Monday, 17 May 2010

The Importance of the Supernatural

Thomas Aquinas contended that every rational creature has a natural desire for the beatific vision; that is, to know the very essence of God himself. As I’ve indicated before, the argument over the supernatural might be stated simply as whether this desire is an innate desire built into us by very fact of our creation or whether it is an elicited desire sparked by knowledge of God's existence from reason and/or revelation. Additionally, what did St. Thomas actually teach and what is implied by what he taught?

Why is this question important? As a stepping off point, let me quote from Lawrence Feingold:

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.

One of the major theoretical arguments in favour of the idea of an innate natural desire lies in the following observation. If the desire for the vision of God was not part of our very natures, how could that vision of God be considered our true end? Therefore also why would the failure to achieve the beatific vision constitute the pain of damnation? That the final end of a creature is inherent within that creature seems to be part of any metaphysical system robust enough to support Christianity; how then can we deny it?

On the other hand, if one grants that natural desire for the beatific vision is innate then that would seem to endanger (or even to eliminate) the distinction between the natural and the supernatural orders; the whole idea that there might be an entirely natural end for man is revealed as a fallacy. However, if this were the case, how could we consider grace and the gift of final glory to be gratuitous? The existence of an innate natural desire to see God would seem to imply (following Baius) that God must necessarily offer us the beatific vision and that there could be no connatural or proportionate end of beings endowed with such a desire.

If we think in terms of act and potency, one might think of the teaching of the classical Thomist tradition in terms of denying that the rational creature has a natural (innate) potency to be elevated to the vision of God, but rather that this potency is a passive potency (often referred to as an obediential potency). Informally, there must at the very least be a God shaped hole in our natures that is filled by grace.

When we come to think of the fall and of the effect of original sin, Adam is seen as losing the state of grace prevailing in the Garden of Eden. For any descendent of Adam, the restoration of that state of grace involves faith; the restoration of the (full) desire for God upon the infused supernatural virtue of hope. In the case of an innate desire for the beatific vision, might the fall be seen as an obstruction of this desire and its restoration a matter of a removal of this obstruction allowing an elicited desire to flow from the innate desire in response to the call of the gospel? Or would a more radical damage and restoration be assumed?

At the heart of Feingold’s analysis of the dispute over the supernatural seems to be the claim that those who have identified the desire as innate have failed to distinguish carefully enough the following:

  • An innate natural desire of the will limited to what is proportionate to the very nature of the faculty itself. This is essentially an inclination of the will rather than an act of the will;
  • A natural elicited act of the will which will arise spontaneously before deliberation (sometimes referred to as voluntas ut natura); and
  • An act of the will subject to free choice after deliberation (sometimes referred to as voluntas ut ratio).

In particular, they confuse the first and the second.

So, for the moment, let’s leave the last word to Feingold:

Although innate inclination is limited to natural happiness, the elicited natural desire of a spiritual creature naturally steps beyond those limits. However, such natural desire fails to reach the level of efficaciousness, and remains an imperfect desire without the aid of grace. In other words, nature alone is incapable not only of achieving our supernatural end, but also of properly desiring it, which rightly occurs only with hope and charity. Grace transforms the natural desire to see God from an inefficacious desire into the efficacious movements of hope and charity.

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