This is a very deep and very complex and subtle book, but in many ways the apparent abstruse hair-splitting quality of the discussion - namely, whether man has a "natural" desire to see God, or whether that desire arises only after God's grace has elicited such a desire - is actually a matter of first and basic importance. Take the discussion out of the idiom of aristocratic French point-scoring and latin-based terms like "natura pura" and "donum perfectum," and we see a startling relevance to modern issues.
For example, for me, de Lubac pricks me on a weak spot. In conversations with atheists who play the "God is evil for sending good atheists to Hell" I tend to counter with the observation that Hell - per St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante - for the virtuous pagans might be a place of natural human contentment. So, God is not so mean and unfair, after all.
This certainly answers the "God is mean and unfair" objection, but it opens up a new can of worms. If human beings can be perfectly content with a natural end, an end that human beings would find perfectly satisfactory to their natural desires, then who cares that they do not know God? So, they are not caused to suffer because of God's plan, which seems fair since they are good people.
But as a Christian do we really want to say that it is possible to be really content without God, that the separation from God will not cause suffering of any kind, simply because man's final end is to be with God? De Lubac points out:
//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"?// (P.54.)
So, my agnostic heaven for good agnostics is ruled out by de Lubac; if God is the true final destination of man, then not being with God means suffering not matter what. And that then puts the question to me of what my obligation is to prevent that suffering, i.e. to spread the Gospel.
And I do believe that man's final end really is with God. St. Augustine's aphorism that "we have no rest until we rest in thee" - and the whole arc of his description of his life in The Confessions speaks to how human beings seek God before conversion, and maybe before grace, if such a condition is possible, as de Lubac points out, in this world. Aquinas was in agreement ("Every intellect by nature desires the vision of the divine substance")(p. 9 citing Summa contra Gentiles, book 3, chap. 57.)
The insight that the world of "pura natura" - pure nature - without grace or a supernatural destiny is not ultimately fulfilling seems true. Talking about "pura natura" in the abstract - in the language of de Lubac, that is - leaves an indistinct impression, which did not make sense to me, until I watched the last episode of "Lost." In the final episode, it seems that the castaways have achieved their natural perfection - their happiness and goals - whether it is Locke's reconciliation with his father or Jack having a son, and, yet, they are not happy, they know that there is something more and better, beyond natural happiness. It was an odd experience to be reading this book and watching that episode at the same time, and to see de Lubac's world of pura natura played out in an accessible fictional treatment.
The book is insightful and important, but it is not without its flaws. De Lubac has a circular and convoluted writing style, which requires a lot of teasing at the threads of his thought to get to the point. The language that de Lubac uses is "thick." For example, here is his description of the core idea of his book:
//The principle that human nature - and ultimately every other spiritual nature - cannot have a real desire, a truly ontological desire, for any but the end which it is capable of giving itself or which it can require as of right by forces at its own level: this principle is treated by so many modern scholastics as a first principles...."// (p. 160.)
The first several chapters seem to be more about point-scoring by de Lubac against his neo-Thomist opponents and vindicating himself from charges that Humani Generis was aimed at him, which he denies. Several chapters seem to be devoted to distancing himself from heresy as he explains in great detail that he believes that grace is entirely gratuitous; notwithstanding the fact that man cannot reach his true end without grace, there is no obligation or necessity imposed on God to provide that grace.
The mid-portion of the book hits full stride as de Lubac explains the "paradox" he is interested in, namely, how a purely natural being can have a supernatural end as a part of his nature. The explanation is interesting; de Lubac argues that human beings have a spiritual nature:
//For there is nature and nature. If, in contrast with the supernatural order, the being of angels and men as resulting simply from their being created must be called natural, we must allow that their situation, in relation to other natures, is "singular and paradoxical"; for it is the situation "of a spirit which is to become subject and agent of an act of knowledge for which it has no natural equipment, and which is thus to be fulfilled by getting beyond itself." // (p. 102.)
//Even in the terminology of the scholastics, and of St. Thomas especially, rational nature (natura rationalis) or rational creature (creatura rationalis) is not a natural thing (res naturalis). Spiritual beings cannot be confounded with beings known simply as "natural beings"....These "natural beings" are in effect those "which their nature condemns to be no more than what they are...."// (p. 103.)
Because man has a spiritual nature, "man is only man when he surpasses himself and surpasses brute force." (p. 109.) "[I]t is a mark of that spiritual creature not to have its destiny circumscribed within the cosmos" (p. 110) and "St. Thomas, too, in "that wonderful digest, the Compendium Theologiae: "The final end of the rational creature exceeds the faculty of the nature itself." (p. 111.)
De Lubac points out that speaking of a natural desire for a supernatural end seems like a mixing of contradictory principles, and that while the common-sense approach is to pick one simple option to resolve a theological question, the Christian tradition has refused to abandon one truth in favor of simplicity:
//It has often been pointed out, too, that the various forms of Protestantism were often religions of antithesis: authority or freedom? Bible or Church? and so on. The fullness of Catholicism always presents oa character of synthesis. It is only that it is not an immediate synthesis, nor one that is humanly achieved. It is not possessed by the light of reason: it is first of all believed in the darkness of faith."// (p. 169.)
This warning on what might happen if we have to high a threshold for paradox is excellent:
//The objection is reminiscent of certain theologians of our own day, who hasten to speak of contradiction as soon as they hear phrases that seem even slightly paradoxical; in so doing they reject any truth that surprises them, without perceiving that to be really logical they should be rejecting numerous other incontestable truths, both of faith and reason, which only fail to surprise them because they are so used to them.// (p. 172.)
Likewise, this passage on a "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" approach to dealing with apparent contradictions:
//When it is between two truths of faith that the ultimate harmony cannot be seen, to choose one and reject the other then becomes heresy properly so called. We have a series of classic examples of this in the great trinitarian and christological heresies, which are extreme and obvious cases. But even within the limits of orthodoxy, any theology too concerned to find clear-cut harmonies and explanations with no loose ends will always be in danger of upsetting the balance of the dogmatic synthesis by lightening the weight of one or other of the two apparently contradictory propositions. This is true of those systems which try to make the divine Trinity more amenable to the understanding by minimizing to the utmost the category of "relation" which enables us to think of the persons, by speaking of the "extreme poverty" of their personal being and by describing the three divine persons in consequence as being "as little distinct from one other as possible": the divine persons, one notes, are wholly relative to one another, and in the scale of categories relation is the "ens minutissimum." It is true too of those other systems which, the better to safeguard Christ's divinity, so minimize the consequences of his incarnation that his human reality is compromised. The modalist or unitarian tendency, the monophysite or docetist tendency, are, as are their opposites, the result of an over-eagerness to reconcile the contrasting elements of the mystery. They are the consequence of wanting to be easily satisfied, of seeking a success which would dispense one from seeking further. They are the consequence of a theology of pure rationality refusing to transcend itself and thus becoming a kind of contradiction.// (p. 175.)
This is a dense book. I started out with the opposite belief - namely, that man had no natural desire to see God. I think I have been convinced by de Lubac that the contrary position is the better Christian position. In addition, beyond the dispute about pura natura, this book is an excellent source of Thomistic theology and, as an added bonus, as the quotes I've sprinkled through this review should demonstrate, a source of some first-rate insights into how theology should work.