Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence
- ISBN: 9780268108571
- Published By: University of Notre Dame Press
- Published: January 2021
In Henri de Lubac and the Drama of Human Existence, Jordan Hillebert provides a fresh and compelling interpretation of Henri de Lubac’s position on the supernatural. Rather than understanding de Lubac’s position as one specific answer to one specific question, Hillebert reads de Lubac’s position on the relationship of nature and supernature as a much broader hermeneutics of human existence (11) that pervades de Lubac’s response to atheism (chapter 1), as well as his discussions of natural desire (chapter 2), knowledge of God (chapter 3), history (chapter 4), and mystery (chapter 5).
In each chapter, Hillebert focuses on a limited number of de Lubac’s writings, providing relevant historical context and detailed exposition. Hillebert has a gift for attending to developments in de Lubac’s thinking without losing the thread of important continuities. Hillebert also helpfully sketches the polemical context in which de Lubac wrote, as well as the polemical context within which de Lubac is today received.
The de Lubac who emerges from Hillebert’s interpretation is a thoroughly 20th-century theologian whose thought nevertheless remains relevant for 21st-century debates. However, Hillebert also shows convincingly that de Lubac is often obscured by these contemporary debates. Indeed, the de Lubac who surfaces in Hillebert’s reading is far more compelling, interesting, and complex than the de Lubac lionized by John Milbank, whose interpretation is often criticized by Hillebert, or the de Lubac who serves as a strawman for extrinsicists (those who emphasize grace as extrinsic to nature) of the past or present. Moreover, Hillebert’s interpretation of de Lubac’s theology is simply more historically sensitive and textually grounded.
This is no small achievement. De Lubac’s own writings are extensive. Moreover, the debate over grace and nature, which he provoked and into which he intervened again and again has a long history, is highly technical and sometimes unnecessarily abstract, and thus is difficult to master. Yet, Hillbert demonstrates a thorough grasp of de Lubac’s corpus as well as a mastery of the intellectual milieu in which he thought and wrote, and of the contemporary context in which de Lubac is currently received.
Two chapters deserve special praise. Chapter 1 deals with de Lubac’s engagement with “atheist humanism” in light of de Lubac’s hermeneutics of human existence. Hillebert contextualizes de Lubac in the religious and intellectual context of early France in the early 20th century (31-40) and contends that de Lubac’s concerns over atheist humanism were rooted in his theological anthropology. For de Lubac, any self-proclaimed humanism that would reject transcendence manifests a fundamental misunderstanding of the human creature and will inevitably corrode into an anti-humanism (48-53). De Lubac’s account of atheist humanism, which focuses primarily on Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Auguste Comte, does not go much beyond the 19th century. However, Hillebert raises the question of whether de Lubac was correct in his prediction that atheist humanism would result in an anti-humanism. Hillebert makes the case that if one looks at Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and Maurice Blanchot, one will find that de Lubac was prescient in his understanding of that tradition (50-53). Hillebert’s argument throughout is well-contextualized and subtle, displaying a solid understanding of the figures de Lubac engaged with as well as their spiritual descendants.
The second chapter on the “desire of nature” is also commendable. Rather than isolating de Lubac’s account of the desiderium naturae (“desire of nature”), Hillebert contextualizes it in the wider theological and philosophical concerns of the day, including an illuminating summary of de Lubac’s engagement with Maurice Blondel (74-76) on this question. Hillebert is also attentive to de Lubac’s development on this question. De Lubac does not substantially change his position from Surnaturel to his later writings, contrary to Milbank’s interpretation, but de Lubac does shift some of his language and in so doing, meets many of the criticisms he received from extrinsicist theologians. What emerges in the chapter is a position on the desire of nature which avoids the pitfalls of both extrinsicism and intrincism without slipping into incoherence or banality. Hillebert shows convincingly that both sides of the debate have misread de Lubac and, moreover, de Lubac’s genuine position is remarkably balanced. Hillebert is cautious in his intervention on this point, but the reader will be left with the feeling that another serious glance at de Lubac’s genuine position may just dissolve some of the contemporary debates over grace and nature.
Hillebert deserves praise for this mostly interpretive study of de Lubac. Hillebert is an excellent academic writer. He avoids jargon when possible without abandoning technical analysis when necessary. He is attentive to historical context without losing track of the central issue. The book is structured well and the argument of each chapter progress smoothly and logically. His treatment of de Lubac is largely expositional, but never perfunctory and is always enlightening. In sum, Hillebert’s monograph is a compelling interpretation which illustrates both the unity of de Lubac’s project and protects this project from current misinterpretations. With this offering, Hillebert makes a significant contribution to the study of de Lubac, as well as provides a very fine introduction of de Lubac’s thought to graduate students of theology.
Matthew B. Hale, PhD is an adjunct professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University.Matthew B. HaleDate Of Review:August 31, 2022