Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Return

In Topics in Education, when thinking about the agents of positive change that can reverse processes of social and cultural breakdown, Lonergan writes that he has
spoken simply of the process--situation, insight, counsel, policy, new type of action, new situation, new insight, and the snowball effect of the entire cycle. The agents may be called a succession of creative personalities. The situation can be wholly transformed if there is a succession of personalities who are not simply sunk into the existing situation, immersed in its routines, and functioning like cogs in a wheel, with little grasp of possibilities, with a lack of daring. They withdraw, perhaps even physically, but at least mentally. They are detached; it is because of their detachment that they can see how things could be different. They may be accounted as nobodies while they are withdrawn, but when they return, they transform the world. In their withdrawal they become themselves, and they return with a mission (Topics in Education, p. 51-52).
This is such an incredibly rich passage. From a philosophy of history perspective, Lonergan here has taken great strides towards integrating the genuine insights of the Great Man approach to history, which focused upon agents of change, with the legitimate insights of historiographies that focus more upon broader social and cultural movements. It help us to understand how transformative figures--Moses, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Muhammad, Aquinas, Luther, Marx, to name a few of particular historical import--manage to transform our concrete human reality. A product of said reality, they consciously withdraw from immanent engagement with that reality, precisely in order to gain what we might describe as a transcendent understanding of its qualities. This withdrawal allows them to cultivate their subjectivity, becoming themselves and thus able to operate fully at the level of their time: precisely what Lonergan defines as genius. When they (or their disciples) begin to more fully engage with the world, they have a sense of what must be changed so as to produce a better world. This, perhaps, is the existential origin of such phenomena as the cult of the saints: the commemoration of past persons who came to operate at the respective levels of their respective times, whose operations facilitated comparable transformative experiences in their successors. It is no doubt the existential origin of the church: in his withdrawal--his years spent as an artisan, the time spent in praying and fasting--Jesus became himself, and upon his return he began to fashion the community that would eventuate in the church. Commemorating Jesus was thus not merely antiquarian, but in fact aimed at transforming the world in the here and now, precisely because Jesus was one who saw not only that transformation was necessary but had an at least initial sense of how that transformation must look. Likewise, the origins of the sangha, the mosque, and the like. Through the operations of such geniuses operating at the level of their times new spaces emerge--spaces in which other persons can likewise withdraw sufficiently to become themselves--and this with the guidance and example of previous transformative figures.

We know such figures from our own or at least more recent times, and not surprisingly many of these hail from marginalized groups (after all, it is easier to withdraw when one has already and unjustly been relegated to the fringes). To name just a few: Sojourner Truth; Frederick Douglass; Susan B. Anthony; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; bell hooks; and indeed Lonergan himself, whose work has released a slew of intellectual energy that is still changing the world. The great story continues: one of redemption from the constant entropy that threatens to overwhelm our social and cultural lives.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Lonergan and Bible at the American Academy of Religion

I am sitting in Boston's Logan Airport as I write this, returning from a fun but--as always--exhausting weekend at the concurrent Annual Meetings of Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion (AKA, SBLAAR). For myself, the highlight of this weekend was a meeting that took place on Sunday night, when a number of us gathered to discuss the possibility of starting a Lonergan and Bible group at SBLAAR. Some highlights from this discussion.

1) It was agreed that there is more than enough will on both the side of Lonergan studies and that of biblical to sustain such a group.
2) It was agreed that such a group needs to operate from the centre (to use a quintessentially Lonergan phrase). That is to say, there are two "movements" here, that will meet in this group: Lonergan scholars with an interest in biblical studies, and biblical scholars with an interest in Lonergan.
3) It was agreed that this operation from the centre can help meet the larger need of bringing together conscientious thought and work in systematic theology with conscientious thought and work in biblical studies.
4) It was agreed that although the initial idea was that this group would function under the auspices of SBL, our aims would be better met if it functioned under the auspices of AAR.
5) It was agreed that we will aim to hold our initial session(s) at the SBLAAR Annual Meeting in Nov. 2018, with the recognition that if this cannot be achieved we can aim for 2019.

As indicated by especially #5, there remains much work to be done. In particular, what we need at this point are persons who are willing to serve on the steering committee. Volunteers for such service would be appreciated. In addition, a long-standing need was identified, namely that of identifying and recruiting persons who 1) have primary expertise in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and 2) are interested in Lonergan. Due to the pioneering work of the Lonerganian New Testament scholar Ben Meyer there is a readily identifiable body of NT scholars interested in Lonergan, but little comparable among HB/OT scholars. Another need identified by the group was that of gender and ethnic inclusivity, as homogeneity is hardly a virtue.

Thanks to Dave de la Fuente, John Martens, and Jordan Ryan for attending the meeting last night. Thanks also to Michael Barber, John Dadosky, Darren Dias, Robert Doran, Bill Heroman, James McGrath, and Jeff Peterson, all of whom expressed an interest in attending but were unable to do so due to other commitments. (If I've failed to mention any others who conveyed their regrets, my apologies). A special mention needs to go to Jeff Peterson, who got this whole ball rolling by suggesting that we think about starting a Lonergan and New Testament group (which quickly evolved into Lonergan and Bible) at the SBL in the first place.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Of Illegitimacy and Inference

Early in David Hackett Fischer's Champlain's Dream, Fischer argues that Samuel de Champlain might have been the illegitimate son of the future Henri IV, king of France. Fischer acknowledges that he has no direct evidence to establish this as fact. He has no birth certificate with Henri's name on it. He has no document in which Henri acknowledges Champlain as son, or in which Champlain acknowledges Henri as father. No one from the time talks about such a father-son relationship between the two. Nonetheless, argues Fischer, if Champlain was indeed Henri IV's son, and if Henri was aware of that fact, then that would explain a host of peculiarities in Champlain's relationship to Henri IV and to the French state more generally. Moreover, he argues that it would explain these peculiarities in a way that no other hypothesis has heretofore been able to do.

There is no need here for us to get into the details about this argument, for it matters not for our purposes. What matters is that this stands as a wonderful exemplar of how one versed in Lonergan's epistemology would proceed. Fischer understands that what constitutes a historical hypothesis is not ultimately our observational apprehension of the data but rather our inferential apprehension of the relationships between the data. That is to say, history is not exegesis: it is not the interpretation of documents followed by pronouncements about whether their claims are true. As such, the fact that Fischer has no document explicitly identifying Henri as Champlain's father is no impediment to his hypothesis. At the same time, Fischer recognizes that the mere fact that by considering those relationships he can construct a hypothesis in which Henri is Champlain's father is not sufficient to establish that this is the case. Anyone can construct hypotheses. What separates the adults from the children is the ability to determine which hypotheses are most probable. Towards that end, Fischer advances a criterion by which to judge whether this is the best hypothesis on the matter, namely that of scope: does this hypothesis explain a greater scope of relevant data than does any competitor? He is cautious: acknowledging that in this case the data is such that he cannot say with certainty that Henri was Champlain's father, but nonetheless presenting it as a possibility that is perhaps to be preferred to its alternatives.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Of Saints and Savages in Early Christianity

In the Introduction to his 2008 monograph, Champlain's Dream, David Hackett Fischer (of Historians' Fallacies fame) writes that he
seeks a path of understanding between hagiographers on the one side and iconoclasts on the other....Two generations ago, historians wrote of European saints and Indian savages. In the last generation, too many scholars have been writing about Indian saints and European savages. The opportunity for our generation is to go beyond that calculus of saints and savages altogether, and write about both American Indians and Europeans with maturity, empathy, and understanding.
The struggle between hagiography and iconoclasm is quite acute in early Christian studies, with a remarkably parallel development: where we once spoke about (literal) saints in the form of apostles and orthodox leaders on the one hand and sinners in the form of Gnostic, Marcionite, Arian, and other heterodox figures on the other, a shift occurred where we came to speak about orthodox sinners and heterodox saints. The Great Church went from being one of the great achievements in human history and its opponents shiftless malcontents, to a great coercive force that compelled obedience and quelled push-back from valiant heterodox dissenters. Even those who in principle defied the saint v. sinner--or orthodox v. heterodox--calculus tended to replicate it, with a perhaps-unconscious tendency to give preference to non-canonical or heterodox works. For instance, for much of the late twentieth-century one would be hard-pressed to find John's Gospel very much cited in historical Jesus studies--despite being the only likely first-century narrative that in any explicit fashion claims to eyewitness status--but one could readily find in the same literature prolific references to the Gospel of Thomas; rather than repudiating the orthodox v. heterodox divide, the heterodox had simply been granted the normativity taken from the orthodox. In truth, this shift was probably necessary: only by thinking about both orthodox and heterodox material through both a hermeneutic of goodwill and a hermeneutic of suspicion could we reach the point that we could write about each with maturity, empathy, and understanding. The trick, I would suggest, is now to ask how we can integrate what has been learned into a single, synthetic understanding of early Christianity.

As I think about what is necessary for writing the history of early Christianity at the level of our own time, I cannot but be reminded of Lonergan's famous argument in Collection that over and against a "solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists," and "a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development," that "what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait." The temptation to err to either right or left is very much before us. On the one hand, we have those who would limit the material to which they attend to the works of the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, pretending that we have not learned that early Christianity was much greater than this. On the other hand, we have those who would ignore the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, dismissing them as ideologically-driven or hopelessly biased. Neither inclination strikes me as particularly fruitful. Each such move is fully a refusal to undertake the pain-staking work of genuine historigraphy.

Concretely, probably no actor in early Christianity was wholly saint or wholly sinner. Paul appears to have been a remarkably successful leader and administrative genius, yet also given to anger--even rage--when his authority was challenged and necessarily given to compromise when he believed himself to be in the right. The emerging Great Church had legitimate reasons to define a normative tradition, but this same normativity also became the grounds for exclusions and schisms that persisted for centuries, even in some cases up until today. Marcion did demand of Christian thought a level of systematization that was relatively rare if not entirely unknown before his time, and such demand probably did help move forward Christian discourse; yet, his particular effort at systematization had legitimate intellectual difficulties that required reasoned repudiation. Valentinus might have been as much the victim of ecclesial politics as anything else, and I suspect that he himself aimed at nothing more than to help elevate the intellectual level of Christian thought. Each of these actors operated at the level of their time, advancing the concrete realities of Christian existence in demonstrable ways even as their imperfections and limitations generated a variety of difficulties (some much more than others, in respect to both advance and difficulty).

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

For the Love of Gord

Gord Downie died today. For more than thirty years, he was the front man of The Tragically Hip, "Canada's band," until they played their final show last August. It is, I think, impossible to describe to non-Canadians what The Hip meant to Canadians, especially Anglo-Canadians. Downie wrote most of their lyrics, and his poetry--because that's what his lyrics really were--perfectly expressed everything that Anglo-Canadians want to be, while never shying away from reminding us of the ways in which we still fell short of our own ideals. His words showed us the people we wanted to be, while revealing the people that we really were. And that combination of ideal and reality was remarkably, profoundly powerful. And more: his life embodied his art. He spent his life advocating for indigenous persons and communities. Indeed, after being diagnosed with the terminal illness that has now claimed his life, he spent much of his remaining time traveling the country, visiting impoverished indigenous communities and advocating on their behalf. During The Hip's farewell concert, a night that was for the rest of us about their legacy and Downie's courage in the face of death, he made it about justice, pointing to Prime Minister Trudeau (who was in attendance) and publicly calling on him to address the ongoing injustices against indigenous peoples here in Canada. He was, quite simply, a good man.

Downie, I think, helps us better understand the thought of another Canadian, namely Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan often spoke of the need for love to transform the human subject into someone who is concerned with the well-being of others. He described such a transformation as religious conversion, and although his focus was upon how this worked itself out in the Christian--and more specifically the Catholic--tradition, he never limited the possibility of such love to said tradition. Indeed, Downie, as far as I know, was not an active member of any religion. Articulated from within the Christian tradition, one might say that he is a testimony to the reality that divine grace is not limited to the walls of any given church. However we might want to articulate it, it is not difficult to see in Gord Downie's life a pattern that Lonergan identified in his work: religious conversion, i.e. falling in love with something much greater than oneself, leads to moral conversion, i.e. the consistent option for values over satisfaction, for the common good rather than parochial self-or even group- interest. And in the final analysis, it was no doubt the presence of such love that attracted people to The Hip.

Monday, 16 October 2017

On Gendered Violence

There is currently on social media a trend wherein women (and to a lesser extent men) write "Me too" in their statuses, as a declaration that they have suffered sexual harassment. This seems an appropriate occasion to think about gendered violence (and let's be clear: harassment is a form of violence--not necessarily physical, for physical violence is just the tip of the iceberg--in that it violates the person's dignity and sense of security) from a Lonerganian perspective. As Lonerganian scholars such as Robert Doran and John Dadosky have said about their own writing, in what follows I make no effort to distinguish between Lonergan's thought and my own, as the former has so fully informed the latter that such distinctions are difficult to make.

Most fundamentally, from a Lonerganian perspective violence--gendered or otherwise--is irrational and thus invariably irresponsible. This differs from force, the application of which can at times be quite rational and responsible. If a man assaults a woman, he uses force to exercise violence against her. This is in all cases irrational and irresponsible. If she uses force to resist, that very conceivable could be a rational attempt to avoid injury to self, and thus quite responsible. But more interesting than this basic set of observations is to ask why someone engages in the irrational and irresponsible act of violence in the first place. In Lonergan terms, this will be inexplicably linked to the idea of alienation.

The sort of alienation of which we speak here is in the first instance an alienation from the best version of oneself, i.e. the version of oneself that is attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. This supposes a view of the subject as something that can be cultivated. The attentiveness, intelligence, reason, and responsibility in view are not native capacities. Rather, they result from the intentional decision to develop the skills associated with observation (attentiveness), understanding (intelligence), judgment (reason), and decision (responsibility). Alienation is not simply a situation in which one is less than fully attentive, intelligent, reasonable, or responsible, but rather a situation in which one actively (although not necessarily consciously) refuses to develop said skills. Instead, the energy that would otherwise be invested in cultivating these skills is invested in justifying the refusal to do so, as well as finding ways to function despite such fundamental impairments in these basic human capacities.

A person thus alienated from her or his best self becomes inevitably alienated also from reality. Precisely because it is through attentiveness, understanding, judgment, and decision that we come to truly know and fruitfully engage with reality, the person who refuses to cultivate these skills is fundamentally incapable of truly knowing or fruitfully engaging with reality. Such a person experiences the world in a fundamentally distorted fashion. Fear substitutes for attentiveness, suspicion for intelligence, paranoia for reason, aggression for responsibility. Unable to escape a bewildering world from which one is fundamentally and existentially estranged, one irresponsibly sets out to control the many aspects of that world that operate in defiance of one's unreasonable expectations. Such control almost inevitably violates the dignity and security of other persons in one way or another. Sometimes this occurs overtly, through acts of irresponsible force, and sometimes it occurs covertly, through various forms of abuse, neglect, harassment, etc.

Due to sexual dimorphism, which results in the reality that female human beings tend to be on average smaller than male human beings in any given population, it is not at all unusual to find that alienated men frequently engage in aggressive conduct towards women. Precisely because the alienated man (and the move to gender-exclusive language here is intentional) is irresponsible, he has a tendency to prefer the quick and easy path to satisfying his need to control. Indeed, entire societies can (dys)functionally adopt such aggressive conduct as a foundational principle, with cultures that become distorted in order to warrant such social dysfunction. Alienated aggression against women becomes normalized, such that women who resist are deemed to be "bitches" or the like, even as women who do not resist are deemed to be "sluts," etc. But of course all this is just projection: irrational and irresponsible men cannot conceive of the possibility that other persons--male or female--might be more rational and more responsible than they are, precisely because they do not actually know what it means to be rational and responsible.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

From Gospel to Dogma

Last week, I had the honour of delivering a talk at Regis College in the University of Toronto, hosted by the Lonergan Research Institute. This talk focused upon how the gospels were seminal in the development of Christian dogma: not in terms of their content, but rather in terms of the processes that led from Jesus' life to the development of the very form of dogma itself that we find emerging at Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc. Here I drew upon a quote from Lonergan's Triune God: Doctrines (p. 49, with the Latin original on p. 48 opposite; yes, although a twentieth-century thinker, Lonergan often wrote in Latin, specifically those writings that started as lectures delivered at the Gregorian in Rome):
[I]n the ante-Nicene doctrinal movement there were not one but two developments that were going forward. During those early Christian centuries both the trinitarian and Christological doctrines were being developed; but this doctrinal development itself enfolded a second and more profound development in which the idea of dogma itself was developing.
What we find here are what we might term a substantial and a formal development, which operated in parallel. The substantial development was the specific content of the doctrines being developed, while the formal development was the mode of expression by which they were articulated. In effect, we are dealing with the difference between what Christians believed and how they communicated that belief. My primary interest in this talk was upon the latter.

Substantially, there are Christian insights in narrative texts such as the gospels and also in dogmatic texts such as the Nicene Creed. But formally they are very different. The movement from narrative to dogma is a profound one, in which sharpened intellectual clarity is achieved by virtue of intellect's increasing regulation of other aspects of the person when thinking about doctrine, which results in a concomitant decrease in the capacity to communicate to the whole person is decreased. What actually happens in the big picture is that narrative--and also song, and other forms that aim more fully at the whole person--becomes less concerned with communicating intellectual truths as forms more appropriate to the communication of intellectual truths come into their own (and thus we see a keen impropriety in comparing ancient narrative to modern narrative; they actually are not the same animal, as modern narrative is much more specialized than ancient). This much is really derived from Lonergan. My particular interest was in how the production of the gospels themselves contributed to this process.

My argument was quite straightforward. The gospels were developed and written in highly diverse milieus; that such communication in such milieus by necessity requires work to clarify concepts; and that this early work at clarification constituted perhaps the first major Christian movement towards dogma. There is strong reason to think that right from the off the church was at least culturally and linguistically diverse: consider the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, for instance, or that of the Hebraists and the Hellenists in Acts 6. This diversity would have only increased as the church spread into the Diaspora (which actually seems to have occurred quite early, perhaps as a direct result of Pentecost. If not then, certainly by the time Paul was converted, perhaps as little as eighteen months after Jesus died and certainly no more than three or four years). All such cultural and linguistic diversity made posed a sharp challenge to communication (indeed, the account of miraculous inter-linguistic communication at Pentecost makes clear that the early Christians were profoundly aware of this challenge). My argument is simply that this challenge to communication necessitated acts of clarification that would characterize the movement of Christian communication throughout the ante-Nicene period, and after.