An Excerpt from “You Are Gods,” by David Bentley Hart

In recent years, the theological—and, more specifically, Roman Catholic—question of the supernatural has made an astonishing return from seeming oblivion. David Bentley Hart’s You Are Gods (April 2022) presents a series of meditations on the vexed theological question of the relation of nature and supernature.

In recent years, the theological—and, more specifically, Roman Catholic—question of “the supernatural” has made an astonishing return from seeming oblivion. Until very recently indeed, most theologians with any knowledge of the question’s history had been working under the impression that the issue was more or less settled, and that the early modern theology of supernature and nature that had been briefly dominant in Catholic thought—the infamous “two-tier” system of “manualist” or “commentary” or “second scholastic” Thomism—had been decisively defeated by the far superior and more orthodox theologies of grace that had displaced it. Certainly, those two or three remarkable generations of systematic theologians who made the twentieth century one of the genuinely golden epochs of Roman Catholic thought seemed to have been able to accomplish as much as they did precisely because they had freed themselves from the desiccating atmosphere of that tradition. After all, as we had all been led to believe, the theological proposals of the manualist schools had been curious anomalies in the history of Christian thought, so alien to the whole of patristic tradition, and to most of the mediaeval, and so plainly irreconcilable with cardinal tenets of classical Christian thought and dogma, that they were incapable of producing theology of any particular range or substance, or of exercising much influence outside the small circle in which they had been gestated. Taken together, they appeared to constitute a depressingly sterile system, one that was eerily immune to any kind of enrichment or healthy development, inasmuch as any attempt at either could only expose its internal incoherence; at most, the system could be curated, defended, and endlessly reiterated by the small but indefatigable faction devoted to it.

It seemed only natural, therefore, to suppose that, once something better, fuller, finer, and more rational had come along (call it la nouvelle théologie or ressourcement or the patristic restoration or even “the Eastward turn”), nothing as morbidly barren, impoverished, and unattractive as the manualist tradition would ever again have the power or allure to inspire any sane soul’s allegiance. Why, after all, would anyone want to set aside the lush, velvety, heady wines of Catholicism’s magnificent twentieth-century theological renaissance to quaff the thin, acrid waters of Wormwood from a rusting tin cup? Why, in particular, would today’s students of Thomas want to retreat fromthe repristinated figure of modern research—an inheritor of the fathers and a truly mediaeval metaphysician possessed of genuine synthetic genius—to recover the caricature produced by manualism, which spoke in an attenuated early modern language of causality, presumed an early modern vision of desacralized nature, and practiced an early modern style of propositional logic? Surely the whole sordid episode of commentary Thomism could now be written off as a closed chapter in theological history, a curious anecdote that had briefly interrupted the authentic narrative of Catholic dogma and theology. Alas, it was not so. Die Wiederkehr des Verdrängten is a law as much of institutional as of personal psychology. And so now this once seemingly very dead tradition is enjoying a revival (or, better, recrudescence) in certain traditionalist Catholic sects, most especially here in America, where some odd perversity of our national temperament forbids us from ever allowing any ideological project or alliance, no matter how diseased, to die with dignity.

Why this has happened I cannot really guess. It turns out that all those prejudices that those who came after the perceived fall of the two-tierist systems were taught to hold, when examined closely and scrupulously, are not mere prejudices at all, but simple statements of fact. So the system’s return is an altogether shocking reversal of all expectations, rather as if some adventurer long thought dead and buried (or eaten, or frozen, or drowned) in some unknown and far-flung quarter of the uncharted wilds—one who has been pronounced legally deceased, whose estate has already been apportioned to his heirs, and whose wife of many years is now wed to another man—were suddenly to appear at the door of his old home, gray and gaunt and marked by the ravages of time and misfortune, but very much alive and adamantly demanding the restoration of everything he has lost in his absence. In either case, that of the obsolete theological system or that of the truant adventurer, the return has come too late in the day to be a cause of much rejoicing; the newer generations of theologians, the heirs of the estate, the widow secundum legem, even some older theologians formed in the abandoned system, or even some of the forgotten explorer’s life-long friends—all of them are more likely to find the new situation far more of a predicament than a blessing. I tend to think that the current enthusiasm for early modern Thomism is a matter for psychological or sociological investigation rather than something that can be explained in terms of logic or of some genuine spiritual imperative. But I cannot say that this is so with perfect confidence, since I cannot enter imaginatively into minds that find, say, Garrigou-Lagrange’s books deeply moving, or even vaguely palatable. The whole phenomenon must remain a mystery to me, one whose more occult causes will forever be veiled from my eyes behind a curtain of Baroque fustian (or perhaps sickly puce).

If, by the way, my language to this point seems a bit weighted toward one side of the debate, I can only assure readers that my motives are entirely sincere and disinterested. I am not Roman Catholic, after all, and so none of this concerns me personally; and, really, the future of Catholic theology is of no consequence to me at all. The topic interests me only insofar as it raises issues of a more general kind regarding the contents of Christian faith. Precisely because I regard the “two-tier” understanding of nature and supernature as irreparably defective, and in fact among the most defective understandings of Christianity imaginable—in many ways the diametric opposite of everything the Christian story has to say about reality and about the relation of creation to God and about the person of Christ—the unwelcome return of this superannuated vagabond provokes me just enough to make me want to advance an altogether different picture. Perhaps I cannot lay the ghost of two-tierism, or exorcise it from modern theological discourse. But I can, at the very least, take advantage of the moment.