My liberal tendencies have just had the wind knocked out of them again. I like being challenged by my reading and this extract from Herbert McCabe OP took my sheepish wooly principles and kicked their stuffing across the field. Fleeced.
(Image from Wikipedia)
"I can remember.... the days of liberal progressive Christianity, a form of religion ideally suited to the liberal democratic way of life in which people were expected to be basically rather nice, and changes, if any came about by talking around a table and excersizing your free choices at elections. It was a time when the highest virtue was tolerance and the finest praise you could give people was to say that they were moderate. It was the good old days: a kind of Garden of Eden from which, however, we have all been expelled. This is just as well because it was a place of not very innocent illusions............In general it is young people who know that the world is lousy, who know about what is happening in places like South America and Northern Ireland. It is older people who have to cling to comforting myths about defending democracy somewhere or bringing prosperity to somewhere else or about how their country's troops are doing a marvelous job in the face of vicious and cowardly attacks. There are just a few people left who believe that the problems are all due to a misunderstanding and if only a few people would talk together it would all be cleared up. All of these people are over 35.................Perhaps they should start reading the Gospel of John. It's author is a pretty unchristian writer in any modern meaning of the word "Christian". He has very little to do what we have come to think of Christianity - that rather attractive, idealistic, but ineffective set of attitudes that make up the Christian spirit (a way of responding, a warm friendly way of responding to people, because people are fundamentally nice). He has little to do with Christianity that on the east coast of America has been called a belief in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighbourhood of Boston. This Christianity has, of course, social responsibilities. Christians, you remember, ought to improve things in this world, they ought to play their part in making this world a better place, they ought to help people live together in unobtrusive friendliness, persuading them not to be violent and so on. But with all this Christianity, John has nothing to do. He doesn't want to improve the world. He wants it destroyed. John thinks violence is inevitable, especially if the Gospel is preached. Salvation for him is not making this world a better place. It is salvation from the world. It means smashing and defeating the world, John has no use for the world at all............John's Gospel (and his Epistles) are much in tune with a generation that simply cannot afford the cheerful optimism of the past. There is a harsh realism about John that says something to us. No writer in the New Testament tells us more about love than John does. And none is less lovely. John directs us to the real world. He makes us look at it. It is in John that we read 'The Truth shall set you free". But for him, seeing the truth is (like love) rare and difficult. For him, indeed, it depends on love. Not loving, though; he doesn't say if you love you will see the truth. For him it depends on being loved. This is love, he says, not that you loved, but the God loved you.The reason why John might appeal to us is that we have rather recently become aware of the interlocking complexity of evil. I mean the time has gone when we could think about bad actions in isolation, as random results of the individual free will....We have become aware, in fact, of a whole system of human exploitation, a balanced and self adjusting system, almost like an animal organism, a very resilient and flexible system...If you attack it in one place, it adjusts itself. It may appear to give into your attack, but in fact it has found another way of carrying on its life...............We have become aware of this complex system; we have become aware, in fact, of the World. Because this is exactly what John means when he talks about the World. The world for him plainly does not mean earth, the world of nature, creation, the material things around us. It means the way of being together that people have worked out.........In John's view you cannot tinker with this world. We need to be redeemed from it. The attempt to work within it to improve it only means in the and that you are co-opted by it and find yourself working for it. ....In this world, for John, there is no brotherhood of all men, and any attempt to pretend that there is is illusion and deception. For him we shall only have real brotherhood when this world has been destroyed and a new one has arisen, when the world has gone through a conversion, a radical change, a change that means the ending of an old life, the complete collapse of the old system, and the start of a new one."(Rain in a young star system: very complex, inescapable)
I think that McCabe is being deliberately provocative in his analysis of John's Gospel. But isn't that brilliant? He stopped me dead. I felt my liberal views had just been slapped and thrown out of a top floor window. I am not sure when he wrote this essay, but it was clearly some years ago - 15 maybe? Politics has changed, but I think 'the system' McCabe talks about is still around. In the context of this essay 'the system' is linked to the idea of 'original sin', something that is always wrong with the World. It is a powerful piece of writing - designed, I think, to wind you up and make you think. It works. At first I thought he was cracked and all wrong, then I thought he was onto something - now, I think I might think he is cracked, too pessimistic about the human race, sounds like a raging hippy blaming 'the system' for all the ills of the world when really people just need to get off their backside. It could take hours of 'putting the world to rights' conversation, with a bottle of wine in the small hours, to sort this one out. And I could be proved wrong thousands of times over, because McCabe is a genius. Excellent. Cheers Herbert.