Mind Aflame

Chapter 7: The Supernatural


1946 saw the opening of the modern debate on the idea of the supernatural with the publication of Henri de Lubac's Surnaturel and the controversies that then began to rage around it. Some observers were astute enough to recognize that Mersch had much to say about this issue, but his voice was never really heard. (1) The poor theology of the supernatural to be found in the theological manuals came in for heavy criticism, and de Lubac's formulations were attacked, as well. After the dust had settled one of the impressions left in the popular mind was that there was something wrong with the idea of the supernatural itself, and the whole distinction between nature and grace. This impression was unfortunate, for properly understood, the distinction between nature and grace plays a vital and primordial role in theology, and when seen in the light of Mersch's vision of the whole Christ, is quite unobjectionable.

The idea of the supernatural had always been present in Christian thought, but it was first developed for itself and in a reflexive way in the 16th and 17th centuries. Such a process of development by way of refining distinctions is a natural part of our attempts to better understand the Christian mysteries, but it always carries within itself a danger. A distinction, valid in itself, can be focused on so intensely that it becomes a separation. In the case of the supernatural it began to be viewed as a quality that existed in the soul, and as the preoccupation with this aspect of the supernatural increased, its theological foundations tended to be obscured. Theologians did not complete their task and reconnect this new understanding of the supernatural with the great mysteries of Christianity like the Trinity and the Incarnation. It was these deficient formulations that were eventually to provoke criticisms, and lead to the resulting controversies that left the impression that somehow the whole idea of the supernatural was at fault. This is where Mersch enters. He is going to look at the idea of the supernatural in the light of the whole Christ which he has been exploring throughout the length of the Theology of the Mystical Body. The distinction between nature and grace will become even sharper, while any sense of separation will disappear.

Mersch's reasoning about the supernatural is a finely woven tapestry of metaphysical and theological insights. It starts with a clear perception of what a created nature is from God's perspective. "(N)ature itself is nothing but a union with God." (2) Our natures, or what we are, can only be ultimately understood in relationship to existence. They are certain capacities to exist which are ultimately derived and measured by the fullness of existence itself who is God. Our very beings are partial reflections or refractions of the being of God. Every thread of the fabric of our being has come from God and is continuously being sustained by the creative power of God.

But if this is so, then how is it possible to conceive of a relationship to God that would be more profound than the one we already possess, and therefore, more profound than our very existence? If we try to imagine the supernatural as some kind of vitally important addition to our natures, we are immediately confronted with insuperable difficulties. Different natures are like different whole numbers, and any addition to them of that sort will change them into something else. If the supernatural is some kind of essential reality added to our essences, it would make us to cease to be human beings.

"To be is nothing else than to resemble Him, to receive from Him, to depend on Him, and to share in Him with regard to everything that the creature is. To receive a further union, especially one so great as to exceed all natural capacity, implies a supplement of interior reality, an addition to the essential components of nature; and do we not perceive that such an addition borders on the inconceivable?" (3)

If there is nothing that can be added to our natures to make us supernatural, where can we look to find an answer? We must somehow look to a reality that by its very nature transcends essence understood as a certain capacity to exist. We have to look to existence rather than essence. And ultimately, we have to look to God, but in the form of a new and radically different relationship than the one we have in virtue of our creation. "The supernatural involves a change of a different order, a change that is at once far more radical and more delicate, a change that affects a being by causing it to be the very thing it was but in a very different way." (4)

At first glance such a new relationship seems impossible, and it is, if we look solely from our side, for all that we are in relationship to God is comprehended by the fact that God has made us exist. But what about God's side? Our existence is only a partial and limited reflection of what God is as existence itself. "When God has communicated Himself to a thing by the being that is interior to the thing, He can still communicate Himself by the being that is interior to Himself." (5)

If in the act of creation God gives us our being, in this new creation God unites our being to His own. God has no essence in the sense of a certain capacity to exist, and thus our union with Him does not add essence to essence to make us cease to be what we are, but it adds a certain relationship to the fullness of existence so that we are what we are in a deeper and higher way. "The being that is admitted to such a union will become a "super-being" and will acquire a "superperfection"; and that being's nature will be elevated in an exact but transcendent prolongation of its own specific perfection, thus entering into a state of "super-nature"." (6)

There is nothing in the nature of any creature that can demand this kind of perfection, for this perfection springs from an intrinsic relationship to the inner being of God, and thus, infinitely surpasses any creature. The gift of the supernatural is a free gift of God, and while no rational creature can aspire to it by its own nature, neither will it be in opposition to it. Our very being will respond to this gift if it is given because it is given by the very author of existence itself.

But what can this new relationship to the inwardness of God mean? Mersch has been describing it to us all along, and now has only to apply these descriptions to the question of the supernatural. The supernatural "consists in a relation and union with the Trinity as Trinity." (7) This means that we must recall Mersch's distinction between the works of God ad extra and those ad intra, and how the Incarnation can be seen from both perspectives.

In fact, the supernatural itself can be viewed in both ways. When theologians first began to focus on it, they considered it as a work ad extra, an accident of the soul, and by that reason finite. But they failed to complete their task by looking at the supernatural ad intra as a relationship to the Trinity as Trinity. The supernatural finds its fullest and deepest context when it is seen in the light of the mystery of the whole Christ.

"We may formulate it by saying that He, with His sacred humanity which subsists in the Word, is perfect union with the Trinity, and hence the supernatural in its fullest sense." (8)

"God produces this being otherwise than he produces beings by creation. He produces it by the subsistence He communicates to the humanity He assumes." (9)

The first creation has been transfigured by a second, which Mersch would like to call a "causality through union" which results in an "entity of union." (10) In the first creation God creates things in themselves and outside of Himself, while in this new creation by union "God acts not from afar, but as an internal constituent in the order of subsistence." (11)

"In the assumed humanity this union is effected at the very point where personality would be found, that is, it is the union of this humanity with itself, its ultimate center of convergence and its first principle of activity, for this is what God prolongs in some fashion and further concentrates by fixing it and making it subsist in Himself." (12)

The human nature of Jesus is not somehow truncated by becoming the humanity of the Word. It does not lose any vital element of being human. Jesus had a human consciousness, but at its very heart it was transformed - not altered into something else - by being brought into union with the person of the Word, and thus with the inner mystery of existence itself. This entity of union intensified the being of the humanity of Jesus, and this intensification is the supernatural. The humanity of Jesus, in virtue of its union by its form with all other human beings, communicates this intensification to them. What Mersch has done has been to begin to explicitly formulate what he calls an "ontology of the supernatural." (13)



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