Theology Update

April 14, 2017

A couple days ago, I awoke from my blogging slumber and gave an update. In this post, I want to discuss some of what I’ve been doing in my studies.

Je suis maintenant français. That’s what it feels like. I have been deeply immersed in modern French Catholic theology for the past several months. The immediate reason is when I discovered Henri Bouillard, as I wrote about last year. The extended reason goes back to my undergraduate thesis on Simone Weil and master’s thesis on John Henry Newman. There is a line of continuity in my intellectual and spiritual development, but that would take us too far afield for the purposes of this post. If you are familiar with Weil and Newman, namely their integration of knowledge and piety/discipline, then the continuity will be clear.

Bouillard expressed a mode of criticism toward Barth that I had been developing for quite some time in an ad hoc and unstructured way. Now I am attempting to make it more structured, more thematized and explicit. I am not there yet, so you should not expect too much now. This criticism is subjective in method and freely uses Kant to illumine our subjectivity as knowing agents and those who contribute, a priori, to the object that is known. This does not mean that Bouillard accepts everything of what Kant means when he writes, in the preface to the second edition of his first Critique, “we can cognize of things a priori only what we ourselves have put into them” (B xviii, trans. Guyer and Wood). Yet, this is a good statement of what Bouillard is doing in his criticism of Barth. How do we know that it is God who has revealed himself? It is we who know, which requires a method of criticism, whether Kant’s “transcendental apperception” or something else, and this cannot be elided or obfuscated underneath a rhetorical strategy of dogmatic origin.

For Bouillard, there are categories of understanding, to borrow again from Kant, that are pre-reflective and enable us to know God’s revelation. This is a true knowledge of the supernatural by reason proper, so it runs afoul of Kant eventually, and importantly. And the supernatural knowledge itself is not anything to which the subject is entitled by virtue of this capacity. Yet, it is a capacity nonetheless, and it is “natural” as far that goes. By the way, this is how Bouillard reconciles himself with the First Vatican Council’s Dei Filius, namely, “The same holy mother church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason: ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” The latter half is just quoting from the first chapter of Romans.

I am perhaps saying a bit more than Bouillard says, not least because my French is still a work in progress. As of late, I have been exploring the intellectual terrain in which Bouillard worked as a Jesuit from the Fourvière community in Lyon that included Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou. These were central figures in theological ressourcement in France and beyond, also dubbed pejoratively as “the new theology,” la nouvelle théologie, by old school Thomist detractors.

There are three names in particular that paved the way for the Fourvière Jesuits. They are Maurice Blondel, Pierre Rousselot, and Joseph Maréchal. The latter two were Jesuits from France and (French-speaking) Belgium respectively, whereas Blondel was a lay Catholic philosopher. In the most general of terms, we can describe them as interested in rethinking Christian belief in modernity, where modernity does not provide the “conditions” strictly speaking but, rather, opportunities. And this includes reappropriating the past, as in Rousselot’s groundbreaking study of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1908 and Bouillard’s Conversion et grâce chez saint Thomas d’Aquin in 1944. The opportunity at hand was to unearth the location of the will and the heart within reason, in both patristic and medieval theology. Thus, anthropology and theology proper must be integrated in some way. Nature is not entirely alien to grace. When we later come to Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, it is easy to discern their intellectual progenitors in Blondel, Rousselot, and Maréchal. This is true even when we distinguish their differences with someone like Karl Rahner, also influenced by all of the above, especially the fifth volume of Maréchal’s great work, Le point de départ de la métaphysique.

Blondel in particular has drawn my attention. Unfortunately, he is the most difficult of them all. If you think Barth is difficult, then you have no idea. In fact, this whole intellectual mileau is far more difficult, in my opinion, than that of Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, etc. The philosophical sophistication is surely a roadblock for many who come from an evangelical or other Protestant background that deals with “the Word” and “kerygma” more than the metaphysical distinctions of the whole shebang and at their most rigorous. I can sense that Blondel was doing, a hundred years ago, much of what I have been trying to do with my far more limited capacity. In the image above, you will notice that Bouillard wrote a book on Blondel.

I could continue talking about a dozen or more trajectories. There is scarcely anything in theology or philosophy of religion that is not impacted by these French debates in the first half of the 20th century and into the Second Vatican Council. I have not even mentioned Gilson and Maritain, both of whom add significantly to this whole discussion.

Bénédictions de Pâques!


April 12, 2017

It is long overdue for an update. For those who have followed the blog and interacted, I am sorry for the delay. There are personal reasons, not least of which is the death of my grandmother. She is pictured above, in a photograph which I scanned from an inherited box of photographs. This picture is from high school, but I am not sure which year.

My grandmother had a large role in my upbringing. She struggled in her final years in a way that was devastating to me. Her suffering for the past several years would have been unimaginable to most people. I could not possibly communicate her affliction, involving a series of debilitating strokes. In these final years, she was immobile for the most part and could not speak. She was ready to go. She was ready to die. There was solace in knowing that.

She was a skeptic of sorts. She questioned religious beliefs for nearly all of her adult life. All the while, she held a strong belief in the supernatural. It is hard to describe: she was on odd mixture of rationalism and spiritualism. Perhaps she embodied the philosophic spirituality of Spinoza plus folk religiosity. Or something of the sort.

She was not a normal grandmother, especially from the low country of South Carolina. She went to college and graduate school in the 70’s, acquiring a degree in clinical psychology. My childhood involved frequent trips from Charlotte to Columbia. She worked for the state in the rehabilitation of maladjusted folks, those in and out of the system. She was never a typical academic or feminist, even while she was both in her own way.

I hope that I inherited her best qualities: kindness, sympathy, curiosity, and a love for learning. I owe her more than I will ever know.

In a follow-up post, I will provide an update on my current status, intellectual and spiritual, as far as I am able!