John MILBANK. The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Renewed Split in Modern Catholic Theology. Michigan / Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. pp. 110. ISBN: 978-0-8028-7236-4. Reviewed by Cathal DOHERTY SJ, University of San Francisco, CA
The second edition of this short but very important book bears a new subtitle, but otherwise departs little from the original 2005 publication. The author advances the thesis that Henri de Lubac’s writings on the question of the supernatural support a more ‘radical’ interpretation than has been current to date, also arguing at some length that Balthasar, to whom the epithet “suspended middle” is due, ultimately misinterpreted his teacher’s conception of the supernatural.
There is much to recommend this book. It contains a succinct overview of some of the main issues in the twentieth-century debates on the nature-grace relationship. The student of the philosophical and theological literature on the supernatural will find it an indispensable guide to the main areas of contention such as the question of natura pura, and the ‘natural’ desire for God. There are many valuable leads therein to follow up. The English-speaking student of de Lubac will find Milbank’s concision and incisive Anglo-Saxon prose a welcome relief from the voluminous francophone literature. Most importantly, the question of the supernatural, and the ‘split’ in Catholic theology that it engenders, has never gone away. It has simply been ignored, and this book does much to rectify the amnesiac tendencies of contemporary theology.
Yet the brevity of this work leads to an inevitable unevenness. It is heavy on Balthasar, but light on Rahner, and even lighter on de Lubac’s patent intellectual debt to Maurice Blondel’s earlier and extensive philosophical treatment of the question of the supernatural. In the chapter on the Surnaturel of 1946, Milbank opines that de Lubac’s work implicitly proposes a radical rethinking of the relation of philosophy and theology. Namely, that philosophy requires the transcendent supplement of theology, whereas theology, for its part, equally requires the foundation of philosophy. No stand-alone theology, and no entirely autonomous philosophy. Yet this vaguely expressed vision of a symbiotic relationship between philosophy and theology, while implicit in de Lubac, was already explicit in the early work of Maurice Blondel, which de Lubac avidly read. In the same vein, Milbank suggests that de Lubac calqued the term ‘extrinseque’on Aquinas’ use of ‘extraneaum’in the Summa Contra Gentiles (p. 23). Yet the term ‘extrinsicism’ had already been in use for quite some time by 1946, as the reader of Maurice Blondel’s Letter on Apologetics & History and Dogma can check. One is left with the nagging doubt that Maurice Blondel is the figure to whom de Lubac’s ‘radicality’ should be attributed, at least in relation to the treatment of the supernatural.
As Milbank points out, de Lubac famously conceals his theological positions within a commentary on other authors. By the same token, Milbank provides his personal interpretation of de Lubac’s mutable formulations. Occasionally, this makes it unclear who one’s interlocutor truly is – John Milbank, Henri de Lubac, the original author on whom de Lubac was commenting, or even the ghost of Maurice Blondel. Is de Lubac a ventriloquist’s dummy in Milbank’s hands, in the same way that Pic de la Mirandole was for de Lubac? Given the protean nature of de Lubac’s prose, it is unlikely that such historical questions could ever be answered definitively. And in a real sense, who cares? As Milbank reminds us, the stakes are much higher than who said what and when. At stake in the question of the supernatural is the very nature of theology itself. Milbank’s resurrection of such fundamental questions is, therefore, a very valuable contribution.