The Natural Desire to See God

by Lawrence Feingold

In order to show that perfect beatitude can only lie in the vision of God’s essence, and that this vision should not be considered impossible, St. Thomas Aquinas used a fasci­na­ting argument that has generated a very lively discussion through the centuries. He contends that every intellectual creature naturally desires to “see God”—to know the very essence of God. The inherent interest of this argument is plain, for nothing could be more significant to man than his final end. The subject is also intriguing because of the leap that it involves from the natural to the supernatural level, making the natural desire to see God a nodal point in Christian apologetics and in understanding the relationship between the two orders. Not surprisingly, it has not failed to ignite a tremendous amount of controversy.

The principal aim of this book is to examine exactly what St. Thomas means when he speaks of a natural desire to see God, and how the debate over its interpretation bears on funda­men­tal questions concerning the relation between nature and grace.

The central point in this debate concerns the precise way that “natural desire” should be understood here. What kind of a natural desire are we dealing with? There have been two principal schools of interpretation in this regard. One sees this desire as naturally aroused or “elicited” by some knowledge of God’s existence, while the other holds that it is an innate and completely unconditional appetite, independent of knowledge and expressing the intrinsic finality of the spiritual creature. This question, which may seem very technical and abstruse, is actually of fundamental theological importance. At stake is the distinction between the natural and the supernatural orders, the corresponding distinction between natural and supernatural beatitude, and the gratuitousness of heaven.

The difficulty of the question comes from the fact that “natural desire” is not a univocal but an analogical term. The commonsense notion refers to the spontaneous movements of desire on considering things that are naturally known to be good. This is its primary sense. How­ever, the term “natural appetite” can also be analogically extended to refer to the natural inclination of inanimate things, plants, and the faculties of the soul. For example, we can speak of the natural appetite of rocks for the center of a gravitational field, of matter for form, of plants for light and moisture, or of the eye for light and color. We can even speak of the natural appetite of the intellect for knowledge of the truth, of causes, and of essences. Thus the notion of natural desire is taken first from our own inner experience, and then extended metaphysically to all creatures to refer to their natural tendency or inclination to their respective ends.

The natural appetite placed by God in things without knowledge has come to be referred to as innate appetite or natural inclination. It flows from the very essence of a thing in a constant, immutable, and unconscious way, and inclines each thing to its proper and proportionate end. Innate appetite or inclination is common to all beings, each of which is inclined to its end, whatever it may be.

An elicited desire, on the contrary, is a particular conscious movement of the will or sense appetite attracted by some object known either by the senses or the intellect. If it is an object pleasing to the senses, there will follow a movement of the sense appetite; if the object is grasped as good by the intellect, there will follow a movement of the rational appetite, which is the will. Here we are interested only in the will. The desire is said to be “elicited” in that it is “drawn out,” as it were, by the desirability of the known object. All the conscious move­ments of our sensitive appetites and our will are said to be elicited and not innate.

The movements of the sense appetites are natural and spontaneous, governed by instinct. The movements of the will, on the contrary, are generally free rather than natural, involving choice. “Natural” here means that which flows from the essence of a thing, considered as the principle of its operations. Are there also natural movements of the will? St. Thomas answers affirmatively, following St. John Damascene and many others. . . .

The clearest example of an elicited natural desire of the will is our conscious desire for happiness. This is naturally elicited, because whenever we think of happiness we cannot help but desire it. Note, however, that there is also an innate appetite for happiness in the will, which by its very nature is ordered to seeking our complete and proportionate good. The difference is that the elicited desire is conscious and can be experienced, whereas the innate appetite is deduced by philosophical reflection.

We also experience conscious and elicited natural desires for life, health, and knowledge of causes and essences; to be loved and to love; and to avoid suffering, betrayal, and death.

An interesting example of elicited natural desire is given by Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, in which He prayed that the cup of suffering be spared Him, if such a thing could be in conformity with the will of the Father. The desire to be spared from immense suffering is clearly a natural desire, which spontaneously arises (is elicited) when we know that suffering is imminent. In Christ’s case, this natural desire was also a conditional one—if it were possible according to the will of the Father.

St. Thomas, when dealing with the natural desire to know God’s essence, is plainly speaking of an elicited natural desire: a desire spontaneously aroused on the basis of prior knowledge of God’s effects in the world. However, the real question is deeper and more difficult. Does this natural elicited desire correspond to an underlying innate appetite for the vision of God?

It is clear, for example, that the natural elicited desire for happiness in general corresponds to an innate appetite or natural inclination of the will itself, which by its nature is ordered to happiness. Is this also the case with the natural desire to see God? Is the natural elicited desire to see God a sign that our faculties of will and intellect are ordered by their very nature to the vision of God? . . .

This question has very important implications for the distinction of the natural and the supernatural orders. Proponents of an innate desire to see God point out that elicited natural desires are based on innate natural inclinations, from which the elicited desire derives its natural quality. Therefore, if St. Thomas speaks of an elicited natural desire to see God, aroused by prior knowledge of God’s effects in the world, then this points to an underlying natural inclination of the will or intellect (or both) for the vision of God. A second argument is that everything has a natural inclination (innate appetite) for its ultimate perfection and its de facto final end. Therefore, if the vision of God is the ultimate perfection of man’s faculties and his de facto final end, it will be naturally desired. Finally, it is said that if an innate inclination or desire for the vision of God is denied, it is impossible to understand how the vision of God can be our true beatitude or why its loss would constitute the pain of damnation, for then the vision of God would be “extrinsic” to the inclination of our nature itself.

Opponents of the existence of an innate appetite for the vision of God, on the other hand, note that innate appetite is always proportionate to the nature of the creature and to his natural powers, and thus it cannot extend to something which exceeds the natural order, such as the vision of God. Positing an innate natural desire for the vision of God would seem to endanger the distinction between the two orders. In addition, it would put in jeopardy the possibility of a connatural end for man and thus create grave problems for the theological understanding of the gratuitousness of grace and glory.

In many texts, St. Thomas says that for the intellectual creature, there are two types of beatitude or final end:  connatural and supernatural. Connatural here means proportionate to nature. The natural inclination of our will is directed to our connatural end, but is insufficient to order us to our supernatural end. For this reason grace and the theological virtues are necessary first to “order” us to the vision of God. This obviously creates serious problems for those who maintain an innate appetite for the vision of God. In addition, there remains the problem of how the natural desire to see God can be reconciled with numerous other texts ofSt. Thomas, which deny that natural inclination can extend beyond the limits of the natural order. In support of this denial, he frequently cites the text of 1 Cor 2:9: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Closely related to the debate over whether the natural desire to see God is innate or elicited is a second question of whether this desire should be understood as conditional or as absolute (also spoken of by St. Thomas as imperfect or perfect willing). Although not explicitly treated by St. Thomas in the texts that speak of the natural desire to see God, other texts indicate how the question should be answered according to his principles. This question is a corollary of the preceding one, and is a key to under­stand­ing the possibility of a purely natural end for the rational creature, as well as the necessity of the theological virtues. The view that the natural desire to see God is naturally formed only as a conditional or imperfect desire was first formulated by theologians of the late sixteenth century. . . . It was subsequently almost universally accepted by Thomists until it was challenged in our century, principally by Henri de Lubac, for whom the natural desire to see God is “the most absolute of all desires.” In fact, if one conceives the natural desire to see God as an innate appetite or inclination, then it follows that it will be absolute rather than conditional, for a conditional desire is possible only on the basis of knowledge.

A third question concerns the demonstrative value of St. Thomas’s argument. Does he show the existence of a natural desire to see God so as to provide a strict proof of the possibility of the beatific vision, or just an argument of fittingness? And if the argument is a strict proof, does it prove only that the vision is possible, or that God will actually offer us the vision? In this regard, three fundamental positions have been proposed: (1) the natural desire to see God provides only an argument of fittingness, both for the sheer possibility and for the actual offer of the vision of God; (2) the natural desire to see God provides a demonstration of the sheer possibility, but only an argument of fittingness for the actual offer; and (3) it provides a demonstration both of the sheer possibility and of the actual offer.

The first position is held by the great majority of Thomists from the late sixteenth century to the early part of the twentieth century, including Banez, Suarez. Scheeben, Garrigou-Lagrange, Maritain, and Lonergan. The second position is represented by Joseph Maréchal and Guy de Broglie, followed by other theologians of the late 1920’s and 1930’s. The third position has been defended most articulately by de Lubac, although it can also be found in Jansenius and others. This third position follows logically from the prior conclu­sion that the natural desire to see God is innate and therefore absolute.

Furthermore, this raises a fourth closely related question. An absolute or unconditional desire for the vision of God seems to imply the impossibility of a “state of pure nature” (a state in which the intellectual creature would not be elevated to a supernatural end), for the permanent frustration of this absolute desire would seem to render impossible any natural beatitude. Therefore, the existence of an innate natural desire to see God implies that God must necessarily offer us the beatific vision, and that there could be no connat­ural or proportionate end for beings endowed with such a desire.

The great difficulty with the notion of an innate, absolute desire to see God lies in showing how grace and the beatific vision would not be due to a nature endowed with such a desire. Consequently, this position—represented most prominently by de Lubac in Surnaturel—provoked much criticism and generated a large controversial literature in the late 1940’s and 1950’s with regard to the gratuitousness of our elevation to the supernatural order. In the midst of the controversy, Pius XII intervened in 1950 with the encyclical Humani generis, setting a dogmatic limit to the debate: “Others destroy the gratuity of the super­natural order, since God, they say, cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision.” One cannot deny the possibility of a “state of pure nature” without undermining the gratuitousness of the supernatural order. The encyclical thus draws attention to a fundamental danger in de Lubac’s line of interpretation in Surnaturel that must be adequately taken into account in understanding the natural desire to see God. De Lubac himself was aware of this danger and sought to address it by making his position more nuanced in his article of 1949, “Le mystere du surnaturel,” and his 1965 book of the same title. In this more developed form, de Lubac’s thesis does not directly fall under the condemnation contained in Humani generis.

Both in its earlier and later forms, de Lubac’s contribution to the debate on the natural desire to see God raised a great number of fundamental rheological questions: Does the rational creature have a natural potency to be elevated to the vision of God, or only an obediential potency? Is specific obediential potency an adequate category to characterize our openness to grace and glory? Has a supernatural finality—generating an innate and absolute natural desire to see God—been imprinted on our nature prior to the reception of grace? Does the fact that there is a natural desire for the vision of God mean that no other final end is possible for a rational creature (or for man’s nature as it concretely exists)? How does the natural desire to see God harmonize with the gratuitousness of the super­natural order according to the principles of St. Thomas? Is the notion of what is “due to nature” (debitum naturae) a valid conceptual tool to distinguish between the natural and supernatural orders, as St. Thomas teaches? How can the object of an innate and uncon­di­tional appetite not be due to the nature created with such a desire? Likewise, how would grace and the theological virtues—the necessary means to attain that end—not be due to a nature with an innate desire to see God? Ultimately, these questions are all rooted in the debate over whether the natural desire to see God should be considered to be an innate and unconditional appetite, or an elicited and conditional natural desire.

The Natural Desire to See God
(xxiii-xxxiii)

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1 Response to The Natural Desire to See God

  1. > Is the natural elicited desire to see God a sign that our faculties of will and intellect are ordered by their very nature to the vision of God? . . .

    The question whether our intellect and will are ordered by their very nature to God is easy to resolve on the merits.

    The human desire to know is unlimited, though as a potentiality rather than an actuality. This is demonstrable in a few ways, and need rely neither on textual analysis nor on revelation.

    From a cognitional perspective: pose any limit to knowledge, and our natural response is to ask what is beyond that limit. The very possibility that we can raise the question what is beyond any particular limit means that our desire to know, our aspiration, includes what is inside and outside the given limite. Our desire to know is, therefore, unlimited. This is embodied in concrete and dramatic fashion by the rise of modern science and the staggering range of its field of inquiry.

    The only thing that satisfies it is an understanding which would put to rest every question, which would grasp everything about everything. But such an unrestricted act of understanding is God. Therefore, our intellectual nature, expressed particularly in the unrestricted desire to know, is ordered toward an infinite understanding, i.e., God.

    St. Thomas makes much the same argument (the former being in more Lonerganian terminology) when he says that the nature of mind is unlimited, thus angels cannot be intellects, they can only have intellects.

    Everything is ordered to God as an end according to its nature; and it would be most peculiar were an exception made for intellects.

    This, however, is a slightly different question than that of whether there is a nature desire for the vision of God, which would involve further qualification.

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