The Introduction to Lonergan’s Dissertation

(Yes, Steve Waldron, you’ve persuaded me.) In the introduction to his dissertation (PDF),* Bernard Lonergan notes the difficulties that attend a study of a historical theological question such as, say, Thomas Aquinas’ view of operative grace. The introduction is really a methodological manifesto and makes some very fine and important distinctions.

Lonergan is seeking an “a priori scheme of speculative development” (5) capable of bringing together–“synthesizing” (4)–all the data of various theological positions without doing injustice to them, misrepresenting them and forcing them into preconceived boxes. He notes the effectiveness of the a priori schema utilized by the natural sciences, which is “objective” because it is “of such generality that there can be no tendency to do violence to the data for the sake of maintaining the scheme” (4). He is looking for a something similar in intellectual history, here the history of theology: how to compare the progress of thought in different writings, and by different authors?

Lonergan identifies five stages in such a schema of speculative thought: (i) the general form of the idea in its development, (ii) the particular statements about an idea in its development, (iii) the analogous conception of supernatural ideas, (iv) the conception of natural ideas, and (v) the conclusion: identifying the idea at a particular historical moment. It seems that, on his view, this is simply an expanded version of the syllogism: (i) all people are mortal–the general form, (ii) Socrates is a person–the particular statement, and (v) therefore, Socrates is mortal. (Stages [iii] and [iv] are necessary to theology only.)

Now, this is a compelling account of theological inquiry. As he writes, “we are able to correlate statements made by different people at different times merely in virtue of the assumption that the people in question were all men [sic], all thinking, and historically inter-dependent in their thought” (6). This is, of course, the same kind of presupposition that drives the success of the natural sciences–that is, a universal one. At a certain point, Lonergan simply states, “the human mind is always the human mind” (5). By analyzing the process that governs all human inquiry in its development of ideas, Lonergan can offer theology a method comparable to the natural sciences–at least, so he claims.

These thoughts are still percolating in my mind and I’m not yet sure what to make of them. But I guess I have to offer a few initial reflections. First, Lonergan’s project has prima facie appeal, even in this early stage that will take 34 years to develop into the full-blown epistemology of Method in Theology. If he really can offer theology a method as fruitful as that of Francis Bacon, that would be an accomplishment. But second, I’ve been reading enough Kierkegaard to know that objective truth is not everything–and so, I’m eager to see how Lonergan’s notion of “decision” plays into his later schema. Finally, it is certainly quite a unique project, quite different from that undertaken by pretty well every other theologian of the twentieth century–Barth, Rahner, von Balthasar, Schillebeeckx, to name a few–even though I don’t think it would be fair to characterize these as “now” theologians responding to the problems of today, as Crowe does (The Lonergan Enterprise, p.4). Each in their own way, I believe, thought they were laying a new foundation for theology’s future. It will, however, be interesting some 200 years from now to see just who has laid out the way which bears most fruit for the Church.

* I’ve extracted the eight-page introduction, but you can find the whole 430-page dissertation here (PDF), at the Bernard Lonergan Archive, once you register for free. Should your heart so desire.

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7 thoughts on “The Introduction to Lonergan’s Dissertation

  1. Oh, you’re a goner now… They’ll find your body in the Lonergan archives five years from now and wonder what happened.

    One note about object and subject in Lonergan: He placed both sides of knowledge at all levels of cognition (both before and including decision), calling the human mind and the world “isomorphic” to each other. One of his most famous sayings (and a fairly good summary of his thought) is “Genuine objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.” There’s really no way you can have one without the other (so Lonergan thought; and experience, understanding, and judgment confirm).

  2. Haha, shoot. I’m pretty sure my interests are scattered enough to save me from that.

    Ah, well that’s helpful, thank you. “Isomorphic,” that’s a great way of describing the relation–I wonder what his relation is to the medieval adequatio ad res view? I guess he would want to say it’s more full-bodied than simply an adequatio of cognition?

    • I think that he views adequatio ad res as helpful but outdated. One of his most frequent critiques is of the notion of an objective “already-out-there-now” – the idea that there is a knowable world prior to knowing itself. In modern philosophy, he calls it the “ocular myth” – the idea that seeing=knowing and that, if only we could see a little bit more clearly, then we would really have knowledge (since intellect performs an act of understanding above what the senses alone do in experiencing data). He tends to be very affirmative of Aquinas, but wants to make a series of “transpositions” to what he calls interiority, which is a more dynamic perspective modeled on the historical advancement of scientific knowledge (whereas, Aquinas lacked the advantage of historical consciousness).

  3. Interesting. I’ll have to read some more.

    I finished Crowe’s book, and other than the usual late ’70s the-world-is-changing angst, I found it quite helpful. Even intriguing.

    I’m a bit concerned about the foundationalism of Lonergan’s project, but maybe that’s part of what I need to be “challenged” by.

    I actually think von Balthasar fulfills quite admirably what Lonergan was aiming at. I wonder what you think about their relation?

    • I think that Balthasar is right about all sorts of dogmatic questions and does a great job of pointing out weaknesses of theology that has lost its Patristic and medieval roots, but sometimes he isn’t as clear as he could be about method. In particular, I really like the way that he reads Scripture, but I don’t think that he is sufficiently clear about historical-critical issues (though he can be at times). Sometimes, he seems to be saying, “Well, as long as we pray and read poetry, all these problems of historical criticism and the erosion of Christendom will be resolved.” Even though there is a lot of truth in that approach, his epistemology especially just isn’t rigorous enough in dealing with things like the relationship between modern scientific knowledge and mystical knowledge, since he tends to resort to a sort of personalism in discussing all knowledge (at least that’s how I read Theo-logic I) in place of confronting skepticism or materialism on their own turf (via a more rigorous epistemology). That’s a good start, but not sufficient.

      Lonergan, though, is really good on epistemology and theological method (because he’s right, I think), but I don’t think that those (largely later) concerns are adequately tied to his (largely earlier) work on doctrinal questions. On the one hand, he is right to recover a sort of Thomist philosophy as a foundation for human knowing, including theological knowing. On the other hand, he seems to do theology in the same style as Aquinas (except even more scholastically) – a style that doesn’t seem adequate to modern discourse. I think that style and poetic images are a strength of Balthasar’s that is definitely needed in modern theology (if it stands a chance in assisting with the work of apologetics).

      In his book The Trinity, Rahner criticizes Lonergan at several points for being too scholastic in his Trinitarian theology (and for emphasizing a rather dry view of analogical knowledge of the immanent Trinity). While Lonergan can claim that he is merely building on Augustine and Aquinas (his two biggest influences), it is true that we need a more appealing Trinitarian theology for now (hence Crowe’s notion of a sort of stop-gap theology for the centuries immediately following Vatican II and secularization). Still, Lonergan provides philosophical foundations for a more methodologically rigorous and appealing theology in the vein of Balthasar or Barth or Moltmann in the future (and don’t even get me started on Barth’s methodological short-comings).

      (Sorry about the long answer. You asked what I thought. 🙂 )

  4. Thank you! Haha, the long answer was just what I wanted.

    Mm, I don’t know. I do think Balthasar has quite a rigorous methodology, in a certain sense. He has his twofold theory of ‘vision’ and ‘rapture’ in the aesthetics (GL1:126) and his, yes, reunion of theology with prayer (esp. “Theology and Sanctity,” ET1:181-210). I haven’t read TL1 though. But von Balthasar, it seems to me, is very concerned with such epistemological questions, but sees that in theology, these are properly spiritual questions. And he’s just following the tradition on this I think (see esp. Gregory of Nazianzus, “First Theological Oration”).

    Simply by his practice as well, you see he’s a very careful reader of texts, attentive to textual critical issues and willingly cedes many things to historical criticism. But when he deals with the Gospel of John, for instance, he clearly wants to overturn historical critical readings and apply his own contemplative-aesthetic epistemology to the gospel text. So he appears premodern on that front. I’m not sure I could bring myself to count that against him though.

    And maybe Lonergan and von Balthasar aren’t finally incompatible. But I am slightly concerned that Lonergan is much more ‘modern’ than von Balthasar on questions of epistemological neutrality, etc. I’ll have to read and see.

    • I forgot to mention, another issue with Lonergan is that he does not do epistemology and other philosophy from within Christian theology, so some of his claims end up being very neutral (or even secular). But, I don’t think that the fact that his thought is modern is enough to reject it, because he is so often quite right (and is able to refute skepticism, materialism, and idealism if he is right). In a way it comes down to how we should interpret Barth’s claim that the method of theology should correspond to its object. With Barth, it is obvious that he neglected the subject that was doing theology; with Balthasar, though he didn’t neglect this subject, I’m still not sure that he was “scientific” enough in his analysis to lay an accurate enough foundation for theological method.

      In the end, I think that both Balthasar and Lonergan have similar emphases on Ignatian indiferencia as the key to accurate knowledge. But, I don’t know if Balthasar did enough to envision what theology looks like in a communal setting like a modern university, in which, as Lonergan points out, no one scholar can take up every specialty, and all need to collaborate with others according to some plan that is rooted in the nature of human cognition itself.

      (There was actually a debate about that among the Jesuits during the 70s and they rejected Lonergan’s proposal [brought by either Crowe or another disciple of Lonergan] and instead opted for a threefold division between Biblical studies, historical theology, and systematic theology/ethics. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to what they did, so these different divisions don’t typically collaborate much today. Non-Jesuit universities, from what I’ve heard, aren’t too much different. Even if they did want to collaborate, without a method like Lonergan’s, they wouldn’t know where to start or what goals to pursue. Lonergan, though, can tell us very accurately what it is we are doing when we are doing theology – his greatest strength, I think.)

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