Do human beings desire God? Must they?

Is humanity constituted by a natural desire for God? This may seem a recondite question, yet it takes us to the heart of Christian soteriology, sin, perdition, and the universalist hope. If God has so constituted men and women to find their ultimate happiness only in Him, how is it that human beings refuse the Good that is God and instead prefer the misery that is sin? If God has bestowed upon man a natural desire to enjoy the Beatific Vision, does this mean that God is obligated to fulfill that desire?

Latin theologians devoted tens of thousands of hours of reflection to this question in the second millennium, concluding with the famous controversy initiated by Henri de Lubac with the publication of his book Surnaturel. Lawrence Feingold and David Bentley Hart explore aspects of this controversy in this YouTube conversation.

Benjamin Winter provides a summary of their discussion in “The Natural Desire to See God?

Feingold is the author of The Natural Desire to See God According to St Thomas Aquinas and his Interpreters. For interesting takes on the question, see Louis Dupré, “On the Natural Desire of Seeing God,” and Ian MacFarland, “Maximus the Confessor on the Operation of the Will.” C. S. Lewis famously argued that humanity’s inability to find happiness in this world demonstrates the existence of God: “Argument From Desire.”  I have not read extensively on the question posed, but the best book I have read so far is The Graced Horizon by Stephen J. Duffy.

What I have not been able to find so far is a solid scholarly presentation of how the Church Fathers addressed, to the extent that they did, the question of humanity’s natural desire for God.

John Milbank briefly talks about the significance of the theology of Henri de Lubac in this YouTube interview:

Milbank advances a controversial and controverted reading of de Lubac and the natural desire for God in his book The Suspended Middle, which I have not read. Have you read it? What is your assessment of it?

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17 Responses to Do human beings desire God? Must they?

  1. Tom says:

    I’d say the most significant moves I’ve made in theology over the past ten years all stem from this one understanding — i.e., that created sentience is irresistibly oriented toward some transcendent good. For me at least, this one insight has been all-encompassing in its reach and influence. It reorganizes everything else.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Jonathan says:

      Same goes for me. It’s the only explanation for why so much of a superficially comfortable life can feel meaningless. One could call this the argument from desire; alternatively, and given how desire tends to be construed these days, I would call it the Argument from Ennui.

      Liked by 2 people

      • brian says:

        There is not enough attention to the philosophical and theological importance of unhappiness.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Tom says:

          I agree, Brian, though I’ve only recently started appreciating this. I’m not sure whether unhappiness is to be defined as a ‘privation’ of being (certainly some of it ought to be) or whether a broader definition can permit us to see a positive role in it. I’d love to hear you elaborate on it.

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          • brian says:

            Tom, Charles Williams had a favorite dictum, “This is Thou, Neither is this Thou.” Unhappiness is the whole person which is desire (the Hebrew understanding of the heart, lev) trapped in anguish, incomplete, finite; in heightened states, a kind of terror before the suffocating limitations of the finite, resistance to the closure of ideology, the vulgarization of nature into banal truisms and cheap cleverness utilized to create desire for false goods or inordinate desire for lesser ones. Unhappiness can be a protest and refusal against the society of Nietzsche’s “last men.” It is the freedom of the soul that prefers the pain of spiritual liberty to the slothful contentment of a “success” that is merely a form of cowardice, resignation to the prescribed limits of a “trousered ape,” the wisdom of a mere “shrewd animal.” In some ways unhappiness can be akin to holy poverty, a marginalization engendered by a search for integrity and the holy. Unhappiness is an enduring awareness of transcendence as intrinsically necessary for human life.

            Though it is not a simple moral equation. Unhappiness can also be whining and solipsistic protest against the real, the despairing egotism that wants to retreat into a lonely independence because lost in ingratitude, refusing the gift of being, unable to grow into the courteous receptivity that allows a gift to be given. Theologically, unhappiness can be both of Christ or anti-Christ, just as happiness may be either profound, mysterious, dynamically open with child-like wonder or it can be a shallow, emotive condition indifferent to virtue, a kind of blissful living death, what Glaucon called a “city of pigs” in the Republic, but also the “fevered city” he prefers, though the latter is equally sick as Socrates understands.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Tom says:

            Love it. Thank you Brian. That’s the best thing I’ve read this fall — well, second best thing, after DBH’s “Mirror of the Infinite.”

            Liked by 1 person

        • Jonathan says:

          I think that, historically, there has been a sort of division of labor. It is the artists who inquire into unhappiness, misfortune, the wages of sin. It was, after all, a tragedian, not a philosopher, who wrote ‘Call no man happy till he’s dead.’ But certain philosophers of the ‘existential’ stripe have taken on unhappiness in a philosophical way. Then again, they don’t tend to be the ones who have produced philosophy as it would be recognized in an academic context today: Kierkegaard, Camus, et al. There oughtn’t to be such firm distinctions between art and philosophy, in my opinion. Think of Goethe, for example. Now there was a great thinker and expositor of unhappiness, and the distinctly modern restless unhappiness at that, the kind in question here. Who wouldn’t, along with George Santayana, call him a ‘philosophical’ poet?

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          • brian says:

            While I appreciate philosophers like Aristotle and Thomas, I prize the the “philosophical poets.” Lev Shestov is one of my favorite existentialist philosophers. The metaphysicians excoriate him or dismiss him as a rank voluntarist, but I think they miss the essence of his voice entirely. His is the cry of apocalyptic fervor, the anguish of the finite that will have nothing less than theosis.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. brian says:

    The sound quality of the dialogue is imperfect, but it’s worth emphasizing a point Hart makes about midway through. (I have made it myself in one of my essays here, I think.) For Aristotle, ignorant of the Biblical God and of creatio ex nihilo, one could not have an explicit awareness of the giftedness of Creation. Hence, if one takes over an Aristotelian understanding of nature without alteration, it will seem necessary to emphasize a distinction between a natural end and the gratuity of a supernatural end in order to establish the unmerited nature of grace. However, if one understands Creation itself as unmerited gift, there is no need to posit a radical distinction between the ground of nature and the means of theosis. Since both are unmerited gift from God, both are grace, even if one wants to distinguish between a kind of natural flourishing and perfect flourishing. Myself, I would assert that to properly understand nature itself is to see in it a Sophianic root. Hence, if one wants to know even nature properly, one must know God. The thing itself is always already coming from and aimed at an eternal plenitude synonymous with nuptial union with God. Really, there’s too much Aristotle and not enough Plato in the dominant kind of Thomist.

    Also, I have recommended D C Schindler’s The Catholicity of Reason several times. Schindler articulates the view that reason is constituted ecstatically. The kind of closure of reason according to “proportionality” tends to miss that and only allow faith a supernatural end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I keep wondering: might it be the case that underlying the proposal of dual end, natural and supernatural, lies the spectre of absolute predestination. If God has only predestined some of humanity to deification, then some justification needs to be offered to explain why God was not “obligated” to save them. I’ve never seen scholarly documentation for my suspicion, but it keeps niggling at the back of my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        My sorta correlative suspicion is that the “two-tier” anthropology allows one to posit a final judgment and eschatology where one’s definitions of person, freedom, and the Good are constricted to “nature.” Christology only then comes into play as a “grace” that waits upon the “decision” of nature. But if the “last Adam” is, in fact, “Lord of all” and the actual foundation of creation, it is a profound error to separate creation from Christology. The notion that a “stopping of desire” at a penultimate point short of the flourishing of theosis is even thinkable requires an Origin bereft of the gift of being as it is given, i.e., “always already” carried by “Christological” intent. The latter understanding does not make mysteries and enigmas disappear. It does not produce a kind of Hegelian logic of justification that sweeps away the difficulties of unique particulars which one senses lies behind some of the traditional objections to the most hopeful articulations of the gospel. Rather, it implies that Christ is interior to creation in such a manner that the enslaved, imperfect freedom of nature is never separated from an accompanying Divine Humanity that nurtures true liberty “from the beginning.” Creation is thus a liturgical openness that is never complete “as creation” until healed and glorified by the loving work of the TriUne God.

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    • Tom says:

      Brian: …if one takes over an Aristotelian understanding of nature without alteration, it will seem necessary to emphasize a distinction between a natural end and the gratuity of a supernatural end in order to establish the unmerited nature of grace. However, if one understands Creation itself as unmerited gift, there is no need to posit a radical distinction between the ground of nature and the means of theosis.

      Tom: Would you agree that this is why Gregory of Nyssa does not adopt the standard Orthodox distinction (in Genesis 1) between “image” and “likeness”? I never really got that distinction. In fact, I always wondered how it became (remained?) the dominant Orthodox take on that passage.

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      • brian says:

        Tom,

        I am not enough of a Nyssa scholar to answer that question. Perhaps Robert can chime in? The distinction makes sense to me, btw. Paradoxically, one is called to become what one is. We are all eidolon asymptotically approaching the unique participation in the eternal name which is both our root and telos.

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        • Tom says:

          In the DBH chapter “The Mirror of the Infinite” that Fr Aidan posted, bottom of p. 550, Hart points out that GN doesn’t maintain this typical identity between God’s likeness and his likeness in us. I just thought your comments help explain why GN does this, but I might be misunderstanding DHB or you or both of you.

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  3. sterling says:

    This question has baffled me for many years without my quite realizing it.

    I recall my first meeting with a atheist (having grown up in the Bible Belt, it was around the age of ten) and my utter, almost existential amazement when he said that he just “saw no reason to believe in God.” Like it was a thing that could just be shrugged at, like a great symphony or work of art or sunset, that someone could just “not have a feeling for it.” I don’t think I ever quite understood that feeling, or the seeming prosaic attitude that so many friends of mine have taken toward living a happy and fulfilled life, as though the mystery and daunting confusion of such a problem was present only to me, and not to them. I confess, I have envied them at times, since they simply do not appear burdened with all of the philosophical woes that (as I have been assured) only occur to me because I think too much, or haven’t accepted some kind of modern commonsense psychological understanding, or the like.

    I still don’t know what to say to people like that, or even how to quite understand why metaphysical problems always seem so much more REAL to me. But I’ve given up thinking that it would be better to be any other way, since I don’t seem to have the option. But if we are going to believe in a God, then it seems to me that the natural desire to see/love/understand/be-at-one-with (?) Him is the first issue of a theological anthropology, as well as the first line of conflict with any ethics or metaphysics of the self that asserts any other grounds for our well-being.

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  4. Note X Note says:

    After reading Malachi 3, I wonder that those returning, and descendants of those returning,from Babylon had their desire complete through the priestly call of repentance from John and the Presence of Christ as High Priest. Is a release from sin necessary for desire? Or does desire proceed from existence? I see for Christians, desire fulfilled. For money changers,exile. Outside the temple desire seems to require a priestly call ,as John in the desert first accepted.

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