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Charles Davis

(1923-1999)

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From The Journal of Religion, Vol. 53, No. 3 (July 1973), 384-387.  The late Professor Davis submitted this when he was on the faculty of Sir George Williams University, Montreal.

 

A review of David Tracy, The Achievement of Bernard Lonergan. New York: Herder & Herder, 1970. 

Charles Davis

A remarkable feature of this book is its method. In the introduction Dr. Tracy presents the basic features and principal categories of the thought of the later Lonergan.  He puts that thought under the heading of ďhorizon-analysis,Ē a name he takes as referring in general to the phenomenological and transcendental movements in recent philosophy.  Both those movements are characterized by the turn to the subjective and the rejection of extrinsicism and positivism.  Having outlined the later Lonerganís own definition and use of horizon-analysis, the author then uses Lonerganís own categories and methods in the rest of the book as formal instruments for expounding Lonerganís performance and achieve-ent.  Lonergan is used to expound Lonergan.  The method chosen makes for a very tight exposition, thick with systematic insights.  But before its ad-vantages and disadvantages are noted, it is better to follow through its workings.

The earliest period of Lonerganís work is de-scribed as the recovery of the theoretic horizon of medieval theology, in particular that of Thomas Aquinas.  The period covered nearly fifteen years.  Its first phase was an entry into the medieval world of theory.  The New Testament was not concerned with theory.  Patristic theology never entered fully into the world of theory because it remained too involved in symbolic and descriptive expression.  For Loner-gan the entire medieval development was a drive toward theory, the wholehearted movement of the Christian tradition into the world of theory.  Reflection upon the Christian sources became a scientific, systematic enterprise; in short, it became theology. The chief interest for Tracy of Lonerganís work on Gratia Operans is not the interpretation it gave of Aquinas on grace, but Lonerganís articulation and personal appropriation of the medieval enterprise as a search for a scientific theology.  There began Lo-nerganís own search for method in theology.

The second phase of the earliest period was ďLonerganís hermeneutic attempt to move beyond and beneath the world of medieval theory in order to expose the world of interiority grounding itĒ (p. 44). In the Verbum articles Lonergan rescued the intellectualism of Aquinas from the conceptualism of the Thomistic tradition.  He discerned and made explicit the cognitional operations implied in the theoretic attitude of Aquinas and disengaged the cognitional facts from their metaphysical expression. This made it possible to bring the cognitional data of Aquinas to bear upon the modern critical problem. This Lonergan did in the second period of his work, that of Insight.

Having recovered the authentic theoretic attitude of Aquinas, Lonergan sets out to appropriate the gains of the postmedieval or modern horizon. ďModernĒ here is distinct from contemporary.  In other words, two developments are in view: the shift from Aristotelian to modern science and the explicit emergence of the critical problem since Kant. Lonerganís purpose in Insight was to relate the world of interiority he had discovered in Aquinas to both these developments.  Tracy devotes four chapters, the heart of his book, to Insight, its content, and its method.

After Insight Lonergan, because of his teaching, became closely involved in the positive, dogmatic, and systematic theology of the Trinity and of Christ. While producing Latin treatises on the Trinity and the Incarnation, he began to formulate a method for theology.  In his treatises Lonergan is already grappling with the methodological problems caused by the rise of positive theology and developmental dogmatic theology.  The Latin treatises thus lead into the latest period of Lonerganís thought, centered upon the problem of method in theology.  Tracy discusses this period in his last two chapters, and further, it is the thought of this periodóthe later Lonerganóthat dominates the whole book.  When Tracy wrote, Lonerganís Method in Theology, the finished product of this period, had not yet appeared. Tracy drew upon unpublished notes and preliminary drafts of the book.  Now that Method in Theology has been published, it can be stated that Tracyís book keeps its value as an introduction.

It was Lonerganís acknowledgment of the con-temporary phenomenon of historical consciousness that led to his recognition of the need for a new theological method.  Tracy first delineates the new context; then in the next chapter he analyzes the methodical exigence as it arose from the shift to historical consciousness.  The methodical exigence is the search for a basic pattern of related and recurrent operations.  Such a basic pattern or method will reveal the invariant structures, procedures, and operations of reason itself.  Its application will enable theology to move fully and coherently from classical to historical consciousness.  Out of that under-standing of the methodological problem comes Lonerganís distinction of the eight functional specialties of theology.  Tracy concludes his book with an analysis of these.

Unquestionably, the book under review is a bril-liant introduction by someone who has thoroughly assimilated Lonerganís thought and can present it, as it were, from the inside.  Tracy, it should be noted, is no uncritical disciple.  He has serious reservations, expressed in detail elsewhere, about Lonerganís grounding of theology.  Those reservations are only briefly hinted at in the book, but their presence is enough to secure that the exposition is that of an active, questioning mind.  So the book provides a masterly initiation into the mind of Lonergan, particularly useful for those who, unlike the author, do not share Lonerganís intellectual background and are for that reason puzzled to know what he is about. Yet its method of using Lonergan to expound Loner-gan, interesting as it is as a technique of philosophic exposition, leaves me with nagging doubts.  The reason is, I think, because such a method compounds the faults of Lonerganís thought and obscures its weaknesses.

Lonerganís thought, in my opinion, represents an overdevelopment or excess of the theoretic and systematic.  It is an enormous constructive effort, leading to the erection of a vast ideological superstructure.  The systemóit is a system whatever is said to the contraryóhas an immense digestive capacity.  It voraciously tries to consume the whole of modern knowledge.  But everything loses its own consistency as it is assimilated into the system.  The reader does not meet other authors in Lonergan; under various names he finds only elements extracted to serve the enclosed dynamism of Lonerganís own thought.  I do not mean that other writers are misinterpreted.  They are simply not present; their writings are raided.

When faced with a theoretical growth of that scale and power, two procedures, it seems to me, must be adopted together.  First, it is necessary to determine the problematic governing the theoretical develop-ment, namely the structure and internal relationships of its questions and answers.  Second, that prob-lematic must be related both to the contemporary field of theory, with the problematic of other writers this includes, and to the concrete individual and social situation of the author, with the problems this situation ineluctably imposed upon him.  It is particularly necessary to relate the authorís proble-matic to his life situation and its problems, because frequently the controlling problematic of a thinker does not in fact coincide with the problematic he states or at least emphasizes in his writings.  The reasons for his theory may not be his theoretical reasons.  A theoretical development cannot be accounted for simply as an unfolding sequence of thought without any reference to a concrete life situation.

Tracy gives a superb analysis of the genesis and structure of Lonerganís problematic as this appears when his theoretical enterprise is taken at its own evaluation.  But he does not step outside the circle of Lonerganís thought and relate it to the concrete situ-ation from which it arises.  Owing to his method, Tracy is unable even to relate Lonerganís problematic to that of other contemporary authors because he presents these only within a context determined by Lonerganís mode of thinking.  He does not attempt to find a principle of explanation for the phenomenon of Lonergan outside the ďtruthĒ and inner development of Lonerganís theoretical world. Unsystematic though a biographical and historical presentation of a thinker may be, it has the advantage of keeping us aware that human theory is rooted in the concrete lives of individual men and the history of which they are a part.  In Tracyís book we do not meet a man; we are shut within the engine room of a superbly functioning intelligence, and the effect is claustrophobic.

I have, of course, my own hypothesis.  I find in Lonerganís writings a much more traditional faith and a less straightforward development than might be supposed from Tracyís account.  Decisive, I feel, for the problematic of Lonergan is the struggle of a Catholic believer to reconcile his dogmatic faith precisely as dogmatic with modern ways of thinking. Further, the concrete situation of his theoretical work has been the culturally backward Catholic church, an underdeveloped area in the context of the present world.  It is quite usual for the underdevelopment of a concrete social and cultural situation to have a distorting effect upon theory.  In particular it leads to an excess of theory over practice, a running loose of ideas without grounding in reality, and to a cloaking of real problems in ideological formations.  To some extent at least this has happened with Lonerganís thought.  In my opinion his interpretation of the present problem of Christian theology as one of method is an ideological distortion, a mystification of the real situation.  His Method in Theology evades the questions now forced upon Catholic believers by the concrete context of the present world.  What it provides instead is a theoretical scheme creating the illusion that all the appropriate answers will be available.