Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mature Spirituality

An Understanding of Adult Spiritual Growth Based on the Insights of Maurice Blondel


I will never forget the joy and excitement I felt the first time I read the philosophical thought of Maurice Blondel, the brilliant French existentialist philosopher who wrote at the turn of the 20ieth century. His most famous work was called L’Action, his doctorate thesis at the Sorbonne presented in 1893 and subtitled; Essai d’une Critique de la Vie d’une Science de la Pratique. I was a student of theology at Woodstock College, the Jesuit school of theology in Maryland. I hungered for a philosophical framework which I could use to integrate my religious faith with the deep insights into the human person coming from the human sciences, especially psychology. At the same time, I was deeply aware of the inadequacies of traditional Thomistic philosophy and the scholastic school of objective realism to provide that framework and convey the truth of Christian revelation to today’s believers. I found in Blondel a kindred spirit whose philosophical thought remains an original and profound response to the problems and the needs of Christian believers in our times.

A devoutly religious man, Blondel sought out in prayer what God’s will was for him. He considered entering the priesthood, but his religious counselor advised him to remain a lay person because only as a lay person would he have the freedom to rethink the philosophical basis of Christian belief. This advice proved prophetic.

Blondel defined philosophy as “life itself insofar it attempts to achieve a clear reflexive consciousness of itself and gives direction to its action”. I appreciate the holistic tone of that definition; philosophy has as its object the whole of human life and not just language or thought in abstraction from life. Blondel discovered the central insight of his philosophy while reflecting on this line in scripture: “He or she who does the truth comes into the light! “.

Blondel saw human life as a continual dialectic between thought and action. He liked to compare the human intellect to the headlights of a car moving down the highway. Those headlights can illuminate our way only as far as the next curve in the road. The car must move forward to that curve before the headlights can illuminate what lies around that curve. In a similar way, each of us must act according to our present understanding in order to arrive at the fullness of light or wisdom. There is a kind of subjective experiential knowing that comes from human choice and action and cannot be achieved in any other way.

There is a dynamic in the human spirit, Blondel believed, a striving for fulfillment. That fulfillment can be achieved not by thought alone but also by action. Ultimate truth is not just a question of the conformity of our intellect with what lies outside ourselves. Ultimate truth involves the conformity of our actions with the full potential inside us. That potential is for an identity of our human will with the divine will. We are made in the image and likeness of God. Humans are created capax Dei. As long as we have not achieved that identity there is a felt privation. a longing, a hunger and thirst, to become one with God. ‘Our God”, Blondel wrote, “dwells within us and the only way to become one with that God is to become one with our authentic self”.

This insight lies at the heart of every effort at human liberation. For example, women derive a unique kind of knowledge of themselves from their subjective experience of themselves in action as women. Lesbians and gays have a subjective source of knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian that comes from their immediate experience of themselves in their lives and actions and which is not attainable in any other way. The only way we who do not share that subjective experience can obtain that knowledge is to listen carefully and respectfully to those who o have that subjective experience and can articulate its meaning. That is why dialogue is at the heart of all true growth in knowledge.

The central question Blondel posed in L’Action is: What is the ultimate meaning of human life. Blondel makes the observation that humans cannot choose to cease being; we are here, like it or not, for eternity.

Yes or no, has life a meaning and do humans have a destiny….This appearance of being that is at work in me, these actions fleeting as a shadow, I understand that they carry within them the weight of an eternal responsibility, and even at the cost of blood I cannot purchase nothingness; because for me it can no longer be. I find myself condemned to life, condemned to death, condemned to eternity. Why and by what right, since I have neither known nor willed it?

Having posed the question of human destiny, Blondel makes the point that freedom is the very essence of the human subject and the essential condition for the possibility of existence. Here can be no human destiny, unless that destiny can be achieved through human freedom. Blondel makes the passionate assertion that each of us must be able to choose life, choose death, choose eternity, otherwise the very existence of the human is an illusion. “There is no being where there is only constraint. If I am not that which I will to be, I am not. At the very core of my being there is a will and a love of being, or there is nothing. If human freedom is real, it is necessary that one have at present or at least in the future a knowledge and a will sufficient never to suffer any tyranny whatsoever,”

Blonel’s understanding of human freedom differs radically from the classical understanding of objective realism. The scholastics believed that humans were substantially determined by their essence and only free on the superficial level of actions. Blondel believed that for a human to be is to act, and in acting, to freely mold his or her reality. Humans are not totally or authentically human unless in the depths of their being and action they seize themselves as free source, action itself, a constant self positing.

Human freedom is understood as a radical self-positing of our own reality. We must exist at every moment as a consequence of our freedom. If in the depths of our own subjective being we meet with any determinism whatsoever --- biological, psychological, social, or even a determinism springing from the divine will, a determinism which lies radically outside the sphere of our free ability to determine ourselves --then we would be forced to accept the conclusion that the existence of the individual human person as such is an illusion.

This insight into the radical nature of human freedom led Blondel to accept the principle of immanence as the fundamental methodological principle governing his philosophy of action. He formulated that principle in these words: “Nothing can impose itself on a human; nothing can demand the assent of her or his intellect or the consent of her or his will which does not find its source from within ourselves.”

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