The Method for Avoiding Cheap Success in Apologetics

The condemnation of Modernism in 1907 with Pascendi Dominici Gregis armed certain Roman theologians with the tools necessary to suffocate their intellectual opponents. Men such as Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange saw the condemnation of Modernism as a carte blanche for neo-Scholastic theologians in Rome to condemn, with an almost intellectual violence, anyone who did not agree with their narrow worldview.

One of the targets of this intellectual persecution from Roman theologians was the French philosopher Maurice Blondel. Many of them saw the publication of Pascendi as a tacit condemnation of Blondel and his “method of immanence.” The document makes a direct attack against a version of this method, a method which Blondel claims as his own. However, strangely enough, Pope Pius X later wrote the Archbishop of Aix to communicate through him to Blondel that Blondel was actually not a target of the encyclical and encouraged Blondel’s philosophical work. Blondel’s work would later blossom in the thought and project of Henri de Lubac, the French Jesuit who was silenced in the 50's and later served as a peritus at the Second Vatican Council. Within de Lubac’s work there are clear allusions to Blondel’s method of immanence.[1]

Blondel’s method of immanence was developed and pursued in his masterful L’Action (1893) and defended in 1896 with what is popularly known as his Letter on Apologetics.[2] The Letter contains an overview of apologetical methods, their strengths and weaknesses, and why the modern philosopher and theologian needs to adapt to a more rigorous way of thinking through the method of immanence. The purpose of this overview is twofold: to come to understand and appreciate Blondel’s contributions, but also to allow his work to speak to the Church’s contemporary needs in this realm.

The rigor of Blondel’s argument comes from his precise view of philosophy as an exercise of science. For Blondel, science is the means by which no doubt can remain: every hypothesis is tested, every argument considered, so that only the bare truth remains at the end. This scientific orientation of his thought carried tremendous importance in L’Action (1893), where he attempts to develop a “science of action” by attempting to apprehend and reason towards only the absolutely universal and essential form of action. With regards to his Letter he attempts to look at the method of philosophical science rather than the actual exercise of it. He wants to determine what is essential for apologetics today by determining what are the rational conditions man demands be met when wanting to be convinced of the reality of the supernatural.

When he was writing the Letter Blondel had grown tired of both the closed rationalism of the modernists such as Alfred Loisy as well as the ossified systems of the neo-Scholastic school of his age. The neo-Scholastic worldview Blondel described as “extrinsic,” meaning that the supernatural was always extrinsic to the natural world and never implicit in it, a view he would critique in both the Letter and L’Action (1893). He felt that neither approach adequately addressed the needs of the modern mind. Thus, when pursuing his question, he kept two matters in mind. The first is a simple question: “what are the questions that must be addressed, and what are the conditions that would satisfy these questions according to modern rational needs?” The second point is this: although one wants to attempt to address the rational needs of modernity, not everyone can be conciliated. Apologetics needs to be careful in attempting to make things easy for a wider public; Blondel calls it “cheap success” when one produces more generally accessible arguments at the expense of intellectual precision.[3]

To avoid “cheap success” in apologetics, Blondel addresses what he considers to be the main forms of apologetics, enumerating six positions along with their methods, strengths, and weaknesses:

  1. Of pseudo-philosophy in the service of apologetics

  2. Of the improper use of the sciences in the field of philosophy and apologetics

  3. Of the pretension of turning facts into apologetic proofs and of the confusion of points of view in apologetics

  4. Of the persuasiveness and the philosophical insufficiency of apologetics based on the moral and intellectual fittingness of Christianity

  5. Of the validity of the presumptions in favor of Christianity based on its identity with the laws of life, and of the philosophical and theological difficulties which arise from such an argument if it is supposed to be rationally conclusive

  6. Of the services rendered by the old method and its inconsistency from the standpoint of philosophy[4]

Blondel’s charity towards these positions is noteworthy: he states that they have historical merit, but they no longer meet the demands of modern rational exigencies. In analyzing these six positions, he uncovers their insufficiency so that a new and more rigorous method can be presented to meet modernity’s rational demands. There are three central criticisms that Blondel lays against the various apologetical methods that permeate his critiques of method: inattention to subjective conditions, lack of philosophical precision and depth, and extrinsicism.

Subjectivity is not seriously considered in some theological circles, but Blondel sees it as an essential category when presenting the Catholic position. In the various methods he critiques, he notes that they lack the ability to address modernity’s questions: what the Catholic may consider axiomatic is not axiomatic for the modern person.[5] “There must be a hunger” for meaning and truth. If there is none then the apologist must discover where that hunger is and attempt to reawaken desire in the other. Only then can the apologist address these desires, know them, and help people see whether their desire is reasonable and sufficient. In this regard, subjectivity is of critical importance to the contemporary apologist.

Connected to subjectivity is philosophical or rational rigor, against which is set an apologetical style that demonstrates the moral and intellectual fittingness of Christianity. In the method of fittingness, the Christian framework is demonstrated as a cohesive whole which ought to convince those unfamiliar with the truth of Christianity by virtue of its cohesiveness. The problem with the method of fittingness is connected with the issue surrounding subjectivity: not only is subjectivity ignored, but so are the rational conditions that bring about subjective assent. To this, Blondel responds that apologetics in a modern context must “start from the fact of a theoretical and practical incredulity.” This requires supposing the absence of the supernatural in order to devise a way that would rationally compel the one who denies the supernatural—one who holds the position Blondel calls ”immanentism”—that their position is rationally insufficient. This means that one does not allow “oughts” to have any place in one’s method. This is what Blondel means by his way of immanence.

The importance of a rational commitment and subjectivity extends into Blondel’s third major critique, extrinsicism, which he vigorously attacks in both L’Action (1893) and the Letter. The extrinsicist makes claims such as “history shows us God has revealed Himself, therefore the existence of God and the Christian faith are true” or that “history proves the authenticity of scripture and the Church, therefore they tell the truth.” The truth appears as self-evident and imposes itself on the subject by virtue of its obvious veracity. The position of extrinsicism contains the other intellectual errors discussed in the other critiques by Blondel, but the key presumption he questions at the outset is whether there is a “middle point” that both theology and philosophy can address: whether the two disciplines have or can have mutually agreed-upon truths.

This position is central to Blondel’s later argument in the Letter; at this point he simply questions the presumption of the axiom. Because of the separation of reason from faith, reason becomes wholly immanent, providing a new situation Christianity had not dealt with before. The way forward is to answer this problem that modern philosophy presumes, the problems of reason unhinged, of nature without grace. The Catholic can no longer turn back to thirteenth century formulations for:

It’s a hopeless attempt to recover for one’s own mind an equilibrium which has been irremediably lost, which could remain stable only because certain distinctions had not yet been made and certain problems had not yet appeared . . . to think in our day in precisely the same terms as five centuries ago is inevitably to think in a different spirit.[6]

The spirit of thought that the Christian ought to embrace was that to which Blondel dedicated the remainder of the Letter, delineating three goals that are foundational for modern apologetics: to uncover the true roots of philosophy’s dispute with religion, to develop the method that allows one to touch this point of dispute, and to define “the character, meaning, and bearing of the conclusions to be reached.”

Where else, then, does the dispute lie but in the problem of the supernatural? Modernity sees immanence as the very condition of philosophy whereas religion sees the supernatural as its condition. This is to say that one cannot discover the supernatural for oneself. The problem becomes self-evident: modern philosophy attempts to assure full liberty of mind, an autonomous life of thought, and understands itself as independent and sufficient unto itself. The question that then becomes pertinent to a modern apologetics is this: is there a point of convergence between a self-sufficient philosophy and a supernatural religion?

This question is of pivotal importance because it addresses the assumption that philosophy is necessarily purely immanent and brings to the surface the problem that Blondel addresses in L’Action (1893): do human beings have a destiny? The answer to this question determines whether or not there can be a point of contact between philosophy and the supernatural.

The foregoing necessitates determining whether a point of contact exists between philosophy and the supernatural. In response, Blondel gives an overview of his method and how this question is tackled philosophically. Considering the problems with contemporary apologetical methods, Blondel simply asserts that in order to be truly rigorous, to deal with the subjective concerns of interlocutors, and to avoid the problem of extrinsicism, there is only one possible way forward: the method of immanence.

This method, central to the whole Letter, is the rallying point around which Blondel is most often critiqued and condemned by his contemporaries. This section of his argument becomes the substantial bond of the whole work, for it is not only the answer to the critical problems of his contemporary academics, but also his contribution to finding a solution to all modern exigencies. The method of immanence, then, can consist in nothing else than in trying to equate, in our own consciousness, what we appear to think and to will and to do with what we do and will and think in fact–so that behind factitious negations and ends, which are not genuinely willed, may be discovered our innermost affirmations and the implacable needs they imply.[7]

This statement encapsulates well his method: it starts from the self because immanentism claims that all values and truth are found within. If the problem of consciousness cannot be resolved in an immanent fashion, then it proves the limits of immanentism since it cannot satisfy the question of destiny. Blondel already hints at the problem of pure immanentism when he mentions how thought is itself transcendent to the self—if it is not then it cannot be apprehended and experienced as a thought. This is the beginning of seeing whether transcendence has only an immanent form or if there is something more.

If this leads to proving the ground of life in the supernatural, then it demonstrates that philosophy has a limit and respectfully gives way to the field properly equipped to speak of the supernatural, namely, theology. This is the point of contact between faith and reason, philosophy and the supernatural: “The only relationship required . . . [is one in which philosophy recognizes the supernatural] as indispensable and at the same time inaccessible for man.”[8]

The foregoing summary of Blondel’s analysis of the proper relationship between philosophy and theology demonstrates that the purpose of philosophy is to get rid of the fundamental objections that obstruct humanity from seeing the insufficiencies of the natural order.[9] Philosophy is not so much elevated and perfected by theology in this argument, nor does it propose the strict separation of nature and grace as is custom in the manualist tradition. Rather, it is a more dynamic and radical position in which each order has its own freedom that finds its access to each the other through the synthesis of action.

The entirety of the Letter is focused around method, on discovering new ways to deal with perennial questions. The task has an urgency to it, for “so long as Catholicism does not take this road, it will remain outside the pale in the world of philosophical thought and will not be able to encounter thinking men or to be encountered by them.”[10] For this reason, Blondel encourages the Church to promote philosophy as he presents it in L’Action (1893), as a search for the whole meaning of life and existence. A philosophy which is radically autonomous pushes itself to the boundaries and discovers how dependent it is. Only then will the Church succeed in finding new ways of endearing herself to the heart of modern man; only then will she promote an intellectual approach which is at once evangelical and rigorous.

[1] See: throughout The Mystery of the Supernatural.

[2] Henceforth referred to as the Letter.

[3] Maurice Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics & History and Dogma (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 129.

[4] Ibid., 125.

[5] Ibid., 135. Here Blondel cites a great example: just because Jesus performed miracles is not sufficient proof to the modern person who denies the possibility of miracles; our method must go deeper.

[6]  Ibid., 149.

[7]  Ibid., 157.

[8]  Ibid., 161.

[9]  Ibid., 167.

[10]  Ibid., 205-206.

Featured Image: Richard Caton Woodville, Jr., 17th Lancers at the Battle of Modderfontein, c. 1910; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-80.


Fr. Harrison Ayre

Fr. Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, currently Pastor at Holy Family / Notre Dame Church in Port Alberni. He recently completed his MTh thesis entitled, Immanence Opening to Transcendence: Maurice Blondel and the Relationship Between Philosophy and Theology.

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