The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural by John Milbank
(Eerdmans, 2005, 117 pages)
I’ve been meaning to get to this book for a while. John Milbank is the primary thinker behind the theological project known as “Radical Orthodoxy.” A major part of the RO project is to reposition theology as the “queen of the sciences,” and to allow classical Christian theology to function as the “organizing logic” of reflection in academic, political, and social life. Milbank’s goals truly are “radical,” and in The Suspended Middle he co-opts the twentieth century theologian Henri de Lubac to help make his case.
Henri de Lubac was a French Jesuit and a major figure in the nouvelle théologie, a movement which sought to reinvigorate Catholicism through engagement with patristic and medieval sources. Milbank focuses on de Lubac’s controversial book, never published in English, Surnaturel. The book critiqued the dominant modes of reflection in Catholic theology and received much criticism. Milbank notes that after this publication, de Lubac, branded by some as heterodox, had to express his more original points with great caution. He explains that de Lubac’s “crucial views were now always expressed indirectly, through historical interpretations” (8). Milbank has not come under quite the same scrutiny as de Lubac, but his views are similarly controversial. In this book he borrows de Lubac’s methodology and advances his own theological agenda by a historical interpretation of the de Lubac’s writings.
De Lubac opposed the notion that there are two distinct and separable realms – the “natural” and the “supernatural” – that can each be comprehended on their own terms. Instead, as Milbank says, some of the essential components of de Lubac’s thought were the notions of “spirit and grace as inseparable,” and of “the orientation of the cosmos as such to the supernatural” (53). This “supernatural end of the natural” is an important theme of the RO project. By engaging with de Lubac, Milbank does much to substantiate the legitimacy of his own theological impulses. He articulates well the paradoxical nature of de Lubac’s work. He also effectively shows how de Lubac’s orientation toward the supernatural informs his approach to evolution, scriptural interpretation, and ecclesiology. Though it is brief, Milbank’s book is very dense. There are passages which are virtually incomprehensible – some of which is a product of the necessary use of a rarified academic language, but some of which seems simply convoluted. However, despite its occasional obscurity, the book is an important and fascinating study by and about two important figures in the contemporary theological scene.