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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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3. Philosophy and Belief. Although his writings
were never censured, the work of Maurice Blondel
stood at the center of the controversies over the pos-
sibility for a new Catholic apologetic. Blondel's thesis,
L'Action (1893) was criticized by his Sorbonne exam-
iners, partisans of Renan's scientism, for its religiosity.
His approach was long rejected by Roman theologians
as religiously insufficient: the “method of immanence”
was seen as a device for infiltrating agnosticism and
fideism into Catholic doctrine. Blondel irritated both
camps because he wished to draw the attention of all
philosophers away from abstract thought to personal
commitment and action. He argued that man's need
to know stems from the dynamism of his will as it
faces life situations. Once man has intellectually mas-
tered the world of phenomena a new act of will is
demanded. Either he must settle for the reality around
him, or assume a stance which is open to religious
experience. Blondel held that there was sufficient testi-
mony to the ultimate transcendence of human action
to make the hypothesis of a supernatural gift of life
philosophically necessary for true freedom. “I must
be involved to run the risk of losing all; I must be
compromised.... Head, heart, and hand, I must give
them willingly or they will be taken from me. If I
refuse my free dedication, I fall into servitude”
(Blondel [1893], pp. viii-ix).

The implications of what Blondel styled “the method
of immanence” for Christian faith were developed in
his “Letter on Apologetics” in 1896, in which he
argued that while philosophy could not prove the truth
of any religion, much less the superiority of one over
another, it was central to a modern apologetic which
would help the autonomous mind to recognize through
the method of immanence the reality of revelation.
Blondel insisted that Christian faith was a gift and not
something immanent in man's nature; what was imma-
nent was the ability of mind to understand its need
for transcendence. To have faith “as issuing from our-
selves” alone is not to have it at all. Blondel's eagerness
to preserve the transcendence of Christian faith—
especially the mystery of Christ's divinity in the face
of the critic's focus on the Jesus of history—led him
into a complicated correspondence assessing Loisy's
critical work.

Some of the letters formed the basis of the essay
History and Dogma (1905) in which Blondel attacked
both the historicists—i.e., Loisy, who argued that criti-
cism had made it clear that if religion was to survive
it must be as an evolving expression of man's spirit
in relation to an unknowable force without—and those
he dubbed “extrinsicists,” that is, the orthodox Roman
theologians who believed that the Christian revelation
was completely trans-historical and arbitrary, the


unchallengeable (and inexplicable) foundation of a
dogmatic fortress normative for all times and all
societies. Blondel rejected those who argued that “the
Bible is guaranteed en bloc, not by its content, but by
the external seal of the divine: Why bother to verify
the details?” (Blondel [1964], p. 229). He proposed,
in place of the excesses of Loisy and of his ultra-
orthodox critics, a new emphasis on the Church as a
living tradition. Blondel believed that his idea of “a
concept of tradition obtained with the help of a phi-
losophy of action” would lead to a Christianity “both
more concrete and more universal, more divine and
more human, than words can express” (ibid. p. 286).

The need for a new philosophical approach to reli-
gion was directly associated with the critical question
by an essay entitled “Qu'est-ce qu'un dogme?” (“What
is a Dogma?”) published in 1905 in the progressive
Catholic journal, Annales de philosophie Chrétienne by
the mathematician and layman Édouard Le Roy, who
was in fact more a student of Bergson than of Blondel.
Le Roy's article became the center of a controversy
second in intensity only to that provoked by Loisy's
The Gospel and the Church. Le Roy argued that dogma
was simply “unthinkable” for modern man “because
it is imposed by simple fiat and because it is conceived
as a function of outworn systems, reaffirming those
anthropomorphic notions which make it unacceptable
to the mind.” The moral meaning of a dogma must
be placed before its speculative meaning; the latter
only functions negatively to establish the minimal
parameters of belief. Le Roy interpreted the dogmatic
propositions on the personality of God as meaning
“practically” that man must deal with God as he would
with another human person; the resurrection of Jesus
meant that “he still mediates and lives among us, and
not at all merely as a thinker who has disappeared and
left behind a rich and living influence... he is literally
our contemporary” (Le Roy [1918], p. 70).

Blondel's closest disciple was the oratorian Lucien
Laberthonnière who developed similar ideas in a
specifically religious context in his Essai de philosophie
(1903), and in Le réalisme chrétien et
l'idéalisme grec
(1904), and who was silenced in 1914
for his polemical battle with the ultraorthodox Catholic
defenders of the Action Française. Laberthonnière
wrote that dogmas were not “simply enigmatical and
obscure formulations which God has promulgated in
the name of his omnipotence to mortify the pride of
our spirit. They have a moral and practical meaning;
they have a vital meaning more or less accessible to
us according to the degree of spirituality we possess”
(1903, p. 272). Le Roy and Laberthonnière both insisted
that their concern with action and practice was com-
pletely traditional; Le Roy cited, as did Blondel and
J. Semeria (the Barnabite priest who disseminated
Blondelian ideas in Italy), the Gospel principle: qui
facit veritatem venit ad lucem.
All those who sought
a new understanding of the dynamic character of
Christian teaching opposed the tyranny of Aristote-
lian categories, especially the dominant intellectual
tradition of neo-scholasticism.

For all of these men the Thomistic revival en-
couraged by Leo XIII in the encyclical Aeterni Patris
(1879) was no more helpful than the categories of
Gallican theology. It was especially inadequate to deal
with the problems raised by biblical criticism in
Christology. There was considerable difference of po-
sition among the philosophical modernists on the ques-
tions of Christ's nature and knowledge. In 1903
Laberthonnière wrote that Blondel, von Hügel, and he
had the same goal in their reconsideration of Catholic
teaching: “... a Christ truly real and truly human”
(Blondel [1961], p. 161). Blondel wrote that “as hu-
manity grows, Christ rises above the horizon,” but he
rejected von Hügel's argument that Christ's knowledge
of his messianic mission developed in time. In his turn,
von Hügel tended to side with Loisy in insisting that
history has to set the canons for the philosophy of
tradition and action, and he criticized Blondel's tend-
ency to attribute to Christ an entirely time-trans-
cending human consciousness.

The extrinsic, static, excessively rational character
of Catholic intellectual life was vigorously attacked by
the Irish convert Jesuit George Tyrrell, whose books
were the second source, after Loisy's work, for the
papal synthesis of modernist teaching. Tyrrell was a
combative and eloquent writer of apologetic, who had
developed a unique pastorate among English Catholic
intellectuals; his independent development was rein-
forced by his friendship with von Hügel. The influence
of Matthew Arnold and of his own personal brand of
Thomism was soon overshadowed by that of Loisy's
critical works, by the consistent eschatology of Weiss,
and by “the method of immanence” presented by
Blondel and Laberthonnière.

In his mature work, Tyrrell developed a philosophy
of religious knowledge which emphasized his belief
that revelation was a deposit of faith which was first
a law of prayer and life, and second, a law of belief.
“Devotion and religion existed before theology, in the
way that art existed before art criticism, reasoning
before logic, and speech before grammar” (1907, p.
105). Tyrrell feared (and sometimes hoped) that if the
Church really accepted the implications of develop-
ment as well as the eschatological reading of the
gospel, she would be absorbed by modern rational and
material culture just as she had once absorbed the
Hellenic world view. He searched for an interim theo-


logical formulation which would preserve the gospel
and the church Loisy had sundered. He argued that
there was a revelation: there was a transcendent reality
and it was manifest in Jesus Christ; but everything the
Catholic believed was “an analogue of metaphor”
substituting for an original experience of the divine,
given to the apostles, but now “withdrawn from view.”
The evident impasse reached by making dogma and
theology equivalent as relative conceptual devices or
analogies for transcendence—thus fixing an apparently
unbridgeable gap between the revelation of transcen-
dence in Jesus Christ and the faith of the believer—was
overcome first by Tyrrell's conviction that “the spirit
of Christ has lived and developed in the collective life
of the faithful,” and later by his belief that the “reli-
gious sense” operated immanently in men who were
open to it: the soul of every man was naturaliter
This religious sense, or “consciousness,” was
universal: it was not a moral principle, but the ability
to respond to God, and the force which linked “the
life of religion with the rest of our life,” proving that
“the latter demands the former.”

Knowledge of God through immanence was to be
seen as intimately bound up with knowledge of him
through the historical revelation of the gospel. Growth
occurred in the former, and thus preserved life in the
latter, even though it remained fixed in the apostolic
era. The correlation between the revelation of
immanence and that of history in Jesus Christ, was
made by the consensus of the “people of God” (con-
sensus fidelium
), and of “theoreticians” like the
modernists, not of the theologians of Rome. The
followers of Jesus must evolve new symbols, sacra-
ments, and institutions to express the notion of
immortality—the linking beyond time of man with the
transcendent—which was taught by Jesus when he
preached the kingdom, and which was entirely de-
pendent on the example of his life and death and
resurrection. Thus all dogmas, all theologies, were
“symbols of the transcendent.” Christians faced with
modern life needed hope, rather than faith. “Our best
God is but an idol, a temple made with hands in
which the Divine will is as little to be confined as in
our Hell-Purgatory-Heaven schematization” (Tyrrell
[1912], II, 416).