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Summary Article: Blondel, Maurice (1861-1949) from Encyclopedia of Philosophers on Religion

Blondel was born into a wealthy, middle-class Burgundian family. An aunt encouraged him early on in his youth to meditate on the life of Jesus and introduced him to a range of ideas expounded by the Apostle Paul. His diary repeatedly refers to the "grace-filled moments" he experienced at the age of thirteen on the day of his First Communion. After completing preliminary studies and obtaining lower degrees in literature, science and law, he enrolled in 1881 at the École Normale Supérieur of Paris and began studying the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophical issues. Grappling with the latter triggered a desire on his part to find a modern way of thinking that might serve as a foundation for the convictions of his religious faith, or in other words, a Christian philosophy that could show in secular France how reasonable is the practice of Catholic faith. He decided to write his doctoral dissertation on action in hopes of capturing a transcendental orientation of the human will that would eliminate the imbalance between the real and the ideal.

For the next ten years, while also teaching at a number of secondary schools, he worked and reworked the thesis before finally defending it against a hostile committee at the Sorbonne, winning its approval for publication, and earning his doctorate. The following year he was married, but given the suspicions his book had aroused from both secular philosophers and Christian theologians he was denied a professorship at the Sorbonne, and only through the help of a former instructor did he finally land a professorial position at the University of Aix-Marseille. He stayed there until 1929, when blindness forced him into early retirement.

The ten volumes of work he produced in the remaining twenty years of his life had to be dictated. Conservative, neo-Scholastic theologians continued accusing him of being a Modernist (giving rise to Martin Heidegger’s claim that while he was in the Jesuit Noviate he had to read Blondel’s L’Action in secret). But despite Blondel’s criticism of the prevailing brand of Thomism, there was no doubt about his ongoing devotion to the Catholic faith on the part of at least four popes—Leo XIII, Pius X, Pius XII, and Paul VI—all of whom praised his work. His personal papers reveal that despite the frustration of his youthful desire to fulfill his manhood by becoming a priest, he remained a deeply spiritual man who spent hours praying and meditating before the Blessed Sacrament, attended Mass and communed daily his whole life long, and went out of his way to serve the poor.

Blondel on Religion. Religion is a legitimate concern of philosophy. For any philosophical investigation of human existence readily uncovers an inadequation between the sense of being humans have and the reality they actually experience, between the concrete perceptions humans have and their universal conceptualization, between the phenomenal object humans explicitly will and the primitive élan of their implicit willing. In other words, no matter what human activity (science, art, politics, love, etc.) is undertaken, it is inevitably frustrated by suffering, weakness, and finally death. But far from justifying a nihilistic conclusion that human life has no meaning, the consciousness of such failure is possible only on the assumption that there is something unique and necessary, something transcendent and godlike, in human willing, thinking, and being, that inevitably inclines them beyond the phenomenal order.

There is nothing in such a critical experience that proves the existence of God. But it does give rise to the idea of God as the omniscient, absolute Being in relation to which human life might possibly find its ultimate meaning—the realization, that is, of its implicit will. So, instead of succumbing to the temptation of egoistically trying to make gods of themselves that would only turn the élan of their wills against itself and take them back to where they started, humans would be wise to remain open to the possibility of God himself drawing the human will toward its inherently transcendent goal through the influx of divine grace. While philosophy cannot prove the possibility of ever satisfying man’s needs through such supernatural means, neither can it prove its impossibility. And if, in fact, the historic dogmas and rites of the Christian religion resonate to the transcendental orientation of human thinking, being, and action, it would behoove nonbelievers to take the Christian message seriously, recognizing all the while that any choice on their part to embrace it or any other religious message would remain a matter of faith.

Sources
  • Blondel, Maurice. Action (1893): Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice. Translated and introduced by Oliva Blanchette. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
  • Blondel, Maurice. The Letter of Apologetics and History of Dogma. Translated by Alexander Dru and Illtyd Trethowan. New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964.
  • Bonasea, Bernardine M. "Maurice Blondel: The Method of Immanence as an Approach to God." In John K. Ryan, ed. Twentieth-Century Thinkers. Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1967. 37-58.
  • Bouillard, Henri S.J. "The Thought of Maurice Blondel: A Synoptic Vision." International Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1968): 392-402.
  • Macquarrie, John. "Blondel, Maurice." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 1. edited by Paul, Edwards. New York: Macmillan and Co. and The Free Press, 1967. 323-24.
  • Redmond, R.X. "Immanence Apologetics." New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. Edited by McDonald, W.J.. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 387-88.
  • Schaber, Johannes. "Blondel, Maurice." In Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon. Vol. 15. Verlag Traugott Bautz, 1999. http://www.bautz.de/bbkl/.196-236.
  • Somerville, J.M. "Blondel, Maurice." New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Edited by McDonald, W.J.. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 617-18.Somerville, J.M.. "Blondel, Maurice (1861-1949)." Thought 36 (1961): 371-410.
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