Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism (pt. 3)

In part two of Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism, the author assumes the task of expounding on the profound uniqueness of the Christian proclamation as essentially the inventors of what is now commonly understood to be “history”. He does so brilliantly–showing that Christian history is inseparable from its eschatological vision of the salvation of humankind through Christ.

The third and final part of the book is difficult because it revolves around a paradox. As alluded to earlier in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s preface, de Lubac is careful to undermine thoroughly what he perceived to be a vicious individualism in Western Christianity. In order to do so, however, he has to deal with what seem to be contradictory affirmations:

This is not the only case in which revelation presents us with two assertions which seem at first unconnected or even contradictory … man is capable of action and free, and yet he can do nothing without grace, and grace works in him “both to will and to perform”; the vision of God is a free gift, and yet the desire of it is at very root of every soul… (327)

Surely, as de Lubac puts it (quite politely, a late modern might add), it seems that “[t]he whole of dogma is thus but a series of paradoxes, disconcerting to natural reason” (327). Disconcerting, indeed. How is the honest inquirer to deal with such dilemmas without plunging into a wild fideism, in which contradictions are affirmed? The answer, according to de Lubac, has to do with the nature of Christian love.

All of these apparent problems take form via the classic philosophical problem of “the One and the Many.” How can free individuals (the Many) maintain their integrity as responsible actors when Christians also affirm that their actions are contingent upon the all-encompassing grace of God (the One). This is only one of a countless number of ways in which this underlying problem manifests itself in human affairs, so any good answer must be as versatile as it is deep. This is the task before de Lubac’s account of the “paradox” of Christian love:

The paradox is this: that the distinction between the different parts of a being stands out the more clearly as the union of these parts is closer. The less they are “fragments” the more they are “members”, and the gerater is the convergence into unity. … Does not the psychology of a group of men freely associated in the service of some great cause show entirely different characteristics from those to be observed in crowd psychology, and does not the same term “collective life” mean in the second case purely and simply fusion and in the first the exaltation of each personality?

But what could this possibly mean? Is this just a bit of rhetorical sophistry meant to dance around the impasse presented by the problem of the One and the Many? Not so. Christian love–and therefore Christian community–can never be fully understood by way of some sort of conceptual foundationalism. In other words, the abstractions that are necessary for dialogical argumentation or logical analysis can never be sufficient in and of themselves for the truth content of Christianity.

Instead, following de Lubac, the Christian answer to the problem of the One and the Many can only proceed from the “foundation” of concrete communal activity. Of course, rigorous argumentation and conceptual analysis is part and parcel of this community’s guiding virtue of charity. Yet, any and all “academic theology” (insofar as this is a coherent term) must gain its intelligibility from the concrete practice of Christian community.

In conclusion, then, it is one of the most precious claims of Christianity that the problem of the One and the Many is overcome. As de Lubac elucidates, the answer to the question must ultimately be to point to the Eucharist and say, “look here.” Or, truer still, “join!”

It is here in the celebration of the Eucharist that Christians are “true.” It is here that individuals maintain their own dignity as individuals (it is a choice, after all) while yet gaining their true identity as one Body. This is the profundity within de Lubac’s classic text.






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