Korea, June 2011

Talking about Lonergan in Korea

To introduce a discussion about how to talk about communicating the thought of the influential philosopher and theologian Fr. Bernard Lonergan, SJ (1904-1984) within the context of higher education in South Korea (and specifically at Sogang University, a Jesuit institution in Seoul), a few words need to be said about the work and thought of Dr. Chae Young Kim, who heads the Department of Religious Studies at Sogang University.

At the invitation of Dr. Kim, in recent years a number of us have traveled to Korea at different times to give talks about the meaning and the importance of Lonergan's philosophy and theology.  After earlier individual visits made to Korea by myself and Dr. David Fleischacker, our Lonergan Institute, which is headquartered here at St. Anselm’s Abbey, organized and presented a four-day conference about Lonergan at Sogang University in June 2010.  Multiple talks and lectures were given by Dr. Fleischacker, Fr. Linus Kpalap, Mr. Roland Krismer, and myself.  We had been asked to focus on key turning points present within Lonergan's Insight: A Study of Human Understanding and his Method in Theology. We were also asked to give two major lectures: on the Trinity and on Christology. These lectures illustrated how Lonergan's philosophy of cognition can be used to answer questions or resolve problems as these can arise within theology.

This current year, in June 2011, Roland Krismer and I returned to Sogang to give talks of instruction to undergraduate and graduate students about salient points found in Lonergan's philosophy and theology. A second Lonergan conference is now being planned, one that will probably be held again at the same university.  In planning for this conference, we are giving much thought about how better to present Lonergan's thought in a Korean context. What would be a point of departure that would be more effective than that used in the past? How can Lonergan's understanding of the human subject be spoken about in a way that is not conditioned by presuppositions and values that are endemic to contemporary western culture?  In the West, we can usually talk with persons who already know a little bit about Plato, a little bit about Aristotle, a little bit about Kant, and a little bit about Hegel. For this reason, in our choice of topics and in our whole approach, we can combine all these elements in a way which can help persons move toward an understanding of human interiority that can change the way they think and act. But if we want to talk about Lonergan in Korea (or elsewhere in the Far East), an approach must be found which can reach minds and hearts that have been informed by intellectual and cultural traditions which differ considerably from those common in the West.

In the talks we have given at Sogang University, we speak in English and then Chae Young regularly provides an explanation or a summary in Korean. We also try to produce texts and outlines in English which are distributed to conference participants since we know that it is usually easier to read the words of another language than to speak or hear them. Hence, in this work, what is communicated to students is done largely through the mediation which Chae Young can provide through the way he understands Lonergan's thought and employs that thought to further the cause of interreligious dialogue in a highly pluralistic religious and cultural context.  In order to further the cause of such dialogue in a way which can lead to a true and genuine building of human community in our world, we need to work with a philosophy which can transcend religious and cultural divides and which does not alienate a person or community from everything which is good and valuable within their own cultural and religious tradition. These considerations help to explain why, for Chae Young Kim, Lonergan's philosophy of human interiority can help in solving problems that arise within our current experience of religious and cultural pluralism and that sometimes lead to serious disagreements between various persons and groups. Some forms of pluralism suggest different stages of development, but others suggest an absence or lack of any real development. How, for instance, can we distinguish between progress and decline amid the ups and downs of human history? Again, very many problems have no adequate human solution. In fact, problems and difficulties which are without an adequate human solution suggest the possibility or even the probability that the only proper solution is one that can only be given to us by God through some kind of revelation made by him.

Understanding how a divinely bestowed solution fits into our human world accordingly explains why Lonergan's philosophy of self-transcendence can function as a channel for the legitimate role and place of religion in our lives. A quick look at Lonergan's philosophy of self-transcendence shows how human subjectivity is constituted by many different acts and by an order that exists among these different acts.  Various levels of conscious activity can be clearly distinguished:  Through questions which function as catalysts, acts of sensing are transcended by acts of understanding and then, from first acts of understanding, reflective acts of understanding emerge to take a person towards apprehensions of truth. A quite different species of reflective understanding refers to the existence of moral judgments which move a person from experiences of truth toward experiences of concrete goodness: authentic human knowing leads to authentic human loving. Within these transitions, very many different kinds of acts are involved, and it is no easy task to identify them and speak about them to others in a way that can elicit their possible interest, desire, and personal engagement.

A commonly accepted approach begins from the experience we have of acts and data of sense and of the questions we can ask about why or what something is or why it happens to be in the way that it seems to be. We find this approach already in Aristotle (for instance, in his Posterior Analytics). A trajectory can then be determined which moves through the order of knowing to the order of loving as this exists in the kind of life we have when we are caught up in having to engage in moral deliberations (asking questions about what good we should achieve in order to reach something which we desire or love). Recall here what St. Augustine says in On the Trinity: loving is grounded in knowing. We cannot love what we do not know or understand. 

In this commonly practiced approach, we are working with a philosophy of mind that can lead us toward some kind of intellectual conversion.  This works quite well in the West.   But there is another possible approach, wherein we attend to our desires and how they can be revealed in our feelings and emotions.  These emotions and feelings are intimately joined to everything that we do (and this includes any knowing that we do and all the different acts that are involved in our human acts of cognition). Our desires, our feelings, our emotions are evoked by what is given to us in our experience. In our concrete human living, we desire things that we do not adequately understand or adequately conceive since a spontaneity exists in the structure of our desiring and willing.  But, if we attend to an order which we can find within and among our feelings and desires, we should be able to move toward a differentiated philosophy of mind on the basis of a foundation that works from a philosophy of the human will. This offers a point of departure for a new pedagogy that can better engage with questions that have to do with matters of ethics, faith, and religion, involving three basic steps:  begin with the data of our emotions or feelings, then understand these emotions and feelings and see how they are related to each other (what causes and joins them?), and from there move toward an understanding of human interiority. In other words, instead of moving toward an understanding of moral and religious conversion from an understanding of intellectual conversion, start from the opposite direction and move from moral and religious conversion toward intellectual conversion. Instead of beginning with acts and data of sense, begin with acts and data as these all refer to our experience of moral consciousness.  In this way, we can move toward an approach that will prove to be more satisfactory for Koreans as they seek to appropriate in their own context some of the riches of Bernard Lonergan’s thought.

Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB