This essay is excerpted from chapter three of Salvation in Henri de Lubac: Divine Grace, Human Nature, and the Mystery of the Cross, which is now available for purchase and is posted with permission of the University of Notre Dame Press.

By Eugene R. Schlesinger

Humanity has a natural desire for supernatural happiness in God. While this desire for the beatific vision is innate to humanity as spirit, our knowledge of it, de Lubac argues, depends upon divine revelation.[i] This paradoxical state of affairs, of a natural desire that can be fulfilled only supernaturally, and which is inscribed into our very being, but knowable only by revelation, lies at the heart of de Lubac’s theological epistemology, which itself gives ample room for and relies upon the notion of paradox.[ii]

De Lubac’s appeal to paradox stems from several interconnected commitments that, taken in concert, allow us to fill out with greater depth the manner in which his thought is pervaded by a soteriological impetus. Our knowledge of God takes a paradoxical form because it is knowledge of a reality that utterly exceeds the capacities of our finite intellects, i.e., a mystery. It is the nature of this mystery that our apprehension of it goes beyond mere cognition. Rather, we are drawn and incorporated into it. This being drawn into the mystery is at once the fulfillment of the natural desire and the telos of knowledge of God. It is, moreover, the basic meaning of mysticism in de Lubac’s mature thought. For de Lubac, both mysticism and theology are means of engaging with mystery. And the relation between them clarifies what is at stake in de Lubac’s theological epistemology, namely, the ordering of all of human life, including theological inquiry, to our participation in the life of the Trinity through the saving act of the incarnate Christ.


Mysticism and the Constitution of Humanity

De Lubac’s conception of Christian mysticism sheds considerable light on his theological anthropology, for it clarifies the nature of the fulfilment of the desire that constitutes human nature. As we noted in the introduction, de Lubac understood his entire project to be, in some measure, animated by a vision of Christian mysticism; though he was unable to complete his desired book on the topic, neither is any major work devoted to it as such. Nevertheless, his 1965 article “Mystique et Mystère” gives considerable insight into his conception of Christian mysticism. Essentially mysticism consists in “a certain effective union with the Divinity . . . the tri-personal God of Christian revelation, a union realized in Jesus Christ and by his grace.”[iii] Set against the backdrop of the previous chapters, this can be recognized as essentially the fulfillment of humanity’s supernatural vocation and the human spirit’s natural desire for that fulfillment.

De Lubac makes this connection even clearer when he delineates those features that comprise a specifically Christian mysticism over against the various natural mysticisms or those belonging to different religious traditions. A Christian mysticism is, in particular, a “mysticism of likeness,” meaning that, by virtue of being created in the image of God, humanity is called to be conformed to his likeness through the beatific vision.[iv] The distinction between image and likeness is crucial to de Lubac’s theology of the supernatural, as image corresponds to our vocation to union with God, while likeness names its fulfillment. Between the two there is a radical disproportion, so that we could never attain to this goal without supernatural aid. De Lubac explains: “A mysticism of only the image would be an awareness of oneself, of the depth of one’s being, without the gracious intervention of God by the gift of the mystery,” while as a “mysticism of likeness, Christian mysticism is by that very fact oriented forward, towards a term, towards God who calls us and draws us to the end of the road.”[v] Hence, it involves an anagogic dimension, as this movement toward God can never be fully completed within this life.

Understanding the matter thus, we can see that de Lubac’s understanding of the image of God in humanity more or less corresponds to spirit within his conception of tripartite anthropology. Both name our basic openness toward and vocation to God. This is borne out in de Lubac’s The Discovery of God, in which he writes, “God reveals himself continuously to man by imprinting his image upon him. That divine operation constitutes the very center of man. That is what makes him spirit.”[vi] Tellingly, de Lubac understands spirit to be the site of mysticism (Le lieu de la mystique).[vii] It is here, in that aspect of our nature whereby we are open to and summoned to God, that mysticism, understood as the fulfillment of that summons, occurs.

The mystery revealed is revealed for the sake of our assimilation to it. It is revealed so that this mystery might be received. Our apprehension of the mystery plays out in two primary manners: theology (théologie) and mysticism (mystique). Theology is an intellectual endeavor whereby one reflects upon the meaning of the mystery, pursuing, so far as possible, its intelligibility. Mysticism, as we have delineated above, is a spiritual movement whereby we are drawn into and have the mystery reproduced within ourselves. As we shall see, these two modes of apprehension, while distinct, are intimately related to each other, and it is precisely in discerning their relation that the soteriological impulse undergirding de Lubac’s theological epistemology becomes clear. …

Knowledge of God as Salvation

For de Lubac, not only is our knowledge of God ordered to salvation, but the dynamic movement of our knowledge of God is itself salvation. Within the twofold order of knowledge described by Dei Filius, truths can be known by natural reason and by divine faith. Faith, then, is the form of knowing God of which we are capable (1) by supernatural grace and (2) this side of the beatific vision. In the light of glory we shall see God as he is, and faith will give way to sight. Even then, though, we will not fully comprehend the divine essence. And until vision replaces faith, faith is the means by which we acquire supernatural knowledge of God.

De Lubac understands faith in far more dynamic and personalist terms than as mere assent. This may be illustrated by his analysis of the presence or absence of the preposition in in the credo’s articles. The believer confesses belief in God, but not in the church. The church is an article of faith, even the context within which faith is received, nurtured, and confessed, but it is not an object of faith.[viii] In contrast, faith not just leads us to affirm God but actually thrusts us into God.[ix] This follows naturally from the character of revelation. The revelation of the Trinity occurs through the work of redemption, and “the Trinity is revealed to us only to the extent in which it makes possible our elevation and our redemption through the work of salvation.”[x] Because God is revealed precisely in the saving act, and for the purpose of salvation, it follows that faith in what is revealed (i.e., the saving acts, which are meant to elevate us to share in God) brings us into communion with the Trinity.[xi] This occurs in a twofold movement of the “development of dogma and deepening of the mystery.”[xii] It is by this latter movement of deepening the mystery that the saving mystery is entered into by and interiorized for the Christian.[xiii] Such knowledge of God does not remain exterior to us, but rather comes to characterize us at the most profound of levels. The mystery of salvation, which we grasp by faith, comes to be reproduced in us. In the following chapters, we shall gain further clarity about the nature of this saving mystery and how it is that we come to share in it.

Dogma and practice, then, are a unity, because the whole of dogma is summed up in Christ, who is charity incarnate, whose redemptive act is a great deed of charity and draws forth from us the response of charity, which brings us to share in God, whose nature is love.[xiv] Understood in this way, faith is “that movement which, upon hearing the Word, freely ratifies the destiny inscribed in our very being by the Creator; in other words, the resumption and transformation of the secret movement essential to every creature through the dynamism of faith.”[xv] The knowledge of God is inscribed in the depths of our being by nature. The return to God through faith takes us further than and perfects, but does not do away with or abridge, this most fundamental élan. The knowledge of God is a graced response to his primordial call.

With this notion of faith as a journey of return to God, de Lubac retrieves and re-expresses one of the most central soteriological motifs of Augustine of Hippo, who understood the return to God to occur not through local motion, but through a volitional purification driven by faith’s humility. By consenting to faith rather than direct vision, redeemed humanity was properly humbled, enabled to set its loves in the proper order, and so return to the source of true beatitude, God.[xvi] For Augustine, as for de Lubac, the purpose of God’s revelation was to guide and carry us along this journey, a journey in which Christ is both the homeland we seek and the way by which we return.[xvii]

[i] de Lubac, Mystery of the Supernatural, 119–39.

[ii] Wagner, Théologie fondamentale, 201–27; Dumas, Mystique et théologie, 119–21; Swafford, Nature and Grace, 51–55.

[iii] de Lubac, “Mystique et Mystère,” 42, my translation. “Une certaine union effective à la Divinité . . . au Dieu Tri-personnel de la révélation chrétienne, union réalisée en Jésus-Christ et par sa grâce.”

[iv] de Lubac, “Mysticism and Mystery,” 57, 51–52.

[v] de Lubac, “Mystique et Mystère,” 62, my translation. “Une mystique de la seule image serait une prise de conscience de soi, du fond de l’être, sans intervention gracieuse de Dieu par le don du mystère. . . . Mystique de la ressemblance, la mystique chrétienne est par le fait même orientée vers l’avant, vers un terme, vers Dieu qui nous appele et nous attire au bout du chemin.” See also Dumas, Mystique et théologie, 154–65; Zwitter, Histoire en présence de l’Éternel, 78–79.

[vi] de Lubac, Discovery of God, 12. “Dieu se révèle incessamment à l’homme en imprimant incessament en lui son image. C’est cette opération divine qui constitue l’homme en son centre. C’est elle qui le fait esprit (Sur les chemins de Dieu, 15–16). For further overlap between image and spirit, see Discovery of God, 6–7, 12–13, 112–13.

[vii] de Lubac, “Anthropologie tripartite,” 177.

[viii] de Lubac, Christian Faith, 133–45; Splendor of the Church, 28–38.

[ix] de Lubac, Christian Faith, 146. See the exposition in Guibert, Mystère du Christ, 263–70; Wagner, Théologie fondamentale, 224–25.

[x] de Lubac, Christian Faith, 107 (quoting Erik Przywara, Philosophie de la religion catholique, 2e partie, in fine). “Car la Trinité ne nous est révélée que dans la mesure où elle permet notre élévation et notre rédemption dans l’œuvre du salut” (Foi chrétienne, 124). See also Christian Faith, 149–50.

[xi] de Lubac, “Development of Dogma,” 275; Révélation divine, 56–60.

[xii] de Lubac, Christian Faith, 246–59. “développement du dogme, approfondissement du mystère” (Foi chrétienne, 286–306).

[xiii] See discussion in Guibert, Mystère du Christ, 173–329; Dumas, Mystique et théologie, 285–322.

[xiv] de Lubac, “Light of Christ,” 215–17. This commitment on practice and charity distinctly echoes Blondel’s philosophy of action. Action, 373–424.

[xv] de Lubac, Christian Faith, 292. “ce mouvement qui ratifie librement, à l’audition de la Parole, la destinée inscrite dans l’être même par le Créateur; autrement dit, la reprise et la transformation du mouvement secret qui est essentiel à la créature, par l’élan de la foi” (Foi chrétienne, 355).

[xvi] E.g., Augustine, Teaching Christianity 1.11.11–14.14, 34.38 (pp. 110–12, 122–23); Confessions 7.18.24–19.25 (pp. 178–79); Trinity 4.10.13–18.24, (pp. 166–71); City of God 9.15, (pp. 293–95).

[xvii] Augustine, Teaching Christianity 1.11.11, (p. 110). De Lubac explicitly draws from Augustine, Christian Faith, 297–302, and points to his importance for the pedagogical account of revelation in Dei Verbum in Révélation divine, 122–23.

About The Author

Eugene R. Schlesinger, Ph.D., is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the editor of Covenant.

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