Critique of Father Herbert McCabe OP

the greatest modern theologian on what we should mean by God


McCabe says God is the mystery that causes all things to be. He is not the supreme being. He is not a big ghost. He is existence itself so there "is no God who is a being, an item in the universe, a rival person; there is just the unknown beyond and behind the whole universe itself, the mystery at the heart of my being myself. In Christ, says St. Thomas, we are united to God as to an unknown."

One thing he is careful to reject is the notion of talking about God as if he were the most powerful or biggest thing in the universe. It is suggested that seeing God that way is the worst mistake a theologian or philosopher or anybody can make. McCabe says the person that does this falls into the most delusional form of idolatry.

McCabe sees God as an objective reality. But he counsels against seeing God as a thing or entity in the way anything in the universe is. "The only God who matters is the unfathomable mystery of love because of which there is being and meaning to anything that is" God Matters.

REPLY: McCabe sees God as a mystery of love who is real but who is not an item in the universe. God does not have feelings but he loves for he only does what is best for his creation. It is love in action. Nobody really wants such a God. Believers at least privately do invent a God who has feelings for them. What you worship outwardly says nothing about what you worship inwardly.

Idolatry means the worship of a God who does not exist. If God is perfect then it follows that to adore a God who does not exist is to worship a bad version of God and will lead to bad principles and bad moral leanings. Idolatry is bad for it means we worship a human construct and anything human should not be elevated to divine status for that is making a god out of errors and of course human beings are too dangerous too often and that will be reflected in their man-made gods. What is human needs constant checking out and correcting not adoration. It would be cruel for people to be led to think they have a relationship with God and are putting him first when that God is man-made. If you love what you think your wife is not what she is, you cannot be inspired by her. So to become more loving like God you need to have the real God and not a mental idol.

McCabe is severe against the "idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature – a part of the world.” The reason this idolatry is so terrible is that if God is the source of all and you see him as a creature and not the source of all and upon whom even our power to choose depends, you see yourself as largely independent of the divine and will take pride in the good you do. This pride would be very mistaken if you think what is coming from you in fact is not. It would be like failing to honour your wife for giving you a gold bar and saying that you got it through a magic spell and she was under your control so you really gave it to yourself. It would get in the way of love.

McCabe sees idolatry as terrible because you are failing to see and respect the love of God.

It is strange that somebody like McCabe would reject the idea of God as having most of the power in the universe as idolatry when their belief that God is the power that is the reason the universe exists instead of there being nothing gives him in fact more power! The source of all things would be a greater power than any super-god in the universe. If it is idolatrous to think God is the most powerful being in the universe, it is more idolatrous to think he is all the power there is.

McCabe would answer that seeing God as a power is not the same as seeing him as the source that all things depend on thus meaning that he is the reason they exist instead of nothing. But it is the same. It would be strange if there was a difference to see the God of power as an idol and God as source as not an idol. A source of all things by definition is power.

If seeing God as love is all that matters then we should not care about why something instead of nothing. God being source of all is not the same as God being love.

Seeing God as love suffers from the problem that everybody's view of what is loving and how loving it is, is inaccurate. This is because we are not all good, because we prefer what we want good to be to what good actually is, because we are prone to error, because there is often a thin line between right and wrong, because to judge what the best thing to do is a matter of huge complexity for you have to consider the long-term for as many as possible and because we are weak. We tend to give sympathy to people who get seriously ill but we are secretly glad that it is them who suffer and not us or our loved ones. We are good at using good as a mask. Also, you cannot prove that anything you do is fully free. You could be partly programmed. Thus the God adored will only be love up to a point. You cannot bring your whole self to learn from the love of God. Your thinking and perception of God are limited by the fact that you free will is incomplete. Your perception of God limits what your perception should be of God for you are so small and imperfect. If there is a real God of love he will not approve when you honour a semblance of him not him. It is no wonder people like the thought of a Jesus or a saint to pray to. By relating to a being like themselves they deal with their inner sense that the God they have is in their heads. But idolatry is a universal problem. And insurmountable. The atheist sees that no God would want us to believe in him. 

Also, people mistake the good they see in others for the activity of God and that is where their "learning" about God ultimately comes from. People feel that God is acting when people do good for them. This is a form of idolatry for human goodness cannot mirror God's. And we are always being taken in by good people who show their true colours. Their goodness was one dimensional. Also, people can do a lot of good and we remain unimpressed but something they so something that does impress us. We are selective in the good we want to see and adore. So if believers claim find God in the goodness of others, we atheists may find that amusing and arrogant.

God cannot be known like a human person can for God is hidden from us. Thus to adore God is to risk adoring what you think he is or want to think he is. Thinking is no use. If you have the right ideas of God, you could have the attitude, "I just happen to be right. If I were not right I would still have the perception of God I have." Thus you see that being right about God is still no protection against idolatry.

We all have our delusions. That is why even if God has revealed a religion to man, we cannot be completely sure that it really is from him. Man is too imperfect to claim to be God so he has to pretend to speak for God for that is the next best thing and will gain the best chance of fooling others. God revealing a faith to me does not mean I accept it for the right reasons or because he says so. And even if I do accept it because he says so, then to what degree? Perhaps I think I do it mostly because he says so while in fact I only do so because it suits me to accept it. And if God revealed the faith to your religion, it does not follow that anybody in the religion cares that he revealed it. They may follow it or look as if they follow it for their reasons not his.

McCabe tries to get away from the God of power. It would be odd to worship God as if his power does not matter.

What if a person wants to see God's love not his power? Why not worship your cat or anything else you see as loving? If the power does not matter and the love does then why not?

The notion that divine love matters and not divine power rules out anybody adoring God because they think they will get a Heavenly reward or be kept safe from all evil at some stage. Virtually all attempts to get the meaning of life from the God concept presuppose that God has the power to make your life important. Nobody wants to simply hold that their life matters just because God loves them even if he can do nothing at all for them ever. Nobody wants to hold that the reason our lives are important is that they can please God - they don't want it to be all about valuing God. If you had to suffer eternal agony in order to be moral you wouldn't do it.

If being loved is what matters even if people can do nothing to help you ever then what do you need God for? You don't!


McCabe says that our talk about God and what he is like is not to be taken literally. The description of God as loving or compassionate is to be taken as metaphorical. The love of God is not literal but an approximation. It is an alternative to saying nothing. Talk about what God is not is that bit more accurate than saying what he is. McCabe says that calling God Father is better than calling him God. The idea that God is Father speaks of what he is like better than the more difficult and abstract term God. McCabe says that using terms for God risks mistaking the terms for God. There is a risk of metaphor being mistaken for the real God. The risk is justified because it is worse to say nothing about God.

REPLY: Few know of this teaching so most believers in God are really idolaters. It is not God they adore even if he exists. A religion that fails to stress McCabe's teaching is creating a disconnect between people and God by having them adore a God who does not exist and thus who is not all-good. It will corrupt them.

If people are idolaters, we will not respect or listen to them when they tell us what God wants!

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