[This is hopefully the first in a series of critical readings of Nouvelle theologians that we hope to offer. Suggestions are welcome.]
Charles James, "Falling Into Subjectivism" (New Oxford Review, September 2003). Charles James, a convert from Anglicanism, is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, Academic Dean, and Provost at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California.
In a breathless article published in Crisis magazine (Feb. 2003), Michael Novak canonizes Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) as the St. Thomas Aquinas of our time. But Novak’s applause is so loud that the reader may overlook a vital point: Lonergan’s Kantianism gets the best of his Thomism, forcing him into the dead end of subjectivism. Lonergan’s philosophy rests ultimately on human experience rather than on a sturdy philosophy of being.
Novak is not alone in his praise of Lonergan. Workshops on Lonergan’s thought are held all over the world. He is studied in major seminaries in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. Boston College has long been a teaching center for his theology and philosophy. The Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto is busy publishing an edition of Lonergan’s writings on theology, philosophy, economics, education, and religion. The Institute’s scholarly journal, Method, is devoted to international Lonerganian research. There are even plans to create an icon of Lonergan!
Why do Novak and others offer such obeisance to Lonergan? First, for many theologians, the most attractive aspect of Lonergan’s thought is the new foundation he offers them. For theologians who long ago jettisoned the Thomistic philosophy of being, Lonergan offers a new grounding for theology. He seems to give us a new apologetic. Faced with the myriad of theological methods, he appears to provide a systematic and comprehensive approach to theology. Yet this new foundation is flawed in its fundamental structure. Second, he expresses his theology in the jargon of existentialism and phenomenology, the current lingua franca of the intellectual elite. Intent on communicating with contemporary intellectuals, many Catholic theologians replace the traditional language of Catholic philosophy with this new jargon. However, their flawed method keeps them from reaching their laudable goal. What they gain in communication they lose in substance. The language of experience never substitutes for the language of being. Third, although Lonergan uses the language of contemporary philosophy, he maintains many Thomistic terms. However, these terms are re-defined in order to support his experiential theory of knowledge. Let me focus on two of Lonergan’s central terms.
The monumental creativity of Lonergan’s thought revolves around his notion of “insight” and “conversion.” Insight was the central idea of Lonergan’s magnum opus, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957). This is the work mentioned in Novak’s article which impacted him so significantly as a theology student in Rome. He tells us that he and his fellow seminarians were “abuzz with the impending publication of Insight….”
The other central term is “conversion.” In his 1972 work Method in Theology, Lonergan displays a more obvious subjectivism as he tries to validate Christian doctrines by an appeal to the experience of conversion. Is it because Method so clearly betrays Lonergan’s false starting point that Novak fails to mention this work? Certainly Method has had a greater impact on theology than Insight. In Method Lonergan uses his experiential notion of conversion as a criterion of truth in theology, clearly basing doctrine on the weak foundation of a religious experience. Does the reluctance to compare Insight and Method, to read them together, bespeak an unease that Lonerganian theologians have with the intensified subjectivism of their master’s later work?
Lonergan’s work is of a piece. Certainly there is development and corrections are made, and certainly his entire corpus represents innumerable subject areas. Yet when read together one sees that Insight and Method share a common root. Method only develops and centralizes the experiential starting point of Insight. Method applies the notion of insight to the religious life by giving it a criterial importance in theology. The Lonerganian notion of conversion is religious insight writ large. It is easy to overlook the subjectivist consequences of Insight, as well as the weak philosophical roots of Method, if these books are not read together.
Now, to be fair, Lonergan does have a philosophy of being. Anyone who reads Insight knows this. But how does he derive his theory of being? Lonergan moves from human experience to his philosophy of being by means of a unique theory of consciousness. He follows Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal, arguing that the mind has an unquenchable desire to know. Yet our knowledge is ever limited by the constantly receding horizon of more knowledge. In short, we never gain complete knowledge or certainty about anything. But by the mere fact that we can recognize our knowledge as limited, we know that there exists an unlimited knowledge which indicates infinite being, which in turn points to God. Ergo, all human beings implicitly know that the Divine Mystery, the Infinite, the Absolute exists. In this way Lonergan makes the jump from the fact of human knowledge to the existence of God and to a new foundation for theology. Furthermore, if ordinary knowledge indicates God’s existence, it also implies something about our minds. Our minds operate according to a set of rules that allow us to order our experience. Human consciousness has a structure, says Lonergan. And this structure too serves as a criterion in philosophy and theology. If an idea or a fact violates this structure, it will be considered meaningless.
Lonergan uses this approach to formulate his notion of “being.” He defines being as the “unconditioned” which is always before us, the horizon of conditions which have yet to be fulfilled in our desire to understand a particular thing. The object or problem we want to understand implies this perfect knowledge which we cannot obtain. For Lonergan the “unconditioned” is being. He writes in Insight, “being itself is the to-be-known towards which that process [of knowing] heads.”
In other words, Lonergan’s notion of being is presupposed in his theory of human consciousness. Like Kant, Lonergan begins with a theory of the adequacy of the mind and tries to get outside to an understanding of objective reality. But can he? What he gives us is a notion of being shrouded in obscurity and defined by our experience. Unlike St. Thomas, who begins with a philosophy of being and ends with knowledge, Lonergan begins with knowledge and ends with an unknowable notion of being.
In Method Lonergan turns his attention to the more practical task of theological inquiry. In this work he builds a systematic procedure for understanding the way theology “mediates between a cultural matrix and the significance and role of religion in that matrix.” However, as soon as the reader begins to appreciate the stunning comprehensiveness of Lonergan’s approach, he notices that this method, like Lonergan’s philosophy of being, stands on a foundation of sand. Lonergan claims that as the mediating “functional specialties” of research, interpretation, history, and dialectic lead to the critical specialty known as foundations, conversion will occur in the researcher. This conversion is not only religious; it can be intellectual and moral as well. Indeed, to be an authentic conversion, which leads to an authentic life, it must include all three dimensions.
Observe how Lonergan’s theory of conversion functions in Method. It serves as a criterion just as insight and the structure of consciousness do in Insight. Just as in Insight, where the structure of the mind limits what can be known, indeed even limits our notion of being, so in Method conversion serves as a criterion of true and false doctrine. “Authenticity” becomes the touchstone:
On the present account of theological method, there has been worked out the criterion that is to guide the theologian in the exercise of his autonomy. [After explaining the other functional specialties] the functional specialty, foundations, determines which views are the positions that proceed from the presence of intellectual, moral and religious conversion and which are the counter-positions that reveal its absence. In other words, each theologian will judge the authenticity of the authors of views, and he will do so by the touchstone of his own authenticity. This, of course, is not a foolproof method. But it will tend to bring the unauthentic together and, indeed, to highlight their unauthenticity. The contrast between the two will not be lost on men of good will. (My italics)
Conversion, which engenders “authenticity” in the converted, serves as an expansion of Lonergan’s earlier notion of insight, now focused on theological study. It functions as a criterion for authentic doctrine. Yet both of these notions (“conversion” and “insight”) share an experiential intensity which precludes them from serving as reliable criteria of truth. Both share a non-conceptual and intuitional character. Novak could describe conversion in exactly the same way he describes insight: “The achievement of the blaze of insight, all inarticulate and rich and as-yet-unthematized as it may be, is the living fire of the mind.” This flash of experience is, in Novak’s opinion, even more significant than the conceptual intellect. Novak tells us that the conceptual intellect is “not the heart of understanding.” He claims that conceptual intellect “is the servant, not the master.” Does Novak mean to say that this blaze of insight comes first in the knowing process (as Lonergan says in Insight) or that this experience is the filter through which we authentically see the world (which Lonergan seems to suggest in Method)? Whichever it is, both interpretations make it impossible to disentangle the futility of our minds from objective truth. All we have is the assumption that what we experience truly represents the outside world. In both cases, Lonergan’s starting point remains subjectivist.
The subjectivism of Lonergan and Novak is unnecessary because in the Catholic tradition there are rich resources to accomplish their goals. First, if they want to build a reliable metaphysics for theology, which they both assume is necessary, they need only turn to Thomistic philosophy for a nuanced and comprehensive theory of being. Second, St. Thomas’s model of reason is broad enough to accommodate both strict rationality and intuition. Let me discuss Thomas’s philosophy of being first.
The dynamic and powerful philosophy of esse (existence) at the heart of Thomas’s philosophy rivals any contemporary metaphysics. To follow Kant’s assumption that our understanding of being is hidden in our understanding of human consciousness forces Novak to put experience before objectivity. But we all have different experiences. So what is true?
For Thomas, being has two aspects. First, being is “essence,” which human minds can apprehend. We form concepts out of our experience to enable us to think. Second, Thomas also understands being as existence (esse). The idea of esse, and the way Thomas uses the concept, is the unique philosophical contribution of the Angelic Doctor. Existence relates to essence as the actual relates to the potential. In other words, existence is the key to Thomas’s dynamic worldview. It serves as the engine that not only runs the world, but supplies meaning to all things. To use Thomas’s terminology, existence gives essence its meaning, its form.
Thomas always places existence before experience. There is always a world to experience and know. He asks: How well does my mind conform to the objective world? On the contrary, Novak and Lonergan ask: How well does the world conform to my mind? If you follow Thomas you begin with objective existence. If you follow Lonergan, as Novak does, you begin with your mind’s experiences. But beware, one’s starting point determines one’s ultimate conclusions. If what is true for you is not true for me, then we are awash in relativism.
For Lonergan, Thomas’s starting point is not adequate. Responding to the empirically minded philosophers in the U.S., Britain, and Canada, who largely reject the notion of “being” as meaningless, Lonergan chooses a third way, a way between the classical forms of Thomism and that of strict empiricism. In order to build a foundation for theology, Lonergan looks to Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century philosopher who also saw the need to build a foundation for religion. Reacting to the skepticism pervading “Enlightened” England and Germany, Kant argued that the interaction of our experience and the ordering structure of our mind produces knowledge. He said that if our experiences were not ordered by the rational mind, they would be blind. But if the rational mind never had any experiences, it would be empty. Hence, Kant concludes that if we want to gain assurance about our knowledge we have to look at these two components, namely, experience and reason.
We all know what experience is since it confronts us every day. But reason is another matter. Kant argued that in the very act of human reasoning lie all the weighty notions of philosophy, all the ideas philosophers have debated through the centuries. One of these hidden ideas is the idea of being. If we are ever to understand this perplexing concept we must first look within our rational selves. Here Kant takes the subjective turn, which Lonergan follows, leading both of them into confusion. This subjective starting point resulted in the exaltation of the self which pervades 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century philosophy.
Lonergan knows that as a Catholic theologian he cannot work without a metaphysics of some kind. Everyone needs some kind of foundation for his thought other than the shifting consensus of opinion or the shrill voice of arbitrary authority. One can suspend one’s theology in thin air as does Karl Barth, but that makes it impossible “to give a reason for the hope that is in us” (1 Pet. 3:15). So Lonergan opts for a compromise. He says, with Kant, that our five senses give us our experience of the world, but our minds provide the notion of being, the very thing we cannot experience. Hence, to understand being, we have to understand how the rational mind works. In short, we must begin with ourselves if we want to understand being.
Thomas, on the other hand, will not submerge being in human consciousness. Rather, objective being is the criterion he uses to measure thought. Thomas’s philosophy of being is a reliable foundation for truth (and beauty and goodness) precisely because it is not mind-dependent. Lonergan has forgotten a portion of sacred Scripture that Thomas held dear: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Apart from being, the second resource that a traditional (non-Kantian) Thomism provides is a unique doctrine of reason. One of the aspects of Lonergan’s thought that attracts Novak is the former’s emphasis on intuition. Lonergan calls it insight. Both Lonergan and Novak think this is new. Yet Thomas has a full-blown philosophy of rationality embellished by the spiritual character of his thought. What Novak calls “intuition” and Lonergan calls “insight,” Thomas calls connatural knowledge.
For Thomas there are two ways to understand something. One can study philosophy in order to understand, say, goodness. After sufficient study one can arrive at a definition of the good act. On the other hand, Thomas argues one can come to understand goodness by being a good man. That is, the goodness in one’s character answers to the goodness that one observes in the world. Using this approach, Thomas says one can come to the same depth of understanding as the philosopher. Thomas writes, “Now rightness in judging can come about in two ways, through the perfect use of reason or through a certain natural kinship (connaturalitas).” Also, “A correct judgment made through rational investigation belongs to the wisdom which is an intellectual virtue. But to judge aright through a certain fellowship with them [divine things] belongs to that wisdom which is the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Summa Theologica 2-2, 45, 2).
This connatural wisdom is not conceptual knowledge. It is intuitional and relational, requiring a more personal participation by the knower with the known. Thomas says that this kind of wisdom results from an “instinctual affinity” we experience with the object of knowledge. For example, we experience connatural knowing in our aesthetic appreciation of a work of art, in coming to know another person, or, as Thomas says, in the understanding of divine things. This kind of apprehension is experiential, insightful, and often like “a blaze of insight, all inarticulate and rich.” Novak and Lonergan do not need a Kantian subjective starting point to build their new foundation for theology. Thomas provides a philosophy of objective being and a nuanced model of reason that includes an intuitional aspect. Here is where Novak should look for his “more inward, experience-directed adaptation of Thomistic distinctions.” Here is where Lonergan can find a robust philosophy of being to free him from the foggy notions of “the unconditioned” and “the to-be-known towards which the [knowing] process heads.”
The dire consequences of this subjective drift in Catholic theology confront us every day. It is hardly an accident that the emergence of experience-based Catholic theologies (e.g., those of Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Lonergan) coincides with the moral decay we are now witnessing in the Church. The subjectivism inherent in these theologies encourages the moral indifference we witness in our bishops, seminaries, and Catholic universities. The atrophy of moral nerve in leadership in the Church is the result of years of training. What the American Church is witnessing in her priests and people is the harvest of a formation in subjectivity. In many Catholic seminaries and universities the leadership seems incapable of speaking with a distinctive Catholic voice concerning pedophilic priests, homosexual behavior, abortion, and Church doctrine. Our moral nerve center has been tranquilized by subjectivity. People with such a distorted spiritual condition may be politically savvy and may even sound Catholic, but when forced to stand up for the truth, they become conspicuously mute.
We expect postmodern philosophers such as Theodore Adorno, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida to reject scientific reason in favor of some form of subjectivism. They see cold instrumental reason as a tool in the hands of the dominators of society. With Heidegger they look into the face of our technolatry and foresee cultural catastrophe. So they reject reason for the sake of humanity.
As a consequence of their rejection of reason, they deride the moral teaching of the Church. Yet Catholic theologians, who should be defending Christian faith and morality, adopt a subjective starting point themselves that plays directly into the hands of postmodern nihilism.
The Catholic Church enjoys a sure foundation in her perennial realism. Following St. Thomas, she acknowledges the objectivity of God’s world and the capacity of the human mind to understand it. She relies on natural reason to bring her to the threshold of faith and trusts divine revelation to carry her the rest of the way. She does not reduce human reason to the calculative model of the scientist, but finds her reason deepened by the gift of faith. Neither does she abandon her responsibility to think. Like her Lord, the Church’s rationality participates in both time and eternity — the work of human hands and divine grace. If one of these wings of the human spirit is injured, truth becomes inaccessible and goodness languishes. Surely, if we follow Novak and Lonergan we will stumble into the same quagmire of subjectivity.
The foregoing review article by Charles James, "Falling Into Subjectivism," was originally published in the New Oxford Review (September 2003), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.
[Hat tip to Sir A.S.]