Sunday, March 21, 2010

Maurice Blondel: On The Knowledge Of God

I will never forget the joy and excitement I felt the first time I began to read the philosophical and theological thought of Maurice Blondel. I was student of theology at Woodstock College, a Jesuit Theological Seminary in Maryland. The Rev. Father Sponga, the rector of the seminary, offered an optional course in Blondel’s thought, having just completed a doctoral study of Blondel at Fordham University. Upon reading Blondel’s words, I had what I call a “disciples of Emmaus experience” an experience of “my heart burning within me” and knew that I was dealing with a genius with an extraordinary and original insight into the problems and the needs of our times.

I hungered for a philosophical framework which I could use to integrate my religious faith with the deep insights coming from the human sciences, especially psychology, insights based in the self-consciousness of the human subject, At the same time, I was intensely aware of the inadequacies of traditional Thomistic philosophy to provide that framework.

In its official teaching the Vatican remains exclusively committed to objective thomistic realism. At the time of the Modernist crisis Church authorities systematically rejected any effort to introduce the human subject into its moral reasoning. This is the deeper reason why the Vatican seems so out of touch whenever it deals with sexual ethics. Paradoxically, the Vatican, which teaches the Christian position that God is love, has no adequate philosophical foundation for dealing with love, human or divine, or with the unique human person and that person’s subjective consciousness.

In his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, published in 1993, Pope John Paul II defended this choice because objective realism makes possible the formulation of absolute, universal laws essential to the power and absolute authority of the Church, whereas to introduce the human subject is necessarily to allow a kind of relativism, which could undermine the absolute authority of the hierarchy. In my understanding to systematically eliminate the human person and that person’s subjectivity is effectively to eliminate the role of the Holy Spirit in the development of Christian faith.

For over a hundred years progressive Catholic theologians have urged the hierarchy to develop their philosophical foundation by allowing for the unique human subject, the person, and that person’s contribution to theological thinking. Instead of basing its sexual morality. for example, on biology, gender differences and procreation, this would allow theologians to deal with the specific human purposes of sex such as interpersonal love and companionship, but the hierarchy adamantly refused to do so.

As far back as 1893, Maurice Blondel in his book, L’Action argued that objective realism, since it could only deal with abstract conceptual reality, was necessarily depersonalized and depersonalizing because the unique individual human person and that persons actions can never be objectified in a concept. He also maintained that love is a human experience that can only be known from within the action of loving.

He believed that a philosophy that included the unique human person would be much more compatible with Christian belief. The ultimate level of truth was not the conformity of human concepts with objective reality but the conformity of will-willing with will-willed. This truth can only be arrived at through human action and commitment and is a truth that is only available subjectively in individual consciousness.

Blondel defined philosophy as “life itself insofar as it attempts to achieve a clear reflexive consciousness of itself and gives direction to its action”. I appreciated immediately the holistic tone of that definition; philosophy has as its objective the whole of human life and not just language or thought in abstraction from life. In his first great work, his doctoral dissertation, L’Action: Essai d’une Critique de la Vie et d’une Science of la Pratique, published in 1893, Blondel took his central insight from a verse in Scripture, “but whoever does the truth comes into the light”(John 3:21).

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. 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 understanding in order to arrive at the fullness of “light” which is wisdom. There is a kind of subjective experiential knowing that comes from human choice and action and cannot be achieved in any other way. This essential subjectivity represents a necessary relativism in human knowledge.

This insight lies at the heart of all modern efforts of human liberation. For example, women derive a unique kind of knowledge of themselves from their subjective experience of themselves 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 actions, a knowledge that is not attainable in any other way. The only way that we, who do not share their subjective experience, can obtain that knowledge is by listening carefully and respectfully to those who do have that subjective experience and can articulate its meaning. Dialogue with an open mind is the only approach to ultimate truth. Each of us carries our unique part of divine revelation.

I will post part II of this blog; Blondel's Philosophy of Freedom in my nexr blog


  1. "Paradoxically, the Vatican, which teaches the Christian position that God is love, has no adequate philosophical foundation for dealing with love, human or divine, or with the unique human person and that person’s subjective consciousness."

    Seriously??? Sorry, I do not mean to be harsh, but are you on crack? Have you read John Paul II's "The Acting Person", an entire book on the theory of action? (John Paul II was TREMENDOUSLY influenced by Blondel!). For heaven's sake, he was the man who brought phenomenology into the church as the necessary "subjective" side of classical metaphysics. This NECESSITY of thseeing ACTION as that which unifies the person, which is the foundation of all ethics, was his HALLMARK and continued in his encylcicals!!

    Have you read Ratzinger's "Principles of Catholic Theology" and the thousands upon thousads of pther pages he has written on Christianity as an ENCOUNTER? Benedict XVI DESPISED "sawdust Thomism" - that is, the Baroque neo-scholasticism of the late 19th century. Read the new book by Tracey Rowland, "Benedict XVI: Guide for the Perplexed" if you want to get a clue! One of his greatest influences was Guardini, for heaven's sake, who said that Christianity was not about propositions but an ENCOUNTER!

    What about the man both popes saw as the greatest theologian of the 20th century, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who ALSO had an entirely entirely new vision of postmodern (that is, post subjective-objective duality) theology which was deeply rooted in the DRAMATIC STRUCTURE of beauty, truth, etc.

    And we have no way to talk about love? WTF? What about Balthasar's book, "Love ALone is Credible"? What about Benedict's encyclicals?

    Seriously, I am truly stunned. You are 180 degrees wrong and have NO IDEA what you are talking about!


    Read the books mentioned above, read the journal COMMUNIO founded by Ratzinger and Balthasar,and THEN try to say we know nothing of love, subjectivity, "the unique human person" (what about John Paul's MANY articles on that topic such as "Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Being" in Person and Community. THE UNIQUE HUMAN PERSON IS THE MAIN CENTER OF THE THEOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY OF BENEDICT, JOH PAUL II, AND BALTHASAR!!!

  2. Sorry, I didn't mean to put so much in capital letters, etc. but what you said was utterly crazy. It is as if you said "Abraham Lincoln was a black African woman" - I mean, 100% wrong!

    It's not like you have to DIG for this stuff- even a cursory search would show tons and tons of stuff where people like Blondel, Marcel, and other Catholic thinkers who used existential and phenomenological categories, and all this has CERTAINLY made its ways into the Vatican, especially since 1978! Search the Communio Journal website for articles by Ratzinger, for example. The phenomenlogist/existentialist type theology, vastly improved by firm grounding in metaphysics, was ALL THE RAGE in the 20th century and it was people like JPII and Benedict that did all they could to get it into Vatican II documents. Do a search on the ressourcement books available at Amazon. Seriously, you are about 100 years behind the times. I am not just talking about some sort of weird, underground stuff - this is MAINSTREAM. Benedict, in fact, had to remove some of it from his dissertation on Bonaventure to get it passed because way, way back then there were still some sawdust Thomists who would have objected.
    As for other theologians, read the works of St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein), the Carmelite nun who was a student of Husserl!!!
    I could go on and on and on. What about the peole on the Pontifical COuncil for the Laity?
    Honestly,you are SO OFF BASE with this post....