Reading Herbert McCabe this time around – mostly in preparation for the upcoming McCabe Conference in DC – I was struck by how often McCabe refers to divinization when discussing the role of the virtues.
In On Aquinas McCabe writes that the virtues,
enable us to live the life of caritas, which is the life of God, life in the Spirit, although they encourage us to more intensive practice, are rooted not in our efforts but in the initiative of God – this is what we mean by God sharing his life with us. This is what is traditionally called ‘infused’ as distinct from ‘acquired’ virtue. The divine, or so-called ‘theological’ virtues of faith, hope, and charity can only be infused through the grace of God, but this grace also gives a new dimension to, and indeed transforms, our acquired virtues. As Aquinas puts it, the charity we have becomes the form of all our virtues, and our whole life becomes a sharing in divinity (70).
In relation to the virtues as participating in the life of God, a number of key factors stand out. First, because the virtues are infused rather than imputed, our actions or practices are not simply “our” actions any more than a word is my head is a result of my own private language. I wonder then if McCabe’s Wittgensteinian-Thomistic understanding (and rejection of) the private language argument is related to the doctrine of infused virtue or grace. Through grace we are drawn into the life of God as adoptive children, as the new creation. The agape that God shares with us inhabits our whole life, all that we do. As McCabe puts it, “having been given to share in the divine life, we then live it out in our human way an exercise not only our strictly and exclusively divine virtues of faith, hope, and charity but also our divinized human virtues” (105-106).
Second, the practices or virtues are not solely a result of the will. In this McCabe follows a standard (but neglected) pattern of basic Aristotelian-Thomistic rational appetite theory and concomitant rejection of voluntarism (103). Before we will something, say, an apple, we have to understand and interpret that it is in fact an apple that is before us and not a brick. “All desire,” writes McCabe “is simply being attracted or repelled because of an interpretation of the world” (59). Since will and intellect operate together, involving a “single complex operation” on the basis of language, the desire to undertake a specific practice is dependent upon a prior language or linguistic community that operates independently of our deliberation or will. All of this is to say that, “there is more to my life than what goes on in my head” (63).
In light of McCabe, it seems that recent critiques of the practices rest on a set of misplaced assumptions; namely, that our actions or practices exist on one plane, while Christ’s actions exist on another; and that the practices are primarily a result of successfully exerting one’s will-power rather than joining the bonds of solidarity, which mirror the inherent social nature of salvation.
So, if the gift of grace then is not simply God changing his mind about his creatures, but rather is the gift of sharing his Divinity, as it is for McCabe, then the conversation is greatly altered. What’s more, the practices no longer appear as auxiliary to the life of salvation, but as mysteriously inherent to it. This helps us to see why so much of St. Paul’s thinking is about the virtues and salvation as being part of Christ’s body.
Given the role that divinization plays in McCabe’s thinking about the virtues, it’s clear that the practices are not in any true sense of the word “our” property as much as they are God’s caritas working through our material reality. In other words, the church does not stand on one side of an impenetrable ontological divide, fated to go through the motions as it were, while God sits comfortably enthroned in Heaven. Rather, the virtues have a definitive goal in mind – agape with God, becoming Christ-like in our bodies through the power of the Spirit.
In the end, McCabe helps us to make sense of the letter of the Hebrews’ injunction to keep going “on toward perfection.” Our healing “has only begun in the period between Christ’s resurrection and the parousia. Until then we live by faith and work at the difficult task of growing in virtue and maturity while coping with our emotional and intellectual incompetences. But in all this, by grace, we share in the ‘infused virtues’ – part of our living by the Spirit” (164).