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What is the Need of Revelation?

From Brownson’s Quarterly Review for January, 1873


You ask me, my Felix, with a triumphant air, what is the need of revelation, if, as I maintain reason is infallible? You also seem to hold that reason and revelation must necessarily be mutually antagonistic, and that we cannot assert the one without denying the other. But I beg you to bear in mind that I assert that reason is infallible only in her own sphere, which she may well be without being able to take cognizance of all reality. My eye may see truly the oak before my door, without therefore being able to see all the objects disclosed either by the telescope or the microscope.

The sphere of reason is limited, and by no means includes all spheres or all reality. Reason asserts, without hesitation, her own limitation, and is perfectly assured that there is or exists more than she does, or, by her natural powers, can, know. Very young or very conceited persons may imagine that the horizon that bounds their vision bounds the universe, and that there is nothing beyond it; but modest men, men of wide experience, of ripe intellect, and of real science, always feel themselves confronted with the unknown, and, so far as their natural powers extend, the unknowable. What that unknown or unknowable is the soul by her own light does not know, but that it is and is real, she is as certain as she is of any thing: so much the cosmic philosophers themselves are forced to admit. Gioberti attempts to explain this mysterious fact, by asserting for the soul a purely subjective faculty, which he calls the faculty of superintelligence; not, indeed, a faculty of knowing the superintelligible, but of knowing, by her own need of it, that it is. It is less a faculty proper, than the soul’s apprehension of her own impotence and capacity of becoming more than she is, of her need of the superintelligible to fulfill or complete her existence. In this mysterious faculty,- at once, a want and a prophecy,- he finds, or think he finds, the connecting link between the natural and the supernatural, and the soul’s aptitude or capacity to receive a supernatural revelation, and to know by faith the super-rational, or the world that transcends her natural powers. Be this as it may, this much is certain, that the soul knows, however she knows it, that she is limited, is imperfect, finite, yet with a capacity that only the infinite can fill, and that there is an infinite reality above her natural powers to know. I do not call it a faculty, but I regard the soul as competent by her reason to distinguish herself as finite from the infinite.

Here, then, is a very satisfactory answer to your question. The need of revelation, conceding reason to be infallible in her own sphere, is in the need we have for the right and intelligent conduct of life, of knowing this supra-rational order of reality, our relations to it, its demands of us, and the light and strength to be derived from it to enable us to fulfill the purpose of our existence, and to attain to our supreme good or beatitude.

We know by our natural powers that our origin, as well as our last end, is supernatural. We know that God is, and that God, both as first cause and final cause, is necessarily supernatural, as is also whatever he does immediately by his own power alone, without using the agency of second or created causes, as the natural is what he does mediately, as causa causarum, through causes which he himself has created, and is therefore explicable by what the scientists call natural laws, or, as I prefer to say, by second causes. We know that we proceed from God by way of creation from nothing, and that our destiny is to return to him, without being absorbed or losing our individuality in him, as our last end, supreme good, or beatitude.

All this is demonstrable or provable by reason. There are, then, in this life of creatures, and, consequently, in the life of man, two movements, the initial or inchoate, and the teleological, or the procession, by the divine creative act, from God, and their return to him as their final cause, fulfillment, or perfection. The teleological movement fulfills or perfects the initial or inchoate. Into the initial order, we are born from natural generation from Adam, which is thence called the natural or Adamic order. But how, or by what means, do we enter the teleological order, or order of perfection? Certainly not by natural generation, which only introduces us into the natural order, and the natural is and must be inadequate to a supernatural end. Now, how can you know, without revelation, the means by which the soul can enter the teleological order, be elevated to the plane of a supernatural destiny, and enabled to gain her supreme good or beatitude?

Do you deny that our beatitude or last end is supernatural, and maintain that it lies in the natural order? God, no doubt, could create and has created existences for a natural end; as he has created the lower orders for man, and for himself only through man, but not one of them is man or a rational soul. They are all irrational, and exist only for the rational which has dominion over them. They act only ad finem, as the winds blow, the lightnings flash, the rains fall, or the storm beats; not propter finem, or for an end foreseen and willed, as do all rational existences. The rational soul cannot find its beatitude in the natural order, for whatever is natural is created, and whatever is created is finite, and the soul craves an unbounded good, and can be satisfied with nothing less than the infinite. Nothing created can satisfy the soul; and those theologians who hold that God, though man is actually incapable of being satisfied with any created good, might, if he had so willed, have created him to be satisfied with the knowledge and love of his Creator attainable by his natural light and strength, seem to me to forget that such being, if possible, would not have been man. The soul has all this knowledge and love even now, and yet is far from being satisfied or content. The soul would know all things, would know the very essence of God, see and know God as he is in itself, which is naturally possible to no created intelligence, however high in the scale of existence. The soul’s craving to love and to be loved, can never be satisfied with any natural love. Hence, however charming may be the love of husband and wife, parents and children, friends and neighbors, it never fills the soul; and the expectation of the young and inexperienced that it will, is never realized, and if they have placed their hopes in it, they are sure to be disappointed. Hence spring the chief miseries of domestic life. Such love satisfies only when its object is loved in God. The soul craves to see and love God as he is in himself, and to give herself wholly and unreservedly to her, and can be satisfied with nothing less. Nothing less can fill the void in the soul, or appease her infinite craving to love and to be loved. How then dream of a natural beatitude for the soul? Such is man as he actually is. Would a creature, that could be satisfied with the natural love and knowledge of God, be man?

You ask me again why God, when he made man and gave him reason, did not give him reason sufficient for his entire knowledge and guidance in all thing in relation to his end? This is only asking me in other words, why God did not create man for a natural beatitude. He could do so and make him what he is. To do that, he must make him of a lower order of existences, of a less noble nature, and for a less sublime destiny. He has seen proper to make man for himself, and for a better and loftier end he could not make him, for God is the supreme good, good in itself. He could not give man a more perfect happiness, than he gives him in giving him himself. Having resolved to give himself to man as his last end or beatitude, he could not make his natural powers adequate to his end, or place him by nature on the plane of his destiny. Since God is supernatural, it would imply a contradiction in terms, or it would suppose the natural can be adequate to the supernatural, that the creature can be equal to the creator! To have given man a reason adequate to his end, God must have made reason omniscient, or endowed him naturally with his own reason, made him literally God in his own personality, which is absurd. Man, according to the Gospel, becomes God indeed, but in the divine person of the Word, not in his own human or created person. How God does or can raise man to the level of his own destiny, and enable the natural to gain a supernatural beatitude, no created reason, no reason but the divine reason,- the infinite reason of God,- can know, or even conceive.

Your doctrine of the mutual antagonism of reason and revelation is of Protestant, not Catholic, origin. The reformers held that by the prevarication of Adam man lost both reason and free will, and became corrupt in his entire moral or spiritual nature, so that henceforth he cold not think a true thought, or do a single good act. Hence they are taught that all the works of infidels or the unregenerate are sins and offensive to God, and that all their thoughts and the motions of their hearts are evil- unless, perchance, such as relate to purely material interests- only evil, and that continually. They did not, it is true, assert any antagonism between reason and revelation, or nature and grace prior to the fall, or in the state of innocence, and it is only in man’s fallen state that, according to them, the antagonism exists. In the regenerate, if reason is not restored to its primitive state, its place or office is supplied by grace and the infallible inward teaching and guidance of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the hearts of the faithful whom he has begotten anew in Jesus Christ. The antagonism asserted did not exist before the prevarication of Adam, and is the result of original sin.

In this doctrine of the reformers there is an exaggeration of the effects of the fall, and a misapprehension of the real relation of natural and supernatural, as well as of the necessity and work of grace. Man did not by the fall lose his spiritual faculties, that is, reason and free will; for if he had he would, after the fall, have ceased to be a moral agent, and the unregenerate would be as incapable of sin as they are said to be of virtue. If those whom the Protestants call the unregenerate, the ungodly, or sinners, lost by the fall reason and free will, the ability to do or think what is morally good, they must have lost equally the ability to do or think what is morally evil. They must be doomed to suffer the penalty of original sin, but they cannot share in it as sin, and can no more sin than can the beasts that perish. By the fall, no doubt, the understanding became darkened and the free will attenuated, the lower nature, the appetites and passions, became loosened from the restraints of reason and free will, and man fell under the dominion of the flesh and the power of Satan; but we lost no spiritual faculty, and our spiritual nature underwent no physical deterioration or change. We lost by the fall the original justice in which Adam was established, and the integrity of our nature annexed thereto; but that original justice was supernatural, and that integrity, though in the order of nature, was something superadded to nature, rather than essential to its existence as human nature, and therefore called by theologians indebita. Our nature suffered, was wounded by being violently despoiled by sin of the supernatural and its annexes, but remained after the fall substantially or physically what is was before, and was only morally turned away from God, and internally disordered. Hence it is only in a moral sense that is to be understood the denial or crucifixion of nature, demanded by Christian asceticism.

The reformers never understood the real relation of the natural and the supernatural, or that the reason or the necessity of the supernatural was and is, that it is needed to fulfill or perfect the natural. Their doctrine required them to hold, either that nature before the fall stood on the plane of the supernatural, or that man’s beatitude was originally in the natural order; and the supernatural,- the order of grace founded by the Incarnation,- is necessary simply to repair or to overcome the damage done to nature by the fall. They do not appear ever to have understood that the natural is initial, and the supernatural teleological, and was always necessary to fulfill or perfect the natural, as is implied in the fact that the original justice in which Adam was established, and which placed him on the plane of his beatitude, was supernatural, not natural. If Adam before the fall had stood naturally on the plane of his destiny, original justice would have been natural, not supernatural. That he did so stand, appears to be the opinion of the reformers, certainly of Baius, as implied in his 55th proposition: "God could not have created man from the beginning, ab initio, such as he is now born;"- condemned by Pope St. Pius V, though in some sense, aliquo pacto, true; yet, in the sense of Baius or the assertors, as false and heretical. The exact contradictory, that God could ab initio have created man such as he is now born, maintained by some theologians, is true, only when we add or understand, seclusa ratione peccati et poenae.

I will not say that the reformers expressly maintained that original justice was natural, though I believe they did, for their views on this, as on so many other points, were confused, unsettled, vague, uncertain, and variable; but their theory of original sin unquestionably required them to maintain it. I never find them asserting the necessity of the supernatural to elevate unfallen nature to the plane of its destiny, or of the end originally intended by the Creator; I never find them asserting the supernatural order as teleological, or as necessary to fulfill or perfect the natural or Adamic order, which is only initial or inchoate. They assert it only as remedial, or as necessary to repair what was lost by the fall. They recognize a natura lapsa, and, in some sense, a natura reparata, but never a natura elevata, as is evident from their denial of infused justice, and assertion of justification as forensic, not intrinsic, and thus disjoining it from sanctification. Not recognizing natura elevata, or the elevation of nature by infused grace to the plane of a supernatural beatitude, they could logically understand original sin only as a fall from natura integra, not from natura elevata, and therefore must regard it as depraving or corrupting man’s whole nature, and involving the loss of reason and free will, or their total subjection to Satan and the law of the members,- the law of sin and death. Not recognizing that man even in his integral state did not stand by his nature on the plane of his destiny, nor the necessity even in the plan of creation of the supernatural, the palingenesia, to perfect the natural, the Adamic, or the order of genesis, they were forced to deny either original sin altogether, as do a large proportion of their followers, or else to assert the total corruption of man’s whole nature. Doing the latter, they could not do otherwise than denounce reason and deny free will in the unregenerate, and hence were forced to present revelation as antagonistic to unregenerate reason, and grace as opposed to unregenerate nature.

Here, then in the doctrine of the reformers have you learned to regard the two orders, the natural and supernatural, reason and revelation, nature and grace, as mutually antagonistic, not in the teaching of the Catholic church or of her theologians. Its origin is in the Protestant doctrine of total depravity, or that man lost by original sin his reason and free will, or, as some Protestants explain it, his moral ability, prior to regeneration, to exercise them in accordance with the law of God; and in the Protestant denial, or, perhaps I should say, ignorance of the fact, that the supernatural order was necessary, even when man was in the state of integral nature, to elevate him to the plane of the end for which God made him; that the necessity of the new birth, palingenesia, as St. Paul calls it, or regeneration, the spiritual birth into the supernatural or teleological order, did not originate in the fall, and in some form, or by some means at least, would have been equally necessary in the divine plan of creation and glorification, if man had not sinned.

It is worthy of note that your abjections, as well as all those of modern unbelievers, are founded on the Prtoestant and Jansenistic presentment of Christianity, not on the Catholic presentment, which is obnoxious to none of them. The unbelievers take for granted that Protestants and Jansenists are the more intellectual, the more enlightened, and the better educated portion of the Christian world,- for so popular opinion just now asserts, though nothing is or can be more contrary to the fact;- and, therefore, that their presentation of Christianity must be the truest and the most authoritative, as well as the most coherent and the least repugnant to reason. Then, finding it as they present it, incoherent, illogical, unsystematic, consisting of disjointed dogmas and precepts which have no reason of being, and hardly a glimmering of sense, they conclude at once against Christianity itself, as composed of absurd dogmas and impracticable precepts. As presented by the Protestant and Jansenistic heresies, their conclusion is logical and just; precisely what I myself maintain. These and all other heresies, if I may take an illustration from Milton, with a different application, deal with Christianity as the wicked Typhon and his companions, in Egyptian fable, dealt with the body of the good Osiris. They take it, hew it in pieces, and scatter its fragments up and down the earth, beyond the power of the weeping Isis to gather them up, and restore in its integrity the torn and mutilated body of her god. It is a grave mistake to suppose that heterodoxy is more logical, able to judge more candidly or more impartially, than is orthodoxy. Every heresy is essentially illogical, for it breaks the unity of doctrine, from which it chooses and rejects such dogmas as it pleases, without any regard to their logical relation to one another or to the whole, and in which alone they have their reason and significance; and is never able to defend itself without gross misrepresentation, calumny, petty cavils, and miserable sophisms.

In all these respects you will find the teaching of Protestants and all other separated bodies, contrasting strongly with that of the church. Christianity, as presented by the church, is at least logical, forming a dialectic whole, coherent in all its parts, and perfectly consistent with itself from first to last. It is the golden chain which, let down from heaven binds to God man and nature, and in which, unlike Protestantism, no link is wanting, or needing to be supplied by a toggle. It suppresses neither reason nor revelation, neither nature nor grace, neither the natural order nor the supernatural, but accepts both, each in its place and office. Under it, man has all the reason and nature he would or could have, even if he had no divine revelation or grace. The natural order, to say the least, is all that it could be, if there were no supernatural order. Christianity accepts both series of terms, and binds them together in an all-comprehending and indissoluble synthesis. It brings in revelation only where reason fails, grace only where nature is insufficient. It aids and perfects reason and nature, but no more suppresses either than the telescope suppresses the eye that looks through it, and finds by its aid its range of vision immeasurably extended

Christianity, as the church presents it, accepts nature without mutilation or diminution of its strength, repairs the damage done to it by sin, whether original or actual, turns anew its face toward God as its final cause, lifts it above itself into the supernatural or teleological order, and enables it, with the concurrence of free will, to persevere in that order, and attain beatitude or glorification in the Word made flesh, for which it was originally created or intended. No injury is done to reason or nature; nothing is enjoined or demanded that nature does not need or the soul crave as her own fulfillment; or which reason, when once duly accredited to it as the word, the will, the mercy, and the bounty of God, does not approve and accept with joy unspeakable. Christianity embodied in the church, whose person is Christ, represented on earth by the pope, his vicar, is the teleological order, what we need to perfect our initial or Adamic existence, and is infinitely higher than the highest created reason, and infinitely better than the highest good the human heart is able to conceive of. Shall mortal man be so base as to spurn it, or even pronounce it unworthy of his attention?

You see then, that the moment you cease to look at Christianity through the distorting medium of Protestantism, or any general or particular heresy, and succeed in grasping it in its entireness, its unity and catholicity as presented in the teaching of the church, or every catechism which she requires her children to learn, your objections are irrelevant, and vanish in smoke. You can no longer ask me, if reason is infallible, what is the need of revelation? Such a question is pertinent only on the assumption, that reason and revelation cover the same ground or move in the same orbit; that the natural is independent of the supernatural and disconnected with it, and is sufficient for itself; or that man has his beatitude in the natural or created order; all of which are absolutely inadmissible.

Do our best, we can form no theory adverse to the doctrine of the church, with which reason herself can be satisfied, as is evident from the infinite variety of theories constructed every day outside of Catholic doctrine, and demolished as soon as constructed. What the church teaches is catholic, and must satisfy reason; for what is catholic is universal, and nothing can be universal but truth. Consider that the natural order, the order of generation, is initial, and that the supernatural order, the order of regeneration, is teleological, and completes, fulfills, perfects the initial or inchoate, and the demands of reason are met and more than met. Say, the progenitor of the first is Adam, of the second is Christ the Lord from heaven, the incarnate Word, and what has reason to object? I do not say that God would have become incarnate if man had not sinned, for I do not know the resources of infinite wisdom, nor do I venture to say that God has only one possible way of effecting his gracious purposes; but I do say that, in hac providentia, the teleological order is founded by the Incarnation, and depends as creation itself on the creative act of God, on that stupendous fact, that tremendous mystery of the Word made flesh, which seems to exhaust the infinite wisdom, love, bounty, and power of the infinite Creator. If it had not been founded in that way, it must have been founded in some other way, for God cannot create without a purpose or final cause; and he can propose to himself no final cause distinct from himself, since, distinct from him, prior to creation, there is nothing.

You see now why I look upon infidelity with so much horror, and why I view heresy of every type as a deadly sin, and as one of the greatest evils, nay, the greatest evil, that can befall the individual or society. In matters of mere opinion, in respect to which the truth is unattainable either from reason or from revelation, the widest differences are to be tolerated; but faith is not opinion, it is the truth, the "substance of things to be hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen." Faith is not mere speculation; it is practical, fearfully practical, for "without faith it is impossible to please God;" but only those who have the infallible authority of the church and submit to it, have faith. You, who reject that authority, no matter for what reason, have no faith, have only opinions, and have no right to be intolerant towards any body, especially towards Catholics and the church. But what is your condition, and what is to become of you? I dread to think. May God help you!