Maurice Blondel and the Fights Over Catholic Tradition

We Catholics are never more cruel to one another than when we are arguing over our tradition. We know, in some way, even if in a mostly inchoate way, that tradition is our temporal marrow. It is something like the meter for a melody. We know that tradition means Christ and that it means memory. We know that to be without these things is, in a sense, to cease to be. And we are never so cruel to one another than when these are threatened, than when we feel frightened, not over this or that detail, but over our very being. Nor is our present time the first time we have felt this feeling in ourselves.

By the close of the nineteenth century, Catholics stood across the precipice of new historical techniques and data that seemed to obviate the years between biblical times and the present one. Those many centuries now seemed, or threatened to seem, counterfeit. Even the Church was counterfeit, an elaborate refurbishment of a lost dream. “What was expected was the Parousia,” Alfred Loisy famously said; “what came was the Church.”

Loisy did not say “instead,” as in “what came instead.” But he did not need to; everyone could hear it in the words, and everyone understood that the Church could not be what it said it was—a bearer of Christ through the ages—if it was in reality an “instead.” Under the pressure of this disjunction, every successive age becomes, if not for Loisy himself then at least in principle, yet another renovation project, and each reworking re-conceals the original vision under flecks of paint and human forgetfulness. Now time itself, if it had ever been an icon of Christ and the mercy of his eyes, becomes only a veil. One we fail to pull away.

Aristotle says that time is a measurement of change. The modern problem of history knows something further, which is that time informs ideas. And times change, which means that ideas can change, can be lost, can be rediscovered. Ideas can be unmoored from where and when they were born, used in ways that their progenitors would not recognize. Who, after all, could explain the blues to Mozart?

Our age knows something yet more, which is that concrete evidence can contradict the stories we tell about who we are, where we come from. Evidence can reveal the many accretions of time. By the end of the nineteenth century, one of these historical troubles was making sense of the many contrary things that (especially very early) Christian texts say about Christianity. In our own time, “Christian” itself seems to not entirely describe the many loyalties of these ancient Mediterranean people and their texts. There is the trouble of how little archaeological and textual evidence there is for early Christian martyrdom accounts apart from the accounts themselves, which were in any case written sometime afterward.

The questions rise up like bile: “Do we even know Christ? Do the things of faith say something true? And if they do, how can we say that they do?” Maybe tradition was the wrong thing to trust. But we do. We do trust tradition. In that trust is a recognizable claim, which is that the many years that spiral relentlessly into being are not a wall or a blockade between human beings and God. They are a divine instrument, just as surely his instrument as the unfurling cosmos, as the stretching movement of the stars. “Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place / For taking hold of the ends of the earth, till the wicked are shaken from it?” (Job 36:12–13).

But even if faith knows the truth of the claim, reason has to ask how it is true.

The Body of Tradition

Bernard Lonergan wrote a chapter in Insight entitled simply “Things.” It is chapter eight. It begins on page 271. Seven other chapters have marched by. “So far,” he admits, “we have been dodging the question. What is a thing?”

What I like about the chapter is that Lonergan treats something that seems self-evident as in fact what it is, which is not self-evident. It is actually very hard to define “a thing.” It is hard to define how this thing and that thing are both things. Bodies, Lonergan says, have a similar difficulty about them. They seem obvious, but they are less obvious the more we ask about them. What Lonergan means is this: sometimes just pointing at the thing or the body is not enough, and the more we know, the more ridiculous merely pointing at the object seems to us.

If we ask, like Catholics in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, “What is tradition?” then at first we point at things. Catholics are, in a certain respect, divinely in love with things. It is our job to be. And for tradition, we can point to ecclesial offices and their various colors and robes, the solidness of a crosier or a mitre. We can point to the sacraments with their sights and sounds and symbols, all equally visceral. We can point to physical churches, which are so very visceral that we passionately resent some and love other ones. Or we can point, a little more awkwardly but no less really, to vast libraries of texts written over a long, long time. Or we can indicate with a gesture a painting of the saints in heaven, the “cloud of witnesses” across time, the Apostles and the Virgin Mary at the foot of a throne, all interceding for us. It is not less visceral and real, after all, for its being heavenly. It is just differently so. And when we try to point at tradition, we can correctly point at these things.

But tradition does not yield itself up as any of those solid things. It is not identical with any of them. We can say that it is involved in them, somehow, whatever it is. At the same time, those things have qualities about them that are more than tradition, that themselves indicate “higher” and more permanent realities than tradition (that is, divine realities). Tradition runs through each of them. It runs through each of them because tradition has something to do with history and something to do with truth, ideas, and dogmas. The things we point to are involved in history and involved in knowledge. So, tradition has to do with them. “But what is [tradition] precisely?” asks Maurice Blondel. “What is its function? . . . How is it linked, on the one hand, to historical facts without being absorbed into history, and that it is bound up, on the other hand, with speculative doctrines though it is not completely absorbed in them?”

We cannot point at tradition and say, “There it is, and it only; there is the quiddity and the thing in question, which we call ‘tradition.’” The more we try to point at where it is, the more inadequate our pointing is revealed to be. But that does not make tradition unreal. That makes it, as Lonergan might say, like a human body.

Our first feeling upon learning that historical evidence is difficult to sift through, or that it is often quite contradictory, or that figures of the past would not be able to project themselves forward into the way we are now, or that Christian conclusions are less than obvious to historians reading the same sources, might be a feeling of disintegration. Or a feeling of defensiveness built around defending against disintegration. Tradition is like a human body that is revealed to be more complicated than an object that I can just point at. It seems at first to vanish. Surely I have a body? Yes. But bodies grow and change; bodies are common yet contain certain irreducible differences (e.g., as mine and yours); bodies as experienced are not merely identical with bodies as sense-and-nerve responses. What seemed obvious has turned out to be complicated. And the real question is what to do about it.

It is hard to resist slamming the door shut. It is hard to mourn the loss of my former assumptions, shattered now at my feet. Mourning would mean incorporating the loss in a larger point of view; it would mean generating that larger point of view. Doing so would require the door to my mind to remain open. I emphasize such feelings because I think they are natural. Our responsibility is not over whether we feel afraid to lose things or feel fiercely our need to defend them; our responsibility is what we do with the feelings, and whether we can relinquish them enough that they are allowed to fund our acts of intelligence instead of preventing them.

If our first definition of tradition as a thing that can be pointed at, or dug up from archives, or found lost in a cave does not fit all the evidence of Christian existence, then we need to find a different definition, one that fits.

The Mediation of Tradition

Catholics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries emphasize one word again and again: “life.” Tradition is living; it is a life; it is alive. Life is organized and also spontaneous; life is responsive but also responsible; life adapts and also imposes. Most of all, human life is intelligent, and as intelligent it is free. Tradition, these Catholics insist, is alive with human life, and with that life’s qualities. This, then, is our first measure of tradition: that it lives. The question of whether tradition lives is a question of whether humans do, and whether we do so in a human way (intelligently, freely). If we do, then tradition in its first measure is possible.

Life is nothing less than concrete. Life is, moreover, present and active rather than past or in the past. Still, for all its concreteness, life is difficult to summarize, and impossible to reduce down to a single moment, instance, or feature. Even in a single human life—even in a long and exhaustive biography or autobiography of that life—something will be left out, passed over, or in any case not fully captured. Most of all, the thing not captured is the person his or herself and their particular being-alive, that inescapable quality that we recognize in its mysterious presence and activity.

But tradition is not identical with human living even if it is funded by it. We have only a first measure of what tradition is (alive) and how tradition is (in its being lived) and whether it is possible (as human life in its intelligent and free being lived). We need a second measure, a further specification. Maurice Blondel offers one: tradition is a mediation. It is a communal mediation, specifically, between divine truth and human history.

A mediation brings together two things that are not the same. When Thomas Aquinas says that the soul is the “form of the body,” he is in part saying that the body mediates the soul to us. He is saying that bodies and souls are, though usually not separate, not the same. But he is also saying something far stranger than this, which is that the soul mediates the body to us. The soul is the principle of life, the movement of intelligence and freedom, by which we know one another even “as” bodies. Or, in Thomas’s terms, soul is the “act” by which a body is living, and this act is in a real way what we most, first, and best know about one another when we know one another as embodied: “The soul, which is the first principle of life (primum principium vitae), is not a body, but the act of a body” (ST I.75.1).

To be a living human being is not only to be a “what” that sits there as a chair might, but also to be a principle of motion that is actually in motion. It is also to be, in a real and concrete way, a mediation; it is to be a mediation always “in act.” And the mediation itself, the actual bringing-together fully brought together in act, is a third thing still: it is self or subjectivity. Self is a mediation that, even if we can never quite point at it like we would a chair, is nevertheless concrete and embodied and indeed also living, intelligent, and free.

If the mediatory power of self is possible to human beings, something similar is possible to human communities. Rather than asking whether a community is a “self,” we are asking whether communities can mediate things; we are asking whether they, too, can have a principle of motion that is actually in motion; we are asking whether communities are not only alive, but also intelligent and free. It requires not just a useful analogy like the one I have been exploring about human bodies. It requires communities to have a life that is not merely the aggregate of individual lives. It requires communities to be their own horizon of human existence with a certain independence from individuals, even if it never exists without individuals.

And we know that human communities do exist in this way, because we know that a bouquet of human beings gathered in the same room together is not yet, for example, a religious order. A room of professors is not yet a university. A group of frightened disciples locked in a room together is not yet the Church. “Something in the Church escapes scientific examination,” Blondel insists; “and it is the Church which, without neglecting the contributions of exegesis and of history, nevertheless controls them, because in the very tradition which constitutes her, she possesses another means of knowing her author.”

When Blondel argues that tradition is a mediation, he is arguing that a community of Christians mediates itself to itself through time. Tradition is present and active. It is a principle of motion. Tradition is not the community “as such,” all by itself; tradition is not the passage of time all by itself; tradition is the action of communal self-mediation through time. The two things that are not the same that tradition brings together in its action are (1) Christian truth (the truth of revelation, dogma) and (2) human history (human action and its facticity).

For Blondel, this mediation is possible in the first place because human acts are not only facts; they are not only concrete instances in time. Human action is also what Blondel calls “metaphysics in act,” which means our action brings things into being and brings them into being meaningfully, intelligently. That is why having a diploma on a wall is not simply a report that I did something once or completed a task. It means something about me, about who I have become, and who I might yet become. My past action exerts a constant shaping power on me even as I also reshape it, and so become something (one hopes) more than the twenty-two-year-old I once was. In other words, there is a plasticity in human action that is not reducible to historical fact. Our action is open to our elaborations of it. Our communal action is open to our communal (and individual) elaborations of it. This remains true of Christian realities. Blondel argues, “there is an autonomous principle of discernment in the total experience of the Church.”

Our action is open, too, to our denials and betrayals and haphazard elaborations. To the moment that doesn’t fit quite right. But doing a thing badly affirms that it can also be done well, provided we are able to figure out what doing well and what doing badly are actually to be measured by and therefore known by.

The Presence of Tradition

If tradition is a principle of mediation, an intelligibility-in-act, then its primary emphasis or ictus is the present. It is a present activity. It is alive. It is “now.” In other words, when we “look” for the memory of Christ that we associate with Christian tradition, we look for a memory we presently have, a remembering we presently remember. This is not to say that the Christian past has no value. It is to say that the measuring and the acting that look to the Christian past for its value are a present measure, a present activity, a living principle. “Attached as she is to texts and facts and definitions,” Blondel says, “the Church has a vital tradition which is a perpetually renewed and controlled commentary on them, and so is not literally dependent on them.”

Where that living principle for a vital tradition comes from is the central problem for Blondel. Saying “from the community” is both accurate and too vague, since we want to know which concrete experiences, understandings, and actions are those by which the community knows anything and puts it into action.

Blondel emphasizes two types of action that together form tradition’s principle of mediation, one type “exterior” and “from above” and the other “interior” and “from below.” Rather handily, the sacraments straddle both types of action. Their primary principle of action is God and, historically, the work already done in Christ (ex opere operato); their secondary principle of action is the person presently receiving the grace of the sacrament, the work being done (ex opere operantis), being done by the person who contributes their own cooperation that God also makes possible. And of course, the “action” of the sacraments is fundamentally and forever ecclesial, which means communal, an action of the community—even in, say, individual confession or anointing of the sick. The community is the human principle of action there, too.

Both types of action, exterior and interior, cohere around what Blondel calls “the synthesis of thought and grace in the life of the believer.” That is their most concrete purpose and effect. We are not talking about a random divine plan here, nor are we talking about a random community, however motley the community. No, God is up to something specific. Sometimes theologians summarize that specific divine activity with the general term “deification” (or divinization), and the specific community with the general term “one Church of Jesus Christ.” They are heuristic terms that identify all kinds of activities and individuals according to specific, but still broad, concepts. Blondel’s “synthesis” specifies within each heuristic how thought and the life of the believer are sites of particular emphasis for grace’s operation in Christian tradition. Both elements of the heuristic are, in their different ways, ecclesial. “Without the Church, the faithful could not detect the true hand of God in the Bible and in souls,” Blondel argues; “but, unless each believer brought his little contribution to the common spiritual life, the organism would not be fully alive and spiritual.”

The coherent mediatory action of tradition was active in the community and its individuals in the past. It is active now. It is the intelligent activity that funded the many artifacts and persons of the past, and the intelligent activity that funds them now. In a sense, it is the “pattern” pressed into both that allows them to be dialectically in dialogue with one another. But most of all, it is the “pattern” by which present Christian life makes present decisions, and by which present Christians look backward to their past living and past decisions. Blondel emphasizes that this pattern is reasonable and intelligent. That makes it recognizable and also actionable, “[The Church] speaks with an independent authority; but she speaks to the intelligence as much as to obedience, claiming the rights of reason because she wishes to teach a communicable truth.” If, for Blondel, doing the same thing as the past is inevitably not to do so in its original spirit, then doing so in its spirit is how the past receives affirmation and enrichment. “Nothing is more reliable than the light shed by the orderly and repeated performances of Christian practices,” says Blondel. And “we must realize both what the Church does, and her reason for doing so.”

Christians, of course, value Augustine because he is important and influential; they value knowing what he said more refulgently in its contexts and relationships; but most of all, as far is Christian tradition is concerned, Augustine’s value is in whether what he says about Christ is true. Whether what he says meets the measure of what the present community in a certain sense already knows, even as or if that knowing is inextricable from the past and his influence. The point is that it is knowledge. It can be discerned, affirmed, enriched, even criticized. Valuing Augustine because he is very ancient, or valuing someone else who is even more ancient and more fundamental, is merely to value them in their historicity, and not in their value for, and in, Christian tradition. Blondel calls this sort of evaluation “veterism” (or old-ism). The evaluation of tradition is actually an evaluation of the life of grace and is actually the articulation of that life in Christian reflection, and it is important to experience that life as much as to read about it and receive it from the past, so that one knows what one is talking about.

Sifting through the contrary and complicated facts of history is fundamental to historical science. It is also fundamental to Christian tradition, just in a different way. “What” tradition looks for and the actions by which it looks includes the things that historical science looks for and does, but it also includes more. It includes a present operation that, when it examines its past, examines the past according to a present experience of God.

But tradition, Blondel says, is not this looking backward. It is not the past. It is not a storehouse. It is a present intelligent action. It is not merely a continuation of the past, but is an intelligent act of continuation, as intelligent and also as (freely) enacted. It is a present synthesis always underway, affirming in human history its divinely-given purpose by way of Christian thought and Christian action. “Careful not to hide its talent safely away, and faithful to the injunction to make it bear fruit, Tradition is less concerned to conserve than to discover: it will only attain the α at the ω.”

Featured Image: Barthélemy d'Eyck, Dukes of Brittany and Bourbon on horseback armed and with crests, 1460; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.  


Anne M. Carpenter

Anne M. Carpenter is the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Her current work has focused on theologies of tradition, recovering the thought of Maurice Blondel, and other topics.

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