Discernment as First Philosophy: Intellectual Conversion and the Catholic Liberal Arts

If contemporary relativism is a Lebensgefühl in which the feeling of the desire for truth and objectivity on fundamental life questions is frustrated by the feeling that such a desire is impossible or childish, then only a philosophical therapy can heal this existential state of self-doubt, can transport a person into a confident self-presence open to reality. Feelings, including our wonder which is materially identical with the desire for God,[1] can be reclaimed through the process of self-appropriation in intellectual conversion, in the discovery that feeling and reason operate together in the authentic subject’s attainment of genuine objectivity.

This is why theological education at the level of our times must turn to the subject, executing a new natural theology that operates as an existential anthropology. For our students’ judgments on the question of God will correspond with their judgments on the meaning of their own religious longings, which continue to be felt despite the efforts of our secular age to muffle or harmonize them with the muzak of relativism.

The Fruit of Intellectual Conversion

Let me indicate briefly what fruit may result, or rather, what has resulted from my own implementation of this strategy in my introductory theology courses. Students report that they have discovered that this feeling, the desire to know, is central to what it means to be human, and that following this feeling through as it organically unfolds in any process of inquiry produces feelings such as excitement, energy, and ultimately, rest. But to interfere with this feeling in the cognitive processes that it spontaneously initiates produces instead feelings of profound negativity. Take one example. After formulating a hunch to explain some experience that is not yet fully understood, one begins to search for confirming evidence. But if disconfirming evidence arises, the subject faces a crossroads: go with the undertow of that desire to know, that feeling that spontaneously invites one to put aside the initial hunch and search for another, or discount the evidence in favor of another feeling: the desire to be right instead of getting it right.[2] Such an analysis of the spontaneous unfolding of the desire to know, and the other desires that may arise in the subject in the process of inquiry, provides a clear and experiential definition of bias. Bias is whatever interferes with, restricts or truncates, the desire to know in its progressive unfolding in any instance of inquiry. It is one thing to be told this is what bias fundamentally is, but it is quite another to experience in oneself and come to understand the emergence of a new feeling—the defensive anxiety of psychic homeostasis protecting itself—when the desire to know the truth threatens to lead one to a new integration of knowing and living in reality.

With such an experience of bias within one’s own consciousness, it becomes possible to do away with the relativist’s mantra that every view, by nature of being a view or a perspective itself, is biased. It becomes equally possible to fix the only verifiable criterion for objectivity: allowing the process of inquiry to unfold without interference. Now, that process of inquiry does not stop at settling matters of fact. It carries onward to the further questions of value: what would be good to do in this situation, given the facts? What is lovable?[3] Meaning, the self-transcendence of the subject reaches towards moral objectivity as well, with the even greater risk to the psychic homeostasis that undergirds our comfortable individual and communal patterns of living. In light of this greater risk that moral self-transcendence represents, we can expect bias to interfere more regularly in this sort of inquiry. Suddenly, then, one source for the panoply of ethical judgments in contemporary society and throughout history becomes manifest: many moral views result from the truncation of the desire to know—bias—in moral matters, such as, for example, judgments made about minorities by white supremacists. Intellectual conversion opens up, then, to the possibility of moral conversion.[4]

Carried further, such exercises in self-presence can result in students’ understanding that even their embrace of relativism derives from their fundamental commitment to objectivity and truth, insofar as they understand evidence of disagreement on fundamental matters to be a defeater for the idea that objective truth can exist in such domains. It is their fidelity to the desire to know that has led them to judge that relativism must be true. To understand this is a far profounder experience than being shown that relativism consistently held is incoherent. Or rather, it is to understand exactly what it is that is incoherent about relativism.

For relativism is not logically contradictory but instead contradictory on the more fundamental level of the subject’s conscious performance. To affirm relativism to be true is to fall not into logical contradiction but into performative self-contradiction, to utter as a judgment the impossibility of judgments.[5] It is a conflict not between two mutually exclusive categories, such as “married” and “bachelor,” but instead between a conscious operation that arises as a later stage of the unfolding of the desire to know—namely, judging what is, truth, objective reality—and the content of that judgment, namely, that there is no objective truth possible. It is only by turning the attention again and again to this performative breakdown, to this violation of wonder’s demand for consistency in conscious operations, that a person can, gradually and often reluctantly, transcend a thoroughly instilled relativism, can grasp that affirming relativism violates the natural law of their own desire to know. This is not the mere replacing of one philosophical position with another; it is instead the gradual deconstruction of the Lebensgefühl of relativism from the inside out, performed by the student herself.

Discernment as First Philosophy—and Fundamental Theology

The sort of attending involved in this process is not far from what is required in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s discernment of spirits. To learn to notice, identify, and rank in value the feelings that provide the “mass and momentum of human living” is to learn discernment.[6] But discernment is the work of individual subjects. It cannot be outsourced. If relativism arises from the systematic flight from self-presence in one’s own subjectivity that produces constant self-doubt, then the remedy can only be a systematic return to the self, a coming home to know the place for the first time.

To become thoroughly acquainted with the feeling of the desire to know, and to discover that spontaneously in one’s unavoidable judgments one is valuing it above other feelings, is to learn that an authentic life is one in which the desire to know is given free rein and not hindered by the biases that would prefer psychic comfort over truth. By affirming the supreme importance of the desire to know and the value of allowing it to unfold without undue interference, students can recognize to what extent their communities may hinder their flourishing. It can allow students to recognize the feeling, the double bind, of relativism, in which they simultaneously, for example, march for justice against police brutality against black brothers and sisters but also feel that they cannot truly judge a white supremacist to be objectively wrong about what is good for human beings.

Experiencing the beginnings of intellectual conversion, students can notice, for the first time, that a society that tells them never to speak in polite company of the most fundamental human questions—how to live together (ethics and politics) and what is of ultimate value (transcendence and God)—is a sick society indeed. Only such work in attending can bring students to recognize that their relativistic Lebensgefühl is in fact a philosophical wound our culture has inflected upon them.

Intellectual Conversion and the Catholic Liberal Arts

The implications here are also profound for the current state of the liberal arts in our universities. For as some students have explained to me in their frustration, they cannot make sense of why they are required to take—and can justifiably be graded in—courses in the liberal arts in which there is so much disagreement and no “objective answers.” “No one asks me in my chemistry class what my opinion on a matter is.” If disagreement is evidence that there is no objectivity, and if objectivity is taken to be what is “out there” to be perceived by the senses, then the act of grading a student in a literature course represents in its naked essence only the imposition of one subjective perspective on another. It is hard to imagine how the humanities survive, especially in Catholic liberal arts colleges, if such a view is shared broadly among incoming students. What is not difficult to imagine, however, is why in such an intellectual worldview so many students outsource their writing to AI generators for their liberal arts classes.

Intellectual conversion, on the other hand, grants experiential confirmation of the hope that it is worthwhile to ask, and that we can make some progress in answering, questions basic to the human project: what is the happy life, and how should we live together so as to flourish? Students can begin to see that their questions for ultimate meaning, for knowing what the good life is, are intrinsic to them, and that it is only by a mistaken notion of objectivity that they have judged such questions to be meaningless to pursue and disagreement as necessarily impossible to adjudicate. A liberal arts education, with its interpenetration of literature, ethics, history, and political theory, is thus made intelligible and attractive once more, for “relativism [extinguishes] the real motive of education, the search for a good life.”[7] The effects of this philosophical therapy indeed reach to the very justification for the humanities that those who teach the liberal arts must tirelessly present to students residing in the Lebensgefühl of relativism.

Intellectual conversion also opens the path to those disciplines that are core to a Catholic liberal arts education, namely philosophy and theology. Metaphysical questions, such as those that undergird classical cosmological arguments for God’s existence, become intelligible as the fruit of letting the desire to know stretch its unrestricted reach over the very universe itself: why is there something rather than nothing? To resist this question once it has arisen is to fall into obscurantism, to abdicate from one’s own spontaneous movement of seeking to know, and to remain trapped in the myth that one could only answer such a question by looking at something. Judging that there is an unrestricted source of all being, that is, that God exists, is understood as an exigence of one’s own wonder, not as the imposition of an intellectually backward dogma.

Semester after semester, it is our discussion of the rational bases for affirming that there is a God that students deem the most significant portion of our semester together. And once a person judges that an unrestricted transcendent reality exists, to affirm the possibility of miracles is no longer to choose a child’s naiveté. Divine revelation can now function as an answer to a question that students have recognized that they are. Discerning that the subject only exists as a transcendent longing for transcendent truth, the meaningfulness of studying distinct religious traditions, and the Catholic tradition in particular in a Catholic context, becomes exciting again: we study religious traditions to see how their teachings and practices may bring to rest the restlessness of our hearts. Faith becomes the completion of the natural movement of wonder that leads one to affirm the existence of God; it is reasonable insofar as it completes the human dynamism of the desire to know.

Students who ask, as my students always do, how one should adjudicate between competing claims of diverse religious traditions, are asking the question from within the framework of the mythical view of objectivity. They are seeking some extrinsic criterion that will adjudicate between religious traditions. But what intellectual conversion provides is a felt understanding that the major criterion for judging the truthfulness of religious traditions is the reality of the transformation of the self—intellectual, moral, mystical— and of communities that is mediated by the symbols, narratives, doctrines, and practices of any religious tradition. Intellectual conversion, then, summons us to openness to religious conversion, to allowing the feeling at the root of wonder to flower into faith in the self-surrender of love towards all of being and towards the Source of all. Understanding and affirming the universality of wonder in its ultimate orientation towards loving God is thus an aid in the work of interreligious dialogue that Nostra Aetate calls the Church to pursue.

Over my years of teaching theology, I have seen this fruit sprout again and again in my students. This is why I teach for intellectual conversion, and why I offer these thoughts as stimulus for deeper conversation among theologians on the question of how to teach introductory theology in a secular age.

[1] Bernard Lonergan, “The Natural Desire to See God,” Collection (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan), eds. Fred E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 81-91.

[2] I owe this formulation to my friend, Taylor Nutter.

[3] The intrinsic relationship between what is good and what the facts at hand may be about any given situation indicates that the traditional fact-value distinction is not philosophically tenable. For a thorough defense of this view, see Hugo A. Meynell, Freud, Marx, and Morals (Totowa, Barnes and Nobles Books, 1981), esp. chs. 1 and 6.

[4] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan), eds. Robert Doran and John Dadosky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 225-228.

[5] For an in-depth exploration of the significance of performative self-contradiction in philosophy, see Andrew Beards, “Self-refutation and Self-knowledge,” Gregorianum 76.3 (1995): 555-573.

[6] “An Interview with Fr Bernard Lonergan, S.J.,” in A Second Collection, eds. Robert M. Doran and John D. Dadosky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 186.

[7] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 34.hhh

Featured Image: Emilio Garcia, Brain/Heart installation, photo taken in 2016 by Emilio Garcia; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Roberto J. De La Noval

Roberto De La Noval is assistant professor of theology at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD. A systematic theologian and scholar of Russian religious thought, his publications include a translation of Sergius Bulgakov: Spiritual Diary and other translations and essays in academic and popular journals.

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