‘The Total Meaning of Man and the World’ by Henri de Lubac

I’ve just handed in a ‘Reading Reports’ assignment where I had to summarise and respond to various set texts in order to grasp something of the global trends in theology in the twentieth century.  It may be a bit clunky, but I’ve cut and paste the assignment here to give you a paragraph on some key theologians from the past 100 years.   Several of the chapters set in these reviews are from the fat brick of a book that is the subject’s text: David Ford’s The Modern Theologians.  Post #3

Lubac, Henri de, ‘The Total Meaning of Man and the World.’ In Communio. (Vol 35; 2008, pp.613-641)

Roman Catholic theologians of the Twentieth Century have needed to come to terms with the failure of its Scholasic heritage to engage with challenges of Late Modernity. The debate between Concillium and Communio personalities reveals a Church grappling with questions thrown up by an excess of Enlightenment Materialism, Rationalism and Humanism – how far can we take ‘secular’ approaches to theology before we need to retreat to pre-Enlightenment ‘supernatural’ models of truth and knowing? This was particularly brought into focus by the challenge of millitant athiestic socialism; an increasingly pluralistic theological context; the debate about how to read Aquinas; and the embodiment of all this transition in Vatican II.

In ‘The Total Meaning of Man and the World,’ first published in 1968, Henri de Lubac focuses on two intersecting problems which are identified in the constitution Gaudium et spes. The first is the question of the nature of humanity, the second the nature of humanity’s vocation: the second can neither be answered nor fulfilled without reference to the former. De Lubac argues that Scholasticism misapplied Thomas Aquinas which forced the dual nature of humanity as ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ into opposing forces. The result of this is that ‘grace’ becomes understood as ‘extrinsic’ to human nature. He locates his own, and others, attempts to recapture the integrated duality of human nature as a return “to more traditional views, whilst at the same time…attempted in a variety of ways to forumulate these views in new ways …[which has resulted in]… a more organic unified conception” (p.619-620). Whilst he seems to affirm the desire of some theologians to be ‘open to the world’ by use of the tools of Modernism (p.621) he rejects any conceptualisation of human nature that is not based on Christ. “This solution neutralizes Christianity, by compelling the Christian to ‘forget that he is Christian in order to think and act politically’ or socially” (p.623). The divine telos of human nature directs the human telos and only from that standpoint, can one address the questions of human vocation – to practice justice and charity (pp.629-631) and participate in the redemption of creation (pp. 631-634). De Lubac carefully distinguishes that the goal of theology is to teach the mystery of Christ, not the mystery of Humanity (p.626). “In revealing to us the God who is the end of man [sic], Jesus Christ, the Man-God, reveals us to ourselves, and without him the ultimate foundation of our being would remain an enigma to us” (pp. 626-627). In this way the Christian Doctrine of Redemption is reintegrated with the Christian Doctrine of Creation – Christ is essential for the salvation of the world, but not as an extrinsic work of God separate to human nature. Rather, the “progress of humanity” cannot be expressed without reference to the instrinic capacity for grace and leaning towards the sacred in every person.

I like de Lubac – though I can’t quite work out whether I like his personality more than his theology!  Imagine writing a book telling the Catholics they read Aquinas wrong!  Gotta love a man who goes straight for the sacred cow.  The absolute best thing about this MTh subject is having to grasp something of the theological traditions beyond the one that I was schooled in.  It was a big task to come to terms with 20th century Roman Catholic theology, even in it’s broadest sweep.  But there are some fascinating questions in there.

I am intrigued by the Pope John Paul II theology of the body, which didn’t really get a look in with these paragraphs, but is a big part of what’s been going on in Catholic heads.  He was a really sophisticated thinker but it birthed such a harsh church practice – the strange contraception rule – which does not seem to be in the same spirit of the good Pope’s intentions.  Maybe human beings not live easily with complexity.  Maybe we cannot live easily with the kind of mystical union of male and female that He envisioned.  Maybe we just cannot live with sex!

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