The Life and Writings of Henri de Lubac

Henri de Lubac was a Jesuit theologian who was educated at Jesuit centers in France and England before World War I. (Unlike some of his confrères, he received no other formal academic training.) In that war he was badly wounded in the head, a wound which affected him somewhat throughout his long life. In the interwar years, he was the central but sometimes shadowy figure of a diverse new theological tendency in France which demanded a rejection of neoscholasticism and a qualification of the scholastic stress upon speculation with a renewed interest in history, biblical exegesis, typology, art, literature, and mysticism. (Other important names are Jean Daniélou, M.-D. Chenu, Henry Bouillard, Yves Congar, and Gaston Fessard.) The initial aim was ressourcement - a recovery of the riches of Christian tradition, especially prior to 1300. The eventual aim though, was a renewal of speculative theology in a new mode that would restore its closeness to the exegetical, mystical, and liturgical reading of revealed signs. With Catholicisme in 1938, de Lubac produced one of the key texts of this tendency: the book stressed the social character of the church as the true universal community in embryo, rather than as a mere external machinery for the saving of individual souls.5 It accordingly encouraged an open yet critical engagement with the world. Already, here, one of the "paradoxical" axes of de Lubac's thought was apparent: "Catholic" means a reach of divine grace that is all-encompassing - to the entire past and future and all of space, worldly and cosmic, extending beyond the explicit profession of Christianity. Yet, at the same time, "Catholic" means a universality whose grammar is only fully spelt out in the life of the incarnate Logos. Within this harmonious tension, the sway of de Lubac's first and last master - Origen of Alexandria - is always apparent. Likewise evident is the practical missionary concern fused with intellectual rigor and non-compromising in essentials of a Jesuit Father.

If this follower of St. Ignatius was at all a saint, it was in a wholly militant mode. For all his reticence, his writings often exhibit a withering aristocratic disdain of philistine opponents, and for all the commitment to patient and exhaustive scholarship, his deliberate selection of august targets and coordination of intellectual strategy is often to the fore. Twice he was involved in secular warfare: once, as noted, under the drastic aegis of the French Republic which made no exemptions from military service for religious (a fellow Jesuit, and enormous intellectual influence, Pierre Rousselot, was killed in the trenches); secondly, on the run from the Vichy regime and later the Gestapo during World War II. At the time that he was composing his Surnaturel (arguably the key theological text of the twentieth century) he was also in touch, along with his fellow Jesuits of the School at Lyon, with the Gaullist resistance.6 His confrère and intellectual collaborator Yves de Montcheuil was captured and martyred by the Gestapo. And it is vital to grasp that de Lubac and de Montcheuil's Catholic Rightist opponents supporting the Vichy regime and collaborating with the occupying Germans were also their theological opponents - reporting their dubious theological opinions as well as their dubious secular involvements back up the chains of Jesuit and Dominican command to Rome itself. (It should be stressed though, that de Lubac's enemies in the French Catholic hierarchy were often well to the right of Pius XII and his advisors in the Vatican.)

Surnaturel was a body blow aimed at the neoscholastic understandings of reason and grace, of philosophy, theology, and the relation between them. It was not that it advocated a particular view on a particular theological topic: it was rather than it implicitly (indeed, in an almost coded fashion) dismantled the entire set of reigning Catholic (and perhaps Protestant) assumptions about the character of Christian intellectual reflection. Moreover, it did so not in the name of innovation, but of an authentic tradition which it sought to recover.

Most of de Lubac's other writing, which in a sense works out the thesis of Surnaturel in relation to ecclesiology, exegesis, interreligious dialogue, and secular social and scientific thought, is of a similar character. It does not often contribute directly to the detailed development of doctrine. Nor, on the other hand, does it directly contribute to a metaphysical or a foundational theology. Rather, it offers something like a "grammar" of Christian understanding and practice, both for the individual and the community. I think that the word "grammar" is appropriate, yet it poses a trap for the Anglo-Saxon reader. In keeping with his double Jesuit vocation to the practical and the theoretical-contemplative, and in line with his immediate intellectual precursor, Maurice Blondel, de Lubac's pragmatic bent - his as it were "directions for the regulation of Christian ingenuity" (to echo Descartes) - was entirely bound up with an equal measure of visionary elan. The grammar of Christian life was reenvisaged along with a reenvisaging of ontology itself.

This absolutely fundamental aspect of his work can, however, elude the reader. After all, have I not just said that de Lubac did not ever construct a metaphysic, nor pursue a speculative dogmatics? So what room for ontology is there here, if he offered neither a philosophical metaphysics, nor a revisionary one based upon faith? The answer is that he implicitly proposed a new sort of ontology - indeed, in a sense a "non-ontology," articulated between the discourses of philosophy and theology, fracturing their respective autonomies, but tying them loosely and yet firmly together. (The expression "non-ontology" seems required because, strictly speaking, the word "ontology" was first used in the early seventeenth century to denote a purely philosophical classification of being, cognitively prior to a consideration of the divine.)

This "non-ontology" de Lubac saw as the return of authentic Christian discourse, which could be indifferently described as "Christian philosophy" or as "sacred doctrine." By "non-ontology" (my term) I must stress that I do not mean that de Lubac refused ontology; rather, I mean that he articulated an ontology between the field of pure immanent being proper to philosophy on the one hand, and the field of the revelatory event proper to theology on the other.

This new ontological discourse concerned the paradoxical definition of human nature as intrinsically raised above itself to the "super-nature" of divinity. Since, as we shall see, for de Lubac, all created nature was in some sense oriented to human nature, this paradoxical structure even extended to the constitution of all finite beings as such.

This enigma always ran for de Lubac equally in two opposite directions. The extra-ordinary, the supernatural, which is always manifest within the Creation, is present at the heart of the ordinary: it is "precisely the real," as Bresson put it. On the other hand, the ordinary and given always at its heart points beyond itself, and in spiritual nature aspires upwards to the highest. Grace is always kenotic; the natural is always elevated but not destroyed. Yet, by a symmetrical paradox, the "more" that is demanded by nature can only be received from God as a gift.

After World War II de Lubac further worked out this twofold paradox of grace in the realms of ecclesiology and sacramental theology (Corpus mysticum, 1944), biblical exegesis (Exégèse médiévale, 1959-64),7 and in reflection on the evolutionary theory of his friend Teilhard de Chardin. One of the most attractive aspects of de Lubac's personality was the way in which he defended and sought to deepen the position of Teilhard, even though he thought that it at times verged on heresy. This same sympathy for marginal Christian or non-Christian thinkers who might be more profoundly near the heart of Christian truth than more "orthodox" ones, de Lubac applied also to thinkers of the past - to Origen himself, to Pico, to Proudhon, and to Buddhist philosophers.

In the postwar years the battle with the Christian political right had been won, but not that with ecclesiastical conservatism. After initial papal sympathy, neoscholastic forces in his own order brought him under papal suspicion, and following upon the publication of the papal encyclical Humani Generis he was forbidden to teach or publish for several years. Gradually, however, he and fellow exponents of what was now dubbed by their enemies the nouvelle théologie moved back not simply into favor but into the vanguard. De Lubac played a role in Vatican II, though scholarship now sees its pronouncements as reflecting the unresolved battles and partial compromises among the nouvelle théologie, neothomism, and a liberal accommodation to modernity.

Indeed, soon after the council, de Lubac was once more out of favor, this time for his criticism of the bureaucratic diminution of the authority of local bishops.8 He was only made a cardinal near the end of his life. After Humani Generis, outside his historical work, de Lubac comes across as a stuttering, somewhat traumatized theologian, only able to articulate himself in somewhat oblique fragments. He failed to write his proposed Bérulle-like theological-historical-mystical treatise on Christ, and his projected history of mysticism. These two books, supposed to be his central works, are missing from the heart of his oeuvre. He himself disarmingly said that some sort of spiritual failing rendered him only able to express his views through the interpretation of those of others.

Yet it is clear that this incapacity became more chronic after Humani Generis. De Lubac did continue to express certain views in his own voice, yet unlike the earlier case of Catholicism, his crucial views were now always expressed indirectly through historical interpretations. His reaction to the encyclical remains highly controverted in its significance and (as we shall see below) it is arguable that it involved him in severe theoretical incoherence. Sections of the Surnaturel were reworked as Augustinisme et théologie moderne and Le Mystère du surnaturel (both 1965).9 In these works, de Lubac, in response to Humani Generis, makes certain crucial qualifications to his understanding of the supernatural, most notably in relation to the question of whether there could be a spiritual nature not oriented towards grace. He now allows that, formally speaking, there could be. However, the view that this betokens any real shift in opinion is unconvincing. In its general implications this can be summed up as "Christianity is a humanism, else it is misunderstood. On the other hand, secular humanism is the absolute antithesis of the gospel." De Lubac's late work Pic de la Mirandole gives the sharpest account of this tension and in its deepened advocacy of a Christian humanism shows no sign whatsoever of a conservative dotage that would stress the ecclesiastical transmission of faith, as opposed to its cultural embeddedness.

De Lubac's increasing indirection reflected both a continuing trauma after 1950, and a continued need for caution, even into his old age, and despite his resonance with some "conservative" ecclesiastical themes: opposition to a debased liturgy, to bureaucratic rule, to obeisance before secular norms.

Yet perhaps there is also a deeper reason for de Lubac's failure (if it is counted such) often to write in his own voice. In effect, the surnaturel thesis deconstructs the possibility of dogmatic theology as previously understood in modern times, just as it equally deconstructs the possibility of philosophical theology or even of a clearly autonomous philosophy tout court. For now, on the one hand, doctrine remains "extrinsic," arbitrary, and incomprehensible unless interpreted in accordance with an innate, radically given human nature. The positive foundations of theology (its topoi) are no longer sufficient to determine the range of its conclusions. On the other hand, this "given" human nature is only given to philosophy as paradoxically exceeding itself, and later de Lubac denied that it is ever given at all, with any clarity, for reason alone. Philosophy then appears to require the transcendent supplement of theology, yet theology equally requires the (consequently non-available) foundation of philosophy. As the new-Thomist critics understandably bewailed, de Lubac's paradox looks less like paradox than irresolvable aporia. With great accuracy, von Balthasar described de Lubac's writing as occupying a problematic "suspended middle."10

Arguably, his literary production reflects this aporia in its expansion and untidiness. De Lubac elaborated a "discourse of the supernatural" that was neither dogmatics nor philosophical theology - although he would have insisted that this was a restoration of an Augustinian "Christian philosophy" or a Thomist Sacra Doctrina. This usually took the (partially only apparent) form of a historical theology. Such a form was inevitable insofar as a combination of event and sign in continuous process would seem to be the only possible ground that de Lubac's paradoxical discourse can occupy. De Lubac indeed declared that theology should be a mysticism and that mysticism was essentially a reading of signs. In the 1960s he even appealed to the semiotic vogue against humanism: since we are ruled by signs it is as rational to read, with Origen, St. Luke's publicans as angels, as suspiciously to read the angels as publicans - as humanist modernity would encourage. On the other hand, the relative absence of dogmatics and metaphysics in de Lubac also reflects a confinement to ressourcement and a failure to proceed to a newly enhanced "speculation" on the part of a thinker at once traumatized and forced to speak always with caution.

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