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To his followers, Bernard Lonergan, SJ, was the most important theologian, psychologist, economist, philosopher you never heard of.

A group of Lonerganians at the 29th Annual Lonergan Workshop, holding a portrait of Bernard Lonergan himself, from his time as a BC professor


To understand the Lonerganians—followers of the late Bernard Lonergan, SJ, who taught theology at Boston College from 1975 to 1983—it might be best to start with a quotation from Patrick H. Byrne, the BC professor of philosophy who on June 21, 2002, was delivering a talk at the 29th Annual Lonergan Workshop. The Lonergan Workshop, it helps to know, was founded in 1974 as an annual series of seminars on the ideas of Fr. Lonergan. The first workshops were led by Lonergan himself, but since his death in 1984, they have been held in his memory, and each year they draw to Boston College about a hundred scholars, professors, priests, theology students, and others devoted or curious.

The paper Byrne was presenting—"Ethics in a Growth Economy?"—was a complex explication of Lonergan's macroeconomic beliefs (Lonergan wrote papers on economics, as well as on ethics, epistemology, theology, and philosophy). Byrne used a lot of charts that contained a lot of arrows, and at least some in the audience, untrained in economics, struggled to keep their heads in the lecture. But what was most interesting was how Byrne began his talk. He said that before getting into the meat of his discussion, he wanted to caution people against a disturbing trend among Lonerganians to regard "non-Lonergan economists" with suspicion. While Lonergan is hugely important, Byrne said, one commits a mistake in "regarding Lonergan's as the only true economics." Other economists, Byrne reminded the morning's crowd of 75 or so, matter too.

And everyone nodded, as if to say, Yes, of course, Lonergan may be the world's most important economist, but he's not the only one.

The followers of Bernard Lonergan, SJ, would say he was the most important thinker of the 20th century. According to Robert M. Doran, SJ, a theologian at the University of Toronto, "Lonergan has done for theology in the 20th and 21st centuries what Aquinas did in the 13th." Lonergan has the distinction—his adherents will tell you—of writing at length, and with deep scholastic learning, in about a dozen fields.

But the problem, you see, is that most economists have never, ever heard of Bernard Lonergan. Most philosophers have never heard of him, either. Most theologians have never heard of him. And even in Catholic universities, many, many professors have never read Lonergan.

There are some authors who have the ability to inspire devotion, to call forth a cadre of bookish, obsessive disciples by writing long, obscure doorstop books that demand more than an afternoon at a beach. The books they write, whether J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, or Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, are huge and imposing; most people who pick them up flip through a couple of pages and decide they have better things to do with their hours. But for those who catch the fever, such volumes become the architecture around which to build their lives and construct meaning. Lonergan, in his own peculiar way, has had this effect.

Bernard Lonergan was born in 1904 in Ontario; his father was an Irish-Canadian engineer, and his mother's family was English. At 13, he left home for Loyola College, a Jesuit school in Montreal, and from there he entered the Jesuit novitiate in the provincial Ontario town of Guelph.

Frederick Crowe, SJ, director emeritus of the University of Toronto's Lonergan Research Institute and arguably the greatest of Lonergan scholars, describes the early years of Lonergan's training with a prosaic detachment that reminds us how foreign the world before Vatican II can seem. There were, he says,

readings of course, in the life of Christ and the saints, the Imitation of Christ, the Jesuit legal and spiritual documents, the old faithful by Alphonsus Rodriguez (1532-1617), The Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues. There were the instructions from the master of novices . . . "exhortations" preached by various grave fathers in the community, and so on. There were penances, publication of faults—voluntarily admitted or pointed out by one's fellows in their overflowing agape—and there was a lot of prayer . . . the slowest of all practices to learn.

It was a life that taught patience, discipline, and serious, if narrowly tailored, study, and these were the traits that Lonergan would bring to his intellectual work.

In 1926, Lonergan went to England to study philosophy, then returned to teach at his old school, Loyola, in Montreal. From 1933 to 1937, he studied theology in Rome. Lonergan had not been a prize pupil in his early studies, but at some point in Rome he developed heady ambitions, exemplified by a 1935 letter to his superior, which states, "I can put together a Thomistic metaphysic of history that will throw Hegel and Marx, despite the enormity of their influence on this very account, into the shade. I have a draft of this already written as I have of everything else. It takes the 'objective and inevitable laws' of economics, of psychology (environment, tradition) and of progress  . . . to find the higher synthesis of these laws in the mystical body."

Lonergan had apparently been reading Hegel and Marx, not exactly required reading for a young priest in Rome—or, more properly put, in fascist Italy. It's clear that he was already daring to think thoughts that lacked the Church's imprimatur.

The records of Gregorian University in Rome show that on December 6, 1938, Lonergan's thesis topic, "A History of St Thomas's Thought on Operative Grace," was approved in the field of theology, a change from his earlier concentration of philosophy. The dissertation was finished by 1940, but Lonergan, to use his own oft-quoted words, needed 11 years to "[reach] up to the mind of Aquinas." He continued studying the Thomist tradition until 1949, and during the last three of those years he published a series of articles about Thomas's cognitional theory specifically, about how Thomas understood the process of coming to know things. His interests were shifting from more proper theological questions about grace to more radical questions of interiority—that is, how God's word is manifest, or revealed, in the workings of the human mind.

BC philosophy professor Patrick Byrne (center), flanked by Kerry Cronin of the Lonergan Center and Robert Doran, SJ, of the University of Toronto. The next eight years were occupied by Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, finally published in 1957; it was Lonergan's attempt to bring the "compelling genius" of Aquinas "to the problems of this later day." The book runs to 875 pages in the latest, definitive edition, and many scholars present at last June's Lonergan conference confessed to having never read the entire work. Certainly, few had read it straight through. And none described the book's contents in the same way. It quickly becomes apparent that Insight is one of those volumes—again, like the majestic tomes of Rand or Tolkien or Aquinas (or like the Bible, for that matter)—that draw people who are attracted to vast oceans of thinking. Lonerganians are the kind of people who like to jump in and swim around with ideas, then emerge dripping wet and wait to see what clings and what sloughs off. It's the temperament that enjoys Hegel, too, and Joyce; it's not a temperament drawn to Edward Hopper or Robert Frost, both so plainspoken and slightly ironic. Lonergan is earnest and unrestrained. He's always making lists and taxonomies, like St. Thomas, but with a romantic, effulgent urgency. Reading Lonergan, you're not always sure what he's saying, but you're sure it's awfully important.

To be fair, while Insight rambles and caroms—from the scientific method to Aquinas to Freudian psychology—there are a few main themes. First, what matters is not what we know, but what is happening when we are knowing. Where does the desire to know come from, and what is going on in our minds when we believe or wonder? How can we pay better attention to that? Second, then, is Lonergan's belief that the most important empirical data comes from the self. Yes, we are to observe phenomena in the world around us, but the ladder of questing that eventually leads to direct experience of the divine begins by paying attention to one's own mental processes: "The aim is not to set forth a list of the abstract properties of human knowledge but to assist the reader in effecting a personal appropriation of the concrete, dynamic structure immanent and recurrently operative in his own cognitional activities." In other words, to think effectively, one must become aware of the natural and historical forces that shape how we think; in becoming aware of them, we make them our own. We begin to know our prejudices and preconceptions, to learn what levers are operative in the thinking machine that is our brain. We can then better control those levers, rather than being controlled by them.

Lonergan scholar Sebastian Moore, OSB, of Downside Abbey, Bath, EnglandThird, then, this is not a hopeless task but one in which we can make progress; if we are careful and patient, we can become more successful at this "self-appropriation," to use the Lonerganians' favorite word. And fourth, such progress will come in part by paying attention to history. So, in Insight, Lonergan discusses thinkers like Isaac Newton with an eye to the mental processes that led them to their discoveries; Lonergan's implication is that theologians can learn from the history of science (or statecraft, or art), and not just from the inward-looking history of theology.

In his 1971 Method in Theology, Lonergan's other important book (he also wrote scores of papers and lectures that are part of an ambitious, 25-volume publishing project at the University of Toronto Press), Lonergan takes his argument that all disciplines—in the humanities, as well as in math and the hard sciences—would have their own paths to insight and self-appropriation, and turns it toward the discipline he knew best, theology. He describes in close detail what he calls the "transcendental method," which is a fourfold process comprising "experiencing," "understanding," "judging," and "deciding." But it's more, because each of those processes must itself be recursively applied to each of the processes.

To read Lonergan's description of the transcendental method is to appreciate how he is just specific enough to seem useful, and just vague enough to seem very meaningful:

To apply the operations as intentional to the operations as conscious is a fourfold matter of (1) experiencing one's experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding, (2) understanding the unity and relations of one's experienced experiencing, understanding, judging, deciding, (3) affirming the reality of one's experienced and understood experiencing, understanding, judging, deciding, and (4) deciding to operate in accord with the norms immanent in the spontaneous relatedness of one's experienced, understood, affirmed experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding.

Now, I don't really know what that means. But I sort of know what that means, and that's part of why Lonergan seduces some people. Lonergan is advocating a general project of paying attention to one's own experience of thinking—what is going on in one's own mind—and taking it seriously. But he is not telling us what we will learn by paying attention; he's letting us draw our own conclusions. Each of us has a different brain, so we each have different mental experiences, and so what will be good theology or ethics, say, for one person might not work for another. What's more, Lonergan's own writing is the perfect text on which to apply his method, because it's just unclear enough to allow for varying experiences by his readers.

This shift in authority away from doctrinal tradition is particularly shocking coming from a scholastically trained Jesuit, and it proved very liberating for some Catholics. Here was a very brilliant, learned theologian, with the full weight of Catholic tradition behind him, saying it was okay to think for oneself. Writing in the decades surrounding Vatican II, which, in its way, was also about letting the laity and lower ranks of the clergy think for themselves, Lonergan seemed to be something unusual for a Catholic theologian: He was current.

Lonergan was in some ways a perfect creature of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He didn't quite say, "Don't trust anyone over 30," but his message that it was okay to trust yourself appealed to young philosophy students particularly. His model of how the personality is formed drew on hip psychologists like Erik Erikson and Abraham Maslow. And while he never endorsed the situation ethics that were riling Protestant circles (where, for instance, the academic ethicist Joseph Fletcher was questioning the overly strict Ten Commandments), Lonergan almost seemed to say that the best validation of ethics was not doctrine but common sense, ratified by the solitary Christian deep in contemplation. One hears echoes of the mystic Thomas Merton and of the earlier existentialists.

BC professor of philosophy Joseph Flanagan, SJ (left), and Lonergan Workshop director Frederick Lawrence, associate professor of theology BC philosophy professor Joseph Flanagan, SJ, says of his student days in the early 1950s, "What happened in Catholic circles is existentialism came in, had an immediate impact on people, and they could relate it to their conscious experience, while scholastic philosophy seemed abstract." Some skeptical young Catholics stayed in the priesthood, Byrne says, "because Lonergan was working out of his own personal experience. Lonergan opened the whole world of interiority to us." For students chafing against the rigidity of the Church, Lonergan cracked open a window to freedom.

So Lonergan was scientific in his theology, constructing the transcendental method as the means to pay attention to our thought, pay attention to our paying attention, and so forth. But Lonergan was also radically unscientific, in that he encouraged reflection unyoked to authority. It's not surprising that panel discussions at the Lonergan Institute are liberal, even leftist, in flavor: The conference last June featured critiques of American foreign policy that one might expect to read in The Nation. These are people whose unwillingness to trust tradition or authority drew them to Lonergan. For Lonergan, the only thing you must do is do your own thing. Lonergan presumably never had sex or smoked a joint, and he always went where his superior told him to. But the spirit of the 1960s hovers about his books, and about his followers, who are a bit mystical, definitely rebellious, certain that there are no certainties, and at times totally inscrutable.

Lonerganians are distinctive without looking like cultists. They look like disheveled intellectuals: They are slightly rumpled priests, women wearing natural fibers, and young graduate students with ponytails. It is the cross section of people you might have met on a Catholic campus 30 years ago, and still quite possibly today. Like many Sixties folks, Lonerganians are individualists who, paradoxically, choose to follow a guru. They escape from one orthodoxy into another, the orthodoxy of no orthodoxy. This becomes most evident in the Lonerganian view of non-Catholic religions.

As pluralist Americans, most of us like the idea of tolerating other religions; but religious tolerance was not, until the 1960s, an ideal cherished by Roman Catholicism, which historically has encouraged theocracies, or at least theological states—not just Christianity, but Christendom. In the fourth chapter of Method in Theology, Lonergan outlines a countervailing philosophy of religion. It is in our nature, he says, to be curious, to question. "Once we begin to question, we can begin to apply the transcendental method, to question what we're doing when we question. We can inquire into the possibility of fruitful inquiry. We can reflect on the nature of reflection. We can deliberate whether our deliberating is worthwhile. In each case, there arises the question of God; [for] we grant that the universe is intelligible, and, once that is granted, there arises the question whether the universe could be intelligible without having an intelligent ground. But that is the question about God."

God, then, is more a question than an answer. Lonergan goes on to say that this "question will be manifested differently in the different stages of man's historical development and in the many varieties of his culture." And when our questioning leads us to love of God, that love will take different forms—or different religions. Lonergan follows the German scholar Friedrich Heiler (1892-1967) in saying that those different religions will have a lot in common. For example, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism all believe in love of one's neighbor; in repentance, self-denial, and prayer; and in a transcendent reality. Recognizing how much truth there is in all those religions, Catholics ought to be a bit humbled.

In his 1969 lecture "Faith and Beliefs," Lonergan stated his ecumenical case even more plainly. Just as "a basic component of religious involvement among Christians is God's gift of his love . . . the same may be said of religious involvement in all the world religions." In a later paper, he writes, "I am inclined to interpret the religions of mankind, in their positive moment, as the fruit of the gift of the Spirit." One final quotation, from a 1973 interview: "So you can have an experience of God's gift of his love. . . . It's an experience you can see on the face of the Buddha."

Lonergan never wavered on his own commitment to Christianity, and the last chapter of Method in Theology purports the Church's obligation to evangelize—"The Church is an out-going process. It exists not just for itself but for mankind." Yet by spending thousands of pages over an entire career focusing on the process of theological inquiry, rather than on the result, Lonergan gave the ultimate ecumenical permission, suggesting that doctrine might, possibly, be superseded by social science. An anthropologist or psychologist could study other religions not for their heresies, or even with the pragmatic goal of enabling interfaith dialogue, but rather with the hope of seeing sparks, non-Catholic sparks, of divinity.

As a result of Lonergan's range, even Catholic academics working in distinctly nontheological fields enjoy allying themselves with him. During my two days at last spring's Lonergan Institute conference at BC, the most engaging talk was given by Paul Kidder, chair of the philosophy department at Seattle University. In "The City as a Work of Art," Kidder described the "urban self-appropriation" of Fremont, an artsy neighborhood of Seattle. Offering a "Lonerganian" reading of Fremont's architecture, he described how a collection of creative souls had combined their ingenuity and quirky taste to create a witty landscape, fun and inviting for both children and adults. Here's a giant troll statue underneath a bridge, over there is a life-size sculpture of people waiting for a bus—they're dressed up in seasonal clothes that are changed according to the locals' judgment. At one prominent intersection sits a statue of Lenin, rescued from the Soviet bloc's final days.

The denizens have, clearly, engaged in something that could be called self-appropriation in the vernacular sense: They have, consciously, made the neighborhood their own. Kidder's explicitly Lonerganian move, as he later explained to me, was to attempt "to bring to consciousness the natural, political, social, cultural, and symbolic forces that surround us in cities and inhabit our psyches, but which we often ignore in our daily activities." How, in other words, are Fremont's urban dwellers thinking when they think about their neighborhood? If we wanted to make a neighborhood like that, the Lonerganian says, we would need to know not just what they did—which may or may not be appropriate for our particular city—but how they unconsciously went about thinking about what they did—a process that might be helpful for anyone.

Kidder segued into a discussion of the architect Minoru Yamasaki, designer of the World Trade Center. The World Trade Center, Kidder reminded us, included Arab-flavored arches, a favorite motif of Yamasaki's. The terrorist attack on the buildings was, then, a cruelly meaningful act: A handful of Arabs (one of them schooled in urban planning), angry about western influence in Araby, attacked a symbol of western capitalism that had assimilated an emblem of Arab culture. Kidder was adamant that the United States had not brought this attack on itself, least of all through minor acts of architecture, but he implied that Yamasaki had, throughout his career, done a lot of thinking without thinking about his thinking. Yamasaki's "symbolism in the design contributed to the symbolic meaning it had in the eyes of its attackers," Kidder said. Had Yamasaki engaged in more self-appropriation, perhaps he would have spotted the culturally imperialist moves in his architecture. Kidder did not suggest the attacks were inspired by the architecture, but he seemed to say Yamasaki made potentially offensive work while remaining clueless about its effect.

To an outside observer, the illustrations Kidder offered don't seem to cry for a Lonerganian understanding. The idiosyncratic adornment of Fremont could be called an example of urban self-appropriation—but it could also be called whimsy, or just plain cool, or just happenstance. And criticisms of the kind Kidder levels at Yamasaki have been made before by non-Lonerganians, with no reference to theology. The songwriter Paul Simon was accused of cultural cannibalism when he made his Graceland album, using South African rhythms and hiring Ladysmith Black Mambazo as backup singers. And the literary critic Edward Said has famously described "orientalism," the artistic tendency to appropriate the Orient according to western fantasies.

Why, then, does a small cadre of teachers and priests wish to attribute such universal import to a late Jesuit, shy and retiring, who even his devoted followers say was not much of a talker?

At BC, Lonergan was known as difficult to talk to, rather aloof. "He was a solitary soul as far as I could tell," says Michael Kiefer, who was Lonergan's teaching assistant in the mid-1970s. "But he did like to go for strolls, and I walked the campus with him on several occasions." "Occasional walks" are about the most anyone got from him. So whence this charismatic pull? Lonergan was not the first to suggest that all world religions are significant manifestations of the divine, and he was not the first to inquire after the process of thinking. Lonergan scholars trumpet his noble quest to bring unity to disparate fields: Might religions someday converge in a common theology? Might a unified theory encompass not just physics, but all knowledge? Yet that was a quest of the ancients too.

Lonergan, though, was the first Jesuit to say these things, and he said them in the language of a new psychology that promised young, liberal seminarians a compass other than the popes. As John XXIII gave Catholics permission to follow a little less closely, some of them turned to Lonergan to understand what that might mean, how it might be done. While affirming their links to the Roman Catholic tradition, Lonergan showed them how they could engage the hippest of fields, from urban planning to post-Freudian analysis. They could have their faith and partake of the world, too.

The most loyal Lonerganians believe that only academic pettiness has kept Lonergan's writings in the Catholic ghetto (and a small corner of the ghetto, at that). Fred Lawrence, the director of BC's Lonergan Institute, says that most philosophers simply can't handle Lonergan's profundity. "He's asking people to change their basic assumptions," Lawrence says, and so most academic departments nervously shut the door and refuse entry. "Ever heard of jungle warfare?" Lawrence asks, in reference to academe. He's right, to an extent. But some very prominent theologians, especially David Tracy of the University of Chicago, do think that Lonergan is important (Tracy's first book, published in 1970, was titled The Achievement of Bernard Lonergan), and the Lonerganian ranks may be thickening. There are centers of Lonergan studies in Rome, Los Angeles, Toronto, Australia, Germany, Washington, D.C., and the Philippines; the most recent is a satellite of the Manila Lonergan Center that opened in Cebu City in 1994.

As with many academic "centers," these frequently comprise one or two scholars and a secretary. But the Lonergan community is industrious, publishes frequently, and will not quit soon. Its members point to Lonergan's pastoral qualities, how his writings give meaning to unhappy students alienated from the Church. "He gives direction to what my students are living," says BC philosopher Patrick Byrne, whose courses include "Foundations of Ethics," and "Lonergan's Insights."

"I remember clearly one student coming to me halfway through class and saying, 'I've kind of been at sea'—she used that term—'and this has given me a sense of direction.' And over and over again I've gotten that sense."

It's easy, after spending a little time with the Lonerganians and their writings, to wish them well in their project. They're smart and, sometimes, right. We do need to think more about method in the humanities, and we do need to pay more attention to the act of thinking itself. As American intellectual life fights for its place among the Wal-Marts, and as we devote more of each day to AOL, Lonergan is a useful reminder that deep learning ought to be fashionable.

Lonergan's books may not solve all life's problems, but it's inspiring that there are people who think the solutions might be found in books. The obsessive mind, whether turned toward Tolkien, Rand, or Lonergan, is a beautiful thing; the questing intellect is one of God's gifts. Even if Bernard Lonergan is never taken seriously as an economist, even if he never becomes canonical as a theologian, the people who labor in his vineyards remind us that an eccentric passion can be a good thing.

Mark Oppenheimer is the author of Knocking on Heaven's Door: Religion in the Age of Counterculture, to be published in October by Yale University Press. The 30th Annual Lonergan Workshop will take place at Boston College this June.

Photos (from top):

A group of Lonerganians at the 29th Annual Lonergan Workshop, holding a portrait of Bernard Lonergan himself, from his time as a BC professor

BC philosophy professor Patrick Byrne (center), flanked by Kerry Cronin of the Lonergan Center and Robert Doran, SJ, of the University of Toronto.

Lonergan scholar Sebastian Moore, OSB, of Downside Abbey, Bath, England

BC professor of philosophy Joseph Flanagan, SJ (left), and Lonergan Workshop director Frederick Lawrence, associate professor of theology

All photos by Gary Wayne Gilbert

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