Residual Extrinicism

In my view, the new account of nature and the supernatural offered by de Lubac and others does not achieve what it aims to achieve. De Lubac’s laudable goal is to overcome the “extrinicism” of neo-scholasticism, but he himself speaks of nature and the supernatural as being in a relation of “opposition” (Brief Catechesis, 49).

This appears to be an effort to preserve the gratuity of the supernatural, but it has the effect of reverting to extrinicism. If nature stands in an oppositional relation with the supernatural, then they must be external to one another, and how is this externality distinguishable from extrinicism? Rahner complained that the nouvelle theologie collapses into an intrincisism that endangers the gratuity of grace, but my complaint is the opposite: The nouvelle theologie does not escape a residual extrinsicism. 

John Milbank (Theology and Social Theory, 224) mounts a similar complaint against Rahner. The supernatural existential provides “another level of grace-given desire for grace,” but Milbank says this “does absolutely nothing to reconcile gratuity with non-extrinicism.” He charges that Rahner simply restores “the neo-scholastic scheme of two parallel supernatural systems,” and that Rahner’s combination of pura natura and the supernatural existential leaves us “with extrinsicist doctrinal formulas confronting an account of human aspirations and human ethical norms which is thoroughly naturalized.”

More fully, Milbank writes that In neither Rahner’s description of the supernatural existential nor in his account of the natural vorgriff “does self-transcendence denote the encounter with a concrete, recognizable other. Rather, in both cases, the ‘intrinsic’ experimental side is reducible to a self-striving conatus away from finite limitations, while the infinite object sought for  – esse, which the supernatural existential identifies as God – is still extrinsically separate as a ‘formal object.’ Our ‘entitative raising,’ insofar as it is a meeting with God, still appears to be something externally and authoritatively confirmed by the arbitrary fiat of a positive revelation” (p. 224).

Rahner’s discussion of the gratuity of grace in relation to created spirit supports this conclusion. He distinguishes between “being ordered to grace” and “being directed to grace in such a way that without the actual gift of this grace it would all be meaningless.” He affirms the first, not the second. A created spirit “is essentially impossible without this transcendence, whose absolute fulfillment is grace, yet this fulfillment does not thereby become due” (Nature and Grace). But the italics (which are Rahner’s) indicate that there is a more relative fulfillment, a fulfillment of created spirit that does not involve grace. For Rahner, human beings who are created with an orientation to supernatural fulfillment can still have a meaningful existence even if this supernatural fulfillment is never reached. Hypothetically, if not actually, there is another rest than rest in God. This is different from neo-scholastic extrinsicity; it is not clear how it avoids extrinicity as such. 

Second, this residual extrinicism raises a problem concerning God’s relation to creation. As I noted, de Lubac and Rahner, and even their neo-scholastic opponents, acknowledged that existence is a completely unearned gift, but this is sometimes expressed in erroneous ways. De Lubac and Rahner improved on Scheeben, who described material reality as a set of shackles, a constraint, an obstacle and obstruction, a confinement of spirit from which created spirit seeks escape. Still, their formulations do not completely dispel the sense that man as a created being is distant from God, and somehow flawed simply by virtue of being created. Citing Blondel, de Lubac says that there is a “natural heterogeneity” and an “abyss” between God and man, an abyss that must be bridged by the supernatural fulfillment (Brief Catechesis, 83, 119-20). But this is not true. Augustine was right to recognize that God is more deeply in us, more near to us, than we are to ourselves. Scheeben (Nature and Grace) recognizes this, and de Lubac and Rahner would not deny it. But then it is simply incoherent to describe the relation of God to creation as if God were “foreign” or “alien” or on the other edge of an “abyss” from creation.

This raises the more general complaint that in any natural/supernatural construction God is conceived of as “external” to creation. While it is certainly true that God is “above” and “in heaven” and “exalted,” it is also the case that He is immanent to every creature in every moment of time. Moltmann’s Trinitarian views are profoundly unorthodox in many respects, but he is on to something in saying that God opened up space within Himself for creation. Or, in Pauline terms, “in Him we live and move and have our being.” On the other hand, Yahweh forms the world as a temple to dwell in, so that we not only live and move in Him but He also lives and moves among us. Creation is in perichoretic relation with the Triune God, indwelling and indwelt by the Creator. No one on any side of this debate denies these truths, but their descriptions of nature and human nature suggest otherwise. 

This leads, third, to concerns about the notion of “nature.” Explicitly in Scheeben and more implicitly elsewhere, “nature” is a boundary, a limitation. A “nature” is a principle of movement or a set of capacities and ends that belong to that thing from its origin as a member of a species (Scheeben). Humanity has a nature because it can do thus and such and no more, because it can receive this much and nothing in addition, because it can go this far and no farther. But is this compatible with the Christian doctrine of creation? It would seem not. Created beings have only the limits that God places on them; created beings have no “independent” boundaries, no autonomous limits. David Bentley Hart is on the right track when he emphasizes (following Gregory of Nyssa) that each of us is “a vessel endlessly expanding as it receives what flows into it inexhaustibly,” so that we become “ever more capacious and receptive” of God (Beauty of the Infinite). If this is what human “nature” is, then we are no longer using the word “nature” in its classical sense, and (as de Lubac admitted) the terminology of nature and supernatural is misleading. To suggest that humanity has a “nature” that limits its capacities and ends suggests that humans have some independent capacity to resist, some power to push back against what God intends to do with it, to be other than as God decrees, some power that does not come from God. This impression is strengthened by the notion that “nature” is what humans are capable of “if left to themselves.” Since we are never left to ourselves, and would cease to exist if we were, this notion of nature is empty. It appears implicitly nihilist.

If human “nature” expands to receive the increasing inflow of God’s self-communication, then we no longer need something additional to nature, something “supernatural,” to reach the beatific vision. The beatific vision is an infinite expansion of our capacity to receive God, but does not require the replacement of our existing “nature” with another “nature.” It does not demand an “exaltation” above nature, but the fulfillment of the “nature” that we have been given. Rahner actually defines “created spirit” as “openness to infinite being,” a definition that eliminates de-finition (Nature and Grace, 136-7). By virtue of being the nature that he is, man is flexibly capacious enough to receive the Spirit of God.

The fact that the nature/supernatural scheme does not move in this direction suggests that it operates with assumptions that are alien to the Christian doctrine of creation. Why can’t we simply say that God created man in such a way as to be receptive to His Word, Presence, Love? Why could God not create man as a being capable of being indwelt by the Spirit more and more fully? If this option is refused, perhaps it is because there is something inherent in creaturehood that prohibits it. Perhaps the underlying assumption is that there is some limitation, perhaps a limitation inherent in matter, that makes this impossible. Such an assumption is explicit in Scheeben, but it does not appear to me that de Lubac and Rahner, for all their anti-dualism, have entirely escaped it. 

The nature/supernatural distinction, for all its interest in dynamism and movement toward finality, works in a more spatial than temporal framework. The very term “super-natural” suggests a realm “above” nature, and this spatial metaphor is reinforced by language of “exaltation” and “raising,” used by neo-scholastics, de Lubac, and Rahner alike. The spatial metaphor again implies boundary, a built-in limit to the capacities of created nature – but built-in by whom or what? If we instead put the question in a temporal framework, it looks very different. God graciously creates man, and man begins to grow (or, as it turns out, degenerate). The “supernatural” end is just what is at the end of this temporal progression, the final word that God speaks to a creature to whom he has spoken from the beginning, the final self-communication to a being that, as image of God, is built to receive God’s self-communication.

Finally, de Lubac concedes in his Brief Catechism that the terminology of “nature” and “supernatural” may not be the best way to express the content of Catholic theology, and he points to Paul’s distinction between “soulish” and “spiritual” existence as a biblical equivalent (27). This is the methodological point to follow through on, being both theologically sound and ecumenically viable to work out these questions using the common – the catholic – terminology of Scripture.


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