On Essays and Letters

Henri de Lubac, the great French Jesuit theologian, had a collection of nineteen letters that he had received from the French historian of philosophy Étienne Gilson (Letters of Étienne Gilson to Henri de Lubac [Ignatius, 1988]). After Gilson’s death, September 20, 1978, de Lubac collected the letters and made his own comments on them, all of which are contained in the book.

Gilson wrote the first of these letters on July 8, 1956, from 6, rue Collet, Vermenton, Yonne, his home. These letters eventually mention most of the great thinkers of modern philosophy and Thomism. The first letter to de Lubac is on the occasion of his (Gilson’s) reading of de Lubac’s book, Sur les chemins de Dieu. The book, Gilson remarks, “is such a pleasure that I cannot keep from writing to tell you.” As we shall see, profound theological and philosophical issues can come up in even a short letter, as is this one. But what I want to note first is simply the fact that reading a book, even a difficult book, is a pleasure of its own. And when we read a book, especially one that is good, we want to tell someone about it, especially the author, if we can find him.

A main “obstacle” to belief, Gilson remarks, is the topic of de Lubac’s book, namely “theological anthropomorphism.” I take this obstacle to consist in the heritage of Feuerbach’s finding God to be nothing but man-writ-large, so to speak. God is simply a projection of human desires. This is not Aristotle’s or St. Thomas’ effort to find the cause of human things, themselves obviously not self-caused. Rather it is the denial that there is anything other than human things, including the Godhead, which is just another variety of human aspiration.

Even St. Thomas was seen in this distorted light of “theological anthropomorphism” so that Gilson endeavors to undertake, what turns out to be his life work, a large-scale, ongoing project to straighten out people’s understanding of St. ThomasAquinas. Gilson is not happy with the teaching in the “Schools” of Catholic learning at the time “where there is a sort of dull rationalism which panders to the kind of Deism that most of them, deep down, really prefer to teach.” One would be hard put to find a more blunt excoriation.

“Our only salvation,” Gilson thinks, “lies in a return to Saint Thomas himself.” Gilson knew that de Lubac would be sympathetic to this project. Gilson wants to go back behind every “commentary” on St. Thomas, including that of the great Cajetan, whom Gilson thought was mostly “the consummate example of a corruptorium Thomae.”

De Lubac had been involved in a famous controversy about whether we have a “natural desire” for the Beatific Vision. What was at stake was the proper understanding of the actual human existence in this world. Was there, in other words, ever a completely “natural order” for mankind or was man from the beginning always intended “naturally,” as it were, for the Beatific Vision as the proper purpose of God in creating man in the first place.

Gilson then briefly explains what he meant: “God is QUI EST (who is); in God, that which in other beings is their essence, is God’s act of existing, the EST.” But lest we think that the human mind can directly understand this existing of God’s inner being, Gilson adds, “in the proposition, Deus est, we know that what the proposition says is true, but we don’t know what the verb est means.” God is, rather than is not. And the “is” of God is so abundant that no finite mind can account for its scope, otherwise it would be God itself.

Gilson finds that the true teaching of St. Thomas has been obscured, “even in the Order of Friars Preachers (the Dominicans),” if you can imagine! The Jesuits escape so far, at least by name. Gilson is definitely put off by “a watered-down philosophia aristotelico-thomistica concocted to give off a vague deism fit only for the use of right thinking candidates for high school diplomas and Arts degrees.” Letters allow us to fire off what we think in no uncertain terms!

Gilson reaffirms his appreciation of de Lubac’s book. Gilson thought perhaps de Lubac’s ideas in his book Surnaturel could have been expressed better and indeed that he might try doing another book to clarify his thought, as he did in the present book that Gilson had just read. Gilson returns to the main theme of de Lubac’s book on a “natural desire” for the Beatific Vision. “Who has ever denied that de potentia Dei absoluta, God could have created man without the possibility of everlasting blessedness?” Gilson answers his own questionwith a resounding, “Nobody!” God could have done so, but didn’t. We begin from what He did do.

Then Gilson adds a profound reflection. “But from the viewpoint of the final cause, which is the highest of causes, every evidence, both in the world and in mankind as God created them, points to the supernatural end for which God destined us.” The question is not what God “could” have done, but what He did do. Presumably, other worlds or other destinies are possible; our problem, or better our glory, is with the world we have and the “every evidence” that our destiny is one that is beyond the expectations due to what it is to be a human being. Gilson adds a brief explanatory sentence, which de Lubac in his notes concedes is the exact point of his book and effort: “In short, according to the Contra Gentiles, the structure and nature of created man are those of a being called to eternal bliss.” None of the other alternatives of which the history of philosophy and religion is full will compare to this end.

Yet, Gilson adds, with a kind of frustrated intellectual impatience, “But who cares these days, about final causes? It is only the formal cause that counts.” Even the formal cause, what is it to be man, however, seems somehow fit to be open to the intention of the final cause. This is why Gilson’s brief summary is so penetrating—“the structure and nature of created man are those of a being called to eternal bliss.” This is but what Augustine said at the beginning of his Confessions, that, however we look at it, we have restless hearts because they do not find “Thee,” the cause of their rest. It is impossible to rest in anything less. And after all, who would want to? The drama of the world consists precisely in the question of whether there is in fact an alternative.

Gilson finally thanks de Lubac for “so many good books.” Gilson tells him that he and many of his friends would like to think de Lubac’s books are “invulnerable to attack.” But alas, there is no book “at which certain people cannot take pot shots.” I suppose I could find, if I wanted to, the French original of which “take pot shots” is the English translation. But I think I will leave it there.

I still marvel at the insights that we can find in a brief letter, written on July 8, 1956, from one scholar to another, from one man to another. Friendship, Aristotle tells us, is the exchange we have among ourselves of the highest things. We speak of what is, and we recognize that it is indeed true that every evidence points to a supernatural bliss to which we are destined. This is what happens when good Frenchmen read each other’s books.

James V. Schall, S.J., is professor of government at Georgetown University and author of, among many other titles, The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking (ISI Books, 2006).