De Lubac and His Critics Make the Same Error

In an essay on integralism I took issue with Steven Long’s claim that the natural and supernatural desires for God have formally distinct objects. Long claims that the natural desire to know the first cause of all things is only materially, not formally, a desire to know God–just as the desire to know Einstein under the ratio of “man wearing a raincoat” is only materially, not formally, a desire to know Einstein. To this I replied:

[The] relevant distinction between objects of natural and of supernatural desire is not matter and form, but rather confused and distinct. That is, to desire God based on one’s natural knowledge of Him through His effects is really to desire God, in Whom those effects really participate. Here the Platonic notion of anamnesis that Ratzinger takes up […] is extremely helpful. When one comes to know God by natural reason, one “recognizes” in Him the infinite ocean of perfection in which one’s own and all created being participates. But of course this knowledge is very imperfect, confused knowledge; the light of faith gives a much more distinct knowledge of Whom it is that one desires. [… The] natural desire to attain to God is really a desire to attain to God, and thus the desire given by grace really perfects, elevates, and completes that desire by revealing both more about Who God is, and by revealing an unspeakably perfect and beatifying  mode of attaining to Him; it does not add another, independent desire.

Long himself sometimes speaks as though this were the case. Thus, a little after the Einstein-raincoat example he writes:

Where revelation makes the real possibility of beatific vision known, this renders the otherwise conditional desire to know God to become unconditional. Apart from revelation the desire would be conditional— “were it possible” one would will it. Just as one might wish to live forever, or never to make a mistake—both logically, but seemingly not really, possible—so one would wish to know the essence of the First Cause, save that in this case one genuinely would not know what one is wishing for. After revelation, the desire becomes unconditional. Once God reveals Himself and his gift of divine life, the natural desire thus elevated and supernaturalized in grace inclines toward it absolutely by inclining toward the infinitely higher end of union with the Uncreated Persons of the Holy Trinity. For the object of the natural desire for God under the ratio of “cause of these effects” is incorporated within the graced desire of God as God. (Natura Pura, p. 21)

 What Long says here fits quite well with my position. He is suggesting that the desire for God elicited by natural reason’s consideration of the things that He causes makes one desire to know God as much as possible. That desire would not be in vain in a state of pure nature, since to know even a little of God makes one happy, but the desire would not be so satisfied that one would not wish to know Him more. One would see that one’s knowledge of Him was indirect, through effects that fall infinitely short of Him, and one would wish “if it were possible” to know Him directly, in His essence. And so grace opens up a way of satisfying the natural desire infinitely more fully than it could be satisfied naturally. But if, on the other hand, the natural desire is really a desire for a formally distinct object, then this is much more difficult to see.

Oddly enough, De Lubac himself also distinguishes between two desires to know God with formally distinct objects–only he sees them both as natural desires. In The Discovery of GodDe Lubac distinguishes between the “philosophical” desire to know the cause of all things, and the “mystical” desire to know the One as the One. By “mystical” in this context he does not mean something that comes from an infused gift of the Holy Spirit, but rather a natural desire for the beatific vision presumably common to Christian and non-Christian mystics.  The philosopher, he argues, wants to “comprehend the universe,” and treats God only as an aid to explaining the world. The philosopher as philosopher is satisfied by this: “he does not ask for more.” (p. 148) The mystic, as mystic, who may be the same person as the philosopher but considered under another finality, does ask for more. De Lubac quotes a great many passages fro St. Thomas about how philosophy only knows God as cause of the world. But I think he is making a great mistake here. To say that philosophy only knows God through his effects does not mean that it is only interested in him as an explanation for His effects. All it means is that the highest knowledge which is what the philosopher really wants, that werein wisdom really consists, is only accessible indirectly. Consider the following passage of Plotinus:

We must ascend, therefore, once more to the Good, which every soul desires. If anyone […] passing in his ascent beyond all that is separative from God, by himself alone contemplates God alone, perfect, simple and pure, from Whom all things depend, to Whom all beings look, and in Whom they are, and live, and know. For He is the cause of Being, Life and Intelligence. If, then, anyone beheld Him, with what love would he be inspired! With what desire would he burn in his eagerness to be united with Him! With what bliss would he be overcome! (Ennead I,6,7)

Presumably De Lubac would call this a mystical rather than a philosophical text. And yet, it is wholly consistent with St. Thomas’s account of philosophy. Plotinus here has come to knowledge of God as the cause of being, life, and understanding; he does not see how God is in Himself, but he does see how he is not i.e. not-finite, not-complex (simple), not-mixed (pure). He is “perfect,” but his perfection is only known through imperfect things, by denying their imperfections of God. This leads Plotinus to wish for a more perfect knowledge:

How shall a man behold this ineffable Beauty which remains within, deep in Its holy sanctuaries, and proceeds not without where the profane may view It?  (I,6,8)

De Lubac argues that St. Thomas sometimes confuses the philosophical and the mystical desires for God, and that he was unable fully account for their relation to each other:

St. Thomas, therefore. seems to have failed in his attempt to establish continuity between philosophy and mysticism, between the dynamism of the intelligence and the desire of the spirit. The doctrine of “the natural desire to see God” is central to his thought, and he has not succeeded in completely unifying it. N0 one will succeed where he has failed. (The Discovery of God, p. 151)

But St. Thomas did not have to integrate these two desires, because they are simply the same thing. Consider St. Thomas’s treatment of the question in the Summ Contra Gentiles III,25 (often quoted by Long, but interpreted by him with unnecessary subtly):

The ultimate end of each thing is God, as we have shown. So, each thing intends, as its ultimate end, to be united with God as closely as is possible for it. Now, a thing is more closely united with God by the fact that it attains to His very substance in some manner, and this is accomplished when one knows something of the divine substance, rather than when one acquires some likeness of Him. Therefore, an intellectual substance tends to divine knowledge as an ultimate end. […] Besides, a thing has the greatest desire for its ultimate end. Now, the human intellect has a greater desire, and love, and pleasure, in knowing divine matters than it has in the perfect knowledge of the lowest things, even though it can grasp but little concerning divine things. So, the ultimate end of man is to understand God, in some fashion. […] Besides, there is naturally present in all men the desire to know the causes of whatever things are observed. Hence, because of wondering about things that were seen but whose causes were hidden, men first began to think philosophically; when they found the cause, they were satisfied. But the search did not stop until it reached the first cause, for “then do we think that we know perfectly, when we know the first cause.” Therefore, man naturally desires, as his ultimate end, to know the first cause. But the first cause of all things is God. Therefore, the ultimate end of man is to know God.

Both De Lubac and Long understand the desire to know God qua cause of all things as being the desire to know an object formally distinct from God as God. But there is absolutely no need to make this distinction. Both De Lubac and his critic make a mistake common among very clever people: thinking that things must be more complicated than they are. The most profound things are the most simple and obvious.

De Lubac notes that in fact every philosopher is more than a philosopher and “the labor of elaborating an intelligible world does not save him from ‘the nostalgia of Being’,” and he adds in a footnote: “This is true even of Descartes, so often accused since the time of Pascal of only being interested in God for the sake of possessing the world.” (p. 153 with note 19) Here we perhaps see the real origin of De Lubac’s conception of the role of God in philosophy: Descartes! Descartes’s philosophical account of God is indeed only an aid to explaining the world, and this is what distinguishes “the god of the [French Enlightenment] philosophers” from the God of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. Descartes’s philosophical approach to God (as opposed to his religious approach) is not an approach to God at all, and his desire to know that “God” is a desire to know an object not only formally but also materially distinct from his desire to know the One True God. But that is just because the “god” of Cartesian philosophy is not God at all, but just a useful fiction.

9 thoughts on “De Lubac and His Critics Make the Same Error

  1. I think de Lubac’s position is ultimately more nuancedthan indicated, based on other texts he wrote on the matter, but have you read nick healy’s article on this debate in an old communio edition celebrating de Lubac’s Catholicism at 70? Would be interested in your thoughts there.


    • It’s been a while since I read Nick’s essay. From what I remember he does a good job of articulating De Lubac’s concern, and of showing how some of his De Lubac’s critics exaggerate his position. But he doesn’t take up the difference between a formal/material distinction (as proposed by Long) and a confused/distict distinction between natural and supernatural desire, which I think is the crucial point. (His own position does I think tend in the direction of seeing the natural and supernatural desires as related as confused/distinct though). Nor does he take up De Lubac’s distinction between philosophical and mystical desire, which was my target in this post.


      • Pater, I understand regarding both your confused/distinct distinction and the philosophical/mystical desire, I simply think de Lubac’s position (and Thomas’!) is more analogical than the black and white way it is often presented, and this becomes apparent when read in dialogue with his Surnaturel among others of his works, and within the tradition(s) he was both emerging in and responding to. I also think Aquinas’s own position, and his analogical way of thinking (answering questions in certain way proportionate to the nature and location of the question) leaves open the possibility of de Lubac’s interpretation, as well as his reading of Aquinas as immersed in prior tradition as opposed to constituting his own tradition (manifest in the commentatorial tradition) abstracted from what came before. I think Healy’s article makes this case convincingly. I’ll quote the later passages I mentioned in the facebook post on the same topic since you’ll have more space to respond here:

        The Healy article deals with the Long/Feingold objection amounting to a certain (reductionist) aristotelian interpretation of the particular passage that the ends of nature are proportionate to nature, which is dependent on a prior conception of what the final end of human nature is in order to suggest it is “within” nature. He see specifically that this is ” an over-extension of the principle that the “end of nature must be proportionate to nature.” I’ll quote Healy at length:

        “Aquinas explicitly and repeatedly rejects this principle as applicable to the question of the final end of human nature: “Even though by his nature man is inclined to his ultimate end he cannot reach it by nature but only by grace, and this owing to the loftiness of that end.” The same teaching is repeated in Summa theologiae I-II, q. 5, a. 5, where the second objection reads: “Since man is more noble than irrational creatures, it seems that he must be better equipped than they. But irrational creatures can attain heir end by their natural powers. Much more therefore can man
        attain beatitude by his natural powers.” Aquinas responds: The nature that can attain perfect good, although it needs help from without in order to attain it, is of more noble condition than a nature which cannot attain perfect good, but attains some imperfect good, although it need no help from without in order to attain it . . . . And therefore the rational creature, which can attain the perfect good of beatitude, but needs the divine assistance for the purpose, is more perfect than the irrational creature, which is not capable of attaining this good, but attains some imperfect good by its natural powers. And also from Aquinas, “It was proved above that every intellect desires naturally to see the divine substance. Now the natural desire cannot be void. Therefore every created intellect can arrive at the vision of the divine substance, the lowliness of its nature being no obstacle.” There are many other passages from Aquinas that support his argument on this point within his article.

        Healy further notes: “How can there be a natural desire for the beatific vision that is not an illegitimate “movement toward” an end that can only be approached through the new gift of grace? When the end of nature is beyond nature’s ability, “it is looked for,” Aquinas argues, “from another’s bestowing” (expectatur. . . ex dono alterius). If human nature desires a final end that exceeds nature, then the form of nature’s desire is receptivity—a receptive desire for the surprising and surpassing gift of friendship and assistance from another. This is supremely fitting for a nature whose very existence is from another. “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7). These words from St. Paul, which resound like a refrain throughout Augustine’s writings, provide a hidden key to the structure of authentic human desire in relation to the novelty of grace. The disproportion between human nature’s desire and its power to fulfill it is a kind of created infrastructure that opens nature from within to receive and participate in the new and unimagined gift of deification. This does not mean, however, that grace arrives at the point where nature breaks down. Rather, it means that grace presupposes, activates, and fulfills a receptivity (which involves giving and receiving) that represents human nature at its highest pitch. The archetype of nature’s active receptivity is the fiat of Mary, which “was decisive, on the human level, for the accomplishment of the divine mystery” (Redemptoris Mater, 13). In other words, our nature is exemplified in Mary; however, rather than passivity, as someone else in the thread pointed out, I prefer to think of it as “receptivity” in the dynamic marian mode (which is actually an active receptivity) rather than deal with some of the connotations that passivity can imply in modern dialogue. Call me a Balthasarian on this point.

        Another point: “Proponents of “pure nature” tend to ignore the implications of Aquinas’s teaching that nature’s capacity to be an inner principle of motion and rest itself depends upon God’s bestowal of esse, which, as Thomas says, “actualizes all things . . . even forms.” The natural desire to see God is interwoven with our innate capacity to attain esse (in this life by a process of metaphysical separatio). But just as created essence has no prior claim to God’s bestowal of esse—since it does not exist prior to that bestowal—the natural desire to see God, which is rooted in and expresses our essence as intellectual creatures, does not constitute a “demand” or an “anticipation” of grace. On the contrary, it is a receptive readiness rooted in the fact of having already been given the gift of esse absolutely gratis.”

        Looking forward to your thoughts!


  2. (This is in reply to your comments on FB as well as the comment above).

    Joel, I agree with about 97% of what you say. Particularly when you say: “nature is itself is already “gift” and a gratuitous one, to which we have no anticipatory claim […] Gratuity and givenness and receptivity are inscribed at the heart of our nature, at the structure of our being. This original structure of our nature can’t be overstated.” And again: “all created being is given, therefore what is created naturally seeks its creator, however inchoately.” This actually one of the main points of Steve Long’s polemic: that nature is thoroughly theonomic even in abstraction from grace. Everything that God creates He creates to share in some way in His likeness, and every natural thing is moved by God as the first mover towards its perfection, which is a share of that likeness. Nature is desire for God. Rocks cohere, trees grow, animals eat all out of an inchoate desire for God. But of course this desire is only inchoate. Rational creatures are able to understand the good, and pursue it intentionally. This desire is an inchoate desire for God, but at first only inchoate, it is a desire for the good in general, before the rational creature knows anything about God. But then the rational creature can learn about God a with a “shock of delight” as Plotinus says recognizes the complete good in Him. And then the rational creature wants to attain to God as much as possible. But by nature the only attainment possible is the indirect attainment of contemplation of God as cause through His effects. This is natural happiness, and anyone who attains to it “With what bliss would he be overcome!” to quote Plotinus again. And yet, this attainment does not fulfill the natural desire to such an extent that it cannot wish a more perfect attainment might be possible, but it fulfills it enough that one could not say, had God created man in a state of pure nature, that man’s desire for God would be in vain.

    So nature is a gift, an underserved gratuitous gift. But because of this initial gift, it is just that God gives creatures what is fitting to their nature. St. Thomas writes:

    “the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon. For nothing is due to creatures, except for something pre-existing in them, or foreknown. Again, if this is due to a creature, it must be due on account of something that precedes. And since we cannot go on to infinity, we must come to something that depends only on the goodness of the divine will–which is the ultimate end. We may say, for instance, that to possess hands is due to man on account of his rational soul; and his rational soul is due to him that he may be man; and his being man is on account of the divine goodness. So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy. In all that follows, the power of mercy remains, and works indeed with even greater force; as the influence of the first cause is more intense than that of second causes. For this reason does God out of abundance of His goodness bestow upon creatures what is due to them more bountifully than is proportionate to their deserts: since less would suffice for preserving the order of justice than what the divine goodness confers; because between creatures and God’s goodness there can be no proportion.” (STh Ia q21, a4 c)

    So on account of the gratuitous, merciful gift of nature, a certain kind of beatitude would be due to man, but by the gift of grace God gives us much more than is due to our nature, he gives us a complete beatitude, a vision of His innermost life, a participation in the divine nature.

    I’m not sure yet how to interpret some of the texts Nick brings up. Such as, “That which we are able to do only with divine assistance is not absolutely impossible for us according to the philosopher’s observation in the Nichomachean Ethics: that which we are able to do through friends we can in a certain way do on our own.” I’m looking forward to seeing Jacob Wood’s reading. But let me quote von Balthasar, to whom you referred:

    “But [Augustine] was quite well aware, as were all the Fathers, that this unity that was the foundation of Adam’s existence was itself no necessary synthesis but a de facto one. It belongs to the very essence of the creature that it must indeed be creature, but not a creature who has been exalted to a new order by grace; by nature a creature is the ‘servant’ but not the ‘friend’ of God.” (This is cited by Long at p. 61)

    It is only by grace that we have been made friends of God: “I do not call you servants, but friends.”


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