Transforming Catholic Tradition
During the past few decades there has been renewed interest in the twentieth-century French Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel (1861–1949) and his influence on modern and contemporary theology, but little scholarship has been published in the English-speaking world. In Maurice Blondel: Transforming Catholic Tradition, Robert Koerpel examines Blondel’s work, the historical and theological development of the idea of tradition in modern Catholicism, tradition’s relation to reason and revelation, and Blondel's influence on Catholicism's understanding of tradition. The book presents aspects of Blondel's thought that deserve to be more widely known and contributes to important debates in current theology on modern French Catholic thought and the emerging conversations surrounding them. Koerpel looks to the cultural context from which Blondel’s thought emerges by situating it within the broader conceptual, historical, and theological developments of modernity. He examines the problem of reason and revelation in modern Catholicism, the role and nature of tradition, and the relationships between theology and history, truth and change, nature and grace, and scripture and the development of doctrine.
This book provides readers with an appreciation of Blondel’s conceptually creative answer to how tradition represents the Word of God in human history and why it is one of his most important contributions to modern and contemporary theology. They will discover how his contribution restores the animated vitality between the institutional and liturgical dimensions of tradition essential to the living, dynamic nature of Catholicism.
1. The Development of Blondel's Philosophical and Theological Thought
2. Blondel's Ecclesiological and Theological Inheritance: Tradition from the Late Medieval through the Post-Tridentine Periods
3. The Problem of Representation, Scripture, the Rise of Modern Thomism, and Blondel's Response
4. Tradition, History, and the Intellectual Life of Nineteenth-Century Catholicism: The Methodological Conflict between Blondel and Loisy
5. Mapping the Soul's Journey Toward Truth: Blondel's Philosophy of Action between Faith and Reason
6. Tradition in History and Dogma: Blondel and the Problem of Theology and History in Modern Catholicism
7. After History and Dogma: Tradition as Participation in God's Truth
8. Blondel and the Sacramentality of Human Rationality
"Robert Koerpel convincingly reinterprets Blondel's philosophy of action through the lens of tradition as we find it in History and Dogma (1904). Emphasizing the role of liturgical and sacramental practice in the life of action, and in dialogue with hermeneutical philosophers and theologians on tradition, Koerpel brings his timely rereading of Blondel to bear on a cluster of issues revolving around critical history and the church. In Koerpel's hands, Blondel becomes 'a living voice that still speaks to us today.' A major contribution to contemporary Catholic thought." —William L. Portier, Mary Ann Spearin Chair in Catholic Theology, University of Dayton
"If tradition sacramentally represents the presence of God, then it is the church's liturgical action to which we must turn for the faithful expression of Christian doctrine in history. Such is Koerpel’s interpretation of Maurice Blondel’s treatment of tradition. Carefully situating the French philosopher’s thought against the backdrop of institutionalized and juridicized treatments of tradition in modernity, Koerpel issues an unambiguously Blondelian call to liturgical action." —Hans Boersma, J. I. Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College
"I am not aware of any other scholarly study that achieves what Robert Koerpel's book does regarding Maurice Blondel's contribution to the renewed understanding of tradition in Catholic thought, set out in historical context. This is an erudite, demanding study that will be of interest to graduate students and scholars." —Peter Bernardi, S.J., Loyola University Chicago
"This book belongs to the genre of 'classical' work of unshowy, brilliant history of doctrine. It gives a clear, unpretentious account of Blondel’s context in late nineteenth-century France. That is hard to come by in itself, but Robert Koerpel succeeds in giving a clear and unpretentious account of Blondel’s own thought—which is accomplished all too rarely. It draws deeply on church history, and it’s not fanciful or constructive in the bad sense, but it is driven by a kind of ‘design impulse,' using MacIntyre’s notion of an 'imaginative conceptual innovation' to explain the value of Blondel’s rethinking of the idea of tradition.” —Francesca Murphy, University of Notre Dame
“This book offers a compelling read for philosophers, historians, and theologians, as the text is a thoroughly researched and clearly expressed account of tradition that casts modern notions of subjectivity, individualism, and the question of human knowledge to their limit.” —Reading Religion
“What moves this book from the category of 'historically informative' to 'speculatively provocative' is the fact that Robert Koerpel shifts at every step from Blondel’s content and context to his own reflections that allow Blondel’s voice to echo across the twentieth century until today.” —Theological Studies
"Koerpel’s early chapters on the development of Blondel’s philosophical and theological ideas, as well as the contextualization of those ideas in the Christian heritage and Blondel’s contemporary milieu, are deeply instructive." —Catholic Library World
"Robert Koerpel . . . seeks in his slender but densely written book to elevate this mostly ignored thinker to his proper place in the history of Catholic theology." —Commonweal
"Koerpel strikes a very good balance between careful exposition and constructive engagement, introducing Blondel with clarity to an English-speaking audience, for whom Blondel still remains all-too peripheral." —Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies
Blondel's notion of tradition in History and Dogma is, among many other things, an attempt to develop Catholicism in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The Revolution had destroyed the French education system and when Napoleon reorganized it he decreed in 1808 that all schools of the university take the precepts of Catholicism as the basis of their teaching. At the same time, he created a state monopoly on all levels of education in France by placing the education system under the auspices of the Minister of Public Instruction, setting the stage for future conflict between the Catholic Church and the public education system. Throughout the various regimes and governments of the nineteenth century French higher education continued to deteriorate, and the conflict between public (secular) and Catholic education escalated. By the end of the nineteenth century the power the Catholic Church wielded over important French cultural and educational institutions had waned, as a consequence of the concerted effort by anti-clerical forces within the French Third Republic (1870-1940). Anti-clerical French politicians of the Third Republic viewed Catholic education as divisive, fostering distrust of the republican government and promoting divided loyalties between church and state among French citizens that was toxic to national unity. During the 1880s tension between the Catholic Church and the Third Republic intensified when the government of Jules Ferry forcibly closed religious houses, expelled religious orders from the country, and abolished by law faculties of Catholic theology in the Université de France. As part of the educational reforms of the Third Republic, zealous anti-clerical republicans supported scholars in France’s secular universities conversant with and sympathetic to critical methods of scholarship. Such unwritten policies afforded anti-clerical republicans the opportunity to tout vicariously the republican platform, while simultaneously advancing the anti-Catholic policies put forward during the Third Republic. At the end of the nineteenth century many Catholics saw the French university system as a demonic means employed to de-Christianize French society. This situation in France increasingly complicated the lives of Catholic intellectuals, many of whom found themselves in the unfortunate position of having to balance the competing interests of republican policies, often stridently anti-Catholic, with the doctrinal claims of and loyalty to the church.
In an effort to come to terms with Catholicism's new political status within French culture, society and the Republic, tradition took on a new significance in the life of modern French Catholicism. It was objectified as the means to conserving a threatened heritage. Tradition was, Alexander Dru notes, focused on conserving the clearly defined object: the 'deposit of faith'. From this perspective of tradition the transmission of tradition was viewed in impersonal and highly mechanized terms that were less concerned with the process by which tradition was passed on and more focused on what was handed down.
The theo-political setting for French Catholicism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provides an important historical and social context for Blondel's notion of tradition, radical at the time, as a non-textual "living synthesis." The non-textual nature of tradition as a living synthesis meant that it relied on texts but at the same time it relied on something else, on an "experience always in act" which "presents the conscious mind with elements previously held back in the depths of faith and practiced, rather than expressed, systematized or reflected upon." What is more, it always has "to teach something new because it transforms what is implicit and 'enjoyed' into something explicit and known." What is the something new that tradition has to teach us? And how does it transform what is implicit and enjoyed into something explicit?
To begin, the notion of the implicit belongs to the fundamental principle at work in Blondel's philosophy that the life of action is the privileged site of human understanding. Blondel would develop and modify this principle over time. "Lived experience" ("living experience" or "la réalité réelle") and the life of action are the framework within which we find Blondel throughout his work distinguishing human agency, action, experience, ontology, prospective knowledge, practical science, the pneumatic, the "implicitly lived," and real knowledge from reflection, logic, reflective knowledge, retrospection, science of practice, the noetic, the "expressly known," and notional knowledge during the cognitive act and unifying them later in the process of human understanding.
(excerpted from chapter 7)