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Love and Fear: For Good Friday

By Neil Dhingra

Now imagine a film projected not on a screen but on a rubbish dump. The story of Jesus — which in its full extent is the entire Bible — is the projection of the trinitarian life of God on the rubbish dump that we have made of the world.
—Herbert McCabe, OP

The late Dominican theologian Hebert McCabe’s collection God Matters includes “A long sermon for Holy Week,” whose length likely derives from its being insightfully counterintuitive. First, regarding Good Friday, God does not require a form of payment because “plainly God cannot be damaged by my sin.” Nevertheless, Jesus’ death on the cross is neither accident nor the work of a singularly vicious colonial regime. The crucifixion stems from a darker and far less restricted paradox: “We need to lose our selves in love; this is what we fear.”

Jesus was the only human being who lacked this fear, so his life was at once “an act of gratitude and appreciation of the gift of being human” and a revelation of the “human being that we dare not be.” Jesus’ sinlessness means “that he was wholly loving, that he did not put up barriers against people, that he was not afraid of being at the disposal of others, that he was warm and free and spontaneous.” Thus, the precarious structures of domination and exploitation in what McCabe calls our “crucifying world” inevitably murdered him. As McCabe elsewhere writes, “The openness of love becomes the vulnerability of the victim.” (His most famous line: “If you do not love, you are scarcely alive. But if you do love, you will certainly be killed.”)

If we’ve made the world a rubbish dump, the trinitarian life might still be projected upon its “twisted” screen. The Father loves the Son “because only in the Son does he find an equal to love,” and he also “loves us because we are in Christ and share his Spirit,” taken up in the “life of love between equals.” The distortions of the human cineplex mean the perfect obedience of our friend and brother Jesus, in which we might share, must be offered through what appears to be complete failure. Without the resurrection, Jesus’ earthly ministry would not “have the historical importance of, say, the murder of Julius Caesar or Patrice Lumumba.” Likewise, our new life in Christ necessarily remains subversive, as the Eucharist is a fragile if genuine community of love in a world marked by exclusions: “The trouble is that we build friendship with some at the expense of others. The democracy of Athens floated on a sea of slaves.”

In a sermon for Oscar Romero, McCabe says that Christ’s death and resurrection releases a power greater than that of the weapons he set aside, “greater than the power of all the guns and bombs and torture instruments that men have made.” Yet, “It is only when we have said, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ that we are ready for resurrection.”

Today, as Denys Turner has written about McCabe’s work, we might still grasp the crucifixion through the deaths of those who died as Jesus did, like Romero, showing before the world “the truth they must needs not know.” Turner calls these martyrdoms “eschatological collisions,” because McCabe claimed that the church remains incomprehensible to the contemporary world and must be based upon hope, living according to a future of which we can only speak using sacramental language.

This indiscriminate friendship is obviously opposed to unjust societies in which friendship excludes the enslaved or impoverished, as higher castes cultivate false self-images — “fantasy selves” — to eliminate the fear that they are nothing at all. There may be another obstacle to what McCabe describes as love — giving others “a place where they can be themselves,” the “space in which to expand.” For McCabe’s fellow Dominican, Fergus Kerr, friendship is when each friend “delights in the other’s existence, and the freer the one allows the other to be the more fully and truly they are revealed to each other.” Each friend must be loved in their “otherness.” However, in the face of the “wounding realities of the world,” one might also turn away from this friendship to a quasi-spiritual detachment, to become “rather like Aristotle’s notion of god: chōristheìs, separate, uninvolved, apart in oneself.”

This lonely detachment might seem abstract, but a fictional (and distantly autobiographical) example might be Graham Greene’s Henry Scobie, “an obscure policeman in an unfashionable colony” in West Africa during World War II in Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter. Scobie and his wife, Louise, lost their only daughter years ago, and Scobie seems unable to have grieved or maintained hope. He now imagines that it is “his responsibility to maintain happiness in those he loved” and his pity and responsibility can reach “the intensity of a passion.” He is an ascetic soldier at the humid edge of the world. What he wants, though, is peace, which he once envisions as “the great glowing shoulder of the moon heaving across his window like an iceberg, arctic and destructive in the moment before the world was struck,” and he even identifies this frostiness with the words of the Mass: “My peace I give you, my peace I leave with you.”

To send the unhappy Louise to South Africa, Scobie accepts money from the corrupt (and corrupting) Yusef. Alone, he starts an affair with Helen, the young victim of a shipwreck, whom he imagines in childlike terms. The affair begins as “a command he would have to obey, however difficult” and continues as a “command to stay, to love, to accept responsibility, to lie.” When Louise returns, Scobie, a Catholic, disguises the affair to protect her by taking Communion while in a state of mortal sin. He eventually decides to commit suicide, believing it will cause his eternal damnation, for the happiness of both Louise, to whom he cannot confess, and Helen, whom he cannot leave. At one point, the voice of God comes to him as if from the “cave of his body,” as if “the sacrament which had lodged there for his damnation gave tongue,” asking that he might live, begging that he go on living, to trust. Scobie replies, “No. I don’t trust you. I love you, but I’ve never trusted you. … I’m responsible and I’ll see it through the only way I can.”

After all, Scobie cannot trust reality, present or future. At the very end, “Trust was a dead language of which he had forgotten the grammar.” This is earlier seen in his inability to maintain friendships. To be sure, he is in a wartime colony in which men secretly file reports on one another. Then, Scobie’s affair with Helen is an “enemy” first camouflaged in “friendship, trust and pity.” With Yusef, as the literary critic Gregory Phipps writes, Greene suggests the “the most terrifying encounters with evil and hell may involve nothing more than two male characters sitting alone and playing out the motions of a close friendship as the instant of betrayal closes in on them.” Scobie is not a friend of God, either. At church he had thought that God was too accessible — at least to him: “He even suffers in public.” After all, he cannot see his own life as intrinsically valuable to any other, except in his lonely soldierly responsibility.

Thus, when Scobie died, “He said aloud, ‘Dear God, I love …’ but the effort was too great and he did not feel his body when it struck the floor.” He was in despair. When he had realized he would damn himself, he could find “no hope anywhere” and “left for his exploration only the territory of despair.” If a person rejects God’s assistance, what hope is finally there? The philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung has suggested three possibilities. First, there might be practices that gradually transform the despairing one to become receptive of grace. Second, there might be a personal crisis. Third, the despairing one might become so unhappy as to be persuaded to try something new.

McCabe’s theology and Greene’s novel suggest pessimism toward all three possibilities. For McCabe, Jesus Christ “provides a new mode of communication and one which you can only recognize by participating in it.” It does not even seem possible, he says, from the outside, and it always comes with rather severe costs. In The Heart of the Matter, Scobie’s Catholic practice, crises, and unhappiness do not finally make him receptive to the mercy of God. They even make him exalt his detachment, his offering up of his own soul to God for others in righteous self-annihilation, as some interpreters have mistakenly done in canonizing “Saint Scobie.” (In fairness, DeYoung is hardly naïve — her example of one in despair despairing about despair and then trying something new is Groundhog Day, and, according to calculations, Phil Connors may have repeated the same day for 34 years.)

The best and perhaps only solution to despair, DeYoung states, may be in the hopes and prayers of others. As Scobie dies, after his body hits the ground, there is the “small tinkle” of a medal with a “saint whose name nobody could remember” that Scobie had been given and that represents a prayer for him that he himself could not yet speak. Further, Scobie had started saying, “Dear God, I love …” McCabe notes that we are saved in union with Christ, the one truly human person, so that the only prayer is “the human voice of the Son of God addressing his Father.”

Perhaps we can hope that Christ finishes our sentences.

Thus, this Good Friday, the death of Christ shows us the possibility of friendship with God and one another amid the “rubbish dump that we have made of the world.” The cross is judgment upon the structures of domination and exploitation in our world, which Jesus unmasked. It is also forgiveness, for in Christ — sinners though we are, complicit in those structures — we might experience new life by dying and rising with him. Even if we have rejected his friendship, and those of others, in lonely detachment, McCabe reminds us, “God is so besottedly in love with us that we have only to ask for forgiveness to find him eager to restore us to his friendship.” At first, this asking might even have to be in a strange voice.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Makes me want to re-read The Heart of the Matter. It has been a long time. I suspect I’ll order McCabe.

    You always write thoughtful material. Thanks.

    • Thanks again. You’ll have to let me know what you think. Much (not all) of the McCabe is available in back issues of New Blackfriars on JSTOR. As for The Heart of the Matter, it’s also interesting to read George Orwell’s critical review here, which I find completely wrong but worth considering.

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