Nature and Grace: The Theological Foundations of Jacques Maritain's Public Philosophy

Article excerpt

Throughout his writings on social, political, and cultural philosophy--in short, public philosophy--Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) rejects a sharp division within Christian life between nature and grace. This rejection has important implications for his view of the human person, the kingdom of God, the Church, and the nature of Christian involvement in the world. My thesis in this article is that the debate over Christian witness in public life today can, in some ways, be seen as a dispute over a proper theological and philosophical understanding of the relationship between nature and grace.

In section 1, Maritain's integral humanism is presented where man is considered in the totality of his natural and supernatural being. Section 2 offers an extended analysis of the theology of nature and grace that underpins his integral humanism. This theology has implications for Maritain's view of Christian witness in a pluralistic society, as well as the relationship between the state, the Church, and the kingdom of God. These implications are examined in sections 3 and 4, respectively. I conclude in section 5 with a summary of the fundamental ideas of Maritain's public philosophy.

Integral Humanism

   [W]hat the world needs is a new humanism, a[n] ... integral
   humanism that would consider man in all his natural grandeur and
   weakness, in the entirety of his wounded being inhabited by God, in
   the full reality of nature, sin, and sainthood. Such a humanism
   would recognize all that is irrational in man, in order to tame it
   to reason, and all that is suprarational, in order to have reason
   vivified by it and to open man to the descent of the divine into
   him. Its main work would be to cause the Gospel leaven and
   inspiration to penetrate the secular structures of life-a work of
   sanctification of the temporal order. (1)

In 1939, Maritain published an essay in The Review of Politics titled "Integral Humanism and the Crisis of Modern Times." (2) His starting point is what he viewed as the peculiar error of modern humanism: its anthropocentric concept of human nature and, with it, its rationalistic concept of reason. In other words, "the error in question is the idea of [human] nature [and reason] as self-enclosed or self-sufficient." (3) Human nature and reason have been "shut up in themselves" and insulated from both the supernatural lights above and the irrational forces below. As Maritain puts it,

   Instead of a human and rational development in continuity with the
   Gospel, people demand such a development as replacing the Gospel.
   And for human life, for the concrete movement of history, this
   means real and serious amputations. Prayer, miracle, suprarational
   truths, the idea of sin and of grace, the evangelical beatitudes,
   the necessity of asceticism, of contemplation, and the means of the
   Cross--all this is either put in parenthesis or is once for all
   denied. In the concrete government of human life, reason is
   isolated from the suprarational. It is isolated also from all that
   is irrational in man, or it denies this--always in virtue of the
   very sophism that whatever is not reducible to reason itself, must
   be anti-rational or incompatible with reason. (4)

The development referred to here is elsewhere called by Maritain the "process of secularization" (5) and is fully described in all its real and serious consequences. This process involves the loss of all the metaphysical and religious certitudes that had been the foundation of the Christian worldview, especially its anthropology. In Maritain's view (and pared down for my purposes here), the modernist embraces a number of faulty positions. First, the modernist rejects reason's capacity to reach metaphysical truths and the revealed truths given by the Word of God. Man's knowledge is limited to the relative and changing truths of science. …