How can a conscious spirit be anything other
than an absolute desire for God?
~ Henri de Lubac ~
In 1950 Pope Pius XII published his encyclical Humani generis. The encyclical summons theologians to faithfully defend the Catholic faith, as articulated by the teaching office of the Church, and to eschew novelty. Among the many concerns and false teachings named by the Pope, he specifically targets theologians who teach that rational beings are necessarily ordered to a supernatural end:
Others destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create inteltual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision. (§26)
It has long been thought that the Pope had Henri de Lubac and his controversial book Surnaturel in mind. Nicholas Lombardo explains:
With a single sentence, Pius XII was widely seen to have settled the question for Catholic theologians. By affirming that God could indeed create intellectual beings but not order them to the beatific vision, his intervention seemed to censure a critical assumption on which all de Lubac’s arguments rested. For if a natural desire for the supernatural were common to all intellectual beings, as Henri de Lubac had maintained in Surnaturel (and defended as the authentic interpretation of Thomas Aquinas), then God could not fail to order them to the beatific vision, because not ordering them would frustrate the natures he had given them, and thus, implicitly, contradict his own wisdom and goodness. By denying the consequent (modus tollens), Pius XII had denied the antecedent. The antecedent was not even named. There was no need. It was obvious to anyone who had been paying attention.1
Ironically, the one person who did not believe that the papal rebuke intended de Lubac was de Lubac himself: “I have read nothing in it, doctrinally, that affects me.”2 Lombardo argues that a close parsing of the encyclical, considered within the wider medieval and modern discussion of the issue, confirms de Lubac’s opinion. If the Pope intended to condemn the views expressed in Surnaturel, he needed to be more specific.3
Given that Surnaturel is unavailable in English translation, it’s difficult for a nonacademic like myself to verify precisely what de Lubac maintained regarding the natural desire for the beatific vision and the duplex ordo. The secondary studies I have read describe the French theologian as asserting an absolute and unconditional desire for God as mysteriously innate to human nature.4 In his later writings, de Lubac concedes the possibility of the natura pura hypothesis, though insisting that in the revealed economy of salvation, all human beings are in fact created to a supernatural end:
It is said that a universe might have existed in which man, though without necessarily excluding any other desire, would have his rational ambitions limited to some lower, purely human, beatitude. Certainly I do not deny it. But having said that, one is obliged to admit—indeed one is automatically affirming—that in our world as it is this is not the case: in fact the “ambitions” of man as he is cannot be limited in this way. Further, the word “ambitions” is no longer the right one, nor, as one must see even more clearly, is the word “limits.” In me, a real and personal human being, in my concrete nature—that nature I have in common with all real men, to judge by what my faith teaches me, and regardless of what is or is not revealed to me either by reflective analysis or by reasoning—the “desire to see God” cannot be permanently frustrated without an essential suffering. To deny this is to undermine my entire Credo. For is not this, in effect, the definition of the “pain of the damned”? And consequently—at least in appearance—a good and just God could hardly frustrate me, unless I, through my own fault, turn away from him by choice. The infinite importance of the desire implanted in me by my Creator is what constitutes the infinite importance of the drama of human existence. It matters little that, in the actual circumstances of that existence, immersed as I am in material things, and unaware of myself, this desire is not objectively recognized in its full reality and force: It will inevitably be so the day I at last see my nature as what it fundamentally is—if it is ever to appear to me in this way. “Certainly it is not now that reason dissimulates truth, or that the soul declines the view of reason, disconnected from corporeal limbs and drawn into itself.” For this desire is not some “accident” in me. It does not result from some peculiarity, possibly alterable, of my individual being, or from some historical contingency whose effects are more or less transitory. A fortiori it does not in any sense depend upon my deliberate will. It is in me as a result of my belonging to humanity as it is, that humanity which is, as we say, “called.” For God’s call is constitutive. My finality, which is expressed by this desire, is inscribed upon my very being as it has been put into this universe by God. And, by God’s will, I now have no other genuine end, no end really assigned to my nature or presented for my free acceptance under any guise, except that of “seeing God.”5
De Lubac distinguishes between two fundamental blessings, a twofold gift: the blessing of creation and the blessing of participation in the divine life of the Trinity. The first is expressed in the statement “God has given me being” and the second in the statement “God has imprinted upon my being a supernatural finality.” Both blessings are gratuitously bestowed, but the latter is “in no way bound to the gift of being; it expresses the basic difference between my natural being and my supernatural finality, in other words, between my creatureliness and my divine sonship.”5 Yet having uttered both statements, de Lubac reminds us of their inadequacy, given the creatio ex nihilo. Both presuppose a “fictitious subject” which disappears upon analysis. There is no “me” that receives either being or finality, as if my “me” exists prior to the gifting. Our finitude forces us to speak this way, yet it cannot be literally true. The analogy of gift breaks down at this point. De Lubac quotes François Fénelon:
There was nothing in me that preceded all his gifts, nothing able to receive them. The first of his gifts on which all the others rest, is what I call myself; he gave me that self: I owe him not only all that I have, but also all that I am. O incomprehensible gift, which our poor language expresses in a moment, but which the human mind will never arrive at understanding in all its depth! This God who made me has given me myself to myself; the self I love so much is simply a present of his goodness. . . . Without him I would not be myself; without him I should have neither the self to love, nor the love wherewith I love that self, nor the will that loves it, nor the mind that knows it. All is a gift: he who receives the gift is himself the first gift he receives.7
In any case, by acknowledging the possibility that God might have created a universe in which human beings are ordered solely to a natural beatitude, de Lubac evades the censure of Pope Pius VII.
The Second Vatican Council appears to have embraced a position similar to de Lubac:
For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery. (Gaudium et spes I.1.22; emphasis mine)
The above statement can certainly be interpreted in a way that does not deny the duplex ordo thesis that humanity is given two distinct ends, natural and supernatural; yet many post-Vatican II theologians have interpreted it as a vindication of de Lubac, and this would seem to be confirmed by two statements in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
God himself, in creating man in his own image, has written upon his heart the desire to see him. Even if this desire is often ignored, God never ceases to draw man to himself because only in God will he find and live the fullness of truth and happiness for which he never stops searching. By nature and by vocation, therefore, man is a religious being, capable of entering into communion with God. This intimate and vital bond with God confers on man his fundamental dignity. (§2)
The greatest desire of the human person is to see God. “I want to see God” is the cry of our whole being. We realize our true and full happiness in the vision and beatitude of the One who created us out of love and draws us to himself with infinite love. (§533)
But perhaps this is all moot. Catholic theologians will no doubt continue to debate the matter until Christ returns in glory. As for Orthodox theologians, I expect that most, if not all, would support the above statements from Gaudium et spes and the Compendium. After all, what more needs to be said? In the words of St Maximus the Confessor:
God, who created all nature with wisdom and secretly planted in each intelligent being knowledge of Himself as its first power, like a munificent Lord gave also to us men a natural desire and longing for him. Impelled by it we are led to search out the truth, wisdom, and order, manifest harmoniously in all creation, aspiring through them to attain Him by whose grace we achieved the desire.8
You are no doubt wondering why I began this piece with a discussion of Pope Pius XVII’s condemnation of those who maintain that “God . . . cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision.” Answer: because David Bentley Hart asserts the exact position denounced by the Pope!
 Nicholas E. Lombardo, “What God Cannot Do: Divine Power, the Gratuity of Grace, and Henri De Lubac,” Modern Theology, 37/1 (2021): 114-138.
 Quoted by Lombardo, ibid.
 But if not de Lubac, to whom was the Pope referring?
 See Philip J. Donnelly, “The Supernatural,” The Review of Politics 10/2 (April 1948): 226-232; Alexander S. Rosenthal, “The Problem of the Desiderium Naturale in the Thomistic Tradition,” Verbum, 6/2 (2004): 335-344; Nicholas Healy, “Henri de Lubac on Nature and Grace,” Communio 35 (2008): 535-564; Jacob W. Wood, “Henri de Lubac, Humani Generis, and the Natural Desire for a Supernatural End,” Nova et Vetera, 15/4 (2017): 1209-1241.
 Hans de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, pp. 54-55.
 Ibid., p. 76.
 Ibid., pp. 77-78. See John Milbank’s analysis of the giftedness of the natural desire for God in The Suspended Middle, 2nd ed. (2014), pp. 43-52.
 Maximus the Confessor, Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fifth Century 100, in The Philokalia, II:284.
The controversy above seems to me simply wordplay. A being created without a natural desire for God would be a being created without a natural desire for what is good, true and beautiful (unless we are going to reject that these are synonymous) and so without any real desire or will for anything we could comprehend as desireable: such a being would be utterly alien to anything we can conceive. Whether you would regard this as an “intellectual being” is to my mind pure semantics in any event.
Iain, the proponents of the natura pura discuss your objection at many points in their writings. As far as I can tell, their response goes like this: natural inclinations for perfections are always proportionate to nature. Hence if we posit a purely natural intellectual being, then that being will direct his toward created beings that fulfill his natural desires: e.g., a human being who needs food to stay alive will always desire food. At least I think that is their argument. Check out Lawrence Feingold’s big book.
And yet such desires, even of the most minimal and practical kind, rely on a prior transcendental orientation. And that relies on the desire for the God whose essence and nature are expressed as the transcendental perfections of rational nature. So the answers offered by Feingold and others in that tradition are clearly false. They invoke an infinite regress, whether they want to or not.
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This will be the topic of my next article and will be the most difficult and challenging for me to write, given my philosophical incompetence. Do let me know, David, if I get your position wrong at any point!
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“a human being who needs food *to stay alive* will always desire food”
Which is the problem – food is a means to an end (staying alive) rather than an end in itself. Staying alive is itself only an end if one is staying alive in order to do something with that life: a rational intellect knows we all die, so living must have some other end rather than simply not dying, since not dying at all is not achievable. As DBH says below, each end contains in itself the means to something else.
I think Yannaras is good on this point. There is a distinction that often gets missed between desire (pure eros) and natural, biological “urge”. He’s got a pretty good section on the distinction of it in the work called Relational Ontology. I don’t think its as simple as semantics, per se, but more so about existence and the ability to freely desire as opposed to the necessity for yourself as creature for survival.
I wonder, what does it even mean to suggest that a being made in the image of God is not by nature ordered towards God? It is like saying that a tomato seed is not ordered towards becoming a tomato plant. What makes a tomato seed a tomato seed is precisely that it is thus ordered. Similarly what makes a person a person is to be ordered towards God. To desire to become as perfect as our Father in heaven. – Come to think of it, Christ´s commandments in the gospels are not really commands but revelations.
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Which of the following is the contemporary universalist consensus?
A. It is impossible for God to create mankind without a natural desire for Him.
B. It was possible for God to have created mankind without a natural desire for Him, but God in fact did give mankind this desire.
Geoffrey, I’m confident that most universalists–indeed most Christians!–have not even thought about your two poll questions to have an informed opinion. Those who have read and have been convinced by David’s arguments in That All Shall Be Saved will probably vote for A, but they only represent a minority (maybe even a small minority) in the universalist camp.
I think almost emphatically most would say A, mostly because God created man in his image, and it seems odd that sharing the divine life would mean that God wouldn’t be desiring of Himself. That in the depths of our being itself, the reflection of the Triune life is there and in the abilities of what we have as creatures to move and breathe and bring about those ends….It could only ever truly be A in the end. That really, we seek to look upon the face of the Other that is actually the face by which we come to recognize our own truly.
Even neo-scholastics generally believe that God gives spiritual creatures a necessary desire for God. The question is as to the for the beatific vision specifically.
If you think about it, that is a meaningless distinction. The transcendental desire for God is the desire for the direct knowledge of God in himself, not a desire for interesting information about some discrete object of idle curiosity.
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Well, there are different ways of knowing God, none of which (even the beatific vision) is comprehensive.
I think it’s inadequate to characterize even the desire for a philosophical understanding of God as mere idle curiosity, much less the natural knowledge angels have of God.
To even ask whether something is possible or impossible for God is misleading. The right question is this: What kind of personal creature would God choose to create? If you use your own sense of the divine I think you’ll easily find the answer you are looking for.
No. It is in fact absolutely correct to ask the question of the possible and impossible for God, and misleading to think of God as a deliberative agent confined to making a choice between options. That may seem like the opposite of what common sense tells us, but it is in fact the only way to affirm God’s absolute freedom. He *could not* have created rational natures without a natural longing for the direct knowledge of him.
I think our disagreement lies in just one letter: I would say “he would not have created..”, rather than “he could not have created..”.
To elaborate what I mean: God’s absolute freedom entails that he is not subject to orders such as what is possible or impossible. Rather he is completely free to express his nature in any creative way he chooses. But I agree that he does deliberate before choosing among some options; after all options themselves do not exist prior to God. God is not only the ground of all that is but also of all that might be.
I meant “I agree that he does *not* deliberate before choosing”, my bad.
Again, no, I think you are mistaking God for a finite entity. And you are missing the point of your own qualifications. God cannot express his nature in a way that negates his nature as the only possible end of rational longing. He could not—could not—create a rational nature capable of resting content in a natural end, any more than he could create a square circle.
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Ah, well as long as you are not a voluntarist.
I wonder, DBH, why is it better to say “God could not create a square circle” instead of “God would not create a square circle”? Both expressions agree about God’s creative acts – but which of the two expressions better orients our mind into the nature of God?
Here is why I prefer the later wording: Clearly, being perfect in all respects God would never choose to act irrationally (or immorally, or uncreatively, etc). Thus, it seems to me, to speak of what God can or cannot do is superfluous, and moreover suggests that God is a finite being for such wording entails limitations. And indeed suggests that his freedom is absolute only as long as certain conditions obtain. In short I think we don’t disagree on the essentials, but on the words that best describe them. But the wording is important especially in the crafting of theology.
As for voluntarism, I find the idea that God’s will determines the moral status of entities to be vastly misleading. God’s will and corresponding acts perfectly express his perfect nature. And the moral status of entities is grounded on their relation to God’s nature. These two affirmations are obviously true and as far as I can see completely sufficient. So where is the problem? I don’t get it.
Come to think of it, the gospels say the same: We act well when we act as God’s incarnation did. We become good when we transform ourselves into the likeness of God’s incarnation – and thus love God and each other the way He did. It is all about similarity to God, which is unsurprising given that God is the ground of all goodness. To express the above as “obeying Christ’s commandments” it’s OK as long as one understands that this is a linguistic shortcut. So it’s not about “obeying” but about realising our natural end, and it’s not about “commandments” but as revelations about what our natural end is. Christ did not come to command us around, but to open and illuminate the way towards God.
What is “impossible” for God are two distinct questions, that I can see.
The first “impossible” is a logical contradiction (God cannot create a square circle, is the classic example), but the second “impossible” is if it is incompatible with God’s nature and character – it is impossible that God could act contrary to God’s own nature not because God is constrained from doing so but because God is unconstrained – there is nothing outside God that could compel or require God to act otherwise.
I think it is probably the case that God creating humankind without a natural desire for God is a logical contradiction – whatever God would then have created would be so different as to be unrecognisable as anything we would consider as being “humankind” – but I suppose one could try and make the case otherwise.
What I think indisputable is that it is impossible that God could have created humankind without such a natural desire (and the natural end of fulfilling it) as it would be totally contrary to the God’s nature to do do.
On a more personal/phenomenological level, and trying to cut through the jargon, it seems obvious to me that the vast majority of people I encounter today (outside of my adventures to mosques and churches, and sometimes even then) do NOT have a natural desire for God. For the first 19 years of my life I had no such desire (and I was on the incel trajectory. When I read Elliot Rodger’s manifesto last year I got chills in my spine of the terror variety, and had to praise God for his intervention in my life).
That said, I follow DBH’s argument and agree. I think the DBH and Bulgakov Eastern-Flavoured Synthesis of Christianity gives an amazing (quasi-God’s-eyed) view of things, but I also think that the western tradition (Catholic and “Broad Protestantism”) has a much more “in the trenches” view of how things are playing out in the hills and valleys of Samsara. Again, anecdotally, I have had far more success helping people by drawing on the Lutheran Sola Fide theology (“Unconditional Promise”, as articulated powerfully by the Torrences, Jenson and Fr Kimel), than by handing out books on universalism.
I believe someone else has made a similar comment on this blog recently.
If for the first 19 years of your life you had no such desire, then you did not exist for the first 19 years of your life. That, I fear, fails certain tests of logic. Not having a conscious desire for God as some external object of cognition and appetite is not the same thing as lacking the natural desire for God; without the latter, you could not desire anything at all, or have a cognitive grasp of anything at all, or have any intentional experience.
I think the point is that we have a natural desire for “the good” (in a transcendent sense) which cannot be equated with any interim or substitute material desire, such as food or sex or a longer life, which are in the last analysis means to an ultimate end. That we don’t identify the ultimate end we are looking for as “God” doesn’t alter this. (Indeed the thing we think is “God” probably doesn’t bear much resemblance to actual God anyway.)
I think in this context “having natural desire for” means “being made such that one finds joy in”. So the idea is that you have always had a natural desire for God, albeit before 19 you hadn’t realised it.
In retrospect, I 100% agree with DBH, Iain and dianelos’ responses to my comment. But the key phrase is “in retrospect”. Phenomenologically, at the time I was personally convinced that I didn’t exist and neither did anyone else and there was only pain, terror, frustration and suffering. It’s taken a decade after my conversion experience to deconstruct this old “worldview of the damned” and come to terms with a more traditional “reality as beauty.”
At the time, I quite unironically believed that I did not exist. Now that I’m 29 I’m pretty sure it was because my parents divorced when I was young and I was abused (in every way, physically, emotionally, chemically etc). I assume my Solipsism and Nihilism came to me quite early as some sort of defense strategy. Being exposed to a slew of films like “the matrix” while growing up, and being forced to take Ritalin from the age of 4 till my “Damascus Road” psychosis at age 19 did not help one bit either.
I think it’s fair to say that yes, in *some sense* I didn’t really exist until I was “born again” at 19. And the past 10 years has been the human spiritual formation that I never had when growing up.
I don’t share this as a personal sob story, but just because you might not realise that the “dark prelude” part of my story is actually not that uncommon these days among millennials and Gen Z. I shudder to think of the generation that are currently pre-adolescents.
This is why I say that a lot of the horrific western dichotomies make more sense “in the trenches” these days. For example, I have a “lived testimony” of original Guilt: I was made to feel guilty for even being born from my earliest days and my biological family continue to try to do that to me to this very day. Even if the doctrine itself is logical mush, it is an accurate description of how I phenomenologically experienced reality at the time. In this way, I think a lot of “western” doctrines make sense under the Buddha’s advice that “My teachings are like a raft to get you across the river: once you’re on the other side, you no longer need the raft”. The western stuff makes sense to a lot of people who are born into suffering, even if once they’re “saved”, they no longer need it, and realise that they never did. Similarly, yes, I know that I exist and always did, but at the time if you tried to convince me of it, I would have run away or yelled at you. Life really was that bad
It seems to me you have described hell, and how we can become locked in it, refusing to believe that there can be anything good outside it, hating anything that would make us hope only to crush us again when it turns out to be only another torture in disguise, and desiring only to cease to be. The only consolation I can offer is that it seems to me having seen it, and experienced it, and been freed from it, whatever dark moments come over you, your salvation is assured, because you know in your soul it is a lie and you can never be fooled and trapped by it again.
What seems strange to me regarding Pius XII’s encyclical is that just the opposite is now taught in catholic seminaries, that St Thomas teaches (as correcting Aristotle) that man is by nature called to an end beyond nature that he cannot reach by nature, thus requiring supernatural grace to achieve. I base this on a series of lectures by Fr Brian Mullady, “Faith and Revelation” given at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. I have the 24 disc set.
At the same time, it seems to me that a natural desire for something can be frustrated, and is all the time. A natural desire for food may go unfulfilled.