Maurice Blondel

Transforming Catholic Tradition

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Robert C. Koerpel
Thresholds in Philosophy and Theology
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , November
     278 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Robert Koerpel’s Maurice Blondel: Transforming Catholic Tradition offers a diverse array of perspectives upon the singular topic of tradition. While mainly focused upon tradition within the unique purview of Roman Catholicism, the arc of Koerpel’s book spans a variety of other areas of distinct philosophical, theological, historical, and even political interest. The central focus is the figure of Maurice Blondel, who responded to a certain “epistemological crisis within the intellectual life of early-twentieth century Catholicism” (35). The general epistemological crisis is best understood in terms of how traditional religious beliefs, particularly as contained within the notion of tradition, are to be understood in light of the advances in human understanding as proffered by the modern period. While Koerpel’s text is a sustained focus on how tradition in Roman Catholicism came to be transformed through the influence of Maurice Blondel’s philosophical thought, it is relevant to the more general situation where “the pervasive presence of tradition in human experience creates the unique challenge of articulating its meaning with precision” (1).

In this sense, we find Koerpel succeeds in expanding the scope beyond the terms of a theological dispute within Christianity to allow for a more phenomenological treatment as well. From here we find that this book provides valuable insight not only to readers interested in the development of Roman Catholic doctrine in regard to tradition, of which this text is essential reading, but goes further to highlight the fundamental philosophical challenges involved in articulating the meaning of tradition more broadly speaking.

Koerpel begins by focusing on “late medieval conceptual, theological, and ecclesiological pressures that shaped Catholicism’s notion of tradition” (38). These pressures resulted in a view where tradition would come to be seen merely as “a bureaucratic reality mediated through institutional and juridical means” (38).

Taking up the critique of nominalism as advanced by John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock in terms of an undue emphasis upon the “arbitrary and absolute power of God,” Koerpel clarifies how this aspect of late-medieval thinking “provided the conceptual structure within which tradition was considered less in terms of the synthetic bond that mediates God’s presence through the ecclesial action of the Church and more in terms of a contractual artifice that governs the different ecclesiastical arrangements, bodies, and practices” (43-44). This marks out a trend “that would manifest itself in much of modern Catholic theology” (45).

Koerpel excels in articulating the political and historical nuances involved in this treatment of intellectual history, laying bare the modern conditions for the conceptualization of tradition in both a positive and a negative sense. The idea that “tradition began to be seen as a distinct mode of truth” ultimately led to the aforementioned epistemological crisis in determining exactly how this sense of tradition is to be understood (46).

As the philosopher of action, Blondel furnished an idea of tradition that is participatory, being intrinsically linked to the processes of human action where the “implicitly lived” becomes the explicitly known (148). Koerpel does well to articulate the key philosophical elements at work in Blondel’s thought: namely, Blondel’s metaphysics of the bond and the dialectical dynamism between epistemology and ontology, as Koerpel remarks, “the ontological reality of action forms the epistemic conditions for the possibility of true human understanding” (166). From here a definition emerges: “tradition is a metaphysical principle with an ontological value distinct from history and dogma, scripture and the Church, fundamental ontology, and epistemological method, and yet it is a principle that functions as the source of unity between each without the one eliding the other” (172). This understanding of tradition operates as a corrective to the notion of tradition skewed by “the problem of representation” where “human attempts to represent reality consistently fail” (61).

Rendering tradition within this faulty paradigm of representation fed into the bureaucratization of Church authority, leaving wide open the question of the role and authority of individual religious experience in the animation of the Church (62). It is precisely this challenge of representation that the Reformation would come to address, and the epistemological position of the Roman Catholic Church on this question would takes centuries to formulate most clearly. From this perspective, Koerpel relates that Blondel’s expression of “the interconnectedness between action, the problem of representation, and tradition comes to the fore as one of Blondel’s keenest observations” (139).

This book brings into clear focus certain key questions in need of further development; this is found most notably in the field of biblical exegesis, where there is a need to understand better the relationship between inspiration and interpretation, something that Blondel’s notion of tradition helps lay the ground to develop (184). Koerpel also raises an important challenge to the German tradition of hermeneutics as it comes from William Dilthey and Martin Heidegger, showing where “Blondel’s notion of tradition (philosophy of action) opens up and clarifies questions posed in the shift in emphasis in twentieth-century hermeneutics from epistemological method to fundamental ontology” (167). He levels what amounts to a critique against the insufficiency in hermeneutics and phenomenology, where there is a collapse of “the order of knowing into the order of being”; he suggests the need instead for a delineation of their proper relationship (178-79).  From here we find that Blondel provides just this and is able to better orient “the theological dimension of time (history) without abandoning the epistemological insights of modern historiography” (178-79).

In total, this book offers a compelling read for philosophers, historians, and theologians, as the text is a thoroughly researched and clearly expressed account of tradition that casts modern notions of subjectivity, individualism, and the question of human knowledge to their limit.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William L. Connelly is a doctoral student at The Catholic University of Paris.

Date of Review: 
April 3, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert C. Koerpel is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is co-editor of Contemplating the Future of Moral Theology: Essays in Honor of Brian V. Johnstone, CSsR.


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