Theology Update

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!



  1. This sounds interesting. Do you think you could provide more details as to why Blondel is so complicated, maybe some common themes or topics he wades into? If it’s too long for a comment, could you send it to my email? I don’t trust wikipedia to tell me enough about his importance.


    • Blondel is working through the intricacies of human cognition and willing, discerning the way in which our willing of the infinite (a necessity of action, as he hopes to prove strictly philosophically) is basic to our understanding of being. Thus, we know anything because our knowledge in act, our knowing, is structured with an ontology of formal properties that anticipate being in general. Blondel predates the “analogy of being” debates between Barth and Przywara (et alia), which continue to this day, but he is clearly offering a defense of analogy, as an epistemic necessity for knowledge of God, and thus against Barth.

      At some point, I hope to simplify Blondel, beyond the general descriptions that I am providing here. For now, I am just focusing on the connections with Bouillard and this question of how we know that it is God in any purported revelation.

  2. Your favourable posture towards Kant (or Kantianism-ish) echoes my own – you’re just getting there from the Catholics and I’m getting there from the Idealists and Brandom/Scruton – we need to talk about German idealism at some point soon. Have you read ‘Barth and Rationality’ by any chance? I reviewed it – – and plan on writing more on those themes in the future. The big obstacle for any position sympathetic to Kant is, of course, the conclusion that Fichte came to when he saw he could discard the thing-in-itself. I see you mentioned Gilson – read his ‘Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge’, if you’ve not already! He does a remarkable job there.

    • Yes, even though I’ve been sparingly off-and-on engaging with Kant since undergrad, it’s been these Catholics that have excited my interest. I re-read, just a couple weeks ago, Gilson’s ‘God and Philosophy’, which I enjoyed, but I’m still not entirely clear about his critique of Idealism. It seems that, for Gilson, you either start with being (and, for the Christian, God’s act of being as the only being a se per Yahweh’s self-disclosure) or you start with the self, and if you do the latter then you can never make a bridge to the former. This would preclude any Kantian or quasi-Kantian “method of immanence” (Blondel) because it can never yield a realist metaphysics (Fichte), as you noted. At this point, I do not have a sufficient knowledge of the field to make a stand. I will purchase the Gilson book you mentioned. I have The Unity of Philosophical Experience lined-up to read soon, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. Perhaps there’s overlap between the two books. I also certainly need to check-out La Montagne’s book.

      • Gilson really gets into the problems that he sees with idealism in ‘Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge’. If I’m not mistaken he also interacts with some of the guys you’re reading as well – I’d actually recommend that one over ‘Unity of Philosophical Experience’ on this topic. His ‘Realist Beginner’s Handbook’ (I think that’s the title, I can never remember) also does a good job taking classical idealism (ie, Berkeley-ish stuff) to task –

        Gilson is most adamant, as you note, that you can either begin with being or the self in metaphysics. He doesn’t see a possibility for a critical realism: if one doesn’t begin with being or ‘things’ in the order of knowledge then one isn’t starting with reality. He is an incredibly astute reader of Kant, but I can’t help but wonder if he somewhat misses the point of Kant’s critique of ‘given-ness’ – that is, nothing is simply given in experience but everything falls under concepts of the mind.

      • Thanks, Josh, I’ll be sure to interact with you on all of this in the future. Yes, all of the guys mentioned in this post were interacting with each other in a remarkably fertile way in what has been dubbed “the Christian philosophy” debates in the decades leading-up to Vatican II. Each one has their own take and criticisms, as is to be expected, even among those who seem to be very close (e.g., Gilson’s criticisms of Maritain for being too epistemological and therefore not fully Thomist). It will take me awhile to figure it all out as best I can.

  3. For some reason I am intrigued by these French-Catholics. My wife is fluent in French, and she is going to teach me the language; if not to read these French-Catholics, at least Jean Cauvin.

    • That would be nice. I’ve been using the Fluenz program for French. It’s worth checking out. It makes the necessary repetition and practice a lot more enjoyable. It could be a helpful supplement to your wife’s guidance. It’s a bit expensive but not considering what you’re getting. I took French 1 in college, and Fluenz is just as good as taking a class…actually, better.

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