right reason thinks it is, and that, therefore, nature depends on historical circumstances.
What’s clear to me is that the Christian worldview or natural law that’s endemic both to the document and to the religious right amounts to the sacralization of a certain form of suburban modernity. In order to understand the cultural politics inscribed in the Manhattan Declaration, it’s useful to think of theocons like Robert George, Charles Colson, and the First Things crowd as an American coterie of “reactionary modernists.” That’s a term invented by the historian Jeffrey Herf to describe an array of intellectuals, who were mostly but not exclusively German, who emerged in the aftermath of World War I.7 Exemplified by Oswald Spengler, Ernst Junger, and a variety of fascist writers, reactionary modernism represented an attempt to embrace the economic and technological modernity of corporate capitalism while rejecting its Enlightenment rationalism and cultural emancipation. My impression is that Robert George et. al. have very little problem with the commodity cornucopia produced by capitalism nor do they really object to the corporate organization of labor that makes it possible. I don’t really think they’re all that concerned either about what’s labeled consumerism, a term which, as your readers might recall, I don’t like myself, but it’s still a bit odd that it doesn’t often turn up in theocon writing.8 My impression is that they’re just as enchanted by buzzwords like innovation and creativity as the rest of the country is. What they fear is that the instrumental reason that they laud in the marketplace will jump its supposed boundaries and enter into other realms of life, disrupting, in particular, the sexual and family arrangements they consider natural. Beholden to the Bible or to natural law while spellbound by American market culture, theocons are thoroughly modern, however long and loudly they bewail the prodigal spirit of modernity.
This goes a long way in explaining the theocon obsession with sex to the exclusion of economics, health care, et cetera. As I’ve suggested, the theocons, like other kinds of conservatives, are in the impossible position of wanting capitalism without its inevitable social and cultural turbulence, a large part of which has been the sex and gender trouble provoked by capitalism’s demolition of traditional patriarchy. The greater sexual freedom of women in particular reminds theocons that the self-possession and autonomy they celebrate in the marketplace can be exercised in the bedroom and elsewhere. I mean “sexual freedom of women” here to include, not only what they do in bed and with whom they do it, but a broader range of freedoms in areas of traditional male control and supervision: access to education, employment, housing, et cetera. It’s quite revealing of the level of fear and angst involved here that Leon Kass, another B-lister who gets exalted in some quarters into a sage, once lamented that college-educated women don’t live with their parents until they get married. Rather than ponder the significance of the fact that choice and autonomy are keywords in both economic and sexual libertarianism, and thus rethink their entire conception of the relationship between the sexual and political economies, theocons displace their anxieties about market autonomy onto sex. They make feeble attempts to argue that sexual activity and market activity are in separate spheres, evaluated by different standards, but this ideological obfuscation is becoming more and more apparent. If you really want patriarchy and traditional, “natural” gender roles back, you’ve got to destroy capitalism in the name of some reactionary proprietary vision. Unless they’re absolute loons like the dominionists, the theocons can’t and won’t do that.
Still, having dumped on the theocons, I don’t want to convey the impression that their concerns are misplaced or that their solutions are worthless. One doesn’t have to affirm the ancien régime of sex and gender to consider abortion an evil or to be alarmed at the instrumentalization of the body that’s promoted as liberation in contemporary sexual culture, the complete sundering of sexual pleasure from love, friendship, community, and posterity.9 (I’ve already shared my views on abortion with The Other Journal, so I won’t dilate on them here.) As lame as it is, the theocons’ attempt to respond to the vilification of Christianity in both popular and intellectual culture is salutary. Most importantly, I support their effort to reintroduce some notion of human nature and teleology back into the moral and political conversation.
Robert George is a self-proclaimed Aristotelian and Thomist, and even if I don’t entirely share his understanding of what that means, I would contend that we should affirm a resolutely teleological conception of human nature. That’s why, even while I’m skeptical about facile appeals to natural law or human nature, I do think that there is such a thing as human nature and that happiness and fulfillment reside in the performance of that nature. What has to be emphasized is that Aristotelian teleology has more than one political meaning. If George represents one (I think quite shoddy) line of Aristotelian-Thomist politics, Alasdair MacIntyre and Herbert McCabe represent another, one that I find more convincing and congenial. (I don’t want to merge MacIntyre and McCabe too closely here. MacIntyre learned a lot from McCabe, but I don’t think he’d quite share McCabe’s lifelong commitment to socialism. Politically, I’d put him somewhere between George and McCabe.) As McCabe often insisted, if human nature finds its fulfillment in a community of friendship, then our arrangements of sexual, economic, and political life should both reflect and foster such a community. I would maintain that, in the current historical circumstances, some kind of socialism is the political economy of friendship and virtue. Obviously, George and the Manhattanites would disagree strongly, but I don’t think they can just dismiss the whole matter by saying that “you can get all the moral principles right, and still not have a right answer” to the question of how to construct economic and social institutions. That’s punting, which means, in effect, that they accept the current system.
That is why theocons like Robert George are, in the end, vying for the role of clerisy in the imperial corporate state. In the mise–en–scène of American corporatism, the theocons play the role of culturally despairing mandarins. Dispossessed by what they consider the leftish remnants of the sixties counterculture—the “cultural elite” or the “liberal media” who they vilify as the root and spawn of all evil—they’re competitors for cultural hegemony in the corporate state, seeking to reestablish an older form of American imperial culture. What’s ironic is that they’re part of the cultural elite. As much as they bray about being beleaguered outsiders kicked to the curb by liberals, they’re employed in an infrastructure of universities, think tanks, and periodicals, many of which are lavishly funded by rich reactionaries and business interests.
Some of them, like the late Richard Neuhaus, were doing penance, in their minds, for their sixties radicalism. One of the many virtues of Linker’s book is that he retrieves some of Neuhaus’s more sanguinary statements from historical oblivion. Neuhaus was writing well of guerrilla warfare, kidnapping, and other forms of terror; he even wrote that Che Guevara’s reluctance to engage in terrorism showed that he lacked sufficient “manhood.”10 So the notorious 1996 issue of First Things that contemplated “morally justified revolution” had an ancestor in Neuhaus’s venomous and frustrated machismo.11
These theocons have direct and frequent access to political elites—if this is outsiderdom, it’s one of the plushest marginalities I’ve ever seen.
Because they want a “Christian nation”—note the absence of Jews, Muslims, and others who I have no doubt share their views—what they want to provide is a covenant theology for the corporate state. I don’t think they’ll succeed in quite the way they hope. They’re useful to the American Empire in so far as they mobilize consent to corporate and imperial policies. But as I’m arguing in the book I’m completing this year, The Enchantments of Mammon, corporate capitalism has its own forms of religiosity or enchantment, and theocon Christianity is, in the final analysis, utterly expendable and even potentially threatening to the corporatist order. However hard they try, theoconservatives can’t suppress for long the incompatibility of the gospel with a system of avarice and brutality.
TOJ: Finally, this issue is on the relationship between economy and hope—we are examining how our understanding of economies frames our understanding of hope and how we might profess a thick account of Christian hope in this difficult economic time. You mentioned Fr. Herbert McCabe earlier, and as we end this interview, I’m curious to hear how McCabe has helped you understand and nurture hope amid the failures of the earthly city?
EM: Yes, McCabe has had a simply incalculable impact on me, and I’m happy to see that his influence is spreading. I honestly can’t remember exactly how I first came across McCabe’s work. I know it was during the early ’90s, when I was working on my dissertation, and I was reading the earliest works in Radical Orthodoxy (RO) in conjunction with the historical research I was pursuing that became Christian Critics. Because some of the RO work was being published in New Blackfriars, the Dominican journal published out of Blackfriars, Oxford, I may well have first encountered McCabe there. Besides, while researching about American Catholic social thinking in the 1920s and ’30s, I had to read its first iteration, Blackfriars, which published Eric Gill, Fr. Vincent McNabb, and others who influenced Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers. I was struck by how similar a lot of their concerns were to those of John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas, and others in the larger orbit of RO—which should tell you, and I don’t means this at all invidiously, that RO isn’t quite as original and unprecedented as it’s often considered to be. In any event, I naturally started leafing through the New Blackfriars of the ’60s and ’70s, when McCabe was the editor, and it was publishing people associated with the Slant group of New Left Catholics: Terry Eagleton, Brian Wicker, Denys Turner, and others. Really exciting, engaging stuff; it opened up an intellectual world whose existence I’d never even suspected. I still think New Blackfriars is one of the best theological journals in the world.
What impressed me about McCabe in God Matters (1987), and what has continued to impress me after I’ve read through the rest of his corpus of sermons, essays, and books, is his marvelous blend of wit, erudition, and generosity of spirit.12 McCabe has often been compared to G. K. Chesterton in this regard, and I understand that McCabe took that as a great compliment, but I think the comparison doesn’t do justice to McCabe. I like reading Chesterton, but I often get the feeling that the wit is working overtime as a substitute for argument. The wit is certainly there in spades in McCabe—my personal favorite concerns his objection in God Matters to some of the more ridiculous liturgical “innovations” that lefty Catholics came up with in the 1960s. When one group substituted crackers and Coke for bread and wine during the Eucharistic sacrifice—they were more “relevant” to a consumer society, I suppose—McCabe objected that, in his view, crackers and Coke are not food and drink. I almost did a spit take the first time I read that, and he had me from there on. But unlike Chesterton, McCabe earns his right to employ wit by making lucid and rigorous arguments. He never tries to simply charm you into agreeing with him.
He also doesn’t try to bludgeon you into agreement with him, which is one of the things that worried me early on about RO: the tendency that some of them had and still have to turn theology into a blood sport. Before I go on further about McCabe, let me offer a critique of RO, because if RO led me to McCabe, McCabe led me away from RO. Like a lot of Christian intellectuals over the last two decades, I quaffed a bit of the Kool-Aid served up by those in the RO constellation. Well, if I can extend the Kool-Aid metaphor a bit, drinking from the cistern of RO was refreshing and stimulating, particularly the idea that theology can be a distinct and compelling form of social and cultural criticism—of all the literature on that score, I think Graham Ward’s Cities of God is a real milestone.13 But as I’ve watched how some of this has played out or not played out over the last decade, I’ve concluded that the theological renaissance these figures embodied not only has waned, but also has encouraged some very bad mental and political habits. For one thing, I’m tired of hearing “modernity” and “liberalism” treated as though they were the spawn of Satan. Along with the other usual suspects—instrumental reason, science, universal rights, cosmopolitanism, “the Enlightenment project”—modernity and liberalism get hauled into the docket and found guilty, usually after a perfunctory trial, of the Judeocide, ecological catastrophe, capitalism, nuclear war, abortion, et cetera, ad nauseam. Give me a frigging break. When modernity and liberalism are this all-encompassing, they’ve become nothing more than verbal ciphers, containers for everything the writer doesn’t like, bestowing license to utter all manner of grandiose and stupid pontifications. With a lot of these people, liberalism equals nihilism, which equals the lowest circle of the inferno. The theological problem with this view is that it tends to completely strip the created world of its goodness. Can’t liberal modernity mediate grace or partake of beatitude in some fashion? Since when did Gothic architecture and the like become the only sanctioned media of Trinitarian love? Since when did Brave New World become the final word on modernity? So if you want to deride instrumental reason and technology, fine, but just remember all that when you have a toothache, or if the specialist discovers a tumor in time, or if your wife needs emergency assistance during childbirth. If you want to curse cosmopolitanism, fine, but just stop jetting across the oceans and using the Internet to do it, all the while lecturing the rest of us about nestling in the homespun joys of localism.
I’ve noticed that among RO’s American avatars there seems to be something of a Wendell Berry cult. You’d never know it from the way that they talk about him that the agrarian proprietary ideal is also what fueled Indian genocide and segregation. So enough already about rural life from disaffected suburbanites.
Like all intellectual laziness, that of RO has political implications that are debilitating and even insidious. I’ve long thought that what I’ve called the ecclesial fetishism of the movement is a problem. As Eric Gregory reminds us, the kingdom is much bigger than the church.14 By the same token, the movement’s portrait of church is sociologically unreal; it certainly doesn’t correspond to any church I know. If they want to say that their conception of church is an ideal, I wish they’d put the adjective eschatological in front of the word; but then, come the eschaton, there will be no church, only the kingdom. Like all fetishes, the church comes to bear an imaginative and political weight that it just can’t bear. Meanwhile, the insistence on the church as a political community can have theocratic implications to which I strongly object. I’m not the first person to point out that Milbank’s ecclesiology would seem to commit him inexorably to some kind of theocracy. He often employs all manner of bluster and circumlocution to avoid addressing this issue squarely—his response to Ben Suriano’s question about this in The Other Journal a few years back is utterly incoherent.15 But then, Milbank and others in RO can be too ill-tempered and dismissive to converse with anyone outside the cognoscenti; Chuck Mathewes has deftly pointed out that Milbank can’t talk to his opponents, only about them.
Milbank’s Christian socialism has a lot that’s attractive: decentralization, attention to technology as a moral and aesthetic realm, a call on unions and professional associations to become more guild-like and demand control over the means of production. But from what I’ve seen so far, he seems to favor in practice a distributism of the Chesterbelloc variety: small farms, small workshops, and local proprietary enterprise, all with a neomedievalist glaze over everything. Sorry, but this sounds like petty bourgeois capitalism decked out in Tolkienesque drag, a Rotary Club of the Shire. The decentralist tradition of Peter Kropotkin, Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Goodman is much better informed historically about cities, ecology, and the history of technology. Milbank knows little or nothing of these people, but then it’s kind of an open secret that his reading of the historical record is selective, if not downright tendentious—he writes about John Ruskin, for instance, as if Ruskin was the only critic of industrial capitalism in Britain in the nineteenth century. Nothing about William Morris, Patrick Geddes, or Ebenezer Howard. Oh, that’s right; they weren’t Christians, so they couldn’t possibly have gotten anything right.
I took that critical detour because reading McCabe gave me a way to articulate to myself what it was about RO that left me not only unconvinced but fearful of where that movement was headed. First, McCabe’s conception of the relationships among theology, politics, and culture are grounded in a much more modest ecclesiology. In God Still Matters (2002), McCabe glosses the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium’s assertion that the Church is “the sacrament of union with God and the unity of humankind.”16 McCabe underscores that the unity sacramentally realized in the Eucharist is not that of the Church, per se, but that of humanity at the eschaton. The sacramental life of the Church points beyond itself to the future, where the Church will no longer exist. Sacraments offer a foretaste of what is to come; they do not indicate the unity of this or that society at any point in history. That, it seems to me, is the fundamental tendency of thinking of the “church as polis,” the Church as “the other city,” et cetera. That’s what makes RO so prone to ecclesial fetishism and sociological unreality. One of the things I came to like about McCabe’s understanding of the Church is that it’s so unpretentious and provisional; he doesn’t make a lot of highfalutin claims about what it can do in the world.
That modesty informs the homiletic and pastoral features that I came to cherish in McCabe. Because he was a Dominican, McCabe’s forte was preaching, and his sermons, especially the ones in God, Christ, and Us,17 are among the most moving homilies I’ve ever read. His writing led me to that of other Dominicans, living and dead—Timothy Radcliffe, Fergus Kerr, Bede Jarrett, Victor White, Gerald Vann, certainly Thomas Aquinas—and they’ve become my favorite order. I swear that reading McCabe has often kept me a Christian. His sermons and essays, and his essays have an unobtrusively homiletic quality, repeatedly return to a basic truth: God is in love with us, and everything about the gospel starts from God’s love for us, no matter how awful we are. There’s a distinction McCabe drew between indifference and love that illustrates this quite well. Indifference says, “I don’t care what he does,” whereas love says “I don’t care what he does.”
McCabe’s defense of petitionary prayer, for instance, is a model of straightforward, no-nonsense pastoral care. People often think that when they pray, they either shouldn’t pray for things—that’s grubby and selfish; you should be “communing with God” or something like that—or the things they pray for should be noble and selfless: world peace, social justice, et cetera. McCabe deflates all of that high-mindedness by noting that when people say they’re distracted during prayer, what they’re really saying is that their real wants are breaking through their high-minded palaver. He observes wryly that people in foxholes or on sinking ships aren’t troubled by distractions to their prayers. McCabe’s advice is to just go ahead and ask for what you really want—a good grade, money for the mortgage, Grandmom getting better, not drowning. You’re not fooling God by praying for things you don’t really desire but rather think you should desire. Maybe you should pray for those things—the Holy Spirit will lead you there eventually—but if you can’t even pray for the things you do want, how are you ever going to pray for the things you should want? Moreover, McCabe contends that there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. God gives us either what we ask for or more than what we asked for, which we often experience as his saying no. Our not receiving what we want is a way for God to get us to reflect on what we really desire; it’s a way of getting us to realize what we should be praying for, which, in the end, is communion with him.
McCabe was also a socialist. He apparently became one during the 1960s and remained committed to the cause until his death in 2001. It’s not clear to me exactly how or why McCabe became a comrade, but like a lot of Catholics, he clearly felt released by Vatican II to explore Marxism and other traditions of the Left. That sense of emancipation made the 1960s an extraordinarily exuberant period in theology, one of which historians and theologians have yet to take the full measure. What came to be known as “liberation theology” emerged from that maelstrom, especially in Latin America, where all of a sudden you had guerrilla priests like Camilo Torres draping crucifixes around their necks and Kalashnikovs over their shoulders (Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest” and all that). Still, while liberation theology is often thought to have appeared first in Latin America, I think there’s an argument to be made that it debuted in Europe, and two pieces of evidence would be from the mid-sixties: the Slant New Left Catholics, who started writing well before the pivotal 1968 Medellin conference of Latin American bishops, and the Charles Davis affair in Britain. McCabe was involved in both episodes. He was friendly with Eagleton, Laurence Bright, and other Slant members, and because I don’t know of McCabe expressing any political viewpoint prior to knowing them, I have to conclude that they brought him into the movement. While he was an editor of New Blackfriars, he published many of their essays over the next decade or so, and I think they comprise some of the most creative theological thinking of the last half-century. In some ways, they anticipated RO. (The members of Slant dispersed in the 1970s, going in any number of directions, not always remaining in the Church. Turner, for instance, is now a Catholic theologian at Yale, while Eagleton now seems to be something of a Catholic atheist.)
The Charles Davis affair was one of those Vatican II–era contretemps that only Catholics of a certain age can fully appreciate. Davis was a young British priest and theologian, often named in the same company as Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and other Catholic enragés. Like them, Davis advanced controversial positions on contraception, women’s ordination, and other subjects, and he became so restive and disillusioned that he rather ostentatiously left the Church in 1966, calling it “corrupt.” He’d also fallen in love, and the Roman collar was a bit of an obstacle to marriage. McCabe published an essay in New Blackfriars the following year criticizing Davis for leaving, saying that while the Church was certainly corrupt, that wasn’t a good reason to leave it.18 (McCabe was resolutely orthodox theologically, but he shared Davis’s positions on birth control and women’s ordination. He and the more conservative Elizabeth Anscombe conducted a learned, civil, and memorable exchange over the contraception issue.)19 McCabe’s Dominican superiors promptly removed him from the editorship, though they had the good sense to reinstate him three years later. His first essay once back in the editor’s perch began, “As I was saying before I was so oddly interrupted. . .”
All this explains how and why a theological traditionalist like McCabe could (in my view rightly) see no contradiction or anomaly in also being a socialist. Indeed, McCabe often criticized liberal theology and philosophy in general for issuing in a rather tepid reformism: if we’re really not so bad, then we don’t really need to change the world and ourselves all that radically. Just a bit of structural adjustment here, a bit more progressive education there, and we’ll all be singing “Kumbaya.” It’s the sort of thing that gives Obamaphiles lumps in their throats. But while McCabe could criticize liberalism with the most truculent of the RO crowd, he never showered it with the piss and vinegar that Milbank and company rain on it. McCabe would acknowledge that liberalism contains very real goods, not the least of which is its capacity to restrain people from slitting the throats of those they consider theologically unorthodox. RO types usually retort that the state has its own forms of religious violence, which is true, but irrelevant—does the carnage in Iraq somehow put Christian massacres in a better light?
McCabe also took to task the papal “social encyclical” tradition for its decaffeinated politics. One of the things McCabe learned from Marxism—and it’s something Christians need to remember, or maybe learn for the first time—is that class struggle is not some Big Misunderstanding, as Catholic social thought often tends to construe it, but an endemic feature of any class society. It’s almost tautological to say that class means class conflict. Take it from Warren Buffett, who once observed that “of course there’s a class struggle, and my class is winning.”20 You know things are bad when a billionaire has to remind everyone of the obvious. Even Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in veritate, which, as I’ve written in Commonweal, is actually quite seminal in some respects, falls short on this score, because the Pope and the rest of the hierarchy don’t think it comports with charity to take sides in what is undoubtedly sharp social and political conflict.21
In one of his finest essays, “The Class Struggle and Christian Love,” McCabe writes quite matter-of-factly that “class struggle is just there; we are either on one side or the other.”22 This kind of stark political realism isn’t looked upon favorably today: it’s either vilified as dogmatic Marxist vulgarity or derided as radical chic. Well, as guys like Buffet know, class war is real. The issue is how you go about waging it. McCabe knew he was opening himself up to the charge that he was sanctioning a hatred and bloodshed diametrically opposed to the gospel, an accusation that often comes from liberals and conservatives fully prepared to shed blood when their interests are at stake. McCabe rightly replied that the Sermon on the Mount supplies “the appropriate revolutionary discipline for effective action.”23 Now, in that essay, McCabe argues in just-war fashion that Christians can use violence against the class enemy. I used to adhere to the just-war tradition, but over the last few years I’ve pretty much become a pacifist—I think Gandhi was right to say that you must be the change you wish to see in the world. But that doesn’t mean that McCabe himself doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of thinking about socialist political struggle. McCabe always insisted that the good news itself is not a program for politics but rather an eschatological reminder that we must think on the end, on the kingdom of God. Because the mind and soul of the Christian socialist must be trained on ultimate things, she can be more complex and ironic than her secular comrades. If defeated, she recalls, as McCabe does in God Matters, that Christ himself “accepts his failure and refuses to compromise his mission by using the weapons of the world against the world.”24 (I wish he’d thought longer and harder about just war in the light of those words.) If successful, she crowns her victory, not with triumphalism, but with forgiveness and mercy.
McCabe also points toward a subversion of conventional economic thinking, which should be one of the essential assignments for Christian intellectuals in the twenty-first century. Thomas Carlyle dubbed economics the “dismal science,” and it will certainly remain so if you can’t discredit the assumptions of scarcity and competitive humanism. There’s a magnificent sermon of McCabe’s, “Poverty and God,” in which he brilliantly deconstructs the false opposition between abundance and poverty. Recalling the tale of Jesus and the rich young man, McCabe surmises that most Christians walk off with the grieving playboy, beating their breasts, naturellement. There’s nothing wrong with being rich, they tell themselves, so long as you have poverty of spirit. McCabe had no time for this self-serving twaddle, the sort of thing served up as gospel in most churches. (One of the lay deacons at my parish is a master of this petty bourgeois preaching.) McCabe insisted that the whole point of the story 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 wrote, “and there is something godlike about being able to live in poverty.”25 By definition, God has and can have no possessions, because possessions are things that provide some benefit to their owner; because God needs no benefit, then God has and needs no possessions. So God is poor, because he has no possessions. Yet at the same time, God creates without owning; the only beneficiary of God’s creation is creation itself, the product of God’s sheer joy and delight. As the unlikely theologian Henry Miller once said, “God doesn’t make a cent on the deal.”26 Thus, God makes without becoming richer, and so his poverty and abundance are one. Now because we’re creatures, we have need of some possessions; but because we’re also the imago Dei, we can try to imitate God’s poverty, and thus his creativity, by living for others. Possessing as little as possible, we can nonetheless offer our talents to others in joyous self-expenditure. As he puts it, “the one who aims at poverty knows that we can only live by throwing ourselves away.”27
People throw themselves away for friends, and McCabe, like a good Aristotelian-Thomist, argued that friendship could animate political commitment and leaven economic life. Friendship, he thought, was the most helpful and illuminating image for a human life that imitated the Trinitarian life of God. “The good life,” he writes in The Good Life, “is one in which friendship is fostered and preserved.”28 Friendship, or philia, is political as well as personal, and it thrives where friends share in the common task of building and maintaining a polis. Like Aquinas, McCabe contended that the highest good of humanity, blessedness, or beatitudo, entails political life. Because philia is related to caritas, the friendship that God shares with us, then political virtue is inseparable from our vocation toward the heavenly polis. That’s why McCabe believed strongly that “there is no way to build a human society that is really human unless it is more than human.”29 Like Christ’s love on the cross, human love is most itself when it is utterly open, unguarded, and vulnerable. But giving ourselves up is exactly what we fear: the loss of self-mastery, especially in liberal capitalist societies, is considered a nightmare rather than a glory. And so we try to secure our lives in the makeshift and inevitably malevolent apparatus of property: title deeds, security systems, police departments, military-industrial complexes. McCabe never ceased to be astonished and appalled at the celebration of antagonism in neoliberal capitalist culture; it was just “bizarre,” he flatly reflected, that the competitive market had become the paragon of human life. Taken together, McCabe’s thoughts on poverty and friendship suggest that what the dismal science calls “the economic problem” is a false and sinister quandary that originates in our sinful refusal of self-expenditure. A real science of political economy provides an education in love, because its object is not accumulation but the holiest of dissipation.
So McCabe’s Thomism didn’t commit him to a “separate-spheres” kind of argument à la neoscholasticism or Kuyperianism, both of which leave capitalism untouched because they conceive it as a realm with its own ordained and inviolable laws of motion. Still, McCabe insisted instead that, no matter how just and fraternal socialism would be, it wasn’t even close to the kingdom of God, because the socialist transformation wasn’t the most fundamental revolution. In his Law, Love, and Language, McCabe maintained that Christians cannot identify their Christian faith with participation in revolutionary struggle because there is a fundamental disagreement between Christians and Marxists over the nature of revolution.30 What McCabe called “the Christian revolution” goes deeper, to the ultimate alienation that is sin and to the ultimate transformation that is death and resurrection. One of McCabe’s many gems is indelibly emblazoned in my mind: “Christian belief cannot be adequately stated in today’s political terms, for no revolutionary belief can ever be stated in terms of the society which it subverts, and Christianity preaches the ultimate revolution.”31
McCabe says something else about the church in that book that has enormous implications for political hope, the subject you asked about. “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.”32 He’s not just talking about the Eucharistic banquet there, where Christians do indeed enjoy the communion of saints throughout all of time. He’s also talking about the nature of time, and how it’s not exclusively linear, and what that means for Christian conceptions of history and politics. Revolution, he writes, is “not a mere advance along the old lines of continuity”—as Eagleton wittily says, the present plus more options—but rather “a discovery of new lines,” lines that nonetheless existed in the old order, latent, unseen, undeveloped, a source of tension and restlessness.33 He says that “Every revolution draws upon powers that are not catered for in the preceding society, powers which therefore seem to be invisible because they transcend the terms of that society.”34 Before they’re anything else, revolutionaries are people who see something others don’t; they’re visionaries, in the proper sense of that term, people who see what’s really there. They’re realists. Think of the way Blake and Stevens thought about imagination, not as fantasy, but as a way of apprehending the real world. Revolutions generate the standards by which the revolution and the past are understood. Thus, McCabe concludes, a revolution “is never intelligible in terms of the society it supersedes; but that society must be intelligible in terms of the revolution.”35
Much of that anticipates what Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek are writing now. In his book on Saint Paul, Badiou argues that transformative political action requires commitment to what he calls an “event,” an utterly unexpected and original occurrence that makes no sense in terms of preceding history. An event is a kind of revelation, in Christian terms, and its subjective realization is like an epiphany—in fact, Badiou thinks that genuine subjective identity is really only produced by our unswerving fidelity to such an epiphanic occurrence. It “remains of the order of grace,” he writes.36 (For Badiou, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Chinese Cultural Revolution were paradigmatic “events.”) Similarly, Žižek defines a truly revolutionary act as one that “changes the coordinates of the constellation,” in other words, one that transforms the criteria of intelligibility.37 The problem with Badiou is that he doesn’t have an ontology or a conception of reason in terms of which events make any sense; events seem so arbitrary that it’s hard to see how they could be intelligible at all. The problem with Žižek, for me, is pretty simple: lately, he’s pretty much confirmed that he thinks terror is justified in the name of revolutionary change.
Because McCabe affirms an ontology of creation, the reality of sin, and a Thomist conception of reason, he succeeds where Badiou and Žižek fail. Understood in terms of love and abundance, creation not only makes human flourishing possible but structures it into the very architecture of reality. (Yes, we were made to be happy.) The suppression or invisibility of certain possibilities for human flourishing is an element of human sinfulness. And McCabe’s Thomist understanding of reason enables him to say that we can both identify and pursue these possibilities, even if at present they seem irretrievable or even inconceivable. Creation is such that, even in our sin, we can act with grace—that’s what I take sanctification to mean. Come to think of it, McCabe is arguably close to Walter Benjamin, that wayward “Marxist” (I’m not convinced that the label really sticks) who Marxists are always trying to reclaim from the mysticism that worries them so much. The present, Benjamin once mused, is “shot through with chips of messianic time”; and if that is so, then “every moment is the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”38 I think McCabe would agree, and it’s a statement of political hope that Christians should affirm. You never know when you’re near such a gate, and that’s why prayer is so essential to preserving political hope. As McCabe observed in his sermon on hope in God, Christ, and Us, prayer is given to us “not to make God ready to give, but to make us ready to receive.”39 So there’s ample reason to keep praying and hoping in the belly of the corporate state. Its demise will be a gift; we have to be ready to accept it.
Click the images below to purchase these books from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
1. “The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” Home, http://www.manhattandeclaration.org/.
2. David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” New York Times, December 16, 2009, Magazine section, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/magazine/20george-t.html?_r=1.
4. “The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” The Declaration, http://www.manhattandeclaration.org/the-declaration.
5. Amazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted (Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century Fox, 2007).
6. Mark Noll. The Civil War as Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
7. Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
8. See McCarraher’s 2007 interview with The Other Journal, “Britney Spears and the Downward Arc of Empire,” https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=287.
10. Eyal Press, “In God’s Country,” Nation, November 2, 2006, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20061120/press/3.
11. “The End of Democracy,” First Things, November 1996, http://www.firstthings.com/issue/1996/11/november.
12. Herbert McCabe, God Matters (New York, NY: Continuum, 2005).
13. Graham Ward, Cities of God (Florence, KY: Routledge Radical Orthodoxy, 2001).
14. Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 129. ————–
15. See two interviews with John Milbank by Ben Suriano in The Other Journal: “Theology and Capitalism,” https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=76, and “Three Questions on Modern Atheism,” https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=370.
16. Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters (New York, NY: Continuum, 2002), 89.
17. Herbert McCabe, God, Christ, and Us (London, UK: Continuum, 2003).
18. Adrian Cunningham, “Herbert McCabe: Theologian, Philosopher and Radical Supporter of Christianity,” Guardian, July 16, 2001, Obituaries, http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2001/jul/16/guardianobituaries.socialsciences.
19. Herbert McCabe, “Contraception and Natural Law,” New Blackfriars 47 (Nov. 1964): 89-95; G.E.M. Anscombe, “Contraception and Natual Law,” New Blackfriars 46 (June 1965); and Herbert McCabe, “Contraceptives and Holiness,” New Blackfriars 46 (Feb. 1965): 294-99.
20. Lou Dobbs, “There Are Lots of Loose Nukes around the World,” Interview with Warren Buffet, CNN, June 19, 2005, U.S. section, http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/05/10/buffett/index.html.
21. Eugene McCarraher, “Not Bold Enough: Why Did Benedict Pull His Punches?” Commonweal, August 14, 2009, http://commonwealmagazine.org/not-bold-enough.
22. Herbert McCabe, “The Class Struggle and Christian Love,” Radical Christian Writings: A Reader, ed. Andrew Bradstock and Christopher Rowland (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2002), 273.
23. McCabe, God Matters, 195.
24. Ibid., 99.
25. Herbert McCabe, God, Christ, and Us, 54.
26. Henry Miller, The Henry Miller Reader, ed. Laurence Durrell (New York, NY: New Directions, 1959), 367.
27. McCabe, God, Christ, and Us, 56.
28. Ibid., God Still Matters, 191.
29. Ibid., 241.
30. Herbert McCabe, Law, Love, Language (New York, NY: Contiuum, 1968), 133.
31. Ibid., 163.
32. Ibid., 141.
33. Ibid., 129.
34. Ibid., 134.
35. Ibid., 27.
36. Alain Badiou, Being and Event (New York, NY: Contiunuum, 2006).
37. Slavoj Žižek, How To Read Lacan (New York, NY: Norton, 2007).
38. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (Seattle, WA: CreateSpace, 2009).
39. McCabe, God, Christ, and Us.