The Natural Desire for God: Part 6, Fall and Redemption

Last post in this series. In this final post I want to reflect on the major source of controversy in the Catholic debate regarding a natural desire for God.

In yesterday's post I described the criticism of de Lubac and others regarding "two-tiered Thomism." But for their part, what do those same Thomists have to say about de Lubac regarding a natural desire for God?

Their main complaint is this. If there is a natural desire for God then there is a concern that God would "owe" nature the gift of grace. God would be obligated by the first gift to give the second gift. You can see the point: It would be mighty hard for God to implant the desire for Himself in human nature, only to have God not satisfy that desire. In giving us the desire God seems morally "on the hook" to give us grace.

So why's that a problem? I think a lot of people would be okay to say, yes, God has some moral "responsibility" to creation, especially if nature was intrinsically "unfulfilled" and "lacking" in some way all on its own. But if that is so, if God is obligated to give grace to nature, then this damages our definition of grace. Grace isn't given because of an obligation. Grace is grace because it is free, unexpected and gratuitous. 

So that's the concern. If humans possess a natural desire for God God would owe nature grace and that obligation would destroy our theology of grace.

How to respond to this criticism? 

There have been a variety of responses to this criticism among Catholic theologians, and I won't inventory them here. I only want to share, in my limited knowledge and expertise, what I think are two missing issues in much of the literature I have read about this debate.

Specifically, in many of these conversations regarding the relationship between nature and grace what I often find missing is how the fall and redemption history affects the whole conversation. It seems to me that the fall interrupts nature in away the ushers in the story of salvation. Any "lack" in nature isn't due to deficiencies in the "first gift" of creation. The "lack" we experience is a wound created by the fall. And given that the fall occurred out of human freedom, God is not obligated to follow with the "second gift" of grace. And yet, God does. Which makes grace grace.

Another issue that I think complicates this debate is the working assumption among Catholics that grace isn't universal. That is to say, some of humanity, perhaps a large portion of it, will not receive the second gift and will be eschatologically "lost." That some will be lost puts pressure on the argument for the natural desire of God as these lost souls would have a quibble with God on judgment day: "You made us with a longing for you and you never gave yourself to us in grace." Again, some Thomists might worry that these souls would have a claim upon God's grace if they possessed a natural desire for God. But I think this worry evaporates if we have a more general and universal vision of God's grace.

Specifically, if it is true, as 1 Timothy 2.4 proclaims, that God "desires all people to be saved," then God's grace pre-exists any claim a creature might lay upon Him. God created all people and, because God is gracious, God desires all people to be saved. That the first gift of existence is followed by the second gift of grace after the fall of humanity is not because God "owes" us anything but because God always acts generously and gratuitously. In short, the issue of God "owing" grace to nature is only possible if there is some sector of nature where God's grace is forever withheld. But if God's grace will, in the end, reach all nature, then there will never be occasion for nature to lay claim to grace as its due. The first gift doesn't create an obligation for a second gift. Rather, all is grace, start to finish, simply because of who God is. God is always gracious, and after the fall we needed rescue. And so, God effects a rescue. As it says in the gospel of John, we receive from God "grace upon grace." God is always giving us gifts.

Again, I'm no expert in these debates, but it seems to me that attention to both the fall and redemption history addresses the Thomist concern about nature being "owed" grace. In summary, there is a natural desire for God, but because of the fall we cannot, on our own, actualize that desire. God, being true to His nature, and not wanting to lose any part of his creation (1 Tim. 2.4), acts in Christ to reconcile all things to Himself (Col. 1.20). As sinners, we are not owed this grace, but God gives us this "second gift" graciously and gratuitously. Which means that, for all of humanity, our natural desire for God will reach its supernatural end. Not because of obligation, but simply because God is, and will forever be, all in all.

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