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preface || intro || 1 ||  2 || 3 || 4 || 5 || 6 || 7 || 8 || 9 || 10 || 11 || 12 || Conclusion

Transforming Light



"...intellectual conversion alone is not enough.

It has to be made explicit..." 
Method in Theology,




On July 25, 1936, Lonergan was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of Saint Ignatius in Rome. The following year, upon the conclusion of his theological studies, he was sent to Amiens in France for the Jesuit "tertianship," a year of ascetical training and study. In his article, "Insight Revisited," he recounts an incident that took place during that tertianship year.

I did my tertianship in France at Amiens, but the moment memorable for the present account occurred after Easter when we were sent to Paris to the Ecole sociale populaire at Vanves to listen for a week to four leaders of the mouvements spécialisés of Catholic Action then in full swing. The founder of the school and still its Rector, Père Desbuquoix, had built the school in the teeth of great opposition, and had obtained the money to pay the workmen in the same last-minute style as that narrated by Teresa of Avila in her accounts of her foundations. He was a man I felt I must consult, for I had little hope of explaining to superiors what I wished to do and of persuading them to allow me to do it. So I obtained an appointment, and when the time came, I asked him how one reconciled obedience and initiative in the Society. He looked me over and said: "Go ahead and do it. If superiors do not stop you, that is obedience. If they do stop you, stop and that is obedience." The advice is hardly very exciting today but at the time it was a great relief.

Apparently Père Desbuquois' advice represented for Lonergan a tremendous encouragement to follow out his own interests and convictions. And so, in the fall of 1938 he returned to the Gregorian in Rome for graduate studies. Originally slated for further studies in philosophy, when the time came, the mandate was changed to theology. A letter from the Rector of the Gregorian to his Provincial in Canada is of particular interest to his future English-speaking students in theology:

Fr. Lonergan has left a splendid record behind him here; and we shall be happy to see him back for further studies. I would suggest -- supposing his own preferences are not too strong for one field rather than the other -- that he devote himself to Theology. In that Faculty there are hundreds of English-speaking students, who will be needing his help in the future.

Lonergan chose as his dissertation director Father Charles Boyer, S.J.. During his time in France he had asked someone who would be a good director in Rome, and been told: Boyer. Why? "He's intelligent." And the grounds for that view? "He's able to change, as he did on the question of the real distinction between essence and existence."

Throughout his life Lonergan's own intellectual conversion found expression in his reflections on methodology: the intellectually creative ways of asking and answering questions. Commenting on his earlier theological studies Lonergan noted:

I did my theology in Rome where we had a different professor for most of the treatises and so had the opportunity of seeing all the ways in which theology could be approached and taught.  One could grasp that we were being given the parts but if we wanted more than a heap we would have to write a book on the subject of method...

In his January 1935 letter to his superior he had criticized Catholic philosophers for their "make-believe" methodology and their unwillingness to seek explanation.

It is because the Catholic philosopher does not formally appeal to the principle of sufficient reason even when as a matter of fact that is what he is doing; he always tends to express his thought in the form of a demonstration by arguing that opposed views involve a contradiction. The method is sheer make-believe but to attack a method is a grand scale operation calling for a few volumes.

The "few volumes" eventually did appear during the next four decades, but he was aware at this early time of the need for reflection on method, not only in general, but specifically in terms of modern science and historical scholarship.

Regarding the latter area, as we mentioned earlier, in the early 1930's Christopher Dawson's book, The Age of the Gods, had convinced him of the importance of historical consciousness: developing a sense of "what was going forward" in a particular culture. During the first part of the twentieth century such historical consciousness and scholarship was beginning to penetrate into various areas of Catholic thought: the study of the Fathers of the Church, primitive Church history, and even the area of Scripture studies. In all of these areas this new historical awareness was having the effect of modifying and enlarging previous conceptions. Since Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris it was having this effect on the study of Thomas Aquinas.

To build on those past achievements and to contribute his own methodical insights and perspectives was the aim of Lonergan's doctoral dissertation. As we saw, his previous writings on the philosophy of history are erudite and with a contemporary relevance, especially in light of events in Europe at the time. Still, as Frederick Crowe has pointed out, at this point in his life, at the age of thirty-four, Lonergan would "turn aside from these bright dreams of youth to spend eleven years in apprenticeship to St. Thomas."



Lonergan chose as his topic the idea of operative grace, gratia operans, in St. Thomas. Years later his dissertation would be published under the title, Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. The topic found its origins in Augustine's conflict with the Pelagians:

How does God's grace act in the human person?  How does God, in the words of Ezekiel, pluck out our heart of stone and place within us a heart of flesh - particularly if our heart basically wants to remain in its stony condition? 

Such is the work of operative grace.

And what about our human freedom?  If our human freedom is to be taken seriously, does that make God dependent on our actions? How does the grace of God "cooperate" with our human freedom?

This problem had vexed  the Medieval theologians who reflected on Augustine's works.  One problem, as Lonergan expressed it, was to explain why everything was not grace. After all, what is there that is not a free gift of God?  The problem also vexed the Renaissance theologians after Thomas. They basically came down on two sides of the problem: the Dominican followers of Banez held for a physical predetermination in the free action of the will. On the other side, the Jesuit followers of Molina posited a mediating type of knowledge in God (a scientia media) which enabled God to know future free actions and what human beings "would do" in certain situations. This latter position, Lonergan remarked, was what his Suarezian teacher at Heythrop, Fr. Bolland, had held.

Lonergan soon concluded that both of the traditional explanations were insufficient. Both failed to set aside their initial interests and concerns to enter into the world and concerns of Aquinas. Noting his growing awareness of historical method, Lonergan noted:

My own experience of this change was in writing my doctoral dissertation. I had been brought up a Molinist. I was studying St. Thomas' thought on Gratia Operans, a study later published in Theological Studies, 1941-1942. Within a month or so it was completely evident to me that Molinism had no contribution to make to an understanding of Aquinas.

In the original introduction to his dissertation, Lonergan set out his methodological principles. Among these was the very form of speculative development itself. Such a scheme

is capable of synthesizing any possible set of historical data irrespective of their place and time, just as the science of mathematics constructs a generic scheme capable of synthesizing any possible set of quantitative phenomena.

Instead of either reading into the text hypotheses out of contemporary concerns or, on the other hand, like a "jelly-fish," just enumerating endless texts, the historian of ideas employs a "pincer" movement that moves from the speculative understanding of the most general ideas of a development to a concrete understanding of the developments manifested in the texts.

The core of the solution to understanding Aquinas' thought on grace is found in the "theorem" of the supernatural order. A theorem is a technical term with an exact philosophic definition whose implications are consistently faced and worked out within a total system of thought. It differs from a common sense term as the scientific term "acceleration" differs from the common term "going faster." The system of thought within which this theorem is to be understood is Aquinas' whole theology.

Aquinas himself took over this theorem of the supernatural from Philip, the Chancellor of the University of Paris. It implied the validity of the term "nature."

What Philip the Chancellor systematically posited was not the supernatural character of grace, for that was already known and acknowledged, but the validity of a line of reference termed nature.  In the long term and in the concrete the real alternatives remain charity and cupidity, the elect and the massa damnata.  But the whole problem lies in the abstract, in human thinking: the fallacy in early thought had been an unconscious confusion of the metaphysical abstraction, nature, with concrete data which do not quite correspond;  Philip's achievement was the creation of a mental perspective, the introduction of a set of coordinates, that eliminated the basic fallacy and its attendant host of anomalies.

Thomas took over Philip's achievement as the central core of his own massive theological Summae.  Within the context of his belief in the creative and redemptive action of God, Aquinas came to affirm the reality and consistency of "secondary causes," the reality and integrity of the world of natural creation. Commenting on his meaning some years later Lonergan noted:

It was urged that we have to drop the words "nature," "natural," that we should be content to speak with Scripture and the Fathers of God's grace and man's sinfulness.  Now I have no doubt that such words as "nature" and "natural"...can be abused.  But I also have no doubt that if we are not only going to speak about God's grace and man's sinfulness but also we are going to say what precisely we mean by such speaking, then we are going to have to find some third term over and above grace and sin.

For the grace  of God to be understood precisely as grace, as a free gift to one who cannot claim it as his right; and for sin to be understood as sin, as falling short of what one really is; then a middle term between sin and grace must be introduced.  Medieval theology, particularly in Aquinas, introduced such a term in the word "nature." Such was a revolution in the world of theory, the first of several that Lonergan studied during his lifetime.

Still this assertion of dogmatic continuity must not obscure the existence of a "Copernican revolution" in theory: the center of the whole issue shifted violently; certain developments were released at once; others followed in a series of intervals, change implying further change, till the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas mastered the situation.

In his dissertation Lonergan's intellectual conversion found expression in the discovery of the radically systematic character of Aquinas' thought on grace and the supernatural. The elements of this system are understood in their relationships to each other and not in common sense categories. In this area Aquinas adopts and transposes Aristotle's systematic metaphysics for his own theological ends.

In all of this the undertow of Aristotelian philosophy is felt. Treating of the Church's appeal to reason in his notes on the philosophy of history, Lonergan had noted:

The purely scientific character of the appeal to reason as well as the definition of the limits of that appeal was more than emphasized by the audacity of St. Thomas of Aquin who based his thought on Aristotle precisely because Aristotle was the most scientific.

In the introduction to his dissertation Lonergan pays tribute to the centrality of Aristotle in the history of philosophy.

Philosophy as philosophia perennis is man's apprehension of the eternal and immutable. Like all limited being, it is potentiality and achievement, dunamis and energeia, potency and act. Its potency is the love of wisdom: it is detachment, orientation, inspiration. Its act is the triumph of the reason systematically revealing the light of the eternal in the light of common day. For all time the potency is represented by Plato, the act by Aristotle.

Later Lonergan would use a culinary image to speak of the relationship of Plato to Aristotle:

Nobody would be able to read Aristotle if he hadn't studied Plato..You have to have the hors d'oeuvres before you start eating the meal.

Plato, inspired by Socrates, set the questions for philosophy: what is the real as opposed to the merely apparent? true knowledge as opposed to opinion? What does it mean to know something?

As Lonergan would often point out, Plato's Socrates sought universal definitions: what is the meaning of justice? He sought a definition that refers to every instance of justice and only to justice. Neither he nor the Athenians were able to come up with such a definition. But the difference between them was that he knew that he did not know, but they, thinking they knew, did not know. His was a docta ignorantia, a learned ignorance. He revealed to his fellow citizens the confusion in their own minds and the Delphic oracle deemed him the wisest of all because he knew that he did not know.

To Plato's questions Aristotle brought science and system. He could supply those definitions by means of his theoretical framework in which the terms fixed the relationships and the relationships fixed the terms and both were grasped in a synthetic unity by the human mind. It was Aristotle's whole metaphysical "system" that, by way of the Arabs, had entered into the medieval university and was the cultural "coin of the realm" in which philosophical and theological issues were joined. Through the Arab philosophers Aristotelian categories had penetrated the medieval universities.

The Thomists were quoting Aristotle in the same way they were quoting Augustine, except that they quoted Aristotle more frequently. (Anyone quoted was for them a "Father of the Church.") But Aristotle was serving quite a different purpose than Augustine. He was supplying them with the means of having a coherent set of solutions when they were solving questions. He was supplying them with what is called a conceptuality, a Begrifflichkeit -- in other words, a set of terms and relations where the terms fix the relations and the relations fix the terms and the whole set is verifiable.

So Aquinas employed Aristotle's whole conceptual framework with its interlocking terms and relationships to flesh out the whole order of nature. Aristotle's interlocking network of terms: matter and form, substance and accident, habits and acts, etc., are used by Aquinas to solve all kinds of problems that had baffled previous theologians and writers.

The value of such a system was that it was theoretical: it presented a basic set of terms and principles with which to handle a multitude of problems.  It was, to use the word Lonergan loved, methodical. Aquinas transposed such method into the medieval context of the questio, the technique of systematically asking and answering questions. Speaking of Aquinas' Contra Gentiles, Lonergan says:

If one reads a series of successive chapters, one finds the same arguments recurring over and over in ever slightly different forms; what was going forward when the Contra Gentiles was being written, was the differentiation of operations and their conjunction in ever fresh combinations.

This will basically be the underlying form of Lonergan's own method. But our point here is that in order for Lonergan to have understood Aquinas, it was necessary for him to have already broken through personally into an explicit understanding of what years later he will call "the world of theory."

If man's practical bent is to be liberated from magic and turned toward the development of science, if his critical bent is to be liberated from myth and turned towards the development of philosophy, if his religious concern is to renounce aberrations and accept purification, then all three will be served by a differentiation of consciousness, a recognition of a world of theory. In such a world things are conceived and known, not in their relations to our sensory apparatus or to our needs and desires, but in the relations constituted by their uniform interactions with one another...This differentiation of consciousness is illustrated by the Platonic contrast of the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds, of Aristotle's distinction and correlation of what is first for us and what is first absolutely, of Aquinas' hymns and his systematic theology...


Besides the pervasive evidence of Lonergan's "systematic" understanding of Aquinas that made it possible for him to understand both the development of Christian thought up to Aquinas and the development within Aquinas' own understanding, perhaps the most evident instance of Lonergan's own intellectual conversion can be discerned in the sections dealing with Aquinas' understanding of divine transcendence and human liberty. According to Lonergan Aquinas had at hand the tools, such as a theory of human liberty, with which it was possible to show actual grace as both operative and cooperative.

The free act emerges from, and is conditioned by, created antecedents over which freedom has no direct control. It follows that it is possible for God to manipulate these antecedents and through such manipulation to exercise a control over free acts themselves...Indeed, both above and below, both right and left, the free choice has determinants over which it exercises no control. God directly controls the orientation of the will to ends; indirectly he controls the situations which intellect apprehends and in which will has to choose; indirectly he also controls both the higher determinants of intellectual attitude or mental pattern and the lower determinants of mood and temperament; finally, each choice is free only hic et nunc, for no man can decide today what he is to will tomorrow. There is no end of room for God to work on the free choice without violating it, to govern above its self-governance, to set the stage and guide the reactions and give each character its personal role in the drama of life.

Still, none of these created antecedents can be rigorous determinants of the person's free choice: God alone has the property of transcendence. As Augustine's major intellectual break-through was from a corporeal way of thinking about the divine, so Lonergan articulated the same breakthrough systematically in Gratia Operans.

It is only in the logico-metaphysical simultaneity of the atemporal present that God's knowledge is infallible, his will irresistible, his action efficacious. He exercises control through the created antecedents - true enough; but that is not the infallible, the irresistible, the efficacious, which has its ground not in the creature but in the uncreated, which has its moment not in time but in the cooperation of eternal uncreated action with created and temporal action. Again, the antecedents per se always incline to the right and good. But the consequent act may be good or it may be sinful: if it is good, all the credit is God's, and the creature is only his instrument; but if it is evil, then inasmuch as it is sin as such, it is a surd...and so in the causal order a first for which the sinner alone is responsible.

Furthermore, God acts in human lives, both providentially and through actual grace. But such action does not involve any change in God. In fact, the projection of such change onto the divine involves a "picture thinking," a projection of human common sense categories onto the transcendent action of God. It is similar to the intellectual error from which Augustine had to break on the way to his own religious conversion.

In this regard, Lonergan considers the objection that if God knows every event infallibly, if he wills it irresistibly, if he effects it with absolute efficacy, then every event must be necessary and none can be contingent. To this objection Lonergan, following St. Thomas, replies:

The first fallacy lies in a misconception of time. To a temporal being our four-dimensional universe has three sections: past, present and future. To an eternal "now" this division is meaningless. On this point St. Thomas never had the slightest doubt: he was always above our pre-Einsteinian illusions that still are maintained by our cosmology manuals; strenuously and consistently he maintained that all events are present to God.

He adds in a footnote, "before time" is "an illusory figment of the imagination."

The second fallacy lies in supposing God's knowledge of the creature or his activity are some reality in God that would not be there if He had not created. Yet,

God is immutable. He is entitatively identical whether he creates or does not create. His knowledge or will or production of the created universe adds only a relatio rationis to the actus purus. They are predications by extrinsic denomination. Further, it is to be observed that a fallacy on this point is closely connected with fallacious ideas of time. For there can be no predication by extrinsic denomination without the actuality of the extrinsic denominator: else the adaequatio veritatis is not satisfied. Accordingly, to assert that God knows this creature or event, that he wills it, that he effects it, is also ipso facto to assert that the creature or event actually is.

To assert that God acts in time is not to project any real change onto God. It is to assert that the assertion, "God acts in time," is true.

Finally, Lonergan points to another and more basic fallacy often present in conceiving the divine action.

It fails to grasp that God is not some datum to be explained, that he is absolute explanation, pure intelligibility in himself, and the first cause and last end of everything else. Accordingly, attempts are made to explain God, to explain the attributes that are identical with God, to reconcile the predicates that have their ontological ground in the absolute simplicity of God. The result is a pseudo-profundity ending in insoluble problems, such as: How can God know the contingent? How can his concursus make him omnipotent without destroying human liberty? and so forth. So much for the fallacies that befog the issue and lead down blind alleys.

I am reminded of an interview Lonergan gave in 1970 in which he was asked about "critically grounding" a religion. His response links religion with intellectual conversion.

I put the question the other night. A person was demanding that I critically ground this religion and he was talking to Professor So and So and I went up to him and said, "Would you require Professor So and So to critically ground the love he has for his wife and children? Being in love is a fact, and it's what you are, it's existential. And your living flows from it. It's the first principle, as long as it lasts. It has its causes and its occasions and its conditions and all the rest of it. But while it's there it's the first principle and it's the source of all one's desires and fears, all the good one can see, and so on. And critically grounding knowledge isn't finding the ground for knowledge. It's already there. Being critical means eliminating the ordinary nonsense, the systematically misleading images and so on; the mythical account. Every scientific or philosophic breakthrough is the elimination of some myth in the pejorative sense; the flat earth, right on. But if you are in love it doesn't need any justification. It's the justification beyond anything else. Just as you don't explain God, God is the ultimate explanation.

On being asked: "Might not one then be deceived?" Lonergan replied:

One can be deceiving himself. If one is deceiving oneself one is not in love. One is mistaking something for love. Love is something that proves itself. 'By their fruits you shall know them,' and 'in fear and trembling work out your salvation' and all the rest of it. Love isn't cocksure, either.



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