The Christianization of Modern Philosophy According to Maurice Blondel
Le Grys, James, Theological Studies
THE ONE-HUNDREDTH anniversary of the publication of L'Action offers a good occasion to reflect upon the thought of a philosopher who has had a great influence on Catholic theology in this century. Part of his influence has been at a philosophical level, mainly through the effect of his conception of the subjective dynamism of the human spirit on the study of the thought of Thomas Aquinas, beginning with Joseph Marechal and Pierre Rousselot and continuing in the various forms of "transcendental" Thomism. At the same time, Blondel's thought has provided a great stimulus with regard to questions in the properly theological sphere, chiefly through his analysis of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural as two parallel, self-contained orders, with no intrinsic connection between them, and his corresponding affirmation of the natural necessity of the supernatural opened up new ground for reflection which has been extensively worked by several of the major theologians of the century, most notably Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner.
A crucial aspect of Blondel's understanding of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural is his conception of the relationship between philosophy and religion, specifically the Christian religion. A central intention of Blondel's philosophical work was the formulation of a philosophy which would be truly adequate to the Christian faith, a philosophy which does not subsume religion under philosophy as Hegelian philosophy does, but one which recognizes both the unavoidable necessity of an infinite God for human life and its own limitations in fathoming the mystery of such an infinite God. For Blondel, philosophy can neither ignore religion nor substitute a philosophical solution for that offered by religion. Rather, in strictly philosophical terms, one can only discern a natural necessity for a supernatural religion. He argues that philosophy's recognition of this necessity has been prepared by "the secret presence of the Christian idea" within modern philosophy, beginning with Spinoza's appropriation of the Christian conception of beatitude. According to Blondel, the presence of the Christian idea at the very heart of modern philosophy has caused a fundamental restructuring of philosophy itself, so that modern philosophy has been in a certain crucial sense "Christianized." In this article we shall examine some of Blondel's early essays in order to see his understanding of the progress of the relationship between Christian faith and philosophy, an evolution which Blondel considered to have reached a qualitatively new stage with the appearance of his own philosophy of action.
THE MIDDLE AGES
In his famous "Letter on the Exigencies of Contemporary Thought in the Area of Apologetics and on the Method of Philosophy in the Study of the Religious Problem,"(1) Blondel explains that the decisive phase of the development of a philosophy adequate to Christian faith began with the encounter in the Middle Ages between ancient philosophy and what he calls "the Christian idea."(2) For Blondel, there are two essential attributes of ancient philosophy which are important for the later development of philosophy. First, this philosophy sees itself as sovereign and self-sufficient. Here we find the problem of what Blondel calls "intellectualism,"(3) with its assumption of the complete self-sufficiency of speculation, and with the replacement of all practice by speculation.
Now, by its method, by all its aspiration, this anterior philosophy tended to envelop the entire order of thought and of reality in order to pronounce absolutely on the reality of the objects of every nature, in order to place theory above practice or to substitute theory for practice, and in order to find in itself a kind of divine sufficiency, with the first and last word about things.(4)
Second, this ancient philosophy claims a further self-sufficiency, in relation to the divine and to the solution of the question of human destiny, for this philosophy claims that philosophical contemplation is itself the highest thing to be attained in human life, since it is a participation in the divine life.
Yes, its tacit postulate is the divinity of Reason, not only in the sense that God is Logos or that the Word is God, but in the sense that our speculative knowledge contains the supreme virtue and of itself consummates in us the divine work. [unkeyable]
As divine, then, this ancient philosophical speculation cannot but think itself self-sufficient on all levels.
It is this perfect self-sufficiency which made ancient philosophy such an unlikely partner for Christian theology. According to Blondel, the reason that the union was able to endure at least a short time was that philosophy did not at first recognize the nature of the limitation put upon it by theology. With Christian theology, a whole new domain opened up above the order of nature, the supernatural. Philosophy did not feel as if it were giving up anything, for it still reigned supreme in its accustomed realm of the natural. Moreover, its domain seemed enlarged by the opening of the realm of the supernatural.
And so, under the triumphant discipline of faith, not noticing even that its empire was divided, so much was it enlarged, reason had first of all submitted itself, without experiencing any constraint: reason had not withdrawn, it was even able to advance and to grow, without refusing to cede the first place, as if in deference, a place which had never been occupied, never been coveted, never been suspected.(6)
Although philosophy advanced in gaining some idea of this previously unsuspected realm of the supernatural, it had to concede ultimate sovereignty in this realm to faith. Within the division of competences between philosophy and theology was implied "a secret principle of limitation, entirely contrary to the attitude of ancient thought, which naively had faith in its unique sovereignty and in its own sufficiency."(7)
According to Blondel, such a "hybrid marriage" could not last. On the one hand, Christian faith could not tolerate being subordinated to human reason; on the other hand, philosophy could not accept a denial of what it considered part of its essential nature, its omnicompetence and self-sufficiency. For philosophy, the highest human destiny, the relationship to the divine, was to be solved by philosophy and by philosophizing. The aim of ancient philosophy was to attain the divine life through contemplation.
It is the act of rational contemplation which constitutes this divine life in the human person, an act which has its origin and its term in ourselves; and it is metaphysics which is the full science of being, which encloses being, which procures being and, as one might say, salvation itself. So that, far from seeing here a kind of toothing stone for the supernatural, we must recognize that, in advance, it is its implicit exclusion, that there is, in this lofty and sublime doctrine, a kind of permanent candidacy of pure philosophy for the highest rank, however high one might set it.(8)
Blondel remarks that the Middle Ages were well named, for they represent "a provisional, but essentially unstable equilibrium."(9) The attempt at producing a grand synthesis was doomed to failure, as he saw it, for Christian faith and ancient philosophy were ultimately incompatible.
In a word, therefore, the School admitted a matter which could not at all be assimilated by ancient reason, and a form which was not capable of containing its object: so that finally it was necessary either to save one from the other or to oppose one to the other.(10)
What had been brought together had to split apart again. Here Blondel points out that the Reformers, in rejecting philosophy, accepted philosophy's own self-definition; "in protesting against the intellectualism of Aristotle and the Scholastics, Luther authenticated the very form under which rationalist reason pretended to absolute empire, as if reason were all or nothing."(11)
Philosophy itself, however, was affected by this passing association with the Christian idea of the Middle Ages. When at the end of the Middle Ages philosophy regained its autonomy and its sovereignty with regard to religion, philosophy would not continue as it had before its encounter with Christianity. Having glimpsed this higher domain claimed by faith, philosophy would attempt to occupy this highest place itself.
And it is precisely because Scholasticism opened up to reason the immensity of the horizons of faith that, left to itself, this human reason was not able thereafter to forget the world which had been glimpsed nor to leave off finding the equivalent of it; there is, in the human person, a supreme place to be taken: Whose will it be?(12)
Philosophy will continue with the same basic conception which was present in Aristotle's view of philosophy, believing in its omnicompetence. Through this postmedieval attempt to provide a philosophical substitute for the Christian realm of the supernatural, however, the Christian idea is introduced into modern philosophy and the presence of this idea within the development of philosophy will cause a fundamental restructuring of philosophy itself.(13)
So that, in claiming back its full independence and in transforming itself according to a law of autonomy, (philosophy) is in reality worked upon by the Christian idea against which it strives: in triumphing, it comes back to that Christian idea, but quite otherwise than it had gone out from it, vanquished in its apparent victory, victorious in its apparent defeat.(14)
The final result of this development will be a philosophy truly adequate to the Christian idea, i.e. one that can relate to it in its very necessity as supernatural.
The origin of this incorporation of the Christian idea into the project of modern philosophy, according to Blondel, is in the thought of Spinoza. Prior to Spinoza, Descartes had kept the realms of faith and reason radically separate. The problem which Blondel saw in scholastic philosophy, the tendency to view faith and reason as representing parallel orders with no point of intersection,(15) he saw in Descartes as well.
The profound vice of his Christianity is to place on one side the absolute mystery which the will alone attains by grace and on the other side the absolute clarity of thought which rests within itself, wholly sovereign in its own domain; it is to suppress all rational preparation for faith, all work of reason in faith, all understanding of faith.(16)
While Descartes was content to leave faith and the question of destiny outside of philosophy, in its own separate and parallel realm, Spinoza, by bringing God and the human relationship to God within the realm of philosophy, introduces the possibility of an "integral philosophy."
By his manner of posing the problem, Spinoza, perhaps the first, embraces the field of integral philosophy, comprising not only the question of Science and that of the organization of the present life, but the question of destiny and of eternal life understood in the very precise sense of the Christian tradition.--By the method, by going all the way to the limit, as far as the height of reason, Spinoza introduced into the competence of philosophical examination ideas which, while having historically and theologically a character specifically and positively religious, nonetheless have a rational face, a reality immanent to the human person.(17)
Although Descartes was an intellectualist in Blondel's pejorative sense, his intellectualism was not as ambitious or as thoroughgoing as Spinoza's. "The first in modern times, Spinoza posed in a radical form this principle that the mind (l'esprit) can find in itself alone and by itself alone all the truth necessary for life."(18) Spinoza's intellectualism is more radical, and more consistent, than Descartes's, for it seeks to provide the answers to all human questions, leaving nothing outside its competence, including the question of human destiny. It is in encompassing the question of destiny that philosophy takes on the character of an ethics, as it did for Spinoza.
Blondel's understanding of the development of modern philosophy very closely parallels that of his friend Victor Delbos. In the article "One of the Sources of Modern Thought: The Evolution of Spinozism," Blondel weaves together a review of Delbos's book, The Moral Problem in the Philosophy of Spinoza and in the History of Spinozism, with an exposition of his own thoughts on the development of modern philosophy in a way that makes it difficult to see where Delbos's analysis ends and Blondel's own ideas begin.(19) In the book, Delbos points out that, in contrast to Descartes, Spinoza "did not have the refuge which Religion offered."(20) Spinoza's rigorous rational critique had led him to be excommunicated from the Jewish synagogue in Amsterdam. While Descartes had recourse to religion alongside his purely rational pursuits, Spinoza could only attempt to replace what religion had offered with something in the realm of philosophy.
With as much tranquillity as audacity, he asked thought to replace in him what thought had destroyed. It is by a natural transition that he passes from critique to research, and he was doubtless the first in modern …
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Publication information: Article title: The Christianization of Modern Philosophy According to Maurice Blondel. Contributors: Le Grys, James - Author. Journal title: Theological Studies. Volume: 54. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 1993. Page number: 455+. © 2009 Theological Studies, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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