Between Tradition and the Modern World

An Introduction to the Thought of Fr. Bernard Lonergan

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By Giovanni Patriarca

ROME, Nov. 5, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The following is an interview with Patrick H. Byrne, professor of Philosophy at Boston College on the life and works of famed theologian, Fr. Bernard Lonergan.

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Q. A few days ago the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council was celebrated. What were the ideas, suggestions and expectations of Fr. Lonergan for this epochal event in the history of the Church?

Byrne: Lonergan wrote two articles that touched upon the Second Vatican Council: “Existenz and Aggiornamento,” and “Pope John’s Intention.” In both articles Lonergan points out the purpose of Vatican II was pastoral. That the challenge was proclaiming the Good News in the cultural context of the modern world, a world that had changed greatly. So the great effort of his work was to offer an analysis of culture that would facilitate the carrying forward the mission of Vatican II. As his own contributions, he first distinguished between “classicism” and “modern culture.” He identified five defining features of classicism, and five corresponding changes that characterize modern culture. He developed his method in theology for the sake of communicating the faith to a culture that was no longer classicist, rather than trying to insist that modern culture accept the faith on classicist terms.

Q. His thought is a great contribution to the philosophical debate of our days. He tried to read the modern times in the light of the tradition and in the wake of S. Augustine, S. Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman and other contemporaries. It is not only a remarkable synthesis but a real step forward. How can his philosophy and theology be briefly described?

Byrne: Of course to describe Lonergan’s philosophy and theology briefly is a very difficult task. I would say that the most important feature of Lonergan’s philosophy is his emphasis on the role that questioning and inquiry play in human knowing. Even though he entitled his famous book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, he could have well-chosen Inquiry: Human Intellect as Desiring for the title. According to Lonergan, inquiries or questions arise spontaneously in response to all of our experiences. They first come to consciousness as pre-linguistic, unarticulated desires for understanding and knowledge. We may be able to express our questions into language, and when we are successful in doing so, it is because the pre-linguistic question guides us in choosing the correct words. But whether we are able to put our questions into language or not, we become conscious of the “tension of inquiry” in the pre-linguistic question. This tension of inquiry is a desiring for what it lacks, understanding and knowledge. Only if we attain the desired understanding or knowledge will that particular desire be satisfied and only then will the tension of that inquiry be resolved and disappear. This means, of course, that insights are always related to the questions that they answer. So, important as insight is for Lonergan, inquiry and questioning are even more fundamental.

In Insight Lonergan distinguished between two kinds of questions: questions for intelligence (what? why? who? where? when? how? how many or how often? etc.) and questions for reflection (Is it so? Is it correct?). Questions for intelligence seek insights, but insights only grasp intelligible possibilities. They are therefore followed by questions for reflection, which seek something further – they seek to understand the sufficient reasons for affirming that the insight is a correct understanding, or the reasons for denying that it is correct. Underlying all questions for intelligence and reflection is what Lonergan called “the pure, unrestricted desire to know.” He argued that this desire is our “notion of being” because it intends all that is – everything about everything. This desire, this notion of being is the source of our self-transcendence (ever going beyond the limited understandings and knowledge we have attained this far) and is also the ground of the possibility that our knowledge is objective – not just phenomenal objectivity, but unconditional objectivity. He shows the implications of this approach for philosophy of science, psychoanalysis, social political philosophy, philosophy of history, metaphysics, hermeneutics and ethics.

As for his theology, the answer is much more complex. In Insight he develops a natural theology based on the analogy of God as an “unrestricted act of understanding.” He shows that it is philosophically meaningful to talk about God in this way, by showing that our unrestricted desire to know everything about everything can only be answered in an unrestricted act of understanding. He then shows that this unrestricted act of understanding has all the characteristics of the traditional theistic conception of God. In Insight he develops an account of sin and redemption based upon his earlier discussions in the book.

After Insight, Lonergan began to write also about the human “notion of value” which goes beyond our notion of being. By the notion of value he means that all of our questions about what is good and worthwhile and right arise from an unrestricted desire for the good, just as all our questions about being arise from the unrestricted desire to know.

In these post-Insight writings, Lonergan’s theology also develops to become more centered on the implications of the human unrestricted notion of value, and upon what he called “religious experience.” By religious experience he meant the state of consciousness that is the “basic and proper fulfilment” of the unrestricted notions of being and value. Drawing upon St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (5:5), he identified religious experience as the experience of “God’s love flooding our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.” He called this experience “Being in love in an unrestricted fashion.” He further identified religious conversion as the decision to accept this gift of love – to love the giver in return. While embracing all of Catholic teaching, Lonergan sought to develop a method for theology that would make God’s gift of love and religious conversion central.

Q. How can you define the so called “Generalized Empirical Method” (GEM), in which not only the exterior facts but also the data of consciousness are taken into consideration? This aspect seems to be very interesting for the contemporary scientific mentality.

Byrne: By empirical method, Lonergan meant the application of the operations of the cognitional structure to sense experiences. In other words, empirical method is a matter of carefully paying attention to sense data (“Be attentive.”); allowing questions for intelligence to arise and working diligently to get insights that answer them (“Be intelligent.”); and critically questioning one’s insights, and asking the further questions that need to be answered in order to attain a “virtually unconditioned” ground for verifying or falsifying one’s insights.

This method is practiced in common sense, everyday, ordinary knowing just as much as in science. But while common sense knowing is content to investigate phenomena only insofar as they relate to our ordinary needs, interests and concerns, scientists, according to Lonergan, wish to know how everything relates to everything else. So for Lonergan, the difference between scientists and ordinary people of good will is not so much that the latter are concerned with truth, while the latter are not. Rather, the difference is that scientists seek to understand and verify a far greater domain of relationships. So for example, physicists seek to understand how elementary particles interact, chemists how atoms and molecules interact, biologists how organisms and their environments (containing both molecules and other organisms) interact.

Lonergan identified three very broad categories of methods that scientific investigators have developed in order to facilitate discoveries and verifications – classical, statistical, and genetic methods. He also explained how the combined results of these three methods imply a particular kind of evolving world, which he called the world of “generalized emergent probability.”

On the other hand, by “generalized empirical method” Lonergan meant the methodical investigation of a wider field of experiences – the experiences of consciousness in addition to the experiences of sensations. For example, if someone is observing stars through a telescope, the pattern of spots of light against a black field in the sky is data of sense. But if the scientist also pays attention to the experience of seeing (in addition to the experience of the seen), the scientist has a larger field of data to investigate. The investigation becomes scientific insofar as the investigator is concerned to understand all the relations among experiences of consciousness, not just those that satisfy some need or interest or concern. A scientist of consciousness – someone using the generalized empirical method – would also find it useful to use the classical, statistical and genetic methods to better comprehend the data of consciousness – the activities of consciousness as experiencing. But Lonergan found it necessary to introduce a fourth kind of method – dialectical method – when human behaviour is investigated, because human behaviour can be irrational, unlike the rest of the natural world. Dialectical method is needed to properly investigate the irrational dimensions of the human phenomena. This would be the fullest meaning of generalized empirical method.

Q. Many people ignore that Fr. Lonergan did not hesitate, with a deep knowledge of mathematical and statistical tools, to investigate economic issues. In this moment of crisis, how can his approach be useful and come to the aid of a depersonalized society?

Byrne: As my discussion of generalized empirical method above indicates, Lonergan thought that statistical tools could be used very meaningfully in arriving at verified understandings of human behaviour. However, statistics is all too frequently used in very dehumanizing and depersonalizing ways. Lonergan’s analysis of statistics, however, helps us understand just what statistics does and does not understand. As with every kind of scientific method, statistics is designed to answer certain kinds of questions about the general field of relations among things. The proper object of statistical methods is a population – whether a population of people, or a population of plants or animals, or a “population” of coin tosses. Each and every member of a population has its own unique way of being and its own unique story. However, at the same time those unique individuals are also parts of a whole population. Statistics helps us understand some things about the populationas a whole(such as the probabilities of certain happenings within or to that population), things that could not be understood solely from knowledge of each the members of that population, even if such knowledge were complete. On the other hand, knowing the probabilities for a population does not replace the special knowledge of each of the members. The two kinds of knowledge are complementary, interrelated, and indispensable. Dehumanization sets in when probabilities are allowed to replace and eliminate the meaningful uniqueness of each individual. However, complete concentration upon the uniqueness of the members is also a distortion. In such complete concentration, we lose sight of the whole of the population, upon which each member depends in profound ways.