The Threshold of Faith
by Fr. John Cihak
This article is a popular summary of the contribution to Christian apologetics made by the great French Catholic philosopher, Maurice Blondel, who lived at the turn of the 20th century. The author brings out the relevance of Blondel's thought to all who wish to make a case for the reasonableness of Christian faith.
Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience: You’re sitting in Starbucks sipping a latté or mocha with an acquaintance you’ve run into, and the conversation turns to belief in God. You begin to explain your faith in Jesus. Your friend smiles, perhaps a little condescendingly, and answers that he doesn’t believe in God. Self-fulfillment and ethical behavior are possible without belief in anything supernatural. Going to church is superfluous, faith in God, unessential. "Faith" in humanity is enough. What your friend is espousing is called secular humanism, and it is a way of life for many Americans.
"Do you know Maurice Blondel?" you ask.
"Doesn’t he work here on the night shift?" he says.
Actually, Blondel wouldn’t even know how to order a "half-caf mocha," since he lived from 1861 to 1949. He would be familiar, however, with the French cafés and coffee shops where philosophical and religious ideas were discussed. Though it has been a half-century since his death, Blondel’s thought is ready to have an apologetical impact on our times. He even wrote a letter in 1896 on the subject, titled rather unimaginatively "The Letter on Apologetics," in which he sought to make a case for his Catholic faith vis-à-vis the sophisticated, secular environment of academic France at the turn of the twentieth century. The bland title of the letter stands in contrast to the creative richness of his thought. This article will look at Blondel’s life, since it provides a necessary context for understanding his thought, then examine his project and how it applies to contemporary apologetics, especially relating to secularism and atheism.
While many are familiar with the great Catholic apologists of England—such as Chesterton, Lewis, and Sheed—Maurice Blondel came from across the Channel. He was raised in a strongly Catholic and moderately well-to-do family in Dijon, surrounded by the beautiful countryside of Burgundy. Rather than follow his father and older brother into a career in law, Blondel announced his intention of becoming a professor of philosophy in one of the state universities. It was an odd ambition for a devout young man; the French state universities at that time were proudly secular, and anyone who wanted to be an intellectual certainly would not be a Catholic.
But Blondel wanted not only to show that the Catholic faith is reasonable and should not be smugly dismissed by the educated elite, as a true apologist he sought to win a hearing for Christ among these people by bringing them, through their intellect alone, to the threshold of faith. The secular environment of the French universities might have endangered the faith and morals of even a devout Catholic, but Blondel was determined. "My inclination," he wrote, "was to get to know the state of mind of the enemies of the faithful so that I might be able to deal effectively with them" (Carnets Intimes 1:546, quoted by René Latourelle in Man and His Problems in the Light of Jesus Christ [Alba House, 1983], 163).
During his studies, he seriously considered a vocation to the priesthood, a consideration that lasted about ten years and persisted through his doctoral studies. Providentially, by remaining a layman, his ideas would fall on more sympathetic ears, since a clerical bias was prevalent in academic circles at the time. He remained vigorous in his Catholic faith, became a brilliant philosopher, and achieved his dream of being a professor, first at the University of Lille and then, beginning in 1894, at the University of Aix-en-Provence in southern France.
Blondel didn’t have the street-corner speaking style of Sheed nor did he possess the wit of Chesterton. His gifts lay in a subtler type of confrontation that proved effective for the intelligentsia of the day. He called it "underground work" (Latourelle, 164; CI 1:551). While remaining close to his Catholic faith, he was not afraid to try a new approach in speaking to his times and searched for a way into to the intensely secular mindset of his peers.
He had distaste for overly abstract thought. Principles must not only be thought, he maintained, but lived. One can see how attractive his insight would be for Americans with our strong focus on doing. Americans seem to have more interest in ideas if they result in something being built, made, or written down. Idle speculation does not appeal as much as results.
Blondel saw in French life in general and university life in particular the divorce of reason and faith and the marginalization of the Catholic faith. We live today amid similar circumstances. Two of the greatest obstacles to evangelization mentioned often by Pope John Paul II are indifference (not caring whether or not God exists) and secularization (excluding God from daily human life). Blondel’s approach is an attempt to break through both these barriers. He begins with human action, and, for this reason, he can speak to our times.
Blondel’s approach develops an apologetic branch within our Catholic heritage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the desire for God is written on every human heart (CCC 30). Augustine wrote beautifully in his confession of praise to the Lord: "For you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (Confessions 1:1:1). Thomas Aquinas called this restlessness the desiderium naturale, that is, the natural desire to see God, woven into human nature (cf. ST I-II:3:8). The Catechism holds that there are two distinct yet related ways of approaching God: through the created world and through the human person (CCC 32–33). "With his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence" (CCC 33). One could view Blondel’s work as a fleshing out of how this longing is at work and how it manifests itself. He shows us how it can lead to the threshold of faith.
Blondel is not well known because his writing is not of a popular style, meant as it was for philosophers. His doctoral thesis, L’Action (Action: Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice, tr. Oliva Blanchette [Notre Dame Press, 1984]) was recognized as brilliant and it created controversy. It underwent seven revisions before the final version was published in 1893. Blondel wrote the "Letter on Apologetics" to explain and defend the ideas put forward in his doctoral thesis, and thus the "Letter" must be read within the broader context of L’Action.
In L’Action, Blondel argues that people confront the key question of human existence—"What does my life mean?"—through their actions, by how they live. In other words, he holds that we act in order to seek meaning in life. Far more than a fact of life, action seems to be a necessity. If one avoids acting, he allows other people’s actions to determine him. If he does act, then he becomes subject to what he has done. There is no fence-sitting in life. Even suicide is an act. We all act while the clock of this brief life is ticking. Life, for Blondel, is a practice that involves constant decision. No matter how a person lives, he cannot avoid deciding and acting.
In his personal reflections, Blondel succinctly lays out his aim: "I will study action because nowadays we no longer know how to suffer in order to act and produce. We lack heart. We know, we understand, we refine, we contemplate, we enjoy—we do not live. . . . I want to show that the highest mode of being is action; that the fullest mode of action is suffering and loving; that the true way to love is to cleave to Christ" (Latourelle, 166; CI 1:85). In a cultural environment hostile to Christianity and the Church, Blondel tried to formulate a philosophy whose logical necessity would pull the non-religious thinker into the presence of Christianity.
He does this in three general steps. First, he shows the insufficiency of the "natural" order. Then, building on the consciousness of this insufficiency, he demonstrates the absolute necessity of opening up to the action of another. Finally, he puts forward Christianity as a hypothesis to consider.
It is important to remember that Blondel does not study action through psychological description, as would be popular today, but through philosophical reflection: He seeks to understand what action implies. He divides action into six basic stages, starting small and building into more complex action. A helpful image is to see these stages as concentric circles, like a rock dropped into a pond. Each circle serves as the genesis for a new perfection, but no stage reaches complete perfection, and the agonizing experience of action’s insufficiency threatens everything.
The simplest of human actions is sensation (stage one): One sees the waves crashing on the beach, feels the sand between his toes, and tastes the salty air. But sensation is fragmentary, and so to understand sensation we form the sciences that organize and unify the data.
Is science enough? Blondel thinks not, because science is not even sufficient unto itself. Science is always improving and, therefore, expanding its explanation of reality. Moreover, it cannot explain important things like love, friendship, and sacrifice. Science relies on the constructive work, through analysis and synthesis, of a knowing subject, i.e., man.
What is this "knowing subject"? Is it (are we) reducible to the unchanging laws of the universe? Blondel argues that awareness of the determinism in the universe, which science discovers, entails that such awareness occurs in a free subject. At this point man recognizes that he is free precisely because he can grapple with the problem of determinism. If one is aware of determinism, then he is not determined and thus is free. If he were subject to determinism, he would not be aware of it. Man’s recognition of his own freedom is stage two.
Since man is free, he can conceive of an act and then bring it about. However, in order to bring a particular act to fruition, he must necessarily rule out other possible acts. By choosing to go for a jog, one necessarily rules out staying at home to clean the bedroom or download e-mail. In acting over and over again, man shapes himself. His action does not stop here, because he soon realizes that his action affects others. He is not alone in the world, and thus there are communitarian implications of his every action (stage three), like ripples in the water after a stone is thrown. Furthermore, each human actively seeks others through action—for example, deciding to ask someone on a date.
Man projects his intention still further. In the midst of all this acting in the world, he begins to reflect and attempts to unify his acting into some sort of meaning. At this stage man starts to form metaphysics and morality (stage four). In the moral realm, while figuring out what one should and should not do, he finds that reflective action seems to feel an urgent need for an absolute, "something independent and definitive that stands outside the chain of phenomena, something real outside of the real, something divine" (Latourelle, 175; L’Action, 303). Even the non-believer wants to make a moral distinction between Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa. But how? From where does this need come "if not from the fact that in the primitive élan of the will there is more than has yet been used?" (Latourelle, 175; L’Action, 303).
It is at this point that man becomes aware that his will desires more—something beyond itself, an absolute in which to ground all his action. This results in a clash within his very self. He cannot stop acting, and yet his action never ends with what he desires, that is, something absolute. The dynamism within his will that is never satisfied pushes him to act, moving outward from himself in self-giving and in the search for meaning, and yet what he ends up with is something contingent and fleeting. In focusing on this clash within the will, Blondel anticipates the angst of human existence the existentialist philosophers would write about years later.
Man looks for an absolute but finds contingency everywhere. This can be seen throughout human life. One man thinks that buying that new Ford Explorer will satisfy his desire, but the Explorer begins to rust, or need repairs, and eventually he wants a newer and better car. It could be some career move: "When I get to this level at work, then my life will be meaningful." Talk to any executive who’s been on that hamster wheel and he will tell you: The next level always beckons. People may seek fulfillment through sexual experiences but experience emptiness after the pleasure wears off. Hollywood actors and popular rock stars often have everything this world offers and yet they are miserable. And so an actor like a Robert Downey, Jr. will turn to drugs to numb the angst again and again, or a musician like a Kurt Cobain will turn to a shotgun to end it. What one ends up with is always less than the dynamism driving him to act. In Blondel’s philosophical language, "To be dissatisfied with the effect is to admit the superiority of the cause" (Latourelle 175; L’Action, 303).
We see the clash. But just how wide is the gap? Blondel says it is infinite. The will searches for an absolute that cannot be found in a finite world. The clash pushes man to see that he can attain fulfillment only by opening himself to an action other than his own. What Blondel discovers in human action is that, whether man is conscious of it or not, he wills the transcendent. Dynamism exists within him, reaching out to the transcendent, seen most clearly in acts of sacrificial love. The soldier who throws himself on the grenade to save his comrades is in fact willing something beyond the finite. There is a desire for the infinite that is not to be confused with the self or a psychological projection of human nature.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), an atheistic philosopher and a contributor to the rise of secular humanism, argued that the Christian faith is simply a non-supernatural projection of all that is good in the human person. But the will is not satisfied with any finite end, no matter how good. The dynamism of the will, therefore, goes beyond psychological projection. Man, spurred on by the search for meaning, begins to search for an adequate term, ultimately conceding that he is unable to find such a term in the finite world.
At this point, he has two choices: Either he will attempt to absolutize something in the world (stage five) or he can open himself up to a possible disclosure of the supernatural (stage 6), if there is one. In stage five, man will attempt to absorb the divine through, for example, superstition, a career, sexual experiences, money, New Age practices, science and technology, a political ideology (as in Nazism or Socialist Commu-nism) or, in the case of our secular humanist, the human race.
Absolutizing something finite, however, is contradictory to the will. It is an attempt to make something more than it really is. No single thing in this world, not even everything taken together, satisfies the dynamism of the will that seems to have no bounds and continually pushes him into action. At this sixth stage man stands face-to-face with the inadequacy of the natural order. He desires a secure grounding for all the contingency he sees around him; yet is it out there? Is there anything out there in the beyond?
From the apparent miscarriage of voluntary action, Blondel argues that human action can only be brought to completion by something (or Someone) outside of man. The completion of our action is both necessary (in order to have meaning in life) and yet impossible to attain on the natural level. "Where is man to turn?" Blondel asks. "The phenomenon is not enough for him; he can neither be satisfied with it nor deny it" (Latourelle, 176; L’Action, 321). Man realizes he cannot draw back nor can he move forward on his own. Blondel is showing how through action man wills the supernatural in some vague way (we are still prior to the act of faith), but realizes that he is not capable of bestowing it upon himself.
Therefore, in order for him to arrive at meaning, man must remain open to the possibility of a divine gift. Perhaps the transcendent will break the silence in human existence. Being open to a possible disclosure from the supernatural is more than simply a nice idea to consider. It is a necessity if meaning in one’s action, and hence in life, is to be found. Most importantly, Blondel is demonstrating that the act of opening up and moving toward faith is reasonable—it is something an intelligent person would do.
At this point, Blondel presents the traditional arguments for God’s existence (cosmological, teleological, ontological) within this new context. He presents the arguments collectively, showing how they converge and how deeply they touch the center of human life and action. Only at this point does he put forward Christianity as a hypothesis, a possible response to this call and need. Blondel in no way says this proves the existence of the transcendent or the existence of a personal God. Nor does he think that even if man has this desire and God is "out there," God must reveal himself. When one becomes aware of this desire inscribed on all human action, he is then in a position to consider a possible disclosure of the transcendent. The Christian faith is then presented as a viable answer to the deep desire within.
This is the enduring contribution of Blondel: his ability to bring the use of one’s reason in closer proximity with faith in Jesus Christ. Steeped in the Catholic faith, Blondel uses his considerable intellectual talent and creativity to try to attempt a new approach in getting people to consider faith. Unfortunately, precious little of Blondel’s thought is known in the English-speaking world. This is a tragedy, since Pope John Paul II gives Blondel’s philosophy a scholarly nod in his recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio: "Some [philosophers] devised syntheses so remarkable that they stood comparison with the great systems of idealism . . . others again produced a philosophy which, starting with an analysis of immanence, opened the way to the transcendent" (Fides et Ratio 59).
Why should an aspiring apologist consider Maurice Blondel? Not simply because he is one of the greatest French Catholic philosophers of recent times, but because he addresses a deep problem in evangelization today. While rising to the challenges posed by our Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters regarding Scripture, Tradition, Church structure, and authority, Catholics cannot afford to overlook the non-belief rampant in American culture.
Today there does not seem to be as much violent and explicit rejection of God, such as the "philosophical atheism" of certain philosophers of the nineteenth century. But many Americans suffer from the infection of "cultural atheism," a passive, indifferent, unreflective, and more implicit lack of belief. It is an atheism that is not professed so much as lived. Human reason is often our only way to begin speaking with such people, and Blondel provides us an avenue with his "philosophical apologetics." Fr. Latourelle remarks in his insightful study, "[Blondel’s project] shows sincere men and women that the leap to the supernatural is no less reasonable and no less necessary than the truths of everyday life" (Latourelle, 193).
Perhaps "Maurice Blondel" will not be the first name out of your mouth when you have the chance to speak about God over a half-caf mocha with a non-believing friend. He offers, however, a helpful approach in speaking to those who espouse secular humanism. Blondel shows how our actions express from the depths of the human heart the will for the infinite and transcendent. And he shows that the "Christian hypothesis" is a profound answer to that desire, an answer worthy of consideration.
Fr. John R. Cihak, a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, OR, is currently working on his doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, specializing in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar. This article originally appeared in the the April 2000 edition (Vol 11, No. 4) of This Rock Magazine and is reproduced here by permission of the author.
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