Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Natura Pura: Human Nature Unaided

“GRACE PRESUPPOSES NATURE, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected."* So succinctly does St. Thomas distinguish grace and human nature so as to immediately recombine them. But there is a marked tendency among some contemporary theologians, those of la nouvelle théologie, to so emphasize grace as to virtually negate any meaning in the notion of human nature. Ultimately, this tendency is derived from a notion of "nature" which is bereft of any theonomic character,** and one far less ontologically dense than what St. Thomas had in mind by the concept of "nature." As Steven A. Long in his book Natura Pura*** puts it, these theologians (he identifies Etienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, and Hans Urs von Balthasar among them) "accept an account of the relation of nature and grace that dissolves the entire structure of human nature and its proportionate end into a pure posit or limit concept." Long, 1. A pure posit is nothing other than a wholly intellectual concept, something intellectually posited, with not real existence in concreto, in the concrete world. It is less than a shadow. Pure nature, these theologians say, does not exist in any meaningful sense to the Christian. First, it is unreliable since it is corrupted by the Fall. (Here these Catholic theologians sound uncomfortably Calvinistic or Barthian.) Moreover, its importance pales to the point of practical disappearance as a separate principle since all men are called to a supernatural calling and end, and it is this supernatural end which is the true end of man. For these Christian thinkers, it is a useless abstraction to talk about nature and certainty to talk about its "proportionate natural end," since, in practice, pure human nature is something that, in fact, does not exist, man having a supernatural end only. Ultimately, there is a certain illogic in the stance as Long points out:

For surely it is a crucial failure in logic to assert that, because there is more in the concrete than merely the proportionate ordering of nature, therefore this proportionate ordering of nature does not exist in the concrete or is unknowable in the concrete.

Long, 2. Not only is there a certain illogic, the notion stems from a complete misunderstanding of the Thomistic doctrine of nature and grace, of the natural and its relationship to the supernatural. In fact, Long insists, pace these big-named theologians--pristine representatives of the redoubtable nouvelle théologie--pure human nature does exist in the concrete and is knowable in the concrete. This human nature has an "ontological density and proportionate end," and end distinct from, yet subordinate to, its supernatural end. Human nature, at least in the Thomistic view properly understood, has "its own created perfection positively ordered toward God within natural limits while being capable with divine aid of elevation to divine friendship and the beatific vision." Long, 2. The Thomistic theonomic concept of nature and its relationship to supernatural grace was lost by these theologians and must recovered Long insists.

Please, Sir, may I have something other than thin gruel?
May I have some ontological density added to my understanding of "nature"?

Long traces the sources of the current confusion to: (i) these theologians' understanding of St. Thomas's use of "nature," and (ii) their misapplication of the Thomistic concept of "obediential potency" to the relationship that nature has to grace.**** He traces their misunderstanding of the Thomistic nature/grace relationship to the concept of "nature" they had inherited, and uncritically accepted, and then applied to St. Thomas's writings. This concept of "nature" was a concept after it had been denuded of theological content by the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers. Contrary to the term "nature" as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas, these theologians inherited "a reduced and anti-theistic idea of 'nature.'" They also had inherited (like all of us) the deistic idea that "human freedom lies naturally outside the divine causality and providence," and is, for all practical purposes, autonomous. Long, 3. With the concept of "nature" and "freedom" emptied of any theonomic content by progressive and deistic definitions spurred by Enlightenment thinking, it follows that human nature and human freedom did not seem like something particular conducive or fruitful in terms of a proportionate end that could include God. Quite properly, these theologians reacted negatively against the naturalism and the anti-theistic positivism of the the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers which found its way into their understanding of human nature. But in so doing they gave the concept of nature as St. Thomas understood it short shrift, minimized its importance, and ultimately robbed it of its proportionate end, that is, ultimately its meaning. If nature and freedom are understood in such a manner so as to exclude God, then it seems quite necessary to deny that human nature has any proportionate end independent of God and his grace. In short, when De Lubac or Gilson or von Balthasar read "nature" in St. Thomas, they did not understand "nature" as Thomas did, but they understood "nature" the way moderns do. Hence the misunderstanding of the Thomistic doctrine of nature/grace.

What Long suggests is that we shouldn't abandon the concept of human nature to save divine grace, but that we ought to recover the original understanding of human nature, so as to preserve the theonomic character of reality that exists in it. The account of human nature that we have inherited from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment is so thin that nothing philosophically can be done with it. Like some thin, insipid gruel it leaves us wanting, begging for more. The modern concept of nature "has lost its ontological and metaphysical bearings." Long, 6. We must recover an "appropriately and philosophically rigorous theonomic concept of nature." Long, 6. In so doing it, we might recover the proper understanding of human nature and its "proportionate end," and we can leave the Enlightenment gruel and go back to the Thomistic stew where there is, in fact, a nature, theonomic in character, upon which grace can build, a nature which grace can perfect. It's the only way over the trap door set by the Deists and Enlightenment thinkers through the entrance which leads into the kitchen where the Thomistic combination waits to be eaten:
Without the rekindling of the appropriate theoretic habitus--without philosophic contemplation and analysis of natura--there is a grave danger of falling into an anti-theistic naturalism or pure scientism, in which the only first-order propositions derive from positive science, and philosophy is construed as merely second-order logical consideration of implications. The vade mecum for this situation is: the full philosophical contemplation of nature together with the implied realization that nature and natural order are theonomic principles.
Long, 7.

What, in brief, is included in the concept natura pura, this "pure nature" of man from which we may learn the natural law? Based upon St. Thomas Aquinas, the notion of human nature will insist on two things. First, that there is here and now, concretely, "impressed upon each human person a natural order to the proximate, proportionate, natural end from which the species of man is derived, an end which is natural knowable and distinct from the final and supernatural end." Second, that the human person "could without injustice have been created with this natural ordering alone, outside of sanctifying grace, in puris naturalibus, and without the further ordering of man to supernatural beatific vision (for the call to grace is an unmerited gift)." Long, 8. These two things were clearly taught by St. Thomas and were a necessity of his understanding of human nature and his synthesis of nature and grace. These two indicia of human nature were rejected by De Lubac even though they quite clearly were contained in St. Thomas's writings.

How this happened will be the subject of our next few postings.

*S.T. Ia,q.2,a.2,ad 1. (Ad primum ergo dicendum quod Deum esse, et alia huiusmodi quae per rationem naturalem nota possunt esse de Deo, ut dicitur Rom. I non sunt articuli fidei, sed praeambula ad articulos, sic enim fides praesupponit cognitionem naturalem, sicut gratia naturam, et ut perfectio perfectibile. Nihil tamen prohibet illud quod secundum se demonstrabile est et scibile, ab aliquo accipi ut credibile, qui demonstrationem non capit.)
**Theonomic comes from the combination of the Greek words for God (θεός or
theos) and law (νόμος or nomos). If nature has no theonomic character, there is no law in it, since there would be no lawgiver. Nature is and cannot be a lawgiver since it is not a person. God is the lawgiver behind nature. The notion of theonomy was briefly treated during our postings on Cardinal Mercier. See Cardinal Mercier and the Natural Law: Part 9, The Natural Law.
***Stephen A. Long, Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace (New York: Forham University Press, 2010) (hereinafter "Long").
****An "obediential potency" is defined as a potential capacity in a substance or being which allows the reception of either a miraculous transmutation or a supernatural perfection, one that exceeds the natural capacities of a particular substance or being. In the Eucharist, for example, bread and wine are in "obediential potency,"
i.e., they possess a potential capacity outside of their natural capacity through miracle, to be transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ by the acts of a priest.

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