Henri de Lubac: Knowing God, Knowing Self

So it turns out I don’t like olives. Hadn’t really tried them before, tried one – not a fan. And – you know, don’t start in on me like it’s somehow my fault. It’s not like I made a choice to hate them. I put one in my mouth, and I just didn’t enjoy it. That’s how it works. Obviously when we talk about identity, it’s often more focused on the societal, interpersonal implications – we talk about representation in media, for instance, and how it affects the way people are viewed or treated. For example, in a recent interview Ryan O’Connell (the gay, disabled creator of Special) articulated a very clear cycle between identity and media. He spoke about his personal experiences at the gym, where people treat him as inspiration porn (“I’m like a celebrity there”). Those experiences are brought up in the show (and even the trailer), where they’re directly addressed and critiqued, with the hope of changing ableist attitudes in society more generally. It’s identity in terms of the public sphere – both in how this marginalised group is treated by society, and in how it’s speaking back to society and trying to create social change. But there is another aspect to identity. Instead of thinking about it in this external, societal sense, we can also approach it from an internal, exploratory perspective. We are not transparent to ourselves. There are things we have to learn, things we have to discover. Our sense of gender, sexuality, our personalities, our likes and dislikes, the things that upset us – I found out that I don’t like olives. And the partial nature of self-knowledge raises a bunch of interesting philosophical questions. What does it mean to talk about yourself when you only kinda know who you are? Does it impact how we think about responsibility and blame – for instance, if you behave unpredictably or unusually (under stress, for example), is that ‘your’ fault? Can you be held responsible for things you didn’t even know about yourself? Because this whole olives thing-

The theme of our partial self-knowledge is addressed by Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac in the opening of his book The Discovery of God. “God, Moses said, made man in His image. To which Christian tradition adds that man, made in the image of the incomprehensible God, is ultimately incomprehensible to himself.” Even though we can in some sense come to understand ourselves in certain aspects – maybe in terms of gender or particular parts of our habits or personality – underneath all that, there remains something deeper, some smouldering core that is fundamentally always unknowable. Maybe we want to call it the soul, the essence, the unspoken and unarticulated center of the self: “in [one’s] most intimate being, made in the image of God, there is always something which he is quite unable to represent to himself, though he is not without experience of it.” We can see certain psychological or cultural theories that try to explain this deep well – Freud’s death drive and sex drive, or evolutionary theories about primal instincts. To de Lubac, our unspeakable center is the image of God within us. We are incomprehensible just as the divine.

And this idea functions on two separate levels. It’s a comment on the nature and experience of being human, and on our relationship with God, explaining the first in terms of the second. De Lubac argues that our deepest self is the image of God, and that it’s through that image that we know the divine. “It [knowledge of God] is the mark of God upon us. We do not construct it; we do not borrow it from elsewhere; it is in us, for all our misery; it is our very selves – more, even, than ourselves. It comes before the operation of will and intellect, presupposed by consciousness itself.” Thus, our most fundamental sense of self is in some regard divine revelation: “God reveals Himself continuously to man by imprinting His image upon him. That divine operation constitutes the very center of man.”

So it’s an interesting maneuver. It casts our sense of an unspoken core as a genuine encounter with the infinite, while also giving a real sense of human nature as created, as centered around and stemming from the divine. The experience of the infinite suddenly becomes very real, very intimate and familiar, even as it remains entirely inscrutable. We know that sense of frustration with our inner selves – the sense of something unfulfilled, something – almost just tucked out of sight, like an itch, like wallpaper that wants to peel away from the wall – like if you could just crook your finger in the correct way, and catch at the skin, tug and tear it free – we know that feeling. De Lubac offers an existential explanation: it’s not that you’re alienated because of capitalism, or any other materialist reason. It’s an encounter with the infinite image of God within yourself – not as something to be understood and resolved, but as something to be pursued. De Lubac writes that the soul has “a certain ‘habitual knowledge’ of itself, real in spite of being obscure and veiled, constant although forever fleeting – owing to the fact that it is always present to itself; the presence of the soul present to itself, in which it may learn, as in a mirror, the presence of God to the soul.” The theme of the mirror is that re-centering of the human around the divine – rather than being our own independent creatures, we exist relationally, in reflection of something Other. He validates that sense of the unspoken infinite, and directs us outside of ourselves for its source: “Do not neglect the light that is given to you, but do not attribute the source to yourself. Try to discover your reality as a mirror and as an image.” Our individual actions and quirks of personality are thrown into relief against a cosmic scale, driven not by ourselves but by the generative image of God within us. We see the sanctity of human life, the presence of divine mystery, and the charged drama of existence, all wrapped up in the one idea. “Abyssus abyssum invocat,” de Lubac says. Abyss calls to abyss.

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