Lonergan on a World on Fire

As I write this, Minneapolis still burns. At first literally, and then in human hearts. The United States, indeed, burns. When Bernard Lonergan wrote, the world also burned. The 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin; Mussolini’s Italy annexed Ethiopia and formed Italian East Africa; Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge began. And as the world burned, Lonergan spent his great effort on a theory of history. He sketched and re-sketched it: short sentences, almost bullet points, gathered in “blurred outlines,” appearing and reappearing across several texts over the course of the 1930s. The world cracked apart, and he asked himself what history is.[1]

The whole thing is almost laughably impractical: what is this young Jesuit doing, what does he think he is doing, theorizing about history? How is theory a response to the fire at our feet? But to ask this dares the larger question about Bernard Lonergan, which is the question of what he ever at any point thought he was doing. Of what his work means, in itself and for today.

The Ecstasy of the Pure Question

We begin in ecstasy: the fundamental ekstasis, the going-beyond of self, of all human being. This is Lonergan’s beginning, and for him it takes the shape of a primordial, “unrestricted,” which is to say boundless, desire to know. “Deep within us all,” he says, “emergent when the noise of other appetites is stilled, there is a drive to know, to understand, to see why, to discover the reason, to find the cause, to explain.”[2] This drive to know presses us upward and outward: it demands of us a whole ordering of self around the question, and throws us into the depths of action.

Our temptation will be to over-intellectualize Lonergan here. That is, to think of human beings as automatons that, like computer calculations, continually solve for an X. We will, too, be tempted to think of the search for truth as the search for gold: it sits there in the stone, waiting for us to go and find it. Thus the ruinous image of the automation, which has only to light the circuit board to find the answer that waits to be discovered.

But this is not what it is to know. Lonergan instead describes a whole transformation of human consciousness, a continual and tenuous and tremendous action that changes the knower as they know. To know is to be different, and to know is to be tasked with responsibility for what is known. Questions demand not just words, but also deeds. Truth is not “out there,” but in the living mind that judges and acts.

It is difficult for me not to think of the extraordinary delicacy, the intimate intricacy and fragility, of Lonergan’s image of the human being. Every understanding is the opposite of automatic; it is an inviolable work that no one can do for someone else. It is an effort that often goes wrong, that must start again and again. The human mind is tasked with asking and answering every relevant question, with searching the luminous depths of experience and transfiguring it almost wholly into an interior world bent around the desire to know.

Understanding. It is this that Lonergan sees as our great labor, for it is far from automatic. It is also our calling, one our own desire bequeaths to us. Understanding is what we win only by the grace of effort; questions are understanding’s vital lever. Lifting us upward and outward, into self and into world.

Each facet of the diamond that is our own consciousness, the structure of our very being, is both resource and responsibility, an energy and a demand. Be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible: this is our great undertaking. It is one that leads us beyond ourselves to one another and to God. To fail in it is to fail to be who we are; to succeed is to be led by one’s own humanity into the borderlands of the supernatural.

Lonergan sees a world where everyone is struggling together to be a someone. Where being a self is a becoming. Where our becoming, because it is a continual action, is subject to responsibility and thus also to failure, a failure that is frequent and not just disappointing, but also harmful—indeed harmful to the very fabric of our being. And it is harmful to the world around us, the world that is only by virtue of our making it together.

If Pseudo-Dionysius sees the world as kind of fountain overflowing from its origins in God downward to the smallest of creatures, then Lonergan is able to describe the inverse movement, the great surging back upward through thought and action. Human beings in particular have a peculiar returning ecstasy, one based in our consciousness, our status as knowers. We create a whole world of meaning that then redounds back upon us, making us who we are. It is a kind of spiral: we are meaning makers, but also meaning receivers; our whole existence is a mediation of meaningfulness that is meant to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible. But we frequently break down.

The Ruin of Our Reaching

What is human history? This is what Lonergan asks himself in the 1930s. And the answer perhaps appears self-evident: history is what happened. History is an event. But this is not Lonergan’s answer. Instead, he says that history is human action: history is what we do. We make it. We make it together. “The essential cause of history is the human will,” says Lonergan, “more accurately, human wills in the space-time framework of human solidarity.”[3]

When I say that we make history, I mean that history is the totality of all of our actions for all time. When I say that we make history together, I mean that history is what we all do. We are where we are because of past actions, most of which are not ours at all, but which are ours because we receive them; we will be where we will be because of our present actions, and not otherwise. History happens to us because we receive it; history is also what we do because we make it what it is.

Lonergan does not understand human beings apart from each other. History is not so much the work of great geniuses as it is the work of an entire nature or species. His understanding of history is therefore more active, in the quite literal sense that it is action, and it is more collective, because history properly refers to every single human action. When Lonergan writes about history, he writes about human progress. It is a reflection of our consciousness: tenuous, developing, shared, ever-impermanent. It is of itself a rebuke of Enlightenment progress, which hangs on the skeletons of individuality and inevitability. This critique is most of all so because, for Lonergan, all progress is also marred by decline.

Human meaning is fundamentally intersubjective. We share not a world, but entire worlds, of meanings. Here again that basic solidarity of human being appears; whereas we first saw it with action, here we see it in the meaningfulness of the worlds we live in. It is this solidarity that fundamentally breaks down when the world we make breaks down. Whereas progress is communal, decline is fragmentation. It is the shattering of meaning. It is the fruit of inattentiveness, non-intelligence, unreasonableness, irresponsibility.

Decline is a kind of nonsense, as sin itself is nonsense. They fail to bear the weight of intelligibility. But in decline, sin, no-sense, becomes part of the facts of our situation. We continue to build whole worlds, but around nothing. At the individual level, we justify our sins with rationalizations; at the communal level, we ratify our rationalizations with institutions and laws. Yet we want our world to make sense, we cannot stop our depthless wanting, so we focus on the fragments that do make sense to us, which fragments us ever-more into factions whose realms of meaning are ever-smaller. “[T]he reign of sin,” explains Lonergan, “is a progressive atomization of humanity.”[4]

One of the primary drivers of decline, especially in the later Lonergan, is our bias. It takes several shapes, and lives in all of us. Now, a bias is not a kind of proclivity; it is something we do. As M. Shawn Copeland says, “Bias . . . is the more or less conscious and deliberate choice, in light of what we perceive as a potential threat to our well-being, to exclude further information or data from consideration in our understanding, judgment, discernment, and action.”[5]

Our great weakness is a general bias for common sense. Common sense is a practical, concrete set of shared understandings and judgments that for the most part help us through our day-to-day world. Our bias is to decide that this is the only intelligence necessary for our world. We do this by eliminating other solutions as “impractical,” or by failing to ask further questions, or by refusing to attend to further data.

Remember Lonergan's delicate image of the human being. We are geared by the desire to know, which is unrestricted. Practical intelligence, while it is one of the ways we are intelligent, is not the only way that we are capable of being intelligent. It is not the only way that we make the world around us, for the world we live in is a reflection of ourselves. Denying ourselves any further intellectual endeavor therefore results in a kind of atrophy, even a violence, to the basic ekstasis of our being. But more than that, it also denies us the further tools that we would have to understand the situation we are in. Understanding less means that there is less that we know, and the less we know, the less we can be responsible for what we know. The fragile mechanism, struck once, falls apart.

Nor are we availed of a way out. Not really. Decline’s tendency is to spin outward under its own weight. “There is no use,” Lonergan says, “appealing to the sense of responsibility of irresponsible people, to the reason of people that are unreasonable, to the intelligence of people that have chosen to be obtuse, to the attention of people that attend only to their grievances.”[6] The situation is an objective surd. It is unintelligible. Senseless. And we are made for sense.

The World and the Unintelligible

When Lonergan wrote in the 1930s, he was deeply concerned to try and describe the totalitarian regimes that had taken hold at the time, to describe them as ruinous to human beings, and to explain how intelligent, communal creatures could come to rely on the harrowing of power for the few. But his theory of decline has come to mean much more than a description of one situation, both in his later work and to contemporary theologians.

Scholars like Shawn Copeland have used Lonergan to try and describe the problem of race. For Copeland, race is at once a horizon and a bias. Race is a horizon inasmuch as we always work from out of the viewpoint of race; it is a bias inasmuch as we choose, out of a sense of protecting our own well-being, not to attend to certain data, to questions, to responsibilities.[7]

Race comes to be in our world because of our own history. Because history is human action, and because human beings operate in a world of meaning, race is the result of actions and it is a set of meanings, meanings that come from out of action and that shape action. Race is not, Copeland reminds us, a biological reality. It is a human creation. But this does not prevent it from being real to us. We act as if race is real, and so it becomes law in our existence.

But race is based around attributing whiteness and value to some, and attributing blackness and disvalue to others. Now, this violates the fundamental solidarity of human beings. It is not true. Nevertheless, we act on this attribution of colors and values to skin, making it part of the stitching of our very world. We ratify a surd. What happens next should be familiar to us: the fragmentation of society, the refusal to ask all the relevant questions, the disintegration of progress in the fires of decline.

It is worth pausing, though, to consider the kinds of situations that race creates. It fundamentally denies all real progress: the few receive status as human, receive privileges, receive protections; everyone else is cut off from not just these, but from their very humanity. For they are no longer are allowed to follow the delicate lines of their own self-appropriation. They are, at a fundamental level, denied this. That they fight to and in fact do reach upward and outward anyway is not because race is true, but because their humanity is: humans do not stop being human, despite the functional denial of their humanity.

Because history is fundamentally temporal, its impacts are temporal. We today live with the ghosts of previous centuries. We live with these ghosts, echoing their character, even unknowingly. Historical injustices chain together, receive repetition, complexify and diversify over time. Our frustrations, our sorrows, our struggles, are elaborate echoes of the generations that live in us, that we live in. To look upon a human face is to see a history, even if we refuse to understand it.

Remember, remember: the delicate image of the human being. See how great the possibilities for damage, the depth of every waking violence, the insidiousness of every blind betrayal, that we bring to life and that live on in us. “Man makes man what he is,” says Lonergan, “in a continuous succession of emerging individuals.”[8]

History is human action. Race is a thing we create by doing, and by building a whole world around that doing. Laws and institutions support and ratify the acting, and inform the acting. So what we must imagine, when we imagine the problem, is not so much individuals as an entire world of meanings and actions. But what are we to do, then, when decline has no recourse?

The Word of History

We find ourselves in an evil situation. This situation is ours, indeed quite without us, because our history is ours whatever we might wish. The situation is ours, because we are now the ones who act. We are called to responsibility. Even still, a reply to evil with progress does not treat the evil, which remains. The surd remains a surd. For Lonergan, human power cannot, in fact, resolve the problem of evil.

But God can. According to Lonergan, what God can do that we cannot is bring goodness and justice out of an evil situation.[9] This is what the Word of God does on the cross, and it is what the Christian does in Christ. To put it another way: in God’s response to the fragmentation of humanity, there is the radical solidarity of the Body of Christ.

Copeland stresses that God’s response, and so our response, is concrete. God’s response is historical, since history is the problem; and history is human action, which means that redemption takes place through human action, most of all through the divine-human action of Jesus. Christ’s concrete action also has a particular shape: in his life, we see God’s life. And God prefers the poor, the oppressed. This means that salvation happens not just through human action in general, but through the elevation of the oppressed in particular. Copeland highlights, for example, the history and experience of poor black women.[10]

All this means that our Christian call to solidarity takes a particular shape, which is a solidarity with the oppressed, whose humanity redounds upon our own, our shared humanity. It means that solidarity is a work that requires the work of God in us, the God who alone can make good of evil. “Oppression,” explains Copeland,

Assaults (materially rather than formally) our connectedness to one another by setting up dominative structural relations between social and cultural groups as well as between persons. Oppression is both a reality of the present and a fact of history. Solidarity mandates us to shoulder our responsibility to the past in the here-and-now memory of the crucified Christ and all the victims of history.[11]

Shouldering responsibility for the past in the memory of Christ is a concrete, continual act. Because it is concrete, it is particular, which means it requires from each of us different things. For a white Catholic such as myself, it requires the sincerity of penitence. It requires the recognition of a history that involves me and the history that comes before me in particular, concrete ways. It also requires the responsibility of present action.

Solidarity requires, as Lonergan might say, a withdrawal from inauthenticity in the move toward authenticity. This is asked of all of us, including myself, and in different ways. “As the intellect rises to knowledge of God,” explains Lonergan,

The will is called to love of God, and then evil is revealed to be not merely a human wrong, but also sin, revolt against God, an abuse of his goodness and love, a pragmatic calumny that hides from oneself and from others the absolute goodness and perfect love that through the universe and through men expresses itself to men. So repentance becomes sorrow.

By sorrow, Lonergan does not mean despair. The love of God involves a gift of absolute willingness, of universal good will, that wills in conspiracy with God. It is worth spending more time with Lonergan here:

Good will is joyful. Its repentance and sorrow regard the past. Its present sacrifices look to the future. It is at one with the universe in being in love with God, it shares its dynamic resilience and expectancy . . . Good will wills the order of the universe, and so it wills with that order’s dynamic joy and zeal.[12]

For writers like Lonergan and Copeland and Robert Doran, Christians do not resolve history so much as they redeem it, and they redeem it by living in it. This is a demanding task, because it requires understanding the worlds of meaning that we live in. It requires transforming those meanings, which is its own praxis. It requires actions that harmonize with those meanings. It requires all that we are; the whole, delicate instrument that God has made. “Therefore,” says Doran, “it is necessary for one to relinquish into God’s hands the maintenance of his or her own self, and to learn how to be good in all things and to use that knowledge in every case; to trust in God, and to subordinate one’s own purposes to what God is doing in the world.”[13]

The Word in the Fire

We turn our eyes again to where we began, which is with the fires all over the States. In the whole world. We see now that we cannot overcome history except by living in it. But to really live in history, to make good on the actions that make history and that make us, requires understanding. And we must, after all this time, recognize how difficult, how trying, how fragile, this task is. There is no relevant question that we are allowed to leave aside. There is no meaning that we can ignore. There is no facet of the diamond that we can abandon. It is our leaving aside, our ignoring, our abandoning, that has brought us here.

We must, as Lonergan would have it, withdraw from inauthenticity in order to become more authentic. We must have the strength of joyful repentance, which fixes its sorrow on the past and its present sacrifice on the future. Our great labor toward authenticity is, among many things, understanding. It is not only delicate; it is also communal, historical, and the subject of our own action.

To understand: this our great, complex calling, requiring all that we are. We do not understand unless we have labored; we do not know until we have asked every question; we are not responsible except with a living mind. And we do not really know unless we have loved, “And this love of Christ is the love of the least of these, his little ones. It is the love of the social order, the condition that the least may live and learn to know and to love him.”[14]

[1] All citations of Bernard Lonergan are from Bernard Lonergan, The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vols. 1-25 [= CWL 1-25] (Toronto: Toronto, 1988-2020).

[2] Lonergan, CWL 3, 28.

[3] Lonergan, CWL 25, 98.

[4] Lonergan, CWL 25, 58.

[5] M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 13.

[6] Lonergan, CWL 16, 7.

[7] Cf. Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom, 13.

[8] Lonergan, CWL 25, 74.

[9] Thanks to Jonathan Heaps for this way of putting the matter.

[10] See Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom, 85-106.

[11] Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom, 100-101.

[12] Lonergan, CWL 3, 722.

[13] Robert Doran, Theology and the Dialectics of History (Toronto: Toronto, 1990), 384.

[14] Lonergan, CWL 25, 75.

Featured Image: Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch — Folio 144: Himmelsfeuer über Augsburg 1542, c. 1552; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Anne M. Carpenter

Anne M. Carpenter is the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Her current work has focused on theologies of tradition, recovering the thought of Maurice Blondel, and other topics.

Read more by Anne M. Carpenter