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.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Natura Pura: St. Thomas in a Nutshell, Part 1

THE DISTINCTION AND UNION between the natural and the supernatural, between nature and grace, is a "foundational distinction for Christian life." Long, 12. The distinction between them, the avoidance of their conflation, and their balanced recombination are fundamental to a correct understanding of Christian doctrine and Christian life. It is not merely a speculative nicety, an academic question, but the distinction plays itself out in both praxis and doxa. The balance between nature and grace must be right. Mess with it and you start getting into error and even into heresy. Too much grace and not enough nature and you venture into the wilds of fideism. Too much nature and not enough faith and you end up in the desert of rationalism. In this regard, the Christian is like a mountain climber on Bosses Ridge at Mont Blanc: he avoids the steep slope on either side and walks the straight and narrow ridge. The last thing he wants to do is to slip down the slippery slope of sola gratia or sola fide. But neither does he want to fall down the equally fatal slope of sola natura or sola ratio. It doesn't help to become a Pelagian to avoid being a Luther. Fides et ratio, gratia et natura is the synthesis that must be maintained to get to the summit of truth. And that synthesis is precarious if you start fiddling with its components, or if you misunderstanding them, which is exactly what de Lubac and the other members of la nouvelle théologie did.

Climbing up Bosses Ridge toward Mont Blanc

For St. Thomas, man enjoys a "human nature." That human nature, which is defined relative to its natural end, is what distinguishes him as a particular species distinct from any other species--whether that other species be inanimate, vegetable, or brute. Man's nature is species defining. The natural end of man's nature is to know or contemplate God as First Cause. It is, a desire one may say, inspired, not by the Holy Spirit, but by man's natural disposition to wonder, θαυμάζεῖν.* Its guide is reason, a reason which is part and parcel of man who is, in contrast to any other material creation, an intellector of being. Man's intellectus ut natura, his intellect as nature, seeks to know not God, but being in general, the essence of a cause once known to exist, and so seeks God only conditionally. The desire for God is conditional because it must be elicited. The desire to know God is elicited by an acquired knowledge that God exists. When that condition is obtained, it triggers as it were, the intellectus ut natura, to focus it upon acquiring the knowledge of God as First Cause. A similar thing occurs with the voluntas ut natura, man's will as nature. It loves or desires the good in general, and not God in particular. The desire or natural love for God must be elicited; and so the natural will towards God as good is conditioned upon man learning that God exists as good. Unaided by revelation and grace, however, the intellect of man cannot know the essence of God. Likewise, unaided by grace, the will of God cannot love and attain union with God. For these reasons, the natural desire to know and love God "is not proportioned to God, but rather is proportioned to the intellective desire to understand the world in general which gives rise to it." Long, 20. In an interesting image, Long describes the difference between the natural desire for God, which is built upon the desire to know the cause of the world (a very narrow reality of God, at best a sliver of who He is), and the supernatural desire to know God as He is and to attain union with Him, as the difference between wanting to know Einstein under the aspect or ratio of "man wearing a raincoat," and versus desiring to know Einstein under the aspect or ratio of Einstein. In the natural order, we know and love God as cause of the world, which means that we know and love him in the world or through the world, and never beyond it. It is a desire that allows man only "to move asymptotically toward God as causal principle of created nature." Long, 26. There is no question of reaching the limit, and certainly none of going beyond it. Since God infinitely transcends the world, this knowledge of God is never anything more than natural. And yet we have a natural inclination, as befits our human nature and to which it tends,** to seek to know God and contemplate him as our last end, as the First Cause.

Knowing the man in the coat
Knowing Einstein in the coat

The natural desire that man has for God as first cause could hypothetically exist in various ways. God could have satisfied Himself with that, and left man to his own devices, and He would not have been unjust. Indeed, such a natural life alone would have been an infinite largess impossible to repay. To be brought forth out of nothing is itself unmerited. But this natural desire could also have been, as it in fact was if we embrace the truth of the Christian revelation, conjoined with sanctifying grace and with supernatural aid which makes the possibility, the hope, of the beatific vision known, real. This, of course, changes things. Among the things it changes is the role of man's specific, that is to say, natural end, by subordinating it. Another change is that it renders the conditional desire to know God unconditional. Before revelation: if it were possible, one would wish it [union with God]. After revelation: Since it is possible, one in fact wishes it [union with God].

It is revealed that man has a supernatural end, the finis ultimus, to which this natural end is subordinate, proximate, proportionate. And yet this natural end does not disappear. It remains real, intellectually tangible, not devised. This human nature has an "obediential potency"*** to a supernatural end. The supernatural end is to know God, not as First Cause, but in his inner being, as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in the beatific vision and the life of Glory.**** The supernatural end is a gift of grace, a giving from God's infinite storehouses by virtue of His sheer largess of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, whose end is communion. It is obtained, not by knowledge, but by faith. Hypothetically, man could have been created without such supernatural destiny; in fact, he was not created so, for Revelation is what informs of its reality as fact. But because hypothetically man could have been created without heaven as his end, it would not have been an injustice for God not to give man the beatific vision. But the reality of Revelation changes things.

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. This idea of the modalization of the natural desire according to the states in which it may be found, contextualizes it in relation to grace.

Long, 21. It is wrong, in the light of revelation, to look at this supernaturalization of the natural end as a "layer cake," Long, 19. The supernatural life is not "frosting" on natural cake. It is not a "maraschino cherry on a purely natural sundae." Long, 29. How it ought to be looked at is the subject of our next posting.

*Aristotle, Metaphysics, 982b (διὰ γὰρ τὸ θαυμάζειν οἱ ἄνθρωποι καὶ νῦν καὶ τὸ πρῶτον ἤρξαντο φιλοσοφεῖν: "It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize").
**S.T. I, q. 62, a. 2: "the will's natural inclination is directed toward what is in keeping with its nature."
***That term, as used in the context of the nature/grace controversy, will be handled in a separate future post.
****"Natural understanding of God . . . is necessarily limited with respect to God because condition by finite evidence [Lex Christianorum: and, we might add, finite faculty man's natural knowledge]. Yet this natural desire and natural understanding constitutes a purely passive obediential potency, which under the active agency of God renders man capable of the supernatural vision of God." Long, 18.

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