Perfection in Suffering on the Cross: A Transcendental-Metaphysical Analysis

[If you had seen this piece during the first hour it was posted, I apologize for the confusion. I dictate these blogs into a program, and then edit them.  What you saw was the unedited version.]

by David Fleischacker 

“….and he was made perfect through suffering”

Hebrews 2:10

Good Friday seems to be an obvious misnomer, at least when I was a kid I always thought so. Once one realizes that the crucifixion of our Lord is the greatest act of love, then one begins to glimpse why it the greatest and most perfect good. But why through suffering? Lonergan’s insight into sin as an act of inauthenticity can shed light on the magnitude of this goodness, and on why it must take place through suffering.  To see this, we must first understand the nature of inauthenticity, which means we must understand the nature of the transcendental notions and why these are so important.

Setting the Stage of Suffering: The Transcendental Notions

The transcendental notions are at the root of why the transcendental precepts ring true to all of us. Just to recall those precepts–they form a hierarchy-[and I do mean a sacred order by this term, not its degradation in today’s culture to a negative bureaucratic term.]

The Transcendental Precepts

  • be loving (highest)
  • be responsible
  • be reasonable
  • be intelligent
  • be attentive (lowest)

 For those who have studied Lonergan, you know that these precepts articulate the way of perfection of the levels of consciousness. Each level is distinct because it is governed by a different fundamental operator and integrator of development (see chapter 14 of Insight for more info on operators and integrators). One gets a first glimpse into these operators when attending to the wonder at the root of our questions–hence as Lonergan distinguished in Insight-wonder sorts into questions for -understanding and questions for reflection–the first leads to insights, the second to judgments. Hence asking questions for understanding and getting insights is equal to being intelligent. And asking questions for reflection and making true judgments is equal to being reasonable. As those of us who have been around Lonergan for a while know, he later added questions for deliberation and decisions which when perfected are equal to being responsible. He also suggested a fifth level which is really tied to the entire capacity for self transcendence and its actuation in a state of being in love. This fifth level is a bit different than the others, because it not merely emerges from them, but both is a comprehensive perfection of one’s horizon and it is the starting point and orientation of every level of one’s horizon. It completely embraces every operator or integrator, and every operation and integration in the human subject from the lowest levels to the highest. It is a kind of alpha and omega of human existence. This is why it is a little bit more than a level. In any case it is what underpins the precept “be loving.”

 To expand one’s apprehension of these acts of wonder so as to see that these are not merely questions but operators and integrators, one can shift one’s attention to the interior fact that the same wonder is also the same that gazes upon an answer, and it is the same that moves beyond any finite answer. In Plato and Augustine, this is why wonder is more aptly called an interior spiritual light–the light of being. With Aristotle and St. Thomas, it is called the agent intellect. The symbol of light is a wonderful image because a light source is that by which we are able to look for something, and then, it is the same reality by which we gaze upon something found, and finally, it is the same reality by which we can look again for something new.

Realizing that questions really are operators and integrators is not easy.  We all start in the world of the senses and I, like many others, became trapped in that world. Plato describes this in his book the Republic.  All human beings are born in the cave.  They do not understand how they know, what they know, or the source by which they know.  Only with great difficulty does a brave soul break the chains of the cave, and then move from the cave into the bright light of the sun.  This is a wonderful description of what it is like to turn to and then discover the landscape of interiority. But once one does make this leap, the world of one’s own soul begins to open into something far more grand than anything seen with the eyes.

Included in this grand interior landscape is the lights that illuminate it. Those lights are the wonder that is both the operator and integrator of that landscape, and as Lonergan argues, it sorts into three types already mentioned–questions for understanding, questions for reflection, questions for deliberation. The union of these three into a whole is the real character of the essence and heart of the human subject, a character which is defined by Lonergan as the capacity for self transcendence (see chapter 1, Method in Theology). And if this capacity is not actualized by a love that is the true alpha and omega of one’s soul, one dwells in a dark abyss staring off into the unrestricted reaches of nothingness.

Lonergan more precisely called these fundamental operators and integrators the transcendental notions. They underpin, penetrate, and go beyond all operations and integrations in the subject. They start as questions, discover answers, and through these the subject transcends to new questions. In short, they are transcendental because they make it possible for a subject to self-transcend and even yearn for that which is absolutely Transcendent, our Lord, and more supernaturally, to receive the absolutely Transcendent as a gift called the beatific vision.

Linking the Transcendental Notions to the Finality of All that Exists

In Insight, Lonergan makes an amazing statement about the human mind that helps us to move an inch closer to understanding the kind of suffering Jesus experienced on the cross. Namely, Lonergan writes that in human beings the finality of the universe becomes conscious.  Linking this to the transcendental notions reveals a profound unity in the whole of the created world.

In order to move toward this link, let us first say something about the nature of finality. Finality is rooted in the potency of the universe, in each of its parts and as a whole.  That potency is one of emergent probability. In transcendental terms, it is an emergent probability of intelligibility, being, and goodness. Are you beginning to see the link to the human person? When the human being as part of that emergence is infused with the transcendental notions, then there emerges a creature that is a self-conscious intelligibility that is intelligent, a self-conscious being that is reasonable, and a self-conscious good that is responsible. And the unity of it all? A potentiality that is actuated in love.  The actuated orientation of finality in its highest reaches is a state of being in love. If you have been following these points, hopefully you can see what individuals like St. Thomas are thinking about when they say that all things have God as their end. 

Transcendental Notions: Created Participations in the Divine Light

There is a profound mystery in the transcendental notions. Nothing in this world can cause them. They emerge almost as if from nothing.  There are just there.  And they are a great power in us.  What begins to dawn on the humble soul is that these lights must come from something great.  And as one discovers that they have no intrinsic bounds, and they give us that yearning to understand all that could be understood, and know all that has being, and enjoy all that is good, we begin to wonder about the “hither” of all things and of these yearnings.  It is the question of God that arises when we move to this state.  And when we begin to discover the good without bounds, the true without conditions, the intelligible that is total, we discover as well the real source of these interior lights, the transcendental notions.  They are created participations in the Good, the True, the Intelligible, that is responsible without bounds, reasonable without conditions, intelligent that is total, and loving with mercy that embraces death on a Cross.  This discovery sheds a more magnificent light upon the finality that has become conscious in us.

Oh what a great good each child, each woman, each man is in this world! We are in the image and likeness of our Creator.

Sin and Evil as a Violation of Finality

Human beings as illumined by the transcendental notions have a radical freedom that introduces the potentiality for the sinister. That radicality is the possibility of violating finality. Human beings can turn against the transcendental notions, they can betray the interior lights. In short, they can fail to be intelligent, to be reasonable, to be responsible, and to be loving. This betrayal reverberates into the fabric of the entire universe of being.  Even the quarks that are sublated in our atoms and cells, in our neurons, and elevated into the realm of consciousness are privated by sin of a vertical finality that they were made to enjoy.  This is the nature of evil. And this is just one person. We could go on to discuss how these acts of inauthenticity are then mutually self-mediated to others and the fabric of our universe.

Original Sin and the Deformation of the Finality of the Universe

The doctrine of Original Sin tells us that at the beginning of the human race, sin entered the world through one man and one woman that led them from the harmony and joy of the garden into the cities of Cain. Speculating on how that sin is transmitted from one generation to the next, St. Augustine narrowed the culprit to a disorder that exists between men and women in the procreative act–concupiscence. The heaven and earth were doomed to be corrupted until the end of time.  This reality led the inspired prophets to hope for a new heaven and a new earth.

The Revelatory discovery of the fallen state is complemented by a profound inverse insight that helped the Greeks to discover evil as a privatization of being. With Lonergan we can transpose this privation into a violation of the finality of intelligibility, being, and goodness. A surd is introduced into history and the cosmos. Things really are not as they should be. In our own souls, we directly recognize such violations as a turning away from the light, a light that is a voice which we commonly know as the voice of conscience. And because those lights are a created participation in the divine light, conscience is also recognized as the voice of God in our own souls.

To summarize, inauthenticity is a betrayal of the finality of one’s own soul, and since one’s soul is a conscious realization of the finality of the universe, it is a betrayal of the finality of the universe. Every sin is such a betrayal.

Authentic Suffering as a Response to Evil and Sin

Now we can turn to the character of suffering. I remember the first time that I began to realize that suffering was not intrinsically evil. I was brought up in life to think so and of course, I was a good son of our world.  Suffering was the great evil to be avoided, and  in mercy, we must help others to avoid it too.

There is a truth in this. Suffering is not where we should be. However, St. Augustine taught me something different about suffering. He helped me to understand the church’s disposition to suffering that had always puzzled me. Why embrace the cross? Why lift our sufferings up to the Lord? Why did Jesus suffer unto his death?

St. Augustine taught me that suffering is not intrinsically evil but good. It is that which is good responding to evil. Suffering is the seeking and yearning for healing. This is why it is good. Even our physical bodies operate this way. Pain sensors tell us something is wrong. They prevent further harm. They get us to change behavior to avoid damage and/or to allow for healing. If my hand did not hurt when I put it on a burning stove, I would destroy it.

Suffering the Evil in Others

Human beings can suffer the evils of others. This should be a kind of surprise until you realize that the interior lights, the transcendental notions, mean that we are the kind of creature in which potentially the entire universe that exists could dwell. And that which is more beautiful and profound will dwell in us in a way more beautiful and profound manner. This is why our friends and family are so much a part of us. And what hurts them hurts us. If a good friend dies, part of us dies. When we encounter violations of the finality in others or in creation, this violation is ours because of the nature of who we are. It becomes and is my privation, even if it was your sin. Your sin becomes my sorrow [just as is the opposite true — your good becomes my good (if I do not have envy).]

 So suffering evil is the yearning that evil be overcome and that goodness be restored. This is why authentic suffering is actually good. We should be sorrowful over any and all acts of inauthenticity, and any and all violations of the finality of creation.

Jesus’ Suffering on the Cross

Now let us return to the suffering of Jesus on the cross. That suffering was a response to the sin of the world that dwelt in the soul of Jesus. Jesus is present to all acts of inauthenticity throughout history, and as present, these dwell in him through his subjectivity. This begins to explain the depth of what Jesus meant on the Cross when he proclaimed “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” HBy becoming one of us, all of our privations became his.  He yearned for the healing of the privation of all sin, of all inauthenticity, of the totality of deformed and fallen creation. This was the depth of his love and begins to shed light upon what he meant when on the Cross he turned to his Father, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”

Sin is a radical darkness that betrays the light. It turns one against the One who is the source of the transcendental notions.  It is not a mere turning either, but active turning against.  Inauthenticity has a dramatic and murderous plot to it. This begins to explain why we are the cause the crucifixion of our Lord in every act of sin. 

But Why is This the Way of Perfection?

Now we have to introduce one other element to explain why Jesus was perfected in his suffering, and why we are too. 

Self-transcendence that is authentic and unfolds with the finality of emergent probability is a great good. However this is natural. It is expected. It flows from what should be. But there is an even greater set of goods which are authentic responses to evil. In other words these are acts of suffering, which really yearn for the reconciliation of the sinner and the healing of evil. They are a gift, a surprise, and intelligibility that goes beyond natural finality. It is to be intelligent in the darkness of the unintelligent, to be reasonable in the lies of the unreasonable, to be responsible in the wickedness of the irresponsible, to be loving in the hatred of life exuding from those privated of love. Virtues such as courage and temperance would not be if it were not for evil. The authentic response to evil bears forth a good that is beautiful and magnificent, beyond what nature provides. The greatest of course is to die for one’s enemy as Christ did for us. This is a perfection that transcends the natural finality of this universe and is highly intelligible, true, and good.  It is the magnitude of God’s love for us.