Tag Archives: Maurice Blondel

Against the Idea that “Faith is that which has no evidence”

This is one of the questions for my Theology of Revelation Final Exam.  I am sharing it in full below, though I do use some ‘bigger terms’ than I normally do in my posts, for which I apologize.  However, I think the essence of my answer is well within the tradition of the Church: evidence is much more than scientific (as we understand that term today).  So I have attached the question and answer in full below.

Question 1: Recently, I read a newspaper article where faith was described as that for which there is no evidence, or for that where the evidence is found wanting.  Would you agree with this?  If yes, then why; if not, then why not?

I do not agree with this statement at all, though I understand where it comes from.  I will argue for why I do not agree with this statement as follows.  First, I will analyze the concept of evidence to note that there is in fact evidence for faith.  Secondly, I will respond with what faith actually is in both its objective and subjective forms.

The statement that faith is in something in which there is no evidence or where evidence is found wanting is fundamentally flawed because it presumes a positivistic view of evidence.  The person of faith, according to the statement, is one who cannot find the evidence of God in the visible.  God is not sensible or tangible and therefore it is not possible to give a scientific (in the positivistic sense of the term) account for God.  This in itself is false, for it presumes that God cannot be known through the tangible, which we will discuss in a moment.

However, evidence does not and, in fact, cannot be reduced to the phenomenal, it cannot be reduced to mere positivism for the positivistic worldview is wanting in its ability to explain reality.  Everything in reality is greater than the parts, while the positivistic worldview looks at the world only in parts, often to the neglect of the whole.  For example, take water.  Water is the result of the combination of hydrogen and oxygen and when the reality of water comes to existence, hydrogen and oxygen do not cease to exist, but they find a new identity in the reality of water.  Water, then, gains an element of mystery by virtue of synthesis.  Water cannot be described simply in its parts, it is now more than its parts.  There is now an infinite complexity that can no longer be reduced to the parts: the sum, in the end, is indeed greater than the parts, but the parts do not cease to exist or be overwhelmed by the new reality.

What does the above criticism of positivism have to do with the concept of faith and evidence?  If we apply the concept of synthesis to a much larger and more complex level, we see that, by virtue of the synthesis of the human person, the person contains within them an infinity that nothing in the world can satisfy.  Though we cannot go into great detail here, what we can say is that is infinity looks to be matched by infinity, and so the human person tends outwards and upwards in his action to find something to fulfill his desire for the infinite.  This desire for the infinite is in man, and scientifically observable if, by science, we understand that it proves the necessity of a thing by eliminating all possible obstacles to that thing’s necessity.  If we look at our action, if we look at our conscious mind with humility, we will observe this infinite tendency that dwells from within.  We will eliminate all obstacles that would argue the contrary, and we would discover that deep in the depths of our being is a mystery which we are contingent upon for existence.  This mystery is the transcendent God present to our being, allowing us to exist, giving us life, and is the source behind the spontaneity of our will.  In other words, if we look deep and hard enough, we will see, though not in a positivistic way, that there is a mystery deep in our being that is not us, nor are we it, but that we are united to through action.[1]  Within the life of the subject, then, we can discover that there is a source to our life that is also our end.  It is knowable, but we cannot completely comprehend it.  The positivistic worldview wants to be able to grasp and comprehend, but it never completely grasps reality, it only gets a snippet of a thing and is never able to look at the thing as it is in all its unity.  Knowledge can never be complete of anything.  If this is the case with the realm of nature and the observable – in the sensory sense – then it is even more true when it comes to the realm of God.  Though we can know that God exists, that He is necessary for me to be, I am unable to completely grasp Who He is.  In humility, we allow the objective element of God to reign in our lives, we submit to His presence knowing that we need Him to fulfill our destiny, our desire.  But we do not grasp the totality of the mystery, though we know it’s there.  Just as I can know that I see the screen I am looking at – though I cannot grasp the infinitude of it – so it is with God: I know I see Him, experience Him, encounter Him, I do not have a complete grasp of Him.  Positivism demands the ability to grasp the totality of a particular, but never can.  Faith acknowledges that a reality is real, it acknowledges the evidence of the reality of God, but does not claim to know God in His totality for to know God in His totality, God would not be God.

Before going onto what faith is, we must address one more element of the issue of evidence.  Evidence – again, in the positivistic sense – presumes the thing to be all there is.  In short, the positivistic view of evidence denies mediation.  It presumes that the universal cannot be revealed in the particular, that the objective cannot be revealed in the subjective, that the supernatural cannot participate in the natural.  The tangible, the sensible, the particular: all of this is totally distinct and apart from the invisible, the objective, the universal.  In short: the positivistic view negates the possibility of the supernatural acting in concert with the natural.  Yet we know from experience that the sensible we experience always points to something more.  Due to the infinite depth of each particular thing, we see in our experience more than just water, for example.  We see fluidity, liquid, clarity, rhythm, etc in water.  Thus the particular of water points to something more than just itself: it mediates a greater reality than it is and points to a dependence deeper than itself.  Thus, evidence of God can be seen in the natural realm as well: the beauty of nature, the truth of faith, the holiness of a Christian, the unity of the Church: these are all mediating realities which, through their participation in the life of God, point to Him in their particularity.  Evidence of God is sensible, positivism simply cannot stand the scandal of mediation.

What we have just engaged above is both cursory and lacking many necessary nuances.  Evidence for faith does exist, it simply means moving away from a positivistic view of reality since such a view does not stand the test of reality anyways.  What must be embraced, because it is the reality of our experience, is the sacramental world view.

What, then, in view of the above discussion thus far, is faith?  Faith has two dimensions: the objective and the subjective which come together in the person through the Church from Christ.  In the realm of the objective, faith is a gift in that the Person of Jesus gives Himself totally to the Church and, through the Church, to each individual.  The subjective response is one of openness, receptivity, and indifference.  Jesus is the object of our faith and faith is the living out our existence in the His existence, allowing ourselves to unfold in His love through the practice of Christian life.  Faith, in the realm of the subject, is only true when it is lived in Christian love, when that openness to the existence of Christ in the life of the subject.  In fact, the ‘proof’ of faith is not in an intellectual assertion, but is in the living the reality of the encounter of Jesus in the daily walk of life.  Faith is affirmed only when one delves into the mystery they experience in the depths of their soul, when they abandon themselves to the mystery of God in their action.  This action then becomes reflected in their mind: action is the lab in which faith is encountered and affirmed.  Pascal’s wager is not about an intellectual assent, but of a lived abandonment to God and, in that lived abandonment, one discovers that God is real, that He exists, and that they wish to throw their life at Him.  Faith is not a lacking of evidence, but the encounter with an evidence that is so real that it is mysterious, so visible that it is hidden, so beautiful that we are blinded, so true that we are silenced, so good that we are enamoured.

Thus, in a way, there is a splinter of truth to the statement that faith is in that which lacks evidence.  There is a certain abandonment to the unknown, the ungraspable.  It is to delve into the depths of the ocean of mystery and to not know where one is going, but to only go on ahead for it is that movement that we look back and see in our active life of faith the evidence of God in our lives.  We cannot see God until we first respond to His love with the abandonment of our self to Him in the lived life of active faith.  Thus, it has an element of the unkown, but the uknown is known.  We enter into the known unkown and, as we go deeper within the mystery, we come to know the unknown more as the unknowable, but we are comfortable with that because we know Who it is and that to grasp Him is to make Him into an idol and not the living God Who permeates our lives, sustains us, and is encounterable each moment of the day.


[1] Most of this comes from Maurice Blondel.  Please refer to his book L’Action for a more complete account.

 

In Christ

-Harrison

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On Rhetoric in the Debate on Marriage

Lately, on Facebook, the following video has been floating around:

Yes, the rhetoric of this young man is amazing.  He is well spoken, and has a good head on his shoulders it seems.

Yes, he has grown up normally.

I do not doubt his experience, or his normalcy at all.  I give credence to every single word he said.

In fact, I must admit, watching this video initially, I was challenged by it: the young man is incredibly persuasive.  What can one say in response to that?

To an extent, not much can be said.  I think one of the issues of the marriage debate is that the two sides speak two totally different languages and have two totally different worldviews.  We are talking at each-other, and not with each other.

I know some friends may be reading this and, seeing the clip online themselves, would be hard pressed to offer a reasonable response to such a clip: I too find it difficult, which is why I have had to take some time to reflect, to give serious weight to his words and arguments, and to see if I hold onto every word he says.

I will start with an agreement.  I don’t think the marriage debate should be on the impact of gay parents on their children.  While I am not for such an upbringing – for reasons which I will not bring up here – I do not think it ought to be the basis of the argument.  Ultimately, it doesn’t hold water: it is too subjective.  People like Zach (and I know others, too) have grown up to be well balanced and productive individuals in society.  They are proof against the argument (though proof can be offered on the opposite side as well).  In fact, good or bad upbringing can happen even in families with heterosexual parents.  This is not where the argument can lie.  Thus, Zach is right at first: if the argument is about upbringing, then the law must be in favour of same-sex couples.  But that is – or at least ought not – to be where the argument lies.

As beautiful as passionate rhetoric can be – his speech is a fine example of the finest rhetoric – rhetoric itself cannot be the basis of a judgment.  I recall during the Presidential Election hearing one of Obama’s speeches.  I was swept up in it.  His rhetoric was persuasive – not on the intellectual level, but on the emotional – your emotions could almost lead you to say “Yes we can” with him.  But reality is not based on emotions.  I remembered afterwards thinking about his actual arguments – what he was really saying – and realized I myself almost got swept up in the emotional stir that I experienced.  I didn’t agree with his arguments at the time – though I no longer recall what they were – and realized, unfortunately, most speech is emotion only.  Reason has fallen out the window.  People, because of the fact that emotions and feelings have become the basis of their life, fall into the emotional stir often and, thinking they are applying their reason, really throw it out the window.  I recall, again with Obama as the example, that Howard Stern did a brief little walking survey of Americans asking who they would vote for, isolating those who were voting for Obama.  Then he said “Well, I guess that means you’re pro-life” or “pro-war” or what not – positions Obama explicitly did not hold.  And these people answered that yes, they too were for that.  What Stern was demonstrating was the fact that people were not informed in their voting, but to me it demonstrated a deeper reality: people were swept up in Obama-feeling and not in Obama-fact.  Feelings and reason are not opposed, though reason is higher in the human person.  But people tend to pit one against the other.  In our North American society as of late, we have leaned towards the feelings and have imposed the concept of reason to them.  The arbiters of our moral compass are no longer our minds informing our lived life: it is our feelings that are equated with the mind.  In the search for reason, we have become unreasonable.

This brings me back to my argument about Zach’s speech.  What happened with Obama is what is happening with Zach’s speech, and is probably why it is taking the internet by storm.  But there is a statement in his speech that made me ask myself “is that really true?”  He said that love is the basis of family.  I agree with this, but my question is, what does he understand love to be?  Is it a feeling?  Well, we have “loving feelings” all the time, they come and go, and they are not the basis for love as love.  So he probably didn’t mean that – even though people tend to equate love with that.  He did equate the concept of commitment with love.  He is right about that.  Commitment and love go hand in hand.

Zach and I would probably even agree that life-long committed love is expressed through the sexual act.  But it is exactly at this point, too, that we would diverge.  Because what is at issue in the whole debate – an issue that the courts do not seem to take into account – is the concept of the human person.  What I see in the statements of those who are pro-homosexual marriage is that there is a different concept of the human person in both sides of the argument.  For those who are pro-homosexual marriage, they do not see the person as a body and soul unity.  Love can be expressed in a sexual way regardless of whether or not the parts fit.  For those who are pro-traditional sense of marriage, the opposite is true: deep down, their concept of the human person is one that sees the body as expressing the soul: they are in a great communion.  Their acts are expressive of their nature, and so to have a ‘male body’ means to be a ‘male soul’ as well.

While what I have just said is incredibly basic, lacking nuance, and needing of a far more extensive treatment, I think this is more where the issue really lies.  The concept of the human person is under attack, and has been since the enlightenment.  By trying to value the body, many post-modern thinkers have actually devalued it.  Yet – and this is where one, with time and space, could demonstrate the inherent inconsistency of the post-modern view of the human person – if we took a deep and profound look at our experience of life, we would realize that tendencies, even strong one’s, do not define us, that the body needs a soul and the soul a body. We would realize that to be truly human is to value the beauty of the body and the soul in its complete integrity.  As I read Maurice Blondel’s “L’Action”, I think his philosophy offers us a key to engaging this issue.  That is where the argument ought to be – in the realm of the human person – and that is precisely where it is not.

As an end note, I must insist completely: I am not anti-gay people in any way, shape or form, though I know those who read this who are pro-gay marriage, despite my saying that, will still think I either hate or strongly discriminate against gays.  I do not.  I am not attacking them.  The reason why people will say I am anti-gay people, though, is because they believe, in the end, that action defines who we are.  I think that action expresses our choices as to who we want to be: one in accord with our nature, or one who acts against it.  That is where the argument is, and, despite the qualification I have now just posted, I will still be called a bigot, a gay-hater, etc.  I have tried to make it known I am not, but accept the fact that I may still be called that.

in Christ

-Harrison

 

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How to Pray in a Distracted World – The Philosophy of Maurice Blondel as an Aid in the Spiritual Life

Maurice Blondel

In yesterday’s post, I spoke about the importance of prayer in order to become a saint, and I spoke especially about listening in prayer.  I would like to develop that thought a bit more with the help of a recently acquired new friend: Maurice Blondel.

Let me, first, tell you a little bit about Blondel.  He was born in France in the area of Dijon in 1861.  He is a philosopher who’s most popular work “L’Action” was defended at the Sorbonne in 1893.  Blondel was a devout Catholic and felt that philosophy gave way too much to positive science: philosophy was only being based on the quantifiable.  Blondel was not pleased with this and developed a philosophy of action.  It is in this philosophy of action that he demonstrates that philosophy cannot avoid the religious problem, though it also cannot answer it.  He was a major influence on many of the theologians who would give shape to the Second Vatican Council.  As Bishop Peter Henrici states: “Blondel is the philosopher of Vatican II”.

So, why am I speaking about a philosopher with regards to prayer and the spiritual life?  It is because in his philosophy of action – which, admittedly, I have yet to finish – I have had  a spiritual encounter, all due to the fact that Blondel is an astute observer of human nature.  So, before I go into why he is important for prayer, I want to speak, in as simple a way as I can, about his philosophy of action.

Blondel argues that if we look into the life of our mind, we see a limitless number of choices.  Our reason goes through these tendencies and desires and we make a judgment: “This is the good thing to do.”  Yet, it is not enough to will to do a good thing.  Let us use a consistent example.  We are in the Church about to start praying a rosary.  Yet, just as we are about to begin, we find ourselves seemingly overwhelmed and outnumbered by many other desires and tendencies.  Perhaps we feel like going out for a coffee instead, making a phone call, checking our e-mail, talking to a friend, etc.  The other possible choices seem endless and the choice to just say the rosary seems overwhelmed by these other desires.  Blondel goes into some fine tuning with regards to this, but that is generally the point.  So we are faced with a choice: do we will to do the rosary or allow the variety of other tendencies and desires to overwhelm us?  Where does our true desire lie?  Before I go on, Blondel makes an interesting point: if we choose not to act, then we submit our self and our will to our tendencies, giving them more power over us.  We have a choice: to act or not to act (though to not act is itself an act, though not in the positive sense)

Let us presume we are holy people – or at least attempting to be – and thus say we see, in this moment, the greatest value to be the rosary.  But it is not enough to intend to say the rosary: one must say it.  Blondel states that the will is perfected in its choice only when it is acted upon.  Furthermore, action is a synthesis for the entire person: it “sums up” the person as both body and soul.  When an action happens – in this case saying the rosary – we become aware in a deeper way that this is our true value because it is the choice we have acted upon.  The action also sums up all our other desires and tendencies: they are given a new life in the action that has been chosen.  In short: action reveals our self to ourselves.  We see – either good or bad – what we are really like, what is really what we value, etc.  Thus, even bad actions have a positive end: if we choose them (and we do: we’re sinners!) then we are aware of what needs to be worked on in our life.  Furthermore, every time we act, we hone our will, especially when it is towards the same desire.  By constantly acting on the same desire over and over again – in this case prayer and love of God – then that virtue becomes habituated in us and the other tendencies, though present, lose their power over us.  In short: Blondel is promoting fasting, penance, asceticism: by saying yes to one thing, we are saying no to a seeming infinite.

This may seem a bit dense – I am still unpacking this myself – but the principle is really simple: action has consequences, both positive and negative for the spiritual life.  When we are praying, many thoughts enter our minds.  We often give too much credence to these distractions.  What Blondel has been helping me with in my spiritual life is to see that a) the spiritual life is a battle and b) that I have a freedom over what I act on with the grace of God as my help.

The Spiritual Life is a Battle

The fact that there is one thing I can only choose against an infinite number of other choices seems daunting, but my experience is in accord with that truth.  Thus, I allow myself to be overwhelmed with the infinite and do not see the power of the choice.  The choice for that deeper value, that truth – God’s love and grace present in my life – has a power over my other tendencies and desires.  In short, when I am praying or choosing to pray, I have a choice: I can listen to those distractions or I can shut them up.  Yet the only way I can begin to shut-up the distractions is by acting on the good grace that has been given me by God.  Action is the only means to experiencing the freedom of God’s love.  If I stand around and allow the distractions to overwhelm me, then I allow the distractions to take hold and either do nothing or allow the distractions to become habituated in my life through action.  We act no matter what: what will we do with this necessary action: that is up to us with God’s help.

So, it is a battle, a fight against concupiscable desires.  It means it will not be easy, but it means, in each moment, saying “YES” to the Lord and no to the other desires that hinder us from following Him.  As we continue the battle, we will find ourselves more attuned to the grace given then the possible sins.  Yes is the means to freedom.

Freedom to Act on God’s Grace

When we are praying, many distractions come up.  When we desire to pray many distractions come up.  Distractions are a natural part of life; they are the unfortunate adversary of our spiritual life.  When we are in prayer though, we may be praying the rosary when suddenly the idea pops in our head: “oh yeah, I need to get that organized for tomorrow.”  We cannot, per se, control that: distractions will lessen the more we choose in our actions the Lord.  However, when the distraction arises, we act on it: “I have a choice in front of me: I can either give into the distraction and listen to it while I say my rosary or I can concentrate on the mystery I am praying.”  It really is that simple!  Do you choose Jesus or the distraction?  This is difficult at first – unfortunately most of us are habituated to letting the infinite desires take a reign in our life – and thus it causes suffering, pain, and effort.  But the freedom that comes from it is worth it and we experience the joy of that when we make that firm choice in our action for the Lord: “I will focus on that mystery”.

These, in the end, are just preliminary thoughts I have had about Blondel and the prayer life.  I have found it helpful, and I know I have to “unpack” a lot more of his thought (I am only half-way through L’Action) in order to see how much benefit it has.  I have a feeling it will only get better.

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