This begins a multi-part series on de Lubac by Daniel W. McClain. Daniel is a doctoral student of theology at the Catholic University of America and blogs at The Land of Unlikeness.
By Daniel W. McClain
Henri de Lubac is one of a few rather unique Thomists of the twentieth century in that he produces a reading of themes in Thomas Aquinas in sharp contradistinction to the major current in Thomistic thought of his time. His Mystery of the Supernatural is both a rehabilitation and revolutionary extension of St. Thomas’ teaching on the desiderium natural visionis dei. It is an historical and exegetical resuscitation of Thomas’ synthesis of the natural desire for the supernatural. But, following Thomas’ two principal insights that led to this synthesis, it is also an original rethinking of the problematic of nature and grace. Emerging from the controversy over the desiderium naturale, de Lubac produces a new way of understanding and holding together Thomas’ synthesis of the natural desire to see God, namely through the analogy of gift.
However, Thomas’ synthesis presented other theologians with two severe difficulties. Often, they accepted the premises, but rejected the conclusion. Some alleged that affirming a natural desire for the supernatural makes the natural somehow supernatural. Others complained that a natural desire places a demand on the supernatural to fulfill man’s perfection. Both criticisms are important to de Lubac, evidenced by the length and thoroughness of his response to them. In order to thoroughly appreciate de Lubac’s contribution to reading Thomas and his response to the critics, it is fitting that we first understand St. Thomas’ proposal of the natural desire to see God and the problems successive theologians faced in holding together the tensions inherent to that proposal, for it is their rejections of Thomas’ synthesis that de Lubac is primarily responding to in Mystery of the Supernatural. Thus, as the debate turns on Thomas’ teaching of the natural desire for the supernatural, I begin with an exposition of his two principles of humanity’s end and God’s gratuity in the relevant sections of the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologica. Second, I argue that de Lubac’s recovery of Thomas’ teaching on the natural desire re-presents Thomas’ two principles and synthesis in a way that gives a robust answer to the ciriticisms. Third, I conclude with de Lubac’s extension of Thomas’ thought via the analogy of gift.
I. Thomas 1: The Vision of God in the Summa Contra Gentiles
In all of his writing on the desiderium naturale, Thomas affirms two principles. First, there is only one thing that can satisfy human longing, wonder, curiosity, and desire. Previously, philosophy had asserted that it was knowing God as first cause. However, Thomas argues that it is seeing God as He sees Himself in His own essence. Second, this beatific seeing is never something that humanity can attain by its own ability. Rather, it is only in God freely giving Himself to humanity that we can ever hope to see Him. It is with the desiderium natural visionis dei that Thomas holds the two principles together. In other words, humanity has a natural desire for a supernatural end, that is, the Beatific vision.
In book III, chapter 48 of the Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas, following Augustine, is quite straightforward that man has one end which can not be achieved in this life. It is natural that human intelligence is never at rest in this life; rather, we are always seeking more, and consequently, are never satisfied. Thus, the restlessness itself being natural, so too the desire for the rest is also natural, although what the desire seeks is not known naturally.
Happiness, according to Thomas, is the end which human nature desires. However, for a human to achieve this happiness, she would have to be in a total state of rest, desiring nothing and seeking nothing. Seeing that a state of complete rest is impossible in this life, the kind of happiness that is afforded on this side of death is a shadow of the kind sought by human desire. As such, Thomas repeats that “man’s ultimate happiness can not be in this life”; yet, human desire can not be “in vain,” leading him to conclude that the desire will be filled in the next life.
In chapter 50, Thomas further establishes that the natural desire to know God is not satisfied in this life when he points out that knowledge of God in this life is imperfect because it can not comprehend God’s substance. Yet, that lack in our knowledge results in a desire to know more, indeed to know as we are known. “Therefore, the desire for knowledge naturally implanted in all intellectual substances does not rest unless, knowing the substance of effects, they know also the substance of their causes… their natural desire does not rest, unless they see God’s substance also.” However, human nature is not now capable of seeing God as such. Thus, Thomas in the next two chapters explores how it is possible that human nature will be able to see God “face to face.”
So, paradoxically, while “we must conclude that it is possible for the divine substance to be seen by means of the [human] intellect,” it is at the same time true “that the divine substance can not be seen by the intellect in any created species.” As such, the human intellect will see the divine substance only when “in that vision the divine essence is both the object and medium of vision.” In this new vision we will truly know God as we are known by him because we will “become most like unto God,” knowing God as he knows himself, which knowledge “is His bliss.” And yet, while this is our natural desire, it is by no means naturally attainable, that we should attain God’s essence so as to see God as God is. Only God in His own action can bring this about. Thomas makes this clear in 52.1-2. Nevertheless, he states, “we have proved that man’s happiness consists in seeing God, which is called life everlasting: and we are said to obtain this by God’s grace alone, because that vision surpasses the faculty of every creature… and it is impossible to attain thereto except by God’s gift…”
 Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 1: “tu excitas ut laudare te delectet, quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.” Summa Contra Gentiles, III.48.3 SGC III.50.1-2 SGC III.50.8
 SGC III.51.1-2
 SGC III.51.6; 1 John 3:2
 SGC III.52.6