Henri du Lubac and Catholic Renewal Print
Theology
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 08 June 2011 07:00

Part I: The Supernatural

The French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) was one of the most significant Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, a central figure in the ressourcement movement and the nouvelle theologie that inspired the change of atmosphere in the Catholic church leading up to Vatican II. In his recent book on de Lubac, John Milbank claims that de Lubac and the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov were the two great giants of twentieth-century theology.

De Lubac’s work covers a wide range of subjects. His earliest work was on the Thomist conception of the “supernatural,” and more narrowly on the question of whether man has a natural desire for the supernatural. (Though this seems to be a pretty fine point, it has wide ramifications for Catholic theology, and for all Christian theology.) He also wrote a classic medieval Eucharstic theology (Corpus Mysticum), a four-volume study of medieval methods of exegesis, a history of modern atheism, studies of the medieval figure Joachim of Fiore, the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola and the modern Catholic evolutionary philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

The debate over the supernatural in modern Roman Catholic theology is partly a debate about the interpretation of Aquinas, who has been the most important authority of modern Catholic theology. According to the influential interpretation offered by the Dominican Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534), Thomas offered a kind of two-storey view of the world, with a self-sufficient “natural” world at the bottom and an added “supernatural” world at the top. (This is the interpretation of Thomas offered by Protestant critics like Francis Schaeffer.) Philosophy, politics, economics belong to the natural world and the natural nature of man, and can be conducted without much of any reference to God or grace. Thomas can offer proofs for the existence of God on the basis of natural reason, and then reason from that to revealed and supernatural truths. On this reading, Thomas operates within dualisms of reason/faith, philosophy/theology, nature/grace.

The specific question in debate had to do with the question of the natural desire for supernatural fulfillment. According to Thomas’ (Aristotelian-influenced) metaphysics, the nature of a thing was teleologically qualified – having a nature means seeking some kind of fulfillment of that nature, the full enjoyment of that nature. The telos of man, his highest aim and fulfillment, comes for Thomas in the enjoyment of the beatific vision of God. In several places in his writings, Thomas speaks of a desiderium naturale for the beatific vision. This would suggest that man as a natural being is not fulfilled by natural achievements – painting pictures, organizing businesses, establishing cities – but that he has a natural, built-in desire and longing for complete fulfillment. Simply as a creature, not merely as a redeemed creature, man aims to be united to God.

According to Cajetan’s reading of Thomas, this natural desire cannot be innate, because an innate, natural desire for the supernatural end trespasses the boundary between nature and supernature, between nature and grace. By the desiderium naturale, Thomas simply meant an “elicited” desire for God, which is aroused by the intellect’s curiosity about the world (“I wonder how the sun rises”) which produces in the will a desire to know the cause of the world (“I want to find out who made the sun”).

The actual desire for a supernatural end does not arise from man’s nature, but only when there is an offer of grace. That is what “elicits” the desire. Part of Cajetan’s point was to insist on the graciousness of grace: If there is a natural desire for the beatific vision that precedes the actual offer of grace in the gospel, then the offer of grace is something less than a pure offer of grace. After all, if God implanted a natural desire for the beatific vision in man, then, Cajetan argues, to be just God must fulfill that desire: What kind of God would He be if He aroused these longings only to frustrate them? But that turns the beatific vision into a matter of justice rather than mercy.

To fill out this reading of Thomas Cajetan posited a doctrine of “pure nature.” In Milbank’s summary, “Cajetan, unlike Aquinas, explicitly says that human nature in actuality is fully definable in merely natural terms. This means that there can be an entirely natural and adequate ethics, politics, and philosophy and so forth. Man might even offend the moral law, and yet not be directly guilty of sin.”

De Lubac challenged this reading of Thomas. He explored the history of Christian usage of the terms “nature” and “supernatural,” and concluded (Milbank’s summary again) that “the essential contrast, up until the High Middle Ages, remained one between natural and moral and not natural and supernatural.” De Lubac argued that the former distinction was authentically Christian: “on the one hand there was created nature; on the other hand there was created spirit, which was free, and intellectually reflexive (‘personal’). This ‘moral’ realm was in some sense not just created; it bore a more radical imprint of divinity: the imago dei.”

In this earlier paradigm, there is no “pure nature,” and de Lubac argued that there was no notion of “pure nature” in Aquinas either. He took Thomas’ statements about the natural desire for the supernatural end quite literally: Human beings exist only as creatures of God oriented toward their creator. As he said in a 1932 letter to Maurice Blondel, the problem with pure nature is “how can a conscious spirit be anything other than an absolute desire for God.” Instead of grace being an “extrinsic” addition to nature (as in Cajetan’s reading), grace brings natural abilities and natural inclinations and natural desires to their fulfillment.

De Lubac always insisted that the relation of nature and supernature was a paradox. On the one hand, human beings have a natural longing for fulfillment of their nature in the vision of God; on the other hand, this natural longing is fulfilled not as a necessity or a matter of justice, but in an act of sheer grace.

The point can be broadened: There is nothing that is “purely natural.” Since all is created, the “supernatural” (if we wish to retain the terminology) is always already present within ordinary creation. The ordinary is extraordinary. Another of the broader implications is captured in de Lubac’s claim that “Christianity is a humanism, else it is misunderstood. On the other hand, secular humanism is the absolute antithesis of the Gospel.”

The second part of this is pretty clear: Any effort to understand human reality as if it were closed to God and His revelation in Christ is antithetical to the gospel. The first part is trickier. Christianity is a humanism because its offer of grace does not destroy the genuinely human but brings the human to fulfillment. Grace does not come to reshape human life into something other than human life; grace comes to reshape fallen human life into genuine human life, which is human life in communion with God. There is a “fit” between what the gospel promises and the realities of human existence, because the God who redeems is the God who created.

De Lubac believed that the reinterpretation of Thomas, allowing for an autonomous natural realm, is the source of modern secular humanism. But from the other direction a Catholic “piety” that viewed supernatural grace as wholly extrinsic, something “superadded” to a self-sufficient natural sphere, was equally to blame, because viewing grace as extrinsic and added-on helped to reinforce the autonomy of the natural (secular).

De Lubac’s work on the supernatural influenced his entire corpus. His massive study of medieval exegesis shows that the allegorical is not something “added on” to the literal, but something that emerges from the literal as the fulfillment and telos of the literal. In his treatises on ecclesiology, he insists that the church is not a “supernatural” community wholly different from the natural communities of the world, but is the gracious fulfillment of natural community. He was deeply interested in scientific study and in the “integral humanist” philosophy of the French Catholic Jacques Maritain precisely because he believed that greater understanding of the natural world and of human existence would ensure that theology would not float off again into extrinsicism. The claim that everything is illuminated by the light of grace is only persuasive when we are exploring the darker corners of the everything that is being illuminated.

Part II: Gift and Gratitude

De Lubac insisted in his later book “The Mystery of the Supernatural” that the natural desire for the beatific vision was not grace itself. Grace meets the natural desire and fulfills it, but the natural desire is something in “human nature of itself” (Milbank). This must be so on de Lubac’s theory, since otherwise there is no nature to be fulfilled by supernatural grace, and that appears to lead back to thinking of supernatural grace in extrinsic terms. But this seems to me to put us back several steps. Why talk about “human nature of itself” at all? Doesn’t that itself pressure us toward a dualistic two-story model, in which human nature has qualities of “its own”?

De Lubac sometimes dealt with this question by emphasizing the gift-character of created existence, and Milbank presses this theme in de Lubac even further. One problem raised by Humani Generis was the threat that the denial of pure nature posed to the gratuity of grace: If, the encyclical argues, God cannot but create beings that are oriented to Him, then the graciousness of the fulfillment of that orientation is threatened. God is obligated to fulfill this desire, and that means it is no longer grace. But, Milbank argues, this assumes that the logic of the gift operates the same when we talk about God and man as it does when we talk about man and man. At the human level, “gift” and “obligation” are contrasted: Repaying a debt is not the same as giving a gift. But because God is God, self-sufficient and transcendent, this logic does not apply.

As Milbank says, “gratuity arises before necessity or obligation and does not even require the contrast in order to be comprehensible. The creature as creature is not the recipient of a gift, it is itself this gift. . . . since there is no preceding recipient, the spirit is a gift to a gift and the gifting of giving oneself to oneself, which is the only way consciously to live being as a gift and so to be spirit.” This is convoluted, but the point is that when God gives life and existence to creatures, there is no recipient on the other end, because the existence of the recipient is what is given. Oh my, that was convoluted too. Let me try to be simple: We are only as gifts from God. In the sphere of divine-human interaction, we find what Charles Bruaire, a follower of de Lubac, calls “unilateral exchange.” Thus, there is no “human nature in itself,” but only human nature as sheer gift of God.

And this, Milbank argues, means that human existence, insofar as it is human reception and response, is simply gratitude: “one knows that one is not all of possible knowing and willing and feeling and moreover that, since our share of these things is what we are, we do not really command them, after the mode of a recipient of possessions. Hence to will, know, and fell is to render gratitude, else we would refuse ourselves as constituted as gift. Such gratitude to an implied infinite source can only be, as gratitude, openness to an unlimited reception from this source which is tantamount to a desire to know the giver.” Later, Milbank emphasizes that the gift of created being is “so unilateral that it gives even the recipient and the possibility of her gratitude.”

This has fundamental soteriological implications: “if nature and grace are . . . spatially outside each other (on an extrinsicist model) then this situation will pertain not just at the moment of the reception of grace, but throughout the experience of salvation. Either we will independently contribute to the reception and meriting of grace (‘Pelagianism’) and in that case it will be something chosen or deserved and not a gift, or else it will be something that externally compels our will and, again, no more a gift than is a brick wall that we might inadvertently run into. Whereas the gift of grace involves a change in status of the spirit itself, ontic models of the contrast of gift with non-gift dissolve such radical gratuity altogether.”

On this model, then, there is no “human nature itself” that has a desire for God, no natural sphere that can run autonomously. We exist as gifts, everything we have is given, and the only possible way to live with ourselves is to live in gratitude.

There is more to critique in de Lubac. It is especially important to probe his doctrine of sin. But I don’t have time for that. Only one concluding observation: De Lubac’s work, though it is operating within Catholic and specifically Thomist problematics, has enormous implications for current soteriological debates in the Reformed world. Protestants as well as Catholics have operated with an “extrinsicist” understanding of grace, and in some versions of the covenant of works we seem to see a Protestant version of Cajetan’s “pure nature.” De Lubac’s work will surely look different in a Protestant context, but we do have much to learn from him.




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