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The Natural Desire to See God?

The human person—with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, his longings for the infinite and for happiness—questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,” can have its origin only in God (CCC 33).

Such says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Do you agree? The purpose of this article is to help you determine (or at minimum, help you consider) your position on humankind and the natural desire to see God. To achieve that end, I will recount the high points of a debate I witnessed between two venerable scholars: David Bentley Hart and Lawrence Feingold. An extended version of my notes is available here, and a video of the debate here.

First, a bit of confessional and topical background. David Bentley Hart is Eastern Orthodox; Larry Feingold is Catholic. Their debate centered on the theological reception of Henri de Lubac (1896—1991), a Jesuit who spoke out against any rigid dichotomy between “natural” and “supernatural” realities.1 De Lubac was part of the Nouvelle Théologie, a school of thinkers who aimed to break free from the rigid version of Thomistic theology known as manualism. The manualist tradition upheld a strict separation between natural and supernatural orders of being. In this system, it becomes possible for grace to be viewed as a “super-added” gift that has nothing to do with natural existence. Grace comes in, as it were, only from the outside. De Lubac attempted to correct this error.

Both of our speakers admire de Lubac’s work, while nonetheless interpreting his legacy differently. For Hart, de Lubac was absolutely right to assert that rational consciousness—at its base—must be an orientation toward the vision of God. For Feingold, this statement is also “correct,” but must be accompanied by certain theological and anthropological qualifications. Both Hart and Feingold believe that the destiny of humankind is to see God; our end and fulfillment is found in God alone. So the real question of their debate is not whether the desire for God exists in humanity,2 but how this desire interacts with the constitution, abilities, and end(s) of the human person.

I have done my best to concisely present the views of these authors in a form that remains true to my transcribed notes from the lecture. If anything is “lost in translation” or misconstrued, please attribute it solely to my error. I encourage you to examine the publications of both participants for further clarification.

Debate Summary: Question 1 of 3

Moderator: How do you understand the legacy of De Lubac?

Feingold: He ignited a debate that had been going on for seven centuries. It began with St. Thomas Aquinas, who held that perfect happiness is the fulfillment of all our natural desires. The desire to see God is the highest natural desire, yet it is a natural desire that nothing natural can satisfy. Aquinas draws from St. Paul (1 Cor 2:9) to show that the vision of God’s face is above all natural desire and above our innate inclinations. He does not, however, resolve the tension between natural desire and its “super-natural” fulfillment in God.  Later on, theological divisions emerge between various interpretations of the natural/supernatural question.

Hart: De Lubac’s first intuition was that the terms “natural” and “supernatural” are too tidy. Though convenient, they distort the revelation of God in Christ and in Creation. Although there is no way to get a satisfactory answer from Aquinas on this question,3 I believe that de Lubac reinvigorated Aquinas by reading him as an inheritor of Patristic tradition.

Debate Summary: Question 2 of 3

Moderator: Humanity’s natural desire for God is often described with reference to the intellectual capacities of the human person, who engages in an ongoing search for Meaning, Truth, and Goodness. [See the Catechism quotation in the opening of this article.] Can rational consciousness be anything other than a natural desire for God?

Hart: No. Consciousness is, of its nature, intention. It is a necessarily-ecstatic movement toward an end in nature, but an end in nature to which it can be related only because, primordially, it is related to Truth as such. It’s not just the case that our desire for God is elicited by worldly desires. “I see a teacup, and start wondering about God.” Rather, it’s the case that I see the tea cup itself, and I cannot do this if I do not have already an insatiable desire for Truth itself as a Transcendental. Rational consciousness is what allows us to see the world within the embrace of a primordial intuition that it can never come to rest with the finite. We find nothing in the world desirable simply in itself.

Feingold: Actually I agree with that. We have a natural inclination, as rational beings, for the Transcendental.4 We could go further, and say that this is the quest of all culture. In fact, I think one of De Lubac’s contributions is pointing to the radical nature of this desire as the “motor” of culture.

Hart: So, the issue is really the way this question is posed in debates, which tend to be more polemical than probative. In these debates, the desire for God “full stop” is counter-posed to natural desire, which merely elicits, by experience, this fervent desire for God. I believe that the embrace of supernatural desire is what makes natural, rational experience a possibility. How deep is this supernatural desire embedded in the human person?

Feingold: To answer that question, I need to make a fourfold distinction about desire:

1) Proportionate Desire is the human desire to know causes and essences. We gain knowledge of the universe by interacting with created things. Hence, the (natural) human desire to know is proportionate to our created condition.5

2) Elicited Desire is a desire of the intellectual faculty to know things in their essence. Drawn forth by knowledge and experience, this desire involves the search for Beauty and Truth. Elicited desire goes beyond proportionate desire because it seeks answers outside of observable creation, and points toward a “mountaintop” or “mystical” awareness of God as the Uncaused First Cause, or as Beauty beyond my own capacities of understanding.

Additionally, God gives us Revelation and Sanctifying Grace. These two gifts change or “add to” the natural desire for God.

3) Revelation. When God reveals himself, we receive a beautiful encounter with what we naturally desire—to see the face of Beauty. The message of the Gospel is that there’s a meeting between my natural desire and God’s desire. Revelation changes that natural desire and gives it a foundation, allowing us to hope for it in the firmest way. We now know that this natural desire can be fully realized.

4) Sanctifying Grace. Another element is added to natural desire through sacraments. Here, I receive a share of participation in God’s nature, and therefore a mysterious proportionality with God’s own end. I now realize that this end (the beatific vision) is somehow related to me proportionally. I realize that I do have an innate desire for God’s own end. Even though we both agree that this desire was present in the beginning, I am stating that it is realized in me, in a new way, by grace. Grace is what shows me that I have something proportionate (rather than infinitely disproportionate) to God.

Hart: Could there be a reality in which your actual intellect experiences no elicited desire, and does not concretely desire God as God?

Feingold: Yes.6

Hart: That is a logical impossibility; it’s like a square circle. Even the ability to recognize the very concept of causality already occurs within an intentionality of consciousness and desire that is irreducibly oriented toward the vision of God. In an ex nihilo universe, beings are created specifically for union with God. Within this framework, rational consciousness is a way to recognize that any created cause is not yet final. Rational consciousness leads us to the One Final Cause. It is, of its nature, a participation in the knowledge of God, and can be nothing other than the movement of created being toward the full disclosure of Being. If all this is so, are we really bound to the notion of proportionality in the created world?

Hart: We live in a reality where rational beings are called out of nothingness into union with God as the very ground of their existence. They can’t give themselves being, desire, or consciousness. It’s not even logically possible for rational consciousness to be satisfied with a natural end. This is why I push back against the “supernatural and natural” language. My side grants that the fulfillment (by grace) of our desire for God is supernatural and therefore exceeds the natural capacity. But the desire itself was already supernatural.

Debate Summary: Question 3 of 3

Moderator: One of the hot-button issues here is the idea of “pure nature.” Comments?

Hart: This notion of pure nature didn’t cause modernity, but is it complicit in the history of secularization? Through “pure nature,” it became possible to think of revelation as erupting into history from above. Revelation becomes reduced to the facts of Scripture and salvation history, and there is a vast incontinuity between social order and the greatness of God. De Lubac felt that the entire notion of a “supernatural realm” received part of the pathology of modernity. He wanted our reality to be absolutely saturated in a notion of the Incarnate Logos, he wanted every moment to be open to the infinite. Hence, he saw a troubling consequence in separating the sphere of sanctifying grace (the true end of nature) from a “nature” that could be sufficient unto itself without being worried about Christ. Then, Christ becomes the revelation of a purely gracious super-addition to nature. He makes it intelligible perhaps in a new way, but is not required to make it intelligible all the way down.

Feingold: This is a good example of how it is important to frame a debate rightly. I think the question of “pure nature” is simply not the right question. Instead of asking, “Could God create human, rational nature without calling it to a supernatural end?”, we should ask a more fundamental question: “Does it make sense to speak about an innate end of humanity in coordination with a supernatural end?” What my side is saying is that this human nature I have is a reality. In addition to this nature, I perceive sanctifying grace. But this human nature that’s in me, does it contain an innate or connatural end that’s proportionate to it? Aristotle and Plato asked this question, and answered in the affirmative. Aquinas says that the ancients got this one right. The innate end of human nature is contemplating God through the mirror of creation. So the natural end is God, but the way of contemplating God naturally is through things made. Is that a perfect end for man? No, it leaves a natural desire (that of seeing Beauty fully) unsatisfied. Hence, this contemplation is in some sense immeasurably imperfect, but not for that reason nothing.

Hart: We usually hear that the paradox is an irreducibly natural desire for an irreducibly supernatural end. But if you say that an innate desire is unfulfilled, are you really talking about an end that satisfies at all? If the prior orientation of consciousness toward God is what makes the desirability of natural ends possible, then any degree of satisfaction with natural ends is so imperfect that it could never be understood as any kind of fulfillment of human nature. Back to the question of pure nature: I’m willing to retain the category of pure nature under the form of an impossible possibility. I would say this: I think of pure nature as I think of pure nothingness. I don’t see a “dialectic” with pure nothingness, it is that which is always already-overcome in the act of creation. Prime matter doesn’t have an existence of itself outside of creation. The very first moment of creation is an act of unmerited grace. When we introduce “here’s a proper stopping point, but then the second gift has to be super-added” this is coherent within a certain Aristotelian framework, but I don’t think it’s coherent in a framework of conscious desire necessary for faith in an Incarnate God. When God becomes human, what is revealed? That End is the only possible End for all created nature, for all rational nature.

Feingold: So, Aquinas teaches a twofold gratuitousness of grace: 1) God didn’t have to make me out of nothing; and 2) We have been assigned a supernatural end, which is proper only to God. That end is to see God as He sees himself and to Love God as He Loves himself. And that end can’t be proper to any created nature.

Hart: Why not? Do we need a concrete nature in order to make grace truly gratuitous? If you didn’t believe that human nature is destined to conform to the logos, then no. But we do believe this…

Implications: Part 1 of 2

Question: What are the implications of this difference between us?

Feingold: The twofold gratuitousness of grace is a key teaching for Catholics in the school of Aquinas. We need the twofold distinction to preserve the revealed and “gifted” sense of grace. This matches the Christological paradigm, where we have a distinction of two natures without separation. But the distinction remains something crucial. So in the Christian, a distinction between two sorts of gratuitousness must be preserved.

Hart: Of course, in Christology we are not talking about a union between “natural and supernatural” but between divine and human. Christ is the only perfect human precisely because he is also God. What is revealed in Christ is not a super-addition to the human, but a recognition of humanity’s fulfillment. It is dangerous to see the revelation of God in Christ as incidental to the structure of created being. In becoming human, God did not undergo a metempsychosis. There is no conflict between divine and human natures from the beginning. Human nature is already an instance of participation in the divine nature. Everyone [or, at least Catholics and Orthodox] is willing to grant that there are innate ends. It’s about the degree to which you posit a final satisfaction of those ends for a rational nature, and the degree to which rational nature could “be” a desire for those ends alone.

Feingold: Aquinas might add that even if one were to only have had natural ends accessible, there would still be a desire to go Beyond those ends. This desire would not preclude eternal resting, although it would preclude the perfect eternal resting.

Implications: Part 2 of 2

Question: How could we have fallen from a state of sinlessness?

Hart: East and West are different in this regard. Thomism verges on the Promethean vision. You need a deceiver, a winsomely beautiful snake. The human intellect, in the East, is more understood in terms of progression toward wisdom, toward Sophia. Evil is ignorance. Our first parents knew not what they did, but the truth will make you free. The Greek [Orthodox] position is that everything is being drawn back to its true course. It’s all one gift; deification. Does this ultimately lead toward universalism? Yes, it does. But see Maximus the Confessor on the Gnomic will (and hence the experience of heaven as an experience of Hell).

Closing Thoughts (i.e. “tipping my hand”)

I hope this exchange has challenged you to think in new ways about the inherent relationship (or the inherently-possible relationship!) between humankind and God. I also hope it will stimulate some lively discussion. Nonetheless, don’t we want to know who won? 🙂 To be honest, I believe Hart took the day. He consistently highlighted the potential problems with Feingold’s view, while Feingold was unable to do so, with respect to Hart, on the same level. But this does not mean I think Feingold’s position was wrong.

Feingold could have pressed Hart further on the potential danger of reducing all rational things to God, or of upholding “no conflict between divine and human natures from the beginning.” Rigidly insisting upon this position denies the reality of the human will’s ability to resist God, which is a Scriptural truth. For example, I encountered the following illuminating text among the readings for Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent:

Jesus said to the Pharisees: “I am going away and you will look for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going you cannot come.” So the Jews said, “He is not going to kill himself, is he, because he said, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You belong to what is below, I belong to what is above. You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world. That is why I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.”

Sounds a bit like a natural / supernatural distinction! Clearly, Christ distinguishes between “this world” and “the world to come.” Hart’s views, of course, do not contradict our Lord in this matter. Hart’s perspective is simply that of the coming world. It is eschatological. When we understand Christ’s speech about the I AM, we enter into a new awareness of Truth. This awareness begets new understanding, helping us realize that we cannot truly see anything without the desire to see God, or that God is continually drawing all things back to God’s self. But these propositions cannot be “true” or “known” to a non-Christian, to someone who is like the Jews in the passage quoted above. In this way, I think Feingold’s vision actually accounts more-fully for the daily experience of the universe that we all share, as human beings. There is no inherent untruth within the natural/supernatural distinction, at least not as Feingold explains it.


Especially as someone who once identified more with the world than with Christ, I find that it’s a hard sell to uphold the Reality of monism in a dualistically-divisible universe. But thank God for the Trinity, which always shows us that there is a third option, namely, taking up both “one” and “two” in mystical dialog, a dialog wherein both reveal pieces of the Truth to our minds “through a glass, darkly…”

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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