the Lonerganiansfollowers of the late Bernard Lonergan, SJ, who
taught theology at Boston College from 1975 to 1983it 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
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 distinctionhis adherents will
tell youof 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
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,
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 faultsvoluntarily
admitted or pointed out by one's fellows in their overflowing
agapeand 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
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 Romeor, 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 interioritythat is, how God's word is manifest,
or revealed, in the workings of the human mind.
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 volumesagain, 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
To be fair, while Insight rambles and caromsfrom the scientific
method to Aquinas to Freudian psychologythere 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.
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 disciplinesin
the humanities, as well as in math and the hard scienceswould
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 thinkingwhat is going on in one's own mindand
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
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.
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 statesnot 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 formsor 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,
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 busthey'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 didwhich
may or may not be appropriate for our particular citybut how
they unconsciously went about thinking about what they dida
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-appropriationbut
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
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
Lonergan scholar Sebastian Moore, OSB, of Downside Abbey, Bath,
BC professor of philosophy Joseph Flanagan, SJ (left), and Lonergan
Workshop director Frederick Lawrence, associate professor of theology
All photos by Gary Wayne Gilbert