Evangelization, Historically Minded

 by Dr. David Fleischacker, Director of the Lonergan Institute

Pope Francis has been speaking recently of the need for evangelization, and of course, this is a theme running through the last few Vicars of Christ.  One wonders if some of the tensions he has with a number of traditional groups spring from his grasp of evangelization in relationship to the ideologies, states, and trends of the world’s groups and cultures. Most of the controversies do not seem centered on the technical teachings of the Church as such, or at least directly, but rather around the way one relates those teachings to the poorly or non-evangelized.  In any case, I would argue that resolutions would be forthcoming if one shifted the grounds to a transcendental and metaphysical framework that can mediate these tensions more fruitfully, at least eliminating those that are not ultimately contradictory in the end.  Such a framework has been articulated by Lonergan but a solution needs further specification.

And to start that specification, I would suggest it be an historically minded exploration of evangelization but with a particular focus: How has God evangelized individuals and the nations throughout history? We can add that this is sometimes through angels and sometimes through men and women.1 Carrying out this task is difficult because it requires a shift into a full and intentional functionally specialized set of inquiries and solutions. This requires an implementation of Lonergan’s method for theology (see his book Method in Theology). As a method, it is not a recipe as he reminds us, but rather an interior set of operators and operations of the senses, imagination, mind, will, and heart.2

I think the import of this historically minded evangelization is that it articulates more fully the way of God’s economy of salvation.3

Think of how revelation unfolds in the Old Testament and the New. God’s merciful generosity to the world before the patriarchs is profound. And even when God does start his election, it takes another couple thousand years to complete it. And the journey in between Abraham and Jesus Christ is hardly easy or smooth and involves God’s perservering patience, at least a patience in not eliminating us entirely from the face of the earth. It is not a patience however that removes the natural and even supernatural dead ends and surds of sin, whether it is with the five kings trying to destroy Joshua and his allies, or the first failure of Joshua at Ai, or the death of Goliath and the humiliation of the Philistines by David, or the death of Saul and his son. God ordains a type of unfolding freedom that permits sin both in a people and in every individual, and it does not remove the effects of that sin.

Sin always has its deadly and deadening effects, and God many times is willing to allows us to wallow in it for a lengthy period of time and some choose never to leave it. Then there are those that die immediately after committing serious sin. A mystery. The Old Testament and the New Testament seem filled with such stories. We can think of Cain or Lamech (the one in Cain’s line), Saul, Esau, Holerfernes, Nebuchadnezzar, David and Bathsheba, Antiochus IV, or Judas Isacriot.

The endgame for God always seems to be to move a person toward contrition. Without contrition, sin rules. The hardness of heart remains untouched. Yet, the form of that hardness takes form in one’s culture and biography. And so we need to learn how God has addressed this hardness of heart down through the ages in its various manifestions and realizations, just as we need to learn how God has elevated us illuminatively and unitively both via natural capacities and God’s supernatural elevation of those capacities.4

For us to discover the Divine Solution to the evangelization of people down through the ages we need a robust way to explore that solution. Lonergan’s development of functionally specialized theology provides us with such a way. It will not be the purpose here to argue how the functionally specialized theology operates in detail, but I will note how it can help with our query at hand.5

Becoming Isomorphic with the Past (Minor Authenticity): the first phase, the first four functional specialities

The first four specialties rooted on the four levels of consciousness allow for the emergence of an isomorphism with the past.6 In the first speciality, research, the task is to amass the relevant data. The amassing however is uncovered through a lengthy mutually self-mediated and self-correcting set of active, faith, intelligent, and engaged scholars. One can start as a decently educated theologian with materials from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Church history and then move forward with those seeking how God related to those with whom He addressed. With the data, the second functional speciality, interpretation, is triggered.  It seeks to understand the mutually-mediated divine and human operative and cooperative interchanges along with the state of being of those individuals and cultures so as to begin discerning relations of the interchanges and states. As insights emerge, the third specialty can then engage, history.  How? As insights unpack the correlations within rates and states, and how these interchanges are connected statistically to people and cultures, over time one will begin to grasp the unfolding trends of salvation history and the operators moving it along, and in that context the role that evangelization plays within the missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit.7 One will see something most likely that parallels the unfolding of the law and the prophets, and which then blossoms in a young woman at Nazareth betrothed to a man from Bethlehem. So with these trends discovered emerges the history. Through this history, one will also become increasingly aware of pitfalls and inauthenticity, and how these provide a dialectic that is part of God’s plan of bringing goodness out of evil, and restoring those harmed by evil, and freeing those entrapped by it. This opens the fourth functional specialty, dialectic. Dialectic seeks to get to the roots of contradictions.  And it is not seeking a mere surface contraction, but the contraction that has its roots in the failure of subjects to self-transcend in their gift of a heart of flesh that allowed them to say yes to God interiorly so that they could embrace the Divine entrance into the world mediated by meaning.  But some say no. And so the dialectic moves forward.  Dialect completes the first phase, the first sets of operations that allows us to become isomorphic with the past. One then comes to understand the interaction in a culture with God’s initiative as an initiative that calls for authenticity from its dialectical counterparts in inauthenticity, and that calling moves forward as a procession of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

This will give us new eyes to see how to respond to today and that brings us to the next four functional specialties.

Moving Forward into the Future (Major Authenticity8): the second phase, the second four functional specialties

The first phase of four functional specialties set up the conditions for the theologian as such to be capable of seeing the way of God’s evangelization not only down through the ages but also for today. The second phase is the effecting of development into today’s world.9

The first specialty of the second phase establishes the interiority of the theologian needed for this pivital and complicated entry into the mediation of religion within modern culture. That speciality is foundations (Method, chapter 11). Generally, it consists of conversion, general and special categories, along with the unfolding of all the other functional specialties.10 The theologian moving interiorly forward in foundations is the kind of person capable of authentically discovering evangelization and proposing courses of evangelization as mutually self-mediating activities that flow from the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit through the ecclesia.11

Doctrines (Method, chapter 12), the second specialty of the second phase, then identifies the true teachings, the truth of evangelization down through the ages, and relevant not only for here and now, but relevant in all the thus far discovered personal, cultural, and historical conditioned authentic situations of evangelization. One would be able to elaborate extensively on the “this” in the following statements:

  1. “This is how God evangelized Abraham.”
  2. “This is how God evangelized Ruth.”
  3. “This is how God evangelized Nathaniel.”

The “This” will have similar features, such as contrition, but the biographical, cultural, and historical conditions will likely vary.

Systematics (Method, chapter 13), the third specialty of the second phase, then helps discover connections, deeper insights into, and new analogies of doctrines. In this case it will facilitate the development of common sense evangelizors, and really, any of the faithful who are mutually self-mediating faith with the weakly or non-evangelized. The New Evangelization began in this phase.  One can think of the New Evangelization as emerging from the development over the last few hundred years of modernity, postmodernity, neo-scholastic theology, historical critical theology, scriptural studies, Church history, and shifts in the church in Rome and throughout the world. Much is behind it. The New Evangelization is about the re-evangelization of generations of Catholics somewhat lost, or very lost, who then, once evangelized, go out and do the same.12 Today, much of that lost or never transmitted faith springs from devastated family life, shallow cultural life, combinations of wealth and luxury–in the form of digital desires–which is now emerging into the devastation of gender and all human relationships. It would be a great help if the new evangelization moved from roots in an implicit theological mediation of the history of evangelization to one that is explicit, because as more explicit it can then meet the urgency of the day without taking short cuts or panicking.13 Of course one can say how will that come to be? My game plan for that is found in the mission and work of the Holy family. I’ve written on this elsewhere.

Finally then comes the real moment, the implementation of a real, authentic mutually self-mediating moment of evangelization. This of course is the last specialty–communication. As Lonergan wrote, this is the shortest chapter in his book (Method in Theology), but really one of the widest and broadest specialties. Here resides the place of those who give an account of their faith to others but now with the increasing mediation of a functionally specialized theology. From such a place, there will be theologians writing for popular audiences. There will be workshops and parish missions and schools for evangelization. There will be college professors teaching college students about the topic. There will be writers telling stories. But key if we can begin, is that it will start the long stretch of leavening our world by those unpacking evangelization in a historically minded fashion founded on a functionally specialized theology.

As part of this, we will need an educated clergy and laity who has some narrative account of how God has worked with people developmentally and historically, a laity and clergy who understand that when He tolerates one thing at one stage He forbids it at the pain of death and exile in the next. One needs to understand that historical moments and biographical moments are not completely irrelevant, and hence are not archived to a particular time in history, but are “types” or “patterns” that contribute to a common sense fund. A type in ancient Rome could be helpful for a new type that emerges in modern America. A type in Canaan could be helpful for a new type that emerges in Europe. It is helpful because it has some similarities, and thus is used in a realm of common sense funds of knowledge and value. This calling forward of the past in a functionally specialized illumination will strengthen practical wisdom, a wisdom that will enhance one’s religious common sense to evangelize in a fashion most fitting for today.14

With what I have just written, it might seem that I have made evangelization impossible because complex. Did God really make is so difficult to be able to “give an account of one’s faith.”  Why not return to a simplicity that needs only example and no words?  There is truth in this, and what I was referring to is an explanatory account at the highest reaches of the Church’s theological culture.  For many of us, our solutions will be that friend who figured out how to speak to the local pagan.  But this ultimately can be enriched through the links of communication that transmit the mediations of saints and theologians to the clergy and the laity in seminaries, workshops, and journals.  In the end, God takes us where we are, and then with His Spirit moves us when needed.  Of course, we too often fail to move when moved, and we sometimes move when not moved.  Failure is the result in both cases, but even that is within the order of Providence.  So we always need to return to a trust in God in all of this, and the simplicity needed is one that recognizes that all of this is really beyond us at any given moment in reality. We do what we can with all of our might and strength, on our knees and trusting in Him and His Church. The Holy Spirit illumins the faithful to say what is needed in the right context. If people on the whole think they should be more differentiated culturally than they are, but yet don’t know where to turn in their overthinking of the situation, God works with what he has and where we are. He graces us and he reprimands us in the light by which we live. Functionally specialized theology does not change this matrix. What it does do is enrich the soil that is vivified by the Spirit. One can argue against this in a more fundamental way saying why should we need theology if we are guided by the Spirit? A first response would be why do we need the Bible, or Church Tradition, or St. John Paul to formulate the new evangelization? These are needed and theology has its place. Theology may not be ultimate but it helps to mediate between religion and its traditions with a culture. That is why a functionally specialized mediation of evangelization would be a great help. But to be honest in this day and age there is no hope of getting one. We will first need a new awakening of the family, and hence the first work of evangelization will be the Work of the Holy Family. More on that later.


  1. Some might argue that this presupposes that God is somehow the author, but it would be meaningless to those who disagree with that point.  This is true.  I do not write about this tension of evangelization for those who do not hold that God has revealed something to us through some formal channels or carriers of meaning that can be identified.
  2. “Method” is a normative pattern of recurrenct and related operations yielding cumulative and professive results” not a mere set of rules (Method in Theology, 5-6).
  3. For those familiar with Lonergan’s works on method, cognition, epistemology, and metaphysics, he said a number of times that just as real object are constituted by a compound of metaphysical objects, so objectivity (epistemology) is constituted by a compound of cognitive activities that are isomorphic with the compound of metaphysical elements.  The counter object are that objects are what is “seen” or sensed, and that there is a simple looking involved. Instead, Lonergan lays out the compound of the subjective operations being intellectually patterned experiences of the empirical residue, direct insights, and judgments affirming that insight as matching the compound of potency, form, and act. Likewise, one can then expand this to articulate ranges of insights and their integration into a heuristic structure.  Ultimately, the integral heuristic structure of proportionate being is isomorphic with generalized emergent probability.  Though a bit different with theology, the isomorphism is still in place.  The eightfold funtional specialties have an isomorphic relationship with an eightfold layout of elements in the living history of salvation found in Israel and perfected in the Messiah and his mystical body.  Thus, the first four are isomorphic with the Divine entrance into the world mediated by meaning that constitutes scripture and Tradition in an ecclesia with a magisterium, and the second four are isomorphic with that ongoing living mystical ecclesia.   So much more could be said about all of this.  Lonergan writes “This fourfold specialization corresponds to the four dimensions of the Christian message and the Christian tradition” (Method, 135).  He then goes on to elaborate on this compound object of Christianity, and how it then unfolds with the “second phase” and its four functional specialities (Method, 135-136).
  4. Here I am alluding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages of spiritual development that first sprang from Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite’s writings and then became incorporated and nuanced in a wide range of writers in the medieval and modern periods.  A number of mystics such as St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) have used these “rhythms” as Dionysius called them, with St. Theresa Benedicta being one of the most advanced formulations of these patterns in her book left unfinished on her desk when she was halled off to Auschwitz. That book is published as The Science of the Cross.
  5. Lonergan’s fifth chapter in Method in Theology formulates the notion and layout of functionally specialized method.  In Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Lonergan developed the role of notions within inquiry, and then how these form into schemes called heuristic structures (see chapters 2 and 3 for the beginning of this, and then for its more advanced form, see chapter 14).  Once these are formulated, then one can create a canon that calls for these notions in their intelligible sequences.  Such canons are really what is a “method” for Lonergan.  In Method, he use “notions” with regard to “Transcendental notions” and these are further differentiated or speciated in functional specialization (see Method, chapter 1 and chapter 5).  In a sense, method is the moral “code” of a differentiate self-transcending subject and community.
  6. For ‘isomorphism’ see Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, chapter 14, section 3 (page 399 in original text) for the logical connection Lonergan makes between knowing (cognition) and the known (metaphysics).  However, the idea is found throughout many portions of the text (see Insight, chapter 4, section 2 for example, or chapter 15, section 5 for some important elaborations).  
  7. I am alluding here to the fourfold set of heuristic structures integrated into a whole in Lonergan’s treatment of metaphysics in Insight chapter 14.  These structures were first introduced in Insight, chapter 2, though the heuristic notion for correlation (or functional relation) was first introduced in chapter 1.  The second major notion was that of an ideal rate or probability, also introduced in chapter 2.  These were then expanded to include the notion of a thing (chapter 8), and eventually, the notion of development (chapter 15) and the notion of dialectic (chapter 16), though he implicitly introduce these notions in much earlier chapters so as to prepare the reader.  These notions and heuristic structures remain integral to Lonergan’s thinking throughout the rest of his life, include during the years of his writing of Method, and so would be relevant to exploring the history and development of God’s evangelization of men and women.
  8. See Method, 80 to find where Lonergan articulates his notions of major and minor authenticity. This renames some earlier accounts of minor and major flexibility in development found in Insight, chapter 15, section 6, but with authenticity he adds the dialectical element to development. 
  9. For Lonergan’s more  nuanced treatment of this, see Method,  the few pages leading up to page 142, where he writes “As the first phase rises from the almost endless multiplicity of data first to an interpretative, then to a narrative, and then to a dialectical unity, the second phase descends from the unity of a grounding horizon towards the almost endlessly varied sensibilities, mentalities, interests, and tastes of mankind.” 
  10. By conversion Lonergan means in general, a turning around. It is a shift from heading in the wrong direction to the right direction.  There are three levels of this belonging to the three levels of consciousness. The first is intellectual, and that is a conversion from thinking that knowing is about looking to knowing as a compound of experience, understanding and judgment (Insight spend much time on this).  The second is moral, and it is a shift from making decisions largely out of desire to decision based on true value or the good.  The third is religious, and it is a positive response to God’s initiative within the heart of the sinner, giving the sinner a heart of flesh by replacing the heart of stone.  So each “turn around” from looking to knowing, from desire to the good, from the heart of stone to the heart of flesh, is a conversion.  As for general categories, these deal with the terms and relations along with the dynamics of the religious core of the human person (the capacity for self-transcendence) found in all people. Special categories then spring from those of Revelation which then mediate and resurrect and ascend the human capacity into its higher vocation as a child of God destined to inherit the Kingdom.  As the theologian becomes more authentic, these become known and living and articulated elements in his or her soul.
  11. For a more precise account of Lonergan’s understanding of the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit, which are rooted in their immanent relations as persons of the Holy Trinity, see Lonergan’s The Triune God: Systematics, section 6, page 437ff, especially 455-467.
  12. See Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici signed by Saint John Paul II. (https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_30121988_christifideles-laici.html)
  13. One could argue that this implicit theological method, with all of its confusing and conflicting relationships over the last century or two (eg. between scripture and systematic theology, or between dogmatic and historical critical method) has become severely problematic, and thus needs to be made explicit as Lonergan has done to reconcile and restore its validity and place with the order of history. This would be to formulate the movement similar to what Lonergan does with metaphysics, moving from latent, to problematic, to explicit (see Insight, chapter 14, section 2).
  14. And once one catches on to some ‘practical insights’ into how to speak and talk and be with others in this new moment, those insights spread from friend to friend, institute to insight, journal to journal, and then become part of the commun fund of knowledge and value regarding evangelization.