The Possibility of Christian Philosophy. By Adam C. English


Pp. x, 144 , London/New York , Routledge , 2007 , £65.00.

Three different (and unequal) contributions are made in this book, subtitled Maurice Blondel at the intersection of theology and philosophy: first, a consideration of the question as to how philosophy might be related to Christian faith; second, a proposed link between the thought of the French philosopher Maurice Blondel (1861–1949) and the Radical Orthodoxy movement in recent theology; and third, a study of the neglected trilogy of Blondel on thought, being and action, published between 1934–37 (which has never been translated into English).

The first of these themes is addressed in a way that is tantalizingly brief though interesting. Christian philosophy should be marked both by what it focuses on and by how it goes about doing so. Christian commitment should influence both the content and the style of philosophical investigation. ‘Blondel dedicated his life's work to articulating the Christian style of philosophizing’ (p. 2). He sought to justify faith as relevant to scholarship in the face of the sceptical atheist (and anti-clerical) university philosophers who were his contemporaries and to show the relevance of rigorous philosophy and contemporary scholarship for faithful life in the Catholic church; in the process of doing so, he found himself ‘caught in the cross-fires’ between these two, suspected by his academic peers and by ecclesial authorities of being unreliable, of conceding too much to the other side. Yet he patiently and persistently exposed the defective methods and conclusions of extremists within the academy and within the church in an attempt to be both critical and constructive. At the beginning of the 1930s a major discussion emerged in France as to how philosophy relates to Christian faith. For Gilson, Maritain and Bréhier, philosophy is independent of the Christian faith as to its object, its principles and its methods (p. 28); according to Henri de Lubac, a huge admirer of Blondel, for Maritain, revelation confirms reason, while for Gilson, revelation generates reason, but only Blondel establishes a truly intrinsic relationship between them (p. 29).

I am less happy with the (insufficiently developed) link made between Blondel (B) and the Radical Orthodoxy (RO) movement. I suspect that an examination of B's political writings might show a greater divergence from RO and a more positive approach to culture and society than English suggests. John Milbank, a leading exponent of RO, and one of the three editors of Routledge's radical orthodoxy series, draws only upon a fairly small section of the Blondelian corpus; while this author draws on a much wider range of B. There is probably scope for further exploration of how B prefigures and relates to RO.

The author succeeds admirably in the major part of the book, his critical retrieval of B's 1930s trilogy. The author deserves to become a recognised authority on B and is likely to become recognised as such. He seems, to this reviewer, to be a reliable and discerning interpreter of this notoriously complex, convoluted and demanding writer. There is considerable interest in B studies in Europe, with a persistent rate of ongoing publications on his work, especially in France, but also in Italy, Spain, Germany. Much less is available in English. B is an important but much neglected thinker whose work deserves exposure in the English language and this author has made a significant contribution to such exposure for contemporary scholars and students. The book is based on first-hand research, of high quality and innovative in its argument, linkages and implications. The level of difficulty and complexity of the topic means that readers are likely to be at postgraduate level and beyond for academics in philosophy and theology. In addition, the book is relevant for people studying philosophy of religion, fundamental theology, contemporary philosophy, philosophical anthropology, European theology and philosophy. The high price for such a slim volume will sadly hinder access for some potential readers.

After a brief Introduction, followed by a more substantial chapter, ‘Training in Christian philosophy’, that provides the necessary intellectual contextual background for locating Blondel, three chapters address key themes in B's trilogy: Structure (on Pensée), Mystery (on Ětre et les êtres) and Power (on Action). These five chapters are clear and coherent; they are well-documented and cogently argued in a work that is systematic, disciplined, thorough, well-structured, carefully written and balanced in its judgements. Adam English does a great job in rendering key aspects of B's work accessible to those who are unfamiliar with it. He succeeds in showing how B plumbs the depths of immanence until questions arise about the possibility and presence of the transcendent; he shows how philosophical anthropology opens out into fundamental theology. In the course of his book, English provides the reader with valuable discussions of several themes: the difference between enigma and mystery; the influence of Blondel on many other thinkers (for example, de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Gustavo Gutierrez, Karol Wojtyla); pneumatic and noetic thought; B's method of implication; the relationship between immanence and transcendence; three types of action: making, practicing and contemplating; human behaviour exhibited in ever widening concentric circles; the polarities in life between dependency/passivity and activity/initiative. The endnotes are detailed and thorough and the book is enhanced by a helpful bibliography and index.