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02 November 2006


by Herbert McCabe


Continuum £12.99 (0-8264-7279-6)

Church Times Bookshop £11.70


THIS is the third volume published of the occasional writings of Herbert McCabe, the passionate, combative and controversial Dominican philosopher-theologian who died in 2001.


Unlike the previous collections — God Matters (1987) and God Still Matters (2002) — this is composed entirely of (2 7) sermons, only one of which has already seen the light of printed day.


The range of topics is broad. While all of the sermons engage seriously with scripture, and most of them take their cue from it, some make it their focus (e.g. “Abraham and Isaac”, “Jesus and the Sons of Zebedee”).


Others concentrate on theological matters (e.g. sin, the Trinity), on spiritual and liturgical practice (e.g. prayer, Ash Wednesday, washing and the eucharist), and on moral, pastoral and political issues (possession and forgiveness, self-love, and “Render to Caesar”).


On the one hand, the substance of these sermons is basically orthodox. McCabe views God not as a mere symbol but as a (quasi-) personal reality; and he believes in God’s incarnation in Christ, the Trinity, Christ’s resurrection bodily from death, and the possibility of life beyond it.


On the other hand, orthodox substance here does not amount to the tedious recycling of platitudes. McCabe’s orthodoxy is earthed in a close acquaintance with flesh-and-blood human weakness, upon which he looks with a heart-lifting charity and humour that echo the love of his God.


It is also enlivened by a frank intellect that will not settle for clichés, but which searches — often in the company of Thomas Aquinas — fo r more honest and more satisfying answers.


For an example of enlightening charity, take the sermon on prayer. Against the high-minded folk who exhort us not to pray for vulgar material things such as getting better from sickness, but only for spiritual goods such as becoming more generous, McCa be argues: “When you pray, consider what you want and need and never mind how vulgar or childish it might appear. If you want very much to pass that exam or get to know that girl or boy, that is what you should pray for. You could let world peace rest for a while. You may not be ready to want that passionately. . . In true prayer you must meet God and meet yourself where you really are, for it is just by this that God will move you on . . . If you pray and acknowledge your most infantile desires, there is every danger that you may grow up a bit, that God will grow you up.”


And for an example of enlightening intellect, take the discussion of death in the sermon on hope. Against those who urge us to accept the platitudinous view that death is merely the natural conclusion to the natural cycle of life, McCabe observes that human life is not like other animal life: “we do not just have a lifetime fitting into the rhythms of nature. Rather, we each have a life-story . . . Every human life is not just a cycle but an unfinished story that we have been telling.”


That is why we react instinctively to the death of someone we love with outrage, feeling that a kind of injustice has been done. That is why we yearn instinctively for a life beyond death, when this injustice will be undone. And that is why trusting these instincts is not irrational.


God, Christ, and Us is deeply Christian, deeply human, and deeply intelligent about both. Moreover, its depths are well lit. It is clearly and engagingly written, and — to borrow from Rowan Williams’s foreword — it is “accessible to practically any reader”.


Nigel Biggar is Professor of Theology in the School of Religions and Theology at Trinity College , Dublin .

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