Desire to See God, Natural

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The problem of the natural desire of the vision of god did not arise among Catholic theologians until the time of the scholastics, when the notion of nature had been philosophically perfected and the distinction between the natural and the supernatural clarified. In the 13th century the problem was treated as one of the elements of the more general questions of man's knowledge of God and of beatitude. In modern times it is discussed on it own merits as a means of showing that the supernatural is not something alien to human nature. The bridge, it is sometimes said, between nature and supernature is the desire for God, and more specifically the desire to see God, to know by intuition His very essence.

St. Thomas Aquinas. Since the early years of the 20th century the treatment of the natural desire of the vision of God has centered mainly around St. Thomas and his 16th-century commentators. To begin with, it is admitted on all sides that to see God face to face is for St. Thomas something strictly supernatural, that it is above the natural capacities of man and in no way due to his nature as such. A typical text in which the Angelic Doctor affirms the natural desire of this supernatural vision and explains its meaning is his response to the question whether man's beatitude consists in seeing the divine essence. He says:

Final and perfect happiness can consist only in the vision of the essence of God. The evidence for this lies in two considerations. First of all, man is not perfectly happy so long as there remains something for him to desire and look for. Secondly, the perfection of every power is to be judged from its object. But the object of the intellect is what a thing is, that is, its essence, as Aristotle says in the third book On the Soul. Hence the perfection to which the intellect attains is to be gauged by its knowledge of the essence of a thing. If, therefore, an intellect cognizes the essence of an effect in such a way that it does not know the essence of the cause, that is, in such a way as to know what the cause is in itself, it is not said to reach the cause in every possible way, even though it knows through the effect that the cause exists. And hence when a man cognizes an effect and knows it has a cause there naturally remains in him the desire to know the quiddity of the cause, that is what it is. And the desire is one of wonder, and it causes a search, as is said in the beginning of the Metaphysics. For example, if a person has knowledge of an eclipse of the sun, he considers that it comes from a cause, and since he does not know what this is he wonders about it and in his wonder he sets up an inquiry. This inquiry does not end until he comes to know the very essence of the cause.

So it is that if the human intellect cognizing the essence of some created effect knows only this of God that He is, its knowledge of the first cause is not yet simply perfect. Rather there still remains the natural desire of inquiring about the cause, and hence the man is not yet perfectly happy. For perfect happiness, therefore, it is necessary that the intellect should reach to the very essence of the first cause. And so it will have its perfection through union with God as the object in which alone man's beatitude consists. [Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 3.8.]

The phenomenological character of St. Thomas's reasoning is quite evident: the natural curiosity of the human mind cannot be completely satisfied this side of the vision of God's essence. It follows quite simply that final and perfect happiness can be found only in the contemplation of God face to face. Is one to conclude, then, that if God creates an intellectual creature He must make it possible for that creature to come to the vision, which is entirely above nature and not due to it? In other words can God leave man's natural desire perpetually frustrated, or rather has not man a right to that which, given the supernaturality of the vision, is in no way due to him? Strange to say, St. Thomas never explicitly faced up to this inherent paradox in man's situation. His interest never went beyond trying to show that the fact of the vision of God, known from revelation, is perfectly in accord with reason. But he never concluded to the fact from his reasonings about the natural desire, nor did he ever hold that man's elevation to the vision is a necessity. If in some places of his writings he seems to be proving the fact from reason alone, the context will always show that such is not his intention. All that he wishes to establish through rational discourse is that the intuitive vision of God is possible to man. To select one example from many, we read:

But since it is impossible for natural desire to be in vain, which it would be if it were not possible to attain to that intuition of the divine substance which all minds naturally desire, it is necessary to say that it is possible for all intellects to see the substance of God, both those of separated intellectual substances and our souls. [C. gent. 3.51]

The possibility of which St. Thomas is speaking can become an actual fact, as he expressly holds, only by the gratuitous elevation of intellect to an order of existence above its own natural powers and exigencies. The natural desire manifests man's capacity for receiving such a supernatural elevation but does not demand that it be given.

Interpretations. Many and diverse have been the interpretations of St. Thomas's teaching on the natural desire. Cardinal cajetan (tommaso de vio), OP, thought that he was speaking of a desire of rational nature in the supposition that this nature possesses knowledge of the existence of the vision of God through revelation. Even in that supposition God is desired only under the aspect of first cause, God the creator, governor of the universe. Domingo de soto, OP, considered Cajetan's opinion to be a distortion of St. Thomas's texts. Soto believed that for the Angelic Doctor the natural desire is innate, a bent or inclination in the will, a pondus naturae, prior to all cognition. If one looks merely at the tendency, which is in every human being, the end (that is, the vision of God) is natural; if one looks to the attainment of that end, it is supernatural. In this position Soto professes to be, as he really is, a follower of John duns scotus, OFM.

Another great Thomist, Sylvester of Ferrara, OP [see ferrariensis (francesco silvestri)], rejects the supposition of revelation as a prerequisite to the natural desire. He holds this to be an elicited act of the will which supposes and follows that cognition of God by which we know that God is. It is the desire of the vision of God as first cause, not as the object of supernatural beatitude. But Sylvester's limitation of man's natural desire to see God as the author of nature is in turn rejected by Domingo Báñez, OP (see bÁÑez and baÑezianism). This renowned theologian also refuses to accept the mere innate tendency of Soto and Scotus. For him the desire is elicited because, he says, according to St. Thomas's texts it arises from the knowledge of created effects. This elicited desire is natural; but it remains with regard to its object, the vision of God as He is in Himself, conditional (if the vision is possible) and inefficacious (in itself of no avail for the attainment of the supernatural end). Finally, Báñez insists, the power of rational nature to see God is merely obediential; that is, man is made in the image of God, and therefore his intellectual nature is such that it can be elevated to the divine vision. The common opinion of Thomists even today is said to be a combination of elements from the positions of Báñez and Sylvester: the natural desire is elicited, conditioned, inefficacious; its object is God the author of nature (cf. Garrigou-Lagrange).

Dominating the theological discussion of the problem until the end of the 19th century were the classic opinions outlined above. Since that time a more literal exegesis of St. Thomas's texts has been essayed by theologians. The years preceding the publication of humani generis in 1950 witnessed the proposal of the opinion that the intellectual creature by virtue of its creation is necessarily destined to the vision of God as its end, even though this end remains supernatural. The encyclical identified such a position as untenable; Pope Pius XII warned all Catholics against the novel speculations of those who "corrupt the true gratuitous character of the supernatural order when they assert that God cannot create beings endowed with intellect without ordaining them for the beatific vision and calling them to it" (Denz 3891). Another hypothesis endeavoring to explain the natural desire, but not attributable to St. Thomas, is that of the "supernatural existential." This means that every human soul in its creation is endowed with an ontological supernatural reality added to its nature and destining it to the vision of God as its end. This reality, which is said to be the desire for God, is not grace as we know it but a prerequisite for grace.

See Also: beatific vision; destiny, supernatural; elevation of man; god, intuition of; grace and nature; heaven; light of glory; man, 3; natural order; obediential potency; pure nature, state of.

Bibliography: a. gardeil, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 1.2:16961700. a. michel, ibid. 14.2:285459. f. taymans d'eypernon, Dictionaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al, (Paris 1932) 3:929947. j. alfaro, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 3:248250; Lo natural y lo sobrenatural desde Santo Tomás hasta Cayetano (Madrid 1952). v. de broglie, De fine ultimo humanae vitae (Paris 1948). r. garrigou-lagrange, De revelatione, 2 v. (Rome 192931) 1:208. w. r. o'connor, The Eternal Quest (New York 1947).

[t. j. motherway/eds.]