De Lubac's most famous and controversial book was a somewhat ad hoc jamming together of several earlier long articles which nonetheless converged upon a single thesis. Tracing the origin of the terms hyperphues and supernaturalis, de Lubac shows that, following pagan antiquity, they had first of all simply denoted the realm of the divine above that of known physis. The Christian usage referring to an intrusion of the divine within the cosmos and an elevation of humanity was cognate both with a new sense of pneuma (after Paul and Origen) to mean the deepest part of the human being that retains a profound ontological kinship with the divine origin, and with an understanding of salvation as deification, or ontological transformation into as close a likeness with God as is consistent with a persisting created status. These conceptual affinities are important, because they show that de Lubac, like Jean Danielou, wished to stress that the original and authentic Latin understanding of the operation of grace (especially that of Augustine) was not essentially different from the Greek notion of deification.
For de Lubac, a break with such an understanding had only occurred in late medieval and early modern scholasticism: first with Denys the Carthusian and then decisively with Cajetan. The latter inaugurated (for de Lubac) a new reading of Aquinas on grace which has come to dominate all later theology. According to this reading, when Aquinas speaks, in several passages, of a desiderium naturale or even a desiderium naturae (as de Lubac stresses, against neothomism) in angels and humans for God, this does not denote an "innate" desire in us for the beatific vision, a kind of deep ontological thrust, prior to any reflection. Instead, it merely denotes an "elicited" desire, which is purely of the will, although occasioned by a curiosity proper to the intellect. We behold the effects of creation and desire by a mere vague velleity fully to know what has caused them. Thus we in no way remotely anticipate, by a sort of ineradicable mystical bias, the true substance of the beatific vision.
But more precisely, Cajetan dealt with Thomas' "natural desire for the supernatural" by an intellectual dividing and ruling. On the one hand, before the call of grace, besides the "elicited" natural desire, there is a mere potentia obedientiae of the human to the divine will. On the other hand, an authentic natural desire for the supernatural arises only with the grant of grace - which, it is important to stress, was, even for Cajetan, in actuality always present, both before the fall and after it.
Nevertheless, for Cajetan, Aquinas had to be rendered consistent by elaborating a doctrine of "pure nature" which would alone do justice both to his doctrine of the gratuity of grace and his repeated distinction between what is due to humanity by nature and what accrues to him by free supernatural addition. Thus 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.
All later scholasticism rang changes upon these themes, with no essential dissent, right down to the early twentieth century. De Lubac, however, along with several others at the time, denied in Surnaturel that this was a true reading of Aquinas. The angelic doctor's position on this issue remains today an interpretive crux, for no merely adventitious reasons - as will presently be explained.
In his historical tracing of the meaning of the word "supernatural," de Lubac further noted that, despite the specifically Christian shift in its range of implication, the essential contrast, up until the High Middle Ages, remained one between natural and moral and not natural and supernatural. The former usage though, de Lubac argued, itself reflected the authentic new Christian sense of the notion of the supernatural. For 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.
For de Lubac, what undoubtedly upset the reign of the natural/moral schema was the irruption of Aristotelianism. Whereas neoplatonism itself in its own way explored a complex boundary between supernatural deity and material nature and so had been readily Christianized by the church fathers, Aristotelianism, even in its Arabic neoplatonized forms (because these were specifically philosophical, not theological), tended to insist that human nature could be adequately grasped as belonging to a natural cosmos, and with the help of a strictly analytic rather than intuitive reason. Even where rational contemplation passed over into an intuitive grasp of the unity of all, this remained a cosmic and unassisted vision, not a supernatural raising into identity with the first cause.
The question then becomes, was Aquinas able to assimilate the Arabic Aristotle while retaining the older concepts of the supernatural?
For de Lubac, the distinct Aristotelian moment in Aquinas remains subordinate to an Augustinianism blended with Procleanism (mediated by Dionysius and the Arabs). De Lubac explicitly endorses mid-century readings of Aquinas stressing the neoplatonic and Augustinian dimension, while at the same time his Augustine is much more humanist and "Thomistic" than the previous run of French tradition.
However, for the alternative neoscholastic construal of the "natural desire of the supernatural," Aquinas represented much more of a watershed and indeed the beginning of proper scientific (as opposed to a semi-narrative and rhetorical) theology. For the first time, supposedly, it is clearly allowed by Aquinas and his contemporaries that there is an autonomous natural sphere comprising all of human activity outside the order of salvation. In this way, intrinsic human dignity and autonomy is allowed to emerge, while conversely and concomitantly the true gratuity of grace stands out along with the unnatural wonder of works of self-forgetting mercy inspired by our gracious elevation into friendship with God. De Lubac's reading seemed, for this outlook, simultaneously to compromise the legitimate domain of the secular and the contrasting surprisingness and gratuitousness of the divine works of freedom.
Put this way, it should be clear that, while "neoscholastic" suggests the fusty and obscurantist, this point of view - just because it is so modern and indeed the parent of modernity - runs far more with average contemporary common sense than does the difficult (but paleo-Christian) position of de Lubac.
For the latter, neither humanist autonomy nor sheer external gratuity is desirable. There was a double danger: pure humanism without reference beyond humanity and of the illusory piety of a religion without humanity produced by the neoscholastic understanding of grace. Quite apart from the question of the correct reading of Aquinas, it would be possible to argue that he is accurate in his understanding of the loss of the older Greek/Latin understanding of salvation and grace. It might be held that the attempt to incorporate Aristotle was simply a disaster. Why then did Aquinas matter for de Lubac?
The answer is, in part, that for de Lubac, Aquinas represented the possibility of an East-West synthesis (Augustine plus the Dionysius/Damascene legacy) and even more crucially that the attempt to incorporate Aristotle was positive insofar as it meant a deeper reckoning with reflection upon the operations of nature and of this-worldly human behavior. Here again, de Lubac's "paradoxical" doctrine of the supernatural cuts both ways at once. The older sense that everything must be viewed in an elevated light loses all cogency and depth if this light cannot ceaselessly shine within dark corners of finite existence newly explored. Without this continued deepening, the elevation would itself lapse back into the extrinsic.
For just this reason, de Lubac ceaselessly favored "science" and theological dialogue with science. This is in part why he liked Origen: he admired his literal concern with place, time, season, and measurement. This is also why he later celebrated Cusa and Berulle's attempt spiritually to respond to the new heliocentric cosmology; it is finally why he spent so much time reflecting, alongside Teilhard, on the import of evolutionary theory.
And it is for this reason that the compatibility of the older sense of the supernatural with the new incorporation of Aristotle mattered for de Lubac. It is as if for him (and quite legitimately) Aquinas was an early Renaissance as much as he was a medieval figure: concerned to integrate into the Christian synthesis a new interest in nature and in urban civilization.
Somewhat conflating de Lubac with Henri Bouillard, whose work he knew well, one can summarize his view of Aquinas on the supernatural as follows. First of all, as we have seen, grace for Aquinas was not extrinsic, since it was not a miracle: as such it neither interrupted nor simply added to the order of nature; rather, it intrinsically completed it. Secondly, neither for angels nor men was there any stage of nature that might be qualified as impervious to sin, as incapable of this condition (as the neoscholastics often thought, especially for angels) or, at the opposite extreme, if involved in sin, then totally destroyed by it - as if to be "natural" equated with "being sinless." All of spiritual nature is permeated by freedom, and freedom as such is a relation to divine law and the ultimate divine end. Thirdly, the natural desire of the supernatural in us cannot be merely elicited, because Aquinas says in the Summa contra Gentiles that we are drawn to the beatific vision in exactly the same way that every creature is moved by God towards some sort of unity with God. It is simply that we as intellectual creatures are moved in an intellectual way towards an intellectual union. Angels and humans as spirits are innately called to the beatific vision. The curiosity instigated by created effects is itself an erotic curiosity; while inversely the "elicited" desire to know God is itself a cognitive desire. De Lubac always insisted that the "will" in humanity was no faculty, but an integral expression of personhood: of will, intellect, and feeling.11
According to this conception of spirit, God, for Aquinas, is in the soul as the object of an (ontological) operation is in the operator. The natural orientation to the supernatural therefore indicates the presence of the divine to us always in the depths: our latent mystical condition. This is so proper to our nature that de Lubac asked, in the fourth place, why, if grace is a kind of superadded extra and there can be nature without sin, a knowing refusal of grace should, for the entire tradition, incur the poena damni?
In the fifth and final place, de Lubac argued that, for Aquinas, the natural desire for the supernatural could not, in divine justice, be disappointed, without violating the Aristotelian principle that a natural impulse to an end cannot (unless abnormally) be frustrated: Desiderium naturale nequit esse inane.
Just as de Lubac linked the loss of the true account of the supernatural to the loss of teleology, so he also linked it to the rise of a univocal ontology and a merely semantic account of analogy sundered from a metaphysic of existential participation. De Lubac insisted that analogy concerned the range of judgment of a soul participating in divine spirit, not simply the range in meaning of a linguistic concept.
This link to debates concerning analogy is not accidental. In his book on Barth, von Balthasar brought together de Lubac's account of the supernatural with Erich Przywara's restoration of the analogia entis against both a liberal theology starting from a human foundation below, and a Barthian commencement with a revelation over-against a nature at once utterly depraved and merely passively open to the divine (in the sense of a passivity "opposed" to human activity, not a radical passivity with respect to God in the heart of the active itself).12 In the case of both refusals, one has to do with a "suspended middle" and a non-ontology, since both analogy and the supernatural belong neither to natural theology nor to doctrine, while at the same time they belong to both and encompass both. Natural analogies for God remotely anticipate even the divine essence, while the discourse of grace must perforce still deploy natural analogues.
Nevertheless, considerable obscurities remain. Is the natural desire of the supernatural already the working of grace? In that case, why is it a natural desire? But if it is not already grace at work, is there not an exigency for grace on the part of human nature, which suggests that it unfolds as if from a seed, rather than arriving from without? And if the cosmos returns to God more fully through spirits, did God have to create spirits? Is it truly inevitable that the latter are oriented to the beatific vision, given the continuity of intellect with the function of the animal soul after Aristotle? Finally, if the orientation to grace is simply the mode taken by createdness in the intellectual creature, what becomes of the distinction between the datum optimum of creation on the one hand, and the donum perfectum of grace on the other?
All these questions continued to haunt de Lubac for long after he had seen the back of the Gestapo and the secular power of his Catholic Rightist opponents.
Was this article helpful?