Might we be warranted in pulling McCabe, by slow and steady increments, out from under the long shadow of strict grammatical interpretations? That is, in addition to his Wittgensteinian-Thomism, might there also be a McCabe who does at times tarry with the neoplatonic-patristic synthesis within Aquinas’s thought?

It’s clear that McCabe was not enthralled with much of the legalist and voluntarist interpretations of Aquinas of his day (OA, 103). Wittgenstein provided a way to read Aquinas against the grain, which for McCabe meant pulling Aquinas out from under the Cartesian influence. Yet McCabe also seems to be aware, or at least hints at, a “new” theology recalling us to a “new understanding of the Christian community as the body of Christ” (NC, xiv). Perhaps this new (nouvelle?) understanding of the church also betrays McCabe’s sacramental realist, if not patristic, understanding of metaphysical theology.

Consider McCabe’s take on the Eucharist:

In our sacraments our faith is not merely a mental reaching out to what is to come; rather, we make contact with what is really present now. In them we are united now to the risen body of Christ. This is what we mean when we say that our sacraments are not just ordinary symbols – as were, for instance, those under the Old Law – for what they signify is present. Of course heaven is not present to us in the sacraments as it will be after the resurrection. It is, as we say, present in the sacrament in mystery, available to us only in faith – present to us through being symbolized, but none the less present in reality and not merely in the sense that we are thinking of it (NC, 137).

Doesn’t this sound like a different McCabe – a McCabe less overshadowed by grammatical arguments in an attempt to ward of transignification, and one that is more at home in something like classical sacramental theology? (Of course, as McCabe would argue, this has been his attempt all along, something that Wittgenstein helps us to recover.) Liam Walsh’s article, “Herbert McCabe on the Sacraments,” also draws attention to the notable differences between a sacramental and grammatical McCabe operative in The New Creation and God Matters.

McCabe then goes on to make this rather astonishing claim,

If you ask a Christian for his account of heaven, his best answer is to point to the sacraments of the Church:

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

The Eucharist has an intrinsic relationship to the next world, so much so that the next world is best defined as what the Eucharist realizes and shows forth (italics mine, NC, 137).

Clearly more needs to be done than simply proof-texting McCabe. And this is why Walsh’s reading of McCabe’s Eucharist theology is helpful. As he reminds us about McCabe’s seemingly thin, metaphysical veneer, “you cannot get at what happens in the Eucharist without seeing it as an act of God (which, of course, is what ‘mystery’ has always meant in the language of Christian faith). And that might well be what the issue of metaphysics is all about in theology: can you say things about God and God’s action that make sense in themselves, and not merely as projections of the human experience of God.”

All of this makes me wonder if McCabe would heartily agree with St. Ambrose: “You have shown yourself to me, O Christ, face to face. I have met you in your sacraments.”

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