The Natural Desire for God: Part 5, Pure Nature and the Rise of the Secular

One of the reasons I became interested in the Catholic debates regarding a natural desire for God is the suggestion from within this debate about the relationship between pure nature and the rise of "the secular."

Recall, according to de Lubac the church fathers widely believed that human beings possess a natural desire for God. Our hearts are restless, as Augustine said, until they rest in God. But this raises a historical question. The work of de Lubac was seen as a "recovery" of this patristic teaching. And if that was so, in what way had this view become occluded or lost? 

The patristic teaching regarding a natural desire for God became lost due to a Scholastic interpretation of Thomas Aquinas that dominated the interpretation of the Angelic Doctor up to Vatican II. This interpretation of Thomas, what is often called the "two-tiered" view, is the "two ends" vision I've described in this series. Specifically, nature has its own integral end and goal, its own logic for flourishing intrinsic unto itself. This is the vision of "pure nature." On the other hand, there is the "second" and supernatural end that comes to nature as a gift of grace. Thus, humans have potentially "two ends," a natural end open to all humanity, and a supernatural end that comes with the advent of grace. This creates a "two-tiered" vision of human flourishing, a natural, albeit "lower," experience of beatitude, and a supernatural and "higher" beatitude.

Catholic thinkers, like de Lubac, began to criticize this "two-tiered Thomism" for unwittingly creating the space we now call "the secular." As the theologian John Milbank famously intoned at the start of one of his books, "Once, there was no secular." That is, the division we now recognize between "the sacred" and "the secular" is a modern, quite recent invention. For most of human history, the sacred imbued all of life. There was no "secular" space devoid of the presence of the sacred. Consequently, there has been a great deal of thinking, theological and sociological, about how the "secular" came into existence. How did this space devoid of God get invented? 

Part 1 of Hunting Magic Eels is devoted to this question, especially the chapter "The Slow Death of God." In the story I tell in Hunting Magic Eels, regarding the creation of the secular, I talk a lot about the rise of Newtonian Mechanics and the impact of the Protestant Reformation. But other influences have also been much discussed. And one of those influences has been two-tiered Thomism. 

You can easily see the point. Once "pure nature" is posited, a natural beatitude independent of God, we create a "disenchanted" arena for human life and flourishing, a space of flourishing devoid of the sacred and supernatural. If the created order can achieve good natural ends--biologically, psychologically, relationally, economically, and politically--without God, have we not in that instance created "the secular"?  

This was the criticism de Lubac and others leveled at two-tiered Thomism. By recovering the patristic vision of a natural desire for God, de Lubac wanted to reclaim nature for God, to reimbue the secular with the supernatural. If there is a natural desire for God then the secular evaporates, as all natural longings are, in fact, a longing for God. Everything is spiritual. True, as Augustine and Dante teach us, these longings get misdirected and malformed, but the longing itself is the natural desire and search for God. All human love is trying to get back home.

And this, dear reader, is why I stumbled upon this Catholic debate. For another way to describe de Lubac's recovery of a natural desire for God is to say that de Lubac's work in Surnaturel was seeking to re-enchant a disenchanted world. If there is a natural desire for God then there is no secular. Which is what Hunting Magic Eels is all about. The world was once enchanted. So how did we come to lose that enchantment? And how might we regain it? One way, following de Lubac, is to recover the notion that humans posses a natural desire for God. Which means everything is spiritual. All human love is trying to get back home.

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