Bernard Lonergan drew a map of theology for a new era

  • Jesuit Fr. Bernard Lonergan in 1977 (NCR photo/Mark Winiarski)

Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."


Method in Theology
by Bernard Lonergan
Seabury, 1972

Method in Theology is the work of a genius, Bernard Lonergan, a Jesuit philosopher and theologian who lived from 1904 until 1984. I first read it as part of my dissertation research in the early 1980s. It turned out to be the book that has had the most influence not only upon what I think but also upon how I think. Method in Theology builds upon Lonergan's earlier work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957).

In Insight, Lonergan explores how the human mind can understand and know things, as well as how a basic continuity in the process of knowing stretches across math, science, social science, metaphysics, ethics and religious belief. If you start reading Insight with naive credulity, Lonergan will lead you in the direction of critical thinking. If critical thinking runs you into the ditch of a dead-end skepticism or an anything-goes relativism, Lonergan will pull you out of that ditch by teaching you how to affirm yourself as a knower.

He will prompt you to demonstrate to yourself that human understanding and knowledge, though limited, are real. He will help you to recognize and overcome various forms of bias. He will convince you that values are anything but purely subjective. He will make you aware of various forms of differentiations in your own consciousness, and of how different types of human operations lead to different forms of expression of knowledge.

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He will argue persuasively that your ability to know anything requires the existence of a universe that can be understood and known, and that if anything at all is really intelligible, then there must be an ultimate context of intelligibility. Upon the basis of this ultimate context of intelligibility, you can reason that there must be God. Not only is there God, but you can also reasonably affirm special revelation through Christ carried forth in history in the Catholic church.

Method in Theology, though building upon Insight, offers a more ecumenical approach intended for use by theologians in various traditions. Moreover, Lonergan adds to his earlier focus on intellectual reasoning some balancing emphases on willing and loving. If Insight, in retrospect, can be said to be mainly concerned with what Lonergan would later come to call intellectual conversion, Method in Theology expands the range of concerns to include also moral and religious conversion.

Intellectual conversion entails understanding what you are doing when you are knowing. You realize that knowing something requires more than just taking a look at what is there outside of yourself. It also requires using your mind to understand and make judgments. And so you come to grasp how reality is much more than just what meets the eye.

But it is also more than just your subjective ideas. Lonergan explains how objectivity is the result of authentic subjectivity. Moral conversion involves a shift in your criteria of decision-making from selfishness to higher values. Religious conversion is a falling-in-love with God.

Lonergan wrote Method in Theology at a time when theology was still completing a transition from being mainly done only in seminaries to being done also in universities. On the one hand, does theology really belong in universities? Can it be legitimate to bring faith perspectives into academic classrooms? Should universities confine themselves only to academic religious studies? On the other hand, do scholars who study the Bible and tradition only with historical methods belong in a theology department?

Method in Theology shows how theology can be a fully reasonable and critical discipline while at the same time retaining its traditional role as "faith seeking understanding." Lonergan lays out a basic organizational plan for the academic discipline of theology as divided into eight functional specialties (or subdisciplines).

The first four functional specialties — research, interpretation, history and dialectic — operate in a way that is logically prior to "conversion." The final four functional specialties — foundations, doctrines, systematics and communications — require "conversion" as a prerequisite. For Lonergan, you will recall, conversion is threefold: religious, moral and intellectual.

Scholars working within these functional specialties should be in dialogue with each other. Those who are operating in specialties that call for "conversion," for example, are not exempt from the canons of reason that bind those working in the pre-conversion specialties. They are, however, specializing in intellectual regions that presuppose choices and decisions in favor of a particular religious tradition.

Theology so understood combines reason and faith in such a way that it benefits greatly from the context of a university that supports many academic disciplines. It builds upon studies that are scientific, hermeneutical, historical and analytic. It requires many dimensions of its own discipline to be performed in a way that is logically prior to any faith stance.

At the same time, it does not banish all particular, intellectual faith commitments from the academic court. A Catholic university, for example, can house theologians and sponsor research performed not only by Catholics but by scholars from a wide range of religious traditions in a way that can combine both insider and outsider perspectives.

Method in Theology presents theology as a discipline that mediates between a religion and a culture. On the one hand, there is something very traditional about theology, because the theologian is drawing upon and interpreting a tradition that exists prior to oneself. On the other hand, there is something very progressive and even creative about theology, because the theologian needs to appropriate the tradition into the present context. As the world of today is characterized by cultural pluralism, so there are many particular contexts into which Christian tradition needs to be appropriated.

Also, in addition to honoring the standard academic criteria associated with science, social science, history and philosophy, a theologian needs to appropriate Christian tradition in harmony with religious, moral and intellectual conversion. To speak theologically in an authentic manner requires not only reasonable intellectual judgments. It includes also the desire to be truly good as well as being in touch with the gift of love with which God floods our hearts. It helps tremendously if the theologian participates in a faith community that strives to live out its vision in an authentic manner.

What Lonergan's eight functional specialties offer us is something of a map of theology as an academic discipline. A map, however, is not the territory. There is always something abstract about a map. In real life, theology does not always fit neatly into exactly eight categories that follow one another in a particular order. Lonergan's Method in Theology does not offer a recipe that is to be followed with precise measurements in ordered steps.

Recently, however, I spent some time at a German university as a guest professor. At an initial lecture in which I explained Lonergan's eight functional specialties, some members of the Catholic theological faculty made the point that such an abstract approach, though helpful in some ways, did not really describe what they do.

At a second lecture, however, I named many members of the faculty and explained where their subdisciplines fit on Lonergan's map. The professor of Bible studies who emphasizes textual criticism is connected with research and interpretation. The professor of church history is connected with history. The professor of philosophical theology is connected with dialectic. The professor of fundamental theology is connected with foundations. The professor of dogmatics is connected with doctrines and systematics. The professor of religious pedagogy as well as the professor of moral theology are connected with communications.

Unfortunately, not many of the same people attended both lectures. Those present at the second lecture, however, were no longer suggesting that the map did not apply to them. Such an exercise would probably not work as well at a U.S. university where theology faculties are not so traditionally structured.

Method in Theology performs a valuable service in explaining how theology can fit within a university setting. In an age where few people conceive of theology as one unified discipline with many interacting parts, it may be about time for a Method in Theology revival. It sometimes seems as though theology departments of today are mainly inhabited by people so focused on their subdisciplines that they have no idea that they should be collaborating with their colleagues in a larger unified project called theology.

Beyond its map of theology, however, Method in Theology lays out in a coherent framework an encapsulated overview of Lonergan's mature thought regarding human consciousness, meaning, society, religion, philosophy, history, faith, revelation, doctrine and community.

If you are a person who does not like to think, you should definitely stay away from this book. Otherwise, please do not feel intimidated. The book is quite readable and yields much fruit even from a first pass. It is also the kind of book, however, that you will not exhaust in one reading. You will can get more out of every time you read it. After all, it is a work of genius.

[Dennis M. Doyle is professor of theology at the University of Dayton. His latest book is What Is Christianity?: A Dynamic Approach.]

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