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.