Spirit as Desire for God

by Stephen J. Duffy

The human spirit is a natural desire for God. Human beings desire God long before they come explicitly to love God. In fact, human existence is itself a striving to liberate and actualize that desire. Yet human persons do not desire God as the animal its prey. Rather, human persons hunger for God as One freely making a gift of Godself. Can we, therefore, speak of an exigency in humans for God? The only exigency is that God be free in bestowing Self-communication and that humans be free in surrendering to the divine Self-donation. Persons can no more find happiness in a personal relationship that they can seize or demand than they want a fulfillment that is forced upon them.

Is this to say that human desire for God is thinned down to a mere velleity, since it is inefficacious? To the contrary: the desire for God is the most absolute of desires. Although human beings cannot of themselves and without grace bring this desire to fulfillment and possess as their own the gratuitous divine Self-gift, it is not for all that a conditional desire. To desire a gift as a gift is surely not to postulate an exigency or a right. The desire in question is essentially humble. The human spirit finds itself in a waiting posture. For it aspires to God’s grace; it does not demand it. The natural desire of the finite spirit is hobbled by a radical inability to elicit its term. It is, therefore, inefficacious. It can only be hopeful expectancy of a gift. God, however, will not renege on completing a tendency freely willed by Godself. The desire is also, therefore, absolute, unconditioned and unfrustrable on God’s part. Consequently there is no question of simple velleity. An end is not less absolutely sought because it is of higher value and more difficult to attain. There is the paradox. Humanity hungers for God; but for God as God can only be, i.e., as Love, freely giving Godself.

Now all this is so because humans can really demand nothing from God. There is no law or tendency so essential in human nature that it must be satisfied, in any hypothesis. To think otherwise is to offend the sovereign independence of the Creator. The difficulty is that we are often hampered by a rather puerile understanding whereby we put created being on a par with uncreated being. Laboring under this crude oversimplification we tend to see creation itself as purely extrinsic to our being, affecting only our origin, but not touching our essence; we tend to see humans related to God as any creature might be related to another creature exterior to itself. We imagine two equals facing one another and we reason that any essential desire in one begets in the other a corresponding obligation to sate that desire. Thus the latter is thrown into a state of dependence upon and obligation to the former. But the latter in the question at hand is God. Seeing immediately that the divine sovereignty must be salvaged, one sets about watering down the desire for God by saying that if it is truly a desire to see God, it is not absolute. Indeed, if we do not obliterate it altogether, it is reduced to mere velleity. God’s wisdom may be insulted, but our contrived solution has saved God’s liberty and any exigency has been neatly eliminated.

Moreover, one might ask whether we should be as troubled as we are by this matter of exigency, for it seems to be little more than a phantom of the imagination. Had we given closer attention to Creator-creature relations we would not have fallen victim to the specious solutions and explanations offered for the problems raised by the nature-grace relationship. Surely the Creator could not have brought us into existence without being cognizant of the full import of the creative act and the exigencies it would launch, and to which we could lay claim. If then our nature is weighted with a desire to see God, it can only be because God finalizes us in the vision of Godself and plants in us this desire. The desire is God’s summons. God is the source of our desire as well as its term.

More precisely, God’s Self-gift to humans cannot be explained simply in terms of a gift made by one person to another, an analogy dear to the heart of those dependent on the pure nature hypothesis. A closer examination of the act of creation bears this out. I do not preexist my own coming into being, as a subject waiting to receive being from the Creator. Nor in creating me does God provide a gift extrinsic to myself. Rather God offers a gift wholly intrinsic to me: God gives me to myself. Similarly, the endowment of a supernatural finality, an interior gift, does not find its analogue in the human gift of a human donor. To say “I”, or “I exist”, or “I have a finality” is to implicitly affirm the same reality in each instance. The three are patient of no time gap. Our syntax; however, is too weak to bear the weight of the truth affirmed. I appear to precede my being, and my being my finality, as though my being were already defined without my finality.

Certainly God can in no way be constrained to give me being, nor a supernatural finality. Further, since the historical cannot be equated with the ontological, existence does not necessarily imply a supernatural finality. Consequently, we may distinguish from our vantage point two moments of gratuity, a double divine gift, a double divine freedom. Creation is not a necessary consequence of anything; neither is humanity’s supernatural finality a sequela creationis. Both are free contingencies. This is the truth reiterated by Humani Generis. But in actuality, for God to create is to assign a given finality. To exist is to be definitively finalized. Essences void of any finality are at best mere abstractions. To actually exist in the present order is to be pointed to one finality, and that a supernatural one. In fact, it is not the supernatural that is explained by nature but vice versa. Just as we cannot conceive of some subject in existence prior to creation, neither can we envisage a concrete nature in existence prior to or without its supernatural finalization. God has willed us to be because God has willed us to be with Godself.

In this light the problem of exigency is, claims de Lubac, a pseudo-problem. DeLubac would maintain that our understanding of exigence drives a wedge between two things that cannot be separated. We posit first a desire for God, then a call to the supernatural. Between desire and call the “monstre de l’exigence” forces its way in. But if a desire for union with God is in human nature, it is not humanity’s doing. Its ongoing and perhaps anonymous source is God. Still it can rightly be called “natural,” situated as it is in the depths of human nature. Further, to suppose a nature that could realize its own exigencies is as absurd as to suppose a liberty that could win its own merits. In crowning our merits, God crowns God’s gifts, and in fulfilling our desire, answers God’s own summons. Hence, on no grounds, either moral or natural, can we lay any claim against God. There is no room for confusing the natural and the supernatural or for so explicating nature and the immanence of its desire as to compromise the transcendence of grace.

Implied throughout, then, is the fact that once we begin to discuss humanity’s end, its beginning must also be brought into the picture. God is the human being’s finality, but also the continuing source of all that the human being is. If this simple but profound truth is kept in mind, there will be no need to carve the heart out of our desire for God so as to make of it a hollow velleity. As God’s own gift it in no way militates against the divine liberty. The measure of our desire for God is the measure of our dependence upon God. In a word, not only is the natural, innate desire itself a free gift, but the completion of this appetite by a communication of the vision of God remains absolutely free. Our own consciousness verifies as much. Transposed to the level of consciousness, the desire assumes the garb of duty rather than need or demand. To give oneself to it is not to render it less burdensome, for to want its fulfillment is to inflict a certain death on oneself. So deeply rooted in us is the desire for God, that it is identified with our very being. God’s call is constitutive. Humanity’s finality, expressed in this desire, is inscribed upon its being. Yet paradoxically we are not our own. It is our nature to find ourselves only in the other, to become aware of ourselves in becoming aware that we are beings who are bound to the Other. Hence we cannot affirm that God is bound to give Godself to us simply because we desire it. Rather, because God wills to give Godself, we are bound to desire God, even prior to realizing that we can possess God only because God has freely initiated the possibility of possession. The more one analyzes this desire, the less it appears an exigency. More and more it manifests itself as a divine right, a divine exigency placed upon us.

Now examining the matter more closely, one might say that when we desire something necessarily and absolutely, we are marked by an exigency for the desired reality. The temptation is to say this of the vision of God. Nonetheless, one ought immediately to draw a qualification. We do not demand it simply because it pleases us to demand it, but rather, because we are incapable of doing otherwise. It imposes itself upon us, even when we run from it. One can in no way divest oneself of the desire. In this perspective our whole understanding of any exigency changes. If we are permeated by an exigency for God, it is a given of the human spirit, and not at all dictated by the spirit’s initiative. What we are confronted with is an exigency essential to us, one truly immanent, yet no more natural in its origin than in its term. More than a whim or caprice, and never colored by the tones of demand or claim, it dominates our being. Thus it is quite the opposite of what we first imagined it to be. We do not command by reason of its existence; we obey. Through acquiescence to it nature obeys the basic ontological orientation implanted in it by the Creator. Humans are made for God’s grace and will never be able to extinguish the desire for God that burns deep in the heart. The term of the desire is not of our choosing. It obliges us to freely realize the ideal it calls us to.

It should be clarified at this point that a rational knowledge of this desire outside the realm of faith does not prove that we are called to the beatific vision and made for that end. It is only through revelation that we become reflexively aware of the true nature of this spontaneous desire. When God reveals Godself to us God also reveals us to ourselves. The natural appetite for God does not as such, therefore, fall under the grasp of empirical psychology, nor can it be deduced by the philosopher from purely rational premises. Only when the intrinsic possibility of the beatific vision has been admitted by faith does the argument founded on the impossibility for a natural appetite to be vain attain its full impact. At most natural reason can recognize a radical aptitude for ultimate or supernatural beatitude, but this does not entail knowledge of the nature of that beatitude, nor the fact of our summons to it.

From all this it follows, says de Lubac, that the integrity of the supernatural is safeguarded without appeal to the relatively modern hypothesis of pure nature, which is neither the only nor the best means of assuring the dignity of nature and the transcendence of grace. Beatitude is service, vision is adoration, liberty is dependence. To define humanity’s supernatural end as beatitude, vision, liberty is to delineate but one aspect of it, viz., the anthropocentric. But the limitations of such a view are seen when we recall that God created the world for God’s own glory. Humankind receives the world from the Creator’s hands that it might bring it back to God and this it does in surrendering itself to God. But this self-surrender achieves its highest perfection only in the supernatural order. Herein lies the theocentric aspect and it is in this perspective that humans must view their destiny and seek solutions to any problems that destiny may pose. Thus, if it is maintained that human beings must have some natural beatitude as their end, since immanent orientation to or desire for the vision of God seems to postulate an exigency in them, one can only reply that the desire is the Creator’s doing and human beings cannot escape a jealous God. “Totum exigit te, qui fecit te.”

In conclusion, all this should serve to set the problem right-side up. It is not a question of rights or exigencies that we have relative to God, but the converse. Realizing the anthropocentric and theocentric aspects of reality are inseparably wed, we are bound to see that the intelligent creature can have but one finality, and that supernatural. Historical analysis shows that the tradition has repeatedly upheld this truth. There is simply no question of an exigency in human nature. The supernatural is too large to be caught in the web of such categories as right, exigency, or justice, categories which are so important and central in the hypothesis of pure nature, but which have no place in the existential relations between God and humans. No limitations can be set upon the sovereign independence of God who gives Godself freely. Love alone can explain such a gift. Here, then, is de Lubac’s position insofar as it is tied to the theory of a natural desire for God, a desire that postulates in human beings an innate openness to a finality disproportionate to their poor power of attainment. De Lubac has tried to show that the absoluteness of such a desire in no way compromises the gratuity of its term.

The Graced Horizon
(pp. 67-73)

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13 Responses to Spirit as Desire for God

  1. Calvin says:

    “There is no law or tendency so essential in human nature that it must be satisfied, in any hypothesis. To think otherwise is to offend the sovereign independence of the Creator.”
    “In crowning our merits, God crowns God’s gifts, and in fulfilling our desire, answers God’s own summons. Hence, on no grounds, either moral or natural, can we lay any claim against God.”

    This would only be the case in a world wherein to exist did not in and of itself entail a certain relation between God and man, or in other words an impossible world. To exist in an actual world requires a certain degree of relationship prior to anything else, which in turn means that such needs in fact represent a very real moral claim on God. George MacDonald puts it quite wonderfully in his “Voice of Job” sermon.

    “Creation is not a necessary consequence of anything; neither is humanity’s supernatural finality a sequela creationis. Both are free contingencies.”

    This does not square with classical theism, nor does it escape the defining of freedom to mean something essentially arbitrary, without reason. If God is always the same, and God is the Creator of this world in particular, God in some sense always must have been the Creator of this world in particular. The fact of what God is (love, rationality, etc) means that the outpouring of God into a reasonable world was, in some sense, inevitable.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      “The fact of what God is (love, rationality, etc) means that the outpouring of God into a reasonable world was, in some sense, inevitable.”

      Only so IF God were in the created continuum of being. You commit a serious category mistake. The free contingencies do not impose on God’s freedom. For God to be free is to do what God does, which is to say that for God there are no alternative paths to select from – God is perfect act – and so there are neither inevitables nor “should haves”.

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      • Calvin says:

        If God is perfect act, and God cannot change, and that act includes the creation of this particular world (as it obviously must), then quite simply you cannot deny that this world was inevitable. If there are no alternate paths for God than the one on which we find ourselves, then the inevitability of the world is in an inescapable conclusion. There is no scenario in which God would not have made it.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Yes, creation is inevitable to us, this is banal. My point is that inevitability does not apply univocally to God. To suppose inevitability, a tension between freedom and necessity, is to make a category mistake, to make God out be another being. There are no possibilities nor inevitabilities to God.

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          • Calvin says:

            Supposing God to lack potentializes to actualize entails inevitability, regardless of what sophistry is used to pretend that it does not. If the creation of this world was not a possibility to God, it was something which he could not avoid doing. In other words, inevitable. To be God is to be creating this world. You cannot deny God choices and possibilities without simultaneously making his actions inevitabilities. The actions are a part of his unchangeable being.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            For finite being inevitability denotes lack of freedom to do otherwise. Such is not the case for God who is infinite freedom and for whom thus the inevitable is his perfect freedom to be who he is. Inevitable for us yes; for us to choose A is to forego B, but there’s no otherwise for the God who is. Another way of saying is that in choosing to create God is not determining his being (as it would be for finite being). Movement from potential to act is for finite being a reduction, not so for God who is infinite actuality.

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          • Calvin says:

            Since God is not determining his being (that already being self existent and unchanging) and God is not actualizing any potentialities in himself by a choice to create one world instead of an equally good alternate, the creation of the world must have been an outflow of the essential nature of his being. Since that nature cannot and does not change, the creation of this world was always going to happen. To use your words, there is no otherwise than this creation. Thus, inevitable is a perfectly legitimate description of it.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            yes agreed, provided the provisos I noted (i.e. that God is not determining his being, that act is not a reduction, the false dilemma of the distinction between freedom and necessity, and so forth) are fully applied in our understanding of inevitability.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            On the flip side of the coin…. one can also claim, and one would be correct in doing so, that creation did not have to be, it was not inevitable – as long as this is understood to describe creation’s pure contingency, that it’s existence comes not from itself, in contrast to the Creator who is Existence itself, ipsum esse subsistens.

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          • Calvin says:

            Creation might not have been if God was not God, but someone else instead. But that isn’t possible, provided one accepts the classical theist positions that you hold to. Consequently, I don’t even think it’s unfair to say that creation was any less necessary than the necessary being himself. If God is necessary and creating the world is part of God’s pure act, then creation is necessary.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      But then Duffy also goes on to say: “God, however, will not renege on completing a tendency freely willed by Godself. The desire is also, therefore, absolute, unconditioned and unfrustrable on God’s part.”

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      • Calvin says:

        Define “freely willed by Godself”. Meaning, selected among a set of equally viable options? Meaning, logical outcome of the pure act that is his nature?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Errr, no, I don’t think so. “Willed” by God in the sense most folks use the word, I would think. Please download the book and carefully read the relevant chapters and stop jumping to conclusions until you are confident you understand the author’s argument.

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