David Bentley Hart is “Waking the Gods”

I am presently reading David Bentley Hart’s You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature. I have skimmed the entire book and have read the first essay, “Waking the Gods,” once, twice, thrice. This is a difficult essay for me (as is the entire book). It requires a familiarity with the intra-Catholic debate regarding humanity’s desire to know the transcendent Deity in beatific vision: Is this appetence for God intrinsic to what it means to be a human being, or could he have created human beings who would have been satisfied with a purely natural beatitude (natura pura)? If you are not a Roman Catholic theologian, you probably have no idea why anyone thinks this is a question that even needs to be asked. But scholastics will be scholastics. Asking and answering questions like this is what they do. Alexander Rosenthal helpfully summarizes the concerns driving the debate:

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that there exists within the human person a natural desire to see God. Given the historical importance of the Thomistic system, the questions raised by this doctrine have proved to be among the most significant and enduring in the history of Roman Catholic thought. In spite of its apparently esoteric character, the issue bears upon the very end of human existence, the nature of human knowledge and the soul, the relation between philosophy and theology, and between nature and grace. Indeed, this very question, I will argue, has conditioned many of the great debates and paradigm shifts in Catholic theology from the 1th century to Vatican II.

What is the problem of the natural desire or desiderium naturale? Funda­men­tally it is the paradox of a natural desire for a supernatural end. The problem therefore arises from a certain tension within the Thomistic synthesis. On the one hand, Aquinas aims to show along Aristotelian lines that beatitude is found in the possession of a self-sufficient good which fulfills and perfects the inclinations immanent within human nature itself. On the other hand, he wishes to maintain the doctrine affirmed in sacred scripture that salvation is God’s free and unmerited gift made efficacious through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For Aquinas to integrate the two positions he had to show that on the one hand, the vision of the Divine essence to which man is ordained corres­ponds to an immanent human desire, and, on the other hand, that the fulfillment of this desire wholly transcends the natural power of man to attain. Aquinas does this by casting the vision of God as the fulfillment of the intellect’s orientation to quiddity or essences. By nature the intellect desires to know things according to their essence (their whatness) and is not satisfied merely to know their existence (their thatness). Since, accord­ing to his natural theology, it is possible for man by natural reason to know of the existence of the First Cause, if it did not arrive at knowledge of the essence of the First Cause there would remain in the intellect a natural desire to know the essence of the First cause. But says Aquinas such quiddiative knowledge of God transcends the natural power of the human intellect.

The central question then becomes whether the concept of the intellectual desire to see God exerts a claim upon the Divine beneficence. Since in this schema the Beatific Vision corresponds to a natural ordination, would not God be required to offer the possibility of the Beatific vision to man or else thwart the legitimate claims of human nature? Indeed one of Aquinas’s arguments for the possibility of the beatific vision is precisely that since man has a natural desire for it, it must be able to be fulfilled—“if the intellect of the rational creature could not reach so far as to the first cause of things, the natural desire would remain void. Hence it must be granted that the blessed see the essence of God.”

Does this mean that the Beatific Vision is in a sense owed to man in justice? And if so can it be said to be wholly gratuitous as the Christian tradition has always maintained? It is a question that has long troubled Roman Catholic theologians through the centuries.1

Catholic scholasticism settled on the natura pura thesis, affirming a duplex ordo: a hypothetical state of pure nature “with its own natural end distinct from man’s supernatural end.”2 But in 1946 Henri de Lubac challenged the duplex ordo in his controversial book Surnaturel. He argued that the notion of natura pura drastically departs from the earlier theological tradition and introduces a dangerous divide between grace and nature. John Milbank summarizes de Lubac’s position:

Tracing the the origin of the terms hyperphues and supernaturalis, de Lubac shows that, following pagan antiquity, they had first of all simply denote the realm above that of known physis. The Christian usage, referring to an intrusion of the divine within the cosmos and to an elevation of humanity, was cognate both with a new sense of pneuma (after Paul and Origen) to mean the deepest part of the human being that retains a profound onto­log­ical kinship with the divine origin, and with the new Christian understand­ing of salvation as deification, or ontological transformation into as close a likeness with God as is consistent with a persisting created status. . . .

According to de Lubac, a break with such an understanding had only occurred in late medieval and early modern scholasticism: first with Denys the Carthusian and then decisively with Cajetan. The latter, in de Lubac’s view, inaugurated a new reading of Aquinas on grace which has come to dominate all later theology. According to this reading, when Aquinas speaks, in several passages of a desiderium naturale [natural desire] or even a desiderium naturae in angels and humans for God (unlike neo-Thomism, as de Lubac pointed out), this does not denote an ‘innate’ desire in us for the beatific vision, a kind of deep ontological thrust, prior to any reflection. Instead, it merely denotes an ‘elicited’ desire, which is purely of the will, although occasioned by a curiosity proper to the intellect. We behold the effects of creation and desire by a mere vague velleity fully to know what has caused them. Thus we in no way remotely anticipate, by an ineradicable mystical bias, the true substance of the beatific vision.3

De Lubac’s critique of natura pura was condemned by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani generis in 1950: “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.” The encyclical did not stop the theological debate, however. Catholic theologians have continued to discuss the issues, some attempting to find a compromise solution (Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard LonerganStephen J. Duffy, Nicholas Healy) and others vigorously reasserting the neo-scholastic view (Lawrence Feingold, Steven A. Long, Bernard Mulcahy, Reinhard Hütter). The debate has even moved beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church, with the theologians of the Radical Orthodoxy movement weighing in on the side of de Lubac (John Milbank, Simon Oliver, Conor Cunningham).

With the publication of You Are Gods, David Bentley Hart enters the fray. Think of it as an Eastern Christian intervention,4 with a dash of Vedantic metaphysics. While he does not directly engage, at least by name, the new proponents of natura pura, he makes his opposition to two-tier Thomism clear. Like de Lubac, he sees it as a corruption of the patristic vision of the unity of grace and nature and the deification of humanity:

There is no abiding difference within the one gift of both creation and deification; there is only grace all the way down and nature all the way up, and “pure nature”—like pure potency or pure nothingness—is a remainder concept of the most vacuous kind: the name of something that in itself could never be anything at all. Creation, incarnation, salvation, deification: in God, these are one gracious act, one absolute divine vocation to the creature to become what he has called it to become.5

In the Introduction, Hart lists five premises that underlie the arguments advanced in You Are Gods:

  1. The sole sufficient natural end of all spiritual creatures is the supernatural, and grace is nothing but the necessary liberation of all creatures for their natural ends.
  2. Nature stands in relation to supernature as (in Aristotelian terms) prime matter to form. Nature in itself has no real existence and can have none; it is entirely an ontological patiency before the formal causality of supernature, and only as grace can nature possess any actuality at all.
  3. No spiritual creature could fail to achieve its naturally supernatural end unless God himself were the direct moral cause of evil in that creature, which is impossible. Conversely, God saves creatures by removing extrinsic, physical (that is, non-moral) impediments to their natural union with him.
  4. God became human so that humans should become God. Only the God who is always already human can become human. Only a humanity that is always already divine can become God.
  5. God is all that is. Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God. But God is not “the other” of anything.6

In subsequent articles I will attempt (I stress the word attempt) to spell out Hart’s arguments in “Waking the Gods” in light of these premises. In the weeks and months ahead, I also hope to publish three or four reviews of You Are Gods by scholars who actually know what they are talking about!



[1] Alexander Rosenthal, “The Problem of the Desiderium Naturale in the Thomistic Tradition,” Verbum 6 (2004): 335-337. The “Pure Nature” blog site provides lists of relevant books and journal articles on the topic.

[2] Ibid., p. 335.

[3] John Milbank, The Suspended Middle, 2nd ed. (2014), pp. 16-17.

[4] Hart notes that 20th century Orthodox theologians uniformly rejected the natura pura thesis:

Indeed, if there is one thing on which all the great Orthodox theologians of the last century were agreed, despite all their differences from one another, it was that the entire problem of grace and nature (which was known to them almost exclusively from Thomist sources, many of them French) was a false dilemma created by an inept reading of Paul and by a catastrophic division into discrete categories of what should never have been divided. There is only χάρις, which is at once that which is freely given, the delight taken in the gift, and the thanksgiving offered up for it; and all those things that a distorted theology converts into oppositions or dialectical contraries or saltations—grace and nature, creation and deification, nature and supernature—are in fact only differing vantages upon, or continuously varying intensities within, a single transcendent act, a single immanent mystery. (You Are Gods [2022], p. xvii)

In his classic work The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church (1997), Vladimir Lossky writes: “The Eastern tradition knows nothing of ‘pure nature’ to which grace is added as a supernatural gift. For it, there is no natural or ‘normal’ state, since grace is implied in the act of creation itself” (p. 101).

[5] Hart, p. 19. Compare Milbank’s interpretation of St Thomas:

For Aquinas our natural curiosity as to ultimate origins is but the spiritual manifestation of a general ontological and erotic drawing back of all creatures towards God that is consequent upon the radical origin of all things from God, such that they are nothing of themselves. In this neo­pla­tonically assisted rendering of creation ex nihilo (where the neoplatonism is invoked and deepened to do justice to this doctrine), beings only exist as longing in their own mode for God and as expressing in their own mode their origin from God as ineluctably a tendency to return to God. Angels and humans do this consciously, cognitively, and willingly. Hence as spirits they are innately called to the beatific vision. (pp. 32-33)

In a letter to  Maurice Blondel (3 April 1932), de Lubac writes: “Moreover, this concept of a pure nature runs into great difficulties, the principal one of which seems to me to be the following: how can a conscious spirit be anything other than an absolute desire for God?”

[6] Hart, pp. xvii-xviii.

(Go to: “Sorcery, Alchemy, or Gift?”)

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8 Responses to David Bentley Hart is “Waking the Gods”

  1. Christ is risen!

    I skipped to the last essay and was very surprised how some sections of it drift into rhapsodic, almost ecstatic praise of the Trinity. I thought those days for Hart were over after his theology section of Beauty of the Infinite. Most of the time, his comments on Christianity seem so…grumpy, for lack of a better term. But that last essay is inspires worship. It’s also probably the best synthesis of Hart’s theological ideas of anything I’ve seen, encompassing the best of what he has to say in Beauty with his universalism and his understanding of nature and grace. Fantastic stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I haven’t decided yet whether to write a series of articles on the last Chapter, “The Chiasmus, but I agree with you that this is a very rich chapter.


    • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

      I’m always reminded by a comment by Berdayev in “The Divine and the Human” about Beauty, and every time I read Hart on Beauty I hear it ring in my head. Beauty is the tension of the completed and the not yet. It is the tension of a moment remembered that is deeply embedded into us all. We all remember, in a sense, the moment humanity came to in the garden, it speaks to all of us as the progeny of “Adam” and yet it is a transfiguration of what is to come. The End that is already presupposed in a beginning. And a beginning that points to its end. God reaching from destiny into history.

      “Beauty is a characteristic of the highest qualitative state of being, of the highest
      attainment of existence; it is not a separate side of existence. It may be said that beauty is
      not only an aesthetic category but a metaphysical category also. If anything is perceived
      and accepted by man integrally, as a whole, that precisely is beauty. We speak of a
      beautiful soul, a beautiful life, a beautiful action and so on. This is not merely an
      aesthetic appraisement, it is an integral appraisement. Everything in life which is
      harmonious is beauty. An element of beauty lies in all congruity. Beauty is the final goal
      of the life of the world and of man. The good is a means, it is a path, and it has arisen in
      opposition to evil (the knowledge of good and evil). Beauty lies beyond the knowledge of
      good and evil. The good indeed lies beyond the distinction between good and evil, when the evil is already forgotten, and then the good is beauty. There can be no moral
      deformity in beauty, that is a property of evil. The beauty of evil is an illusion and a
      fraud. The Kingdom of God can be thought of only as the reign of beauty. The
      transfiguration of the world is a manifestation of beauty. And all beauty in the world is
      either a memory of paradise or a prophecy of the transfigured world. The experience of
      every harmonious state is an experience of beauty. Beauty is the final ideal on the horizon
      of life, out of which all disharmony, all ugliness and all baseness have been expelled.”



    For me, the best part was the first section of the first chapter, as it made me understand the issues involved. Also, it made it clear that the standard Lutheran and Calvinist position on the fall makes no sense. If there is no spiritual life within you, how then can you be resurrected incorruptible without the corruptible being utterly destroyed first? If there is no continuity between the fallen creature and the new creation, then any new creation is not a transformation into a new state but involves the annihilation of the corruptible person and the creation of a different, incorruptible person. To put it another way, it is the annihilation of the first creation and the institution of the second creation, meaning God can make mistakes, learn from his mistakes, and fix them. Which means that God is not simple, but complex, and is therefore not the transcendent God, but a creature like us, only of a higher order.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. As Brennan Manning oft said, “It is all of χάρις.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Owen-Maximus says:

    I loved reading Roland in Moonlight and Kenogaia. I also now love TASBS, thanks in large part to dialogue on this blog. But the dense argumentation of this book, even though it’s certainly interspersed with jewels of poetic insight, made me read so slowly that I seem to have forgotten many of the details. This is all an issue with my own comprehension skills, I’m sure. Looking forward to your commentary, Fr. Aidan!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Not yet having read Waking the Gods yet, I will be interested to see where the argument goes.

    My sense is that it is quite possible to speak (as Aquinas does) of a two-fold human end without lapsing into two-tier Thomism. And the notions of elicited desire and obediential potencies seem to me quite useful, while the natural/supernatural distinction seems to me essential for doing theology (else how is theology differentiated from other sciences?).

    These can, I think, be separated from decadent forms of Thomism which I take to be the subject of the critique here.

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