With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Requiem for the Natural

Prof. Paul Griffiths has published his inaugural lecture as the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology here at Duke Divinity School. It is a provocative piece from Augustinian eyes and presents some challenges to the way Catholic theology typically treats questions of human nature and desire (especially in the Thomist tradition). It gives us plenty to ponder.

My own impression at this point is (as he often tells me): "that's not quite right." But I've learned that successfully disagreeing with this theologian is a rare thing indeed.

Pax Christi,


  • At 11/27/2009 10:36 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    Have you checked out this somewhat older piece, in which your Dr. Griffiths made some very interesting points?...


    And while it may be difficult to disagree with such a thinker, I recall the analogy of being conference where he suggested that participation and analogy are really the same thing.

    In this, it is not difficult to disagree with him, huh?

  • At 11/27/2009 11:25 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    So, now I've read the piece.
    It is indeed a very illuminating take on desire, though I do have some minor reservations. And I think that, as illuminating as this take on desire is, one would still be better off reading Desmond on desire. He simply explores it much more carefully and in depth. But that's just an aside.

    So, here are my reservations:

    First, ought not there be a distinction between desire, on the one hand, which per se is always emerging from a primordial form of goodness that is also somehow its telos, and volition, on the other hand, which is merely the momentum of a will, often unformed by the good that it truly and - dare I say - "naturally" wants.

    To put it another way, desire and volition are not the same, but in Griffith's piece, this distinction seems completely ignored.

    Proof? A recovering alcoholic may struggle between his or her desire NOT to have a drink and his or her volitional momentum to that drink. Here, there is a tension between desire and will.

    Now, Griffith's might reply that it is really a struggle between two degrees of desire, and this claim is somewhat justified. But given that at some point the alcoholic qua alcoholic begins to see his will to alcohol as evil rather than good, I'm not sure at that point the language of desire is appropriate.

    Thus, it seems that a distinction between volition as momentum of a habituated will and desire as will moved by the good ought to be made more clearly.

    Second, I have a hard time when theologians make claims like the following:

    All of these fit with desires well catechized and divinely beautiful, and all of them would not have occurred without the Fall.

    Any claim to know what would have been or not been without the fall, while theologically interesting, cannot serve as a principle of determination. In this case, Griffiths claims that Bach, Gothic Cathedrals, etc. would not have been without the fall. But at the very least, for this claim to be defended, he must demonstrate a necessary and constitutive link between fallen nature and Bach, Gothic Cathedrals etc.

    Otherwise, this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. One could, with just as much legitimacy and validity, speculate that without the fall Bach, Gothic Cathedrals, etc. would have been even better than they are now, no? And because neither claim is really rooted in any kind of necessary reason, it is impossible to determine which claim is closer to the truth.

    In my view, this is a common mistake theologians make - they use a theological speculation which is really a theological opinion (a theologoumenon) as if it were a philosophical principle in no need of justification.

    Finally, while I am sympathetic to the aspiration to move beyond certain faulty views and uses of 'nature' I think the move to do away with it altogether in reference to desire is a huge mistake. I agree with Dr. Griffiths that if by 'natural desire' one implies a sort of blue-print, or a priori, set of determined goods that must be sought, this can become problematic. This view quickly leads to the many problems found in modernity: the instrumentalization of the body, the sort of cultural and societal domination reflecting the elevation of taste to a matter of principle, and many others.

    But there are other ways of understanding 'natural desire' than the one against which Griffiths is railing....


  • At 12/30/2009 5:07 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Sorry for the delay. As to the first point, I'd have to get a better sense of what he means by that identification. I recall Maritain making a similar claim somewhere in the _Degrees of Knowledge_: that what analogy signifies logically participation signifies ontologically. I suppose it depends on how the terms are being used, as there are many ways of configuring participation and analogy, and whether by analogy one means the causal analysis of being (which obviously implies participation) or primarily a form of predication in the logical order.

    As to Griffiths's piece on desire, I too have reservations. I agree that a distinction between desire and will would be helpful, because I don't think he wants to identify the momentum of the will qua habituated and the primal orientation of the will to the good. But it is not clear that this distinction is adequately accounted for.

    And it is the understanding of will that you mention that I think marks an important point of contention. As a cursory glance at the history of doctrine will show, "nature" is often defined by its functional opposite. He seems to restrict the definition of "natural" in contradistinction to formed or habituated. This is of course a legitimate use, one that Thomas employs. But it seems that there are many other terms that nature can be defined against for theological use: what about the natural/supernatural distinction, for instance?

    In general, I too think that the judgment to evacuate theology of "nature" language is deeply problematic. Griffiths doesn't really address with precision the other aspects of nature that for Thomas are utterly crucial for theological reflection.

    One could, as Balthasar does, describe nature as a concept split between "stasis" (essence) and "telos" (final cause). This seems right because the act-potency dynamic runs through the order of essence. In other words, there is an entire sense of "nature" considered teleologically: judgments can be made not just with regard to the inchoate and the indeterminate given, but also with regard to what does and does not contribute to the full actualization of the nature.

  • At 12/30/2009 5:07 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 12/30/2009 5:11 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Another important point concerns the shape of nature's autonomy and the knowledge we can have of it. Though we cannot abstract nature from the actual, fallen order, so as to posit it as a parallel dimension (like de Lubac's sense of natura pura); we can however identify what belongs to the metaphysical structure of nature within the given order of providence, in abstraction from the various states that nature finds itself in (prelapsarian, fallen, glorified, in the hypostatic union, etc.). Clearly, we are able to identify something common existing between the different existential states of human nature despite all the radical differences. If we could not, then the grammar of the faith (a favorite notion of Griffiths's) would be significantly compromised: we could not articulate Christ's Incarnation as a true assumption of our condition; we could not articulate how we remain human beings in our elevation by grace; we could not articulate how we are not actually destroyed and recreated as something ontologically different by sin, etc.

    Now certainly we cannot isolate any really existing, independent “natural” elements from the really existing deranged nature we possess; but it seems we can identify structurally what belongs to nature and its capacities, as opposed to say grace or sin- otherwise we would have quite a difficult time explaining the dynamics and effects of both sin and grace upon us. In other words, it is precisely the identification of what is natural in the midst of our sinful condition that allows us to describe precisely our derangement qua derangement. We can reasonably differentiate things that are in no way natural to us (like the vision of God’s own essence, flying like superman, etc.) from things that we can consider within the purview of nature but in a way “unnatural” do to the effects of sin (such that we may never actually come to prove God’s existence, we may never actually possess chastity, etc.)

    It doesn’t strike me as terribly difficult to make meta-judgments based on the relative telos of human nature structurally considered (that is, considered as our proximate, not our final end), which can and eventually should be integrated with judgments based on our supernatural finality. In other words, would it be controversial to judge that necrophilia, pedophilia, meth addiction, and a vast array of self-destructive behaviors are “unnatural”: that is, do not conform with the fulfillment of human capacities; the ideal, functioning human being; and the limited “happiness” that Aristotle groped toward?

    So I suppose, if Griffiths is restricting his treatment to nature in contradistinction to habituated, then his examples are compelling and I am willing to grant him a limited victory. But I'm not sure that that's the sense of nature that theologians have most often meant, or have found most theologically interesting. If he concludes from this that all nature language should go, or that we cannot delineate what is natural (even structurally) from what is not, then I have to disagree. I think the problems implied in this move are too great.

    Pax Christi,


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