Pluralism and Indifferentism


A few years ago, after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released the infamous Dominus Iesus, the secular press picked up on the fact that this was a controversial document. But they generally misunderstood the controversy. An Associated Press article, for example, ran under the title, “Vatican Rejects Equality of Religions.” As if that was news.

Dominus Iesus certainly had an arrogant tone, and this was indeed lamentable. But the suggestion that the Vatican might have affirmed that all religions are equal, and that their failure to do so was somehow newsworthy, was remarkably naïve. Never mind that it would have been a sudden and dramatic reversal of a nearly 2000 year old position, the bigger problem is that it doesn’t even make sense. It simply isn’t possible to coherently affirm that all religions are equal.

Why not? I’ll explain.

First of all, it has to be recognised that religions are not monolithic entities. If we wanted to decide which was better, Christianity or Buddhism, we would first have to decide which form of Christianity and which form of Buddhism we were going to compare. Within every religious tradition is a diversity of religious perspectives, some of which will be closer to the truth, or more conducive to “salvation” (however defined), than others.

Now, if I was to assert that all religious perspectives are equal, this would itself be a religious perspective. But the opposite of this – that all religious perspectives are not equal – is also a religious perspective. So I cannot assert that all religious perspectives are equal without also affirming the opposite. I would be contradicting myself.

We All Believe Our Beliefs Are True

If I affirm one perspective, and you affirm another perspective, I cannot coherently claim that your perspective is superior to my own. As soon as I decide that your perspective is superior, I would effectively be adopting that perspective.

One might argue that it is possible to affirm one perspective while acknowledging the other as an equally valid perspective. Actually, this is not possible.

Imagine two hypothetical religious traditions, which we’ll call P and Q. Traditionally the adherents of these religions have considered their own religion superior to the other. But times have changed, and people are becoming uneasy with the traditional triumphalism. On both sides there are some who maintain the superiority of their own tradition. We’ll call their positions Pe and Qe.

Let’s say I want to continue to call myself an adherent of P, I want to continue to attend services in a P house of worship, I find great richness and beauty and spiritual nourishment in the P tradition, etc., but I don’t want to affirm Pe. I can come up with a new position, which affirms that P and Q are equally valid. I call it Pp.

Have I succeeded in affirming a position without claiming that it is superior to others? No. If I affirm Pp, I nevertheless have to find my position superior to those who affirm Pe and Qe. If I affirm that P and Q are equally valid (i.e., Pp), I have to find Pp superior to Pe and Qe, because they deny that P and Q are equally valid. If I’m right, they must be wrong.

There’s probably a simpler way of saying that. But the point is, it is simply not possible to coherently assert that all religious perspectives are equally valid. Religious indifferentism is intrinsically incoherent.


So what about the so-called “pluralist” theologies? Traditionally, pluralism has been distinguished from not only exclusivism (which asserts that salvation is not available to those outside of a given religion), but from inclusivism as well.

Inclusivism, as it is usually understood, takes many forms, from the “anonymous Christian” idea of Karl Rahner (see Theological Investigations 6.390-398), to the less articulated position taken by the magisterium (see Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes).

An inclusivist believes that only their own religious perspective is fully “true,” but admits that those who share other perspectives can be saved. However, this salvation happens the way the inclusivist understands it. In other words, a Christian inclusivist might admit the possibility of a Muslim being saved, but they would likely assert that it is through Christ that the Muslim will be saved, and not through their submission to the will of God as defined by the Qur’an.

John Hick

This kind of inclusivism is rejected by John Hick, who is probably the best known pluralist theologian. Hick rejects inclusivism because, like the “intolerant exclusivism” that preceded it, inclusivism “rests upon the claim to Christianity’s unique finality as the locus of the only full divine revelation and the only adequate saving event” (Disputations 84). As Hick sees it, inclusivism doesn’t do enough to address what he calls the “destructive effects of the assumption of Christian superiority” (79).

Instead, Hick says Christians should see Christianity not as a superior religion, but “as one of the great world faiths, one of the streams of religious life through which human beings can be savingly related to that ultimate Reality Christians know as the heavenly father” (emphasis in original; 85).

I have a few problems with Hick’s “pluralist hypothesis,” but for now I’m only going to concentrate on one, which is his insistence that he has somehow transcended inclusivism. Inclusivists, as he sees it, believe that their religious perspective is true, and other religious perspectives are at least somewhat inferior. Still, unlike exclusivists, inclusivists admit the possibility of salvation for those not sharing their perspective. Only this salvation, if it will happen, will happen for the reason known to the inclusivists, not for the reason believed by those holding inferior perspectives.

Understood this way, how is Hick not an inclusivist? He believes that his pluralistic perspective is true, and that inclusivists and exclusivists are in error. Still, he admits that inclusivists and exclusivists can be saved, but for the reason understood by Hick. So what’s the difference?

The problem is with seeing exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism as discrete categories along a single axis (i.e., the traditional typology). Theologies are either exclusivistic or inclusivistic. Here the distinction concerns the scope of salvation: is it limited to the adherents of one religion, or not.

Within inclusivism there is a further division, along a different axis. There are the traditional inclusivist theologies, like Rahner’s, and the pluralistic inclusivist theologies, like Hick’s. Here the distinction concerns not the scope of salvation, but something quite different.

As for what this “something” is, I can offer only a tentative suggestion. It seems to me that the traditional inclusivists see their religion as, if not an entirely divine product, at least the product of a unique divine initiative. A traditional Christian inclusivist sees Christianity as the religion specifically intended by God. A pluralistic inclusivist like Hick sees Christianity as one of several human responses to the “infinite Real,” the differences between it and other religions being the result of the “different cultural ways of being human” (Interpretation 14). Not surprisingly, non-pluralist inclusivists and pluralist inclusivists tend to disagree over the doctrine of the incarnation, at least as it is traditionally understood.

Hick’s idea has much to recommend it, and I agree with a lot of what he has to say, but his failure to acknowledge that it is impossible to avoid asserting the superiority of one’s own views over those with whom one disagrees is very problematic. I have a few other problems with his work as well, but that will have to wait for another day.

Recommended Reading

S. Mark Heim, in his book Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion offers a similar critique of Hick (and others), but for somewhat different reasons. I disagree with some of Heim’s conclusions, but it’s one of the best critiques of the pluralism-as-distinct-from-inclusivism perspective I’ve come across.

John Hick has a number of very interesting articles on his official website. And they're not just about pluralism.

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Religion and Wisdom

Finding a satisfactory definition of “religion” is notoriously difficult. For present purposes, I will use a definition offered by William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. (53)
This “unseen order,” of course, is not “unseen” by all people all the time. There are exceptional individuals – including the founders and reformers of the world’s great religions – who “see” this “unseen order,” and then share what they’ve “seen” with the rest of us.

(I put the word “see” in quotation marks because it is not really a “seeing” so much as an “understanding.” It is important to understand that any talk of “seeing” the nature of reality is meant metaphorically.)

We are all raised to see reality in a particular way, but it is not the way reality actually is. Like the prisoners in Socrates’ allegory of the cave (from Plato’s Republic VII), we are given a particular image of reality, and we accept it as real.

What we inherit is the conventional wisdom of our culture.

Conventional Wisdom

As Marcus J. Borg explains,
Conventional wisdom is the dominant consciousness of any culture. It is a culture’s most taken-for-granted understandings about the way things are (its worldview, or image of reality) and about the way to live (its ethos, or way of life). It is “what everybody knows” – the world that everybody is socialized into through the process of growing up. (Meeting 75)
The “order” of reality is “unseen,” but we are given an image in its place, and told that this image is accurate. We are also raised to live in a particular way, and are told that this is in accordance with the “unseen order.”

The conventional wisdom of one culture will differ from the conventional wisdom of another culture. But, human nature being what it is, there are certain commonalities that crop up cross-culturally. As Borg points out, “conventional wisdom is intrinsically based upon the dynamic of rewards and punishments” (76). As children, this is how we are taught to behave. Even in the adult world there are social (and sometimes legal) consequences for behaving contrary to the norm. We internalise the rules of conventional wisdom, and live according to its dictates.
When conventional wisdom appears in religious form, God is imaged primarily as lawgiver and judge. God may be spoken of in other ways as well (for example, as forgiving and gracious), but the bottom line is that God is seen as both the source and enforcer, and therefore the legitimator, of the religious form of conventional wisdom. God becomes the one whom we must satisfy, the one whose requirements must be met. (Borg, Meeting 78)
Subversive Wisdom

When someone gains insight into the otherwise “unseen order” of reality, the discrepancy between this and the dominant image of reality will be very clear. The worldview and the ethos they proclaim will be considered subversive. And, as Socrates pointed out (and as he and countless prophets have demonstrated), they will be strenuously opposed (and maybe put to death) for proclaiming it.

Jesus challenged the conventional image of God as “lawgiver and judge” with a different image, that of a gracious and all-forgiving father. That the former image persists in Christianity is a testament to the endurance of conventional wisdom.

For Jesus, there is nothing we have to do to make ourselves right with God. We already are. “Consider the lilies of the field,” and all that. Paul has a similar message, but he could never shake the God of conventional religion completely – he assumed that this gracious gift had to be bought, and that Jesus’s death was the price.

The subversive message of grace was itself subverted even more. As Borg puts it, “this strong emphasis on grace got transformed into a new system of conventional wisdom”:
The emphasis was placed on faith, rather than grace, and faith insidiously became the new requirement. Faith (most often understood as belief) is what God required, and by a lack of faith/belief one risked the peril of eternal punishment. The requirement of faith brought with it all of the anxiety and self-preoccupation that mark life in the world of conventional wisdom. (Meeting 79)
For Jesus, the grace of God was not brought about by some event. “Gracious” is just the way God is. We do not have to be “made right” by some requirement having been met. But Paul introduced a requirement, the death of Jesus on the cross. Subsequent Christianity introduced more requirements, particularly belief, but later added other things as well. The subversive wisdom of Jesus was domesticated and eventually overcome by conventional wisdom. This happened before the texts of the New Testament were finished being written, and much of this conventional wisdom has been enshrined in its pages. As a result, most Christians pay lip-service to the idea of a gracious and loving God, but the idol they worship is a wrathful lawgiver and judge.

Recommended Reading

In addition to Borg's Meeting Jesus for the First Time (which is excellent), there is also his fantastic Jesus: A New Vision. Chapter 6 is called "Jesus as Sage: Challenge to Conventional Wisdom," and it's the best single chapter I've ever read about Jesus, including any single chapter in the gospels. There is apparently a "New Completely Revised Edition," but I don't know if this is available yet.

For a discussion of the very important distinction between salvation and justification, see this week’s edition of Basileia.

Works Cited


IPIP-NEO/Political Compass Meme

Exactly how this information might be valuable to anyone I cannot even begin to fathom, but here it is:

Overview: This post is a community experiment with two broad purposes. The first is to create publicly accessible data about bloggers' personalities, which may have sociological value in addition to being just plain fun. The second is to track the propagation of this meme through blogspace.

Full details and explanation can be found on the original posting: http://pixnaps.blogspot.com/2005/06/meme-worth-spreading.html

Instructions (to join in the experiment):

  1. Take the IPIP-NEO personality test and the Political Compass quiz, if you have not done so already.

  2. Copy to the clipboard that section of this post that is between the double lines, and paste it into your blog editor. (Blogger users may wish to use 'compose' mode to preserve formatting and hyperlinks. Otherwise, be sure to add hyperlinks as necessary.)

  3. Replace the answers in the "survey" section below with your own.

  4. Add your blog information to the "track list", in the form: "Linked title - URL - optional GUID".

  5. Any additional comments should go outside of the double lines, including the (optional) nomination of bloggers you wish to pass this experimental meme on to.

  6. Post it to your blog!
Age: 26
Gender: Male
Location: Toronto, Canada
Religion: Catholic
Occupation: Educator
Began blogging (dd/mm/yy): ??/04/05

Political Compass results

Left/Right: -8.00
Libertarian/Authoritarian: -7.38

IPIP-NEO results

Friendliness 91
Gregariousness 84
Assertiveness 82
Activity Level 6
Excitement-Seeking 69
Cheerfulness 72

Trust 78
Morality 65
Altruism 82
Co-operation 51
Modesty 14
Sympathy 99

Self-Efficacy 75
Orderliness 3
Dutifulness 39
Achievement-Striving 48
Self-Discipline 14
Cautiousness 52

Anxiety 34
Anger 3
Depression 26
Self-Consciousness 20
Immoderation 54
Vulnerability 32

Imagination 91
Artistic Interests 73
Emotionality 58
Adventurousness 81
Intellect 91
Liberalism 92

Track List

1. Philosophy, et cetera - pixnaps.blogspot.com - pixnaps97a2
2. Parableman - parablemania.ektopos.com - p8r8bl9m8n18
3. Rebecca Writes - everydaymusings.blogspot.com
4. Ales Rarus - alesrarus.funkydung.com - ales2112avis
5. Here I Stand - exiledcatholic.blogspot.com - exiled323catholic
6. The Lesser of Two Weevils - lesserweevils.blogspot.com - (I don't know what GUID means!)
7. Far from Rome - farfromrome.blogspot.com



The Political Compass thing was interesting. The silliness of locating political views on a single axis is overcome by adding an authoritarian/libertarian axis to the traditional left/right. Makes sense!


A Quick Note

I said I wasn't going to use this blog to comment on social issues, but I can't resist calling attention to this: this week's editorial in the National Catholic Reporter, and a related article about Fr. Robert Cushing.

Cushing was recently "relieved of his duties" at his Augusta, Georgia parish because he had the audacity to travel to Japan to apologise to the Japanese on the 60-year anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6th and 9th, respectively).

It's okay for Pope Paul VI to condemn the bombings as "a butchery of untold magnitude," but priests are supposed to keep their opinions on such matters to themselves. Cushing is being punished for not complying with this rule. The real reason? His politically conservative parishioners were threatening to withhold donations for a new church building if Cushing was kept on.

It's astonishing to me how ignorant people can be. I shouldn't be astonished, but I am.

Horizons and Conversion

So far I've spent a lot of time emphasising philosophy, and I imagine it might appear that I have a semi-rationalist perspective. I think, though, that I have a healthy respect for the limits of the discursive intellect, and that is what I want to talk about today. In doing that, I want to explain two more concepts derived from Lonergan.


The literal definition of the word "horizon" is "the bounding circle, the line at which the earth and sky appear to meet. This line is the limit of one's field of vision" (Method 235). The extent of what one can see is determined by where one is standing. Lonergan uses the term metaphorically to refer to the bounded "scope of our knowledge, and the range of our interests":
In this sense what lies beyond one's horizon is simply outside the range of one's knowledge and interests: one neither knows nor cares. But what lies within one's horizon is in some measure, great or small, an object of interest and of knowledge. (Method 236)
When differences between two horizons are due to, say, occupational differences, we say the difference is complementary. These don't contradict each other, they are simply different because people in different situations in life have to know different things, and will inevitably have different interests. Horizons can also change over time, either on a personal or communal level, and these difference are genetic. Finally, horizons can also be opposed dialectically -- "What for one is true, for another is false. What for one is good, the other is evil" (Method 236).


Dialectical oppositions between two people's horizons are due to the absence in one or both of intellectual, moral, and/or religious conversion. Conversion is a shift in one's viewpoint, from an inadequate one, to an adequate one, resulting in a new horizon.

I can't really do justice to this rather large topic in such a short space, so I'm simply going to offer some thoughts on why the discursive intellect is of limited usefulness in religious matters.

Obviously when we make judgments of fact, we draw on what we already know -- or think we know. But we don't all know the same things, and I might very well think I know something while you think you know the opposite. So we see the limits of the discursive intellect. We can only reason with what we know. And if we don't have a clear view of what we know, so much the worse.

There are questions -- religious questions -- that cannot be answered by the intellect. The intellect, says D.T. Suzuki, "first made us raise the question which it could not answer by itself, and...therefore it is to be put aside to make room for something higher and more enlightening":
For the intellect has a peculiarly disquieting quality in it. Though it raises questions enough to disturb the serenity of the mind, it is too frequently unable to give satisfactory answers to them. It upsets the blissful peace of ignorance and yet it does not restore the former state of things by offering something else. Because it points out ignorance, it is often considered illuminating, whereas the fact is that it disturbs, not necessarily always bringing light on its path. (Zen Buddhism 8)
Suzuki points to the history of philosophy -- the constant building up and tearing down of philosophical systems, one after the other -- as proof of this limitation. This is okay as far as philosophy goes, and it is necessary and inevitable that humans should engage in philosophical inquiry, but "when it comes to the question of life itself, we cannot wait for the ultimate solution to be offered by the intellect, even if it could do so" (8).

Mystical experience is a radical form of conversion. In my opinion, Lonergan's three types of conversion is incomplete. Religious conversion sets the bar too low, including non-mystical conversions. This is not to say that religious conversion, as he describes it, is unimportant, but there is another, more profound kind of religious conversion that comes about through mystical experience.

"The essence of Zen Buddhism," says Suzuki, "consists in acquiring a new viewpoint on life and things generally" (83). From this new point of view, "life assumes a fresher, deeper, and more satisfying aspect":
This acquirement, however, is really and naturally the greatest mental cataclysm one can go through with in life. It is no easy task, it is a kind of fiery baptism, and one has to go through the storm, the earth-quake, the overthrowing of the mountains, and the breaking in pieces of rocks. (83)
Or, as Jesus put it:
"For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." (Mt 7.14)
Works Cited

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The Problem of "Public Revelation"

"It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him." -- Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (source)

In the Catholic tradition a distinction is made between "public" and "private" revelation. "Private" revelation is easy enough to understand, but the "public" variety strikes me as somewhat problematic.

These terms are not meant to indicate to whom the revelation was made, but rather for whom the revelation was intended. In the case of "public" revelation, the answer is, apparently, "everybody."

This revelation intended for everybody is said to be contained in the deposit of faith. This is a series of supposed facts to which people are required to give their assent -- according to official church teaching, that is.

According to the Catechism, "we believe [revealed truths] 'because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived'" (§156). Similarly, the following paragraph asserts that faith (meaning assent to revealed truth -- cf. §150) "is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie" (§157).

These are curious statements. Personally, I've never heard of anyone rejecting a supposed "revealed truth" because they thought God was being deceptive -- if they reject it, it is because they don't believe God revealed it. The honesty of God isn't really the issue.

The issue is, which truth claims, if any, are revealed by God? Between competing truth claims, how is one to decide which ones to believe and which ones to reject?

The Catechism offers some suggestions: "the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church's growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability 'are the most certain signs of divine revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all'" (§156).

So, supposedly these are criteria by which the truth claims of a religion can be measured: a) miracles performed by the putative founder and some subsequent adherents; b) the growth, fruitfulness and stability of the religion; c) the holiness of its adherents.

Let's look at these individually.

A. Miracles Performed By the Putative Founder and Some Subsequent Adherents

This is a problematic criterion, for several reasons. First of all, as anyone who has studied world religions with any depth can attest, Christianity is not unique in this regard. Miracle stories in non-Christian religious traditions are a dime a dozen. Secondly, there is the fact that these are only stories. They can hardly serve as an argument for believing religious truth claims, because they are themselves religious truth claims.

B. The Growth, Fruitfulness, and Stability of the Religion

As far as growth is concerned, there is no question that the story of Christianity is an impressive one. It certainly overtook Judaism in a hurry -- of course, the "no circumcision" thing gave it a pretty serious edge when it came to making converts. There is the problem of Islam, however: it's nearly six hundred years younger than Christianity, and yet it is expected to overtake Christianity in terms of numbers this century. So I don't know if Christians really want to play the "growth card" -- it's an argument with a fast-approaching expiry date.

Fruitfulness? I don't know what is meant by that.

Stability? I've studied church history. I don't know if "stability" is a word I would use to describe it. At any rate, I don't see how any of these can be considered "certain signs of divine revelation."

C. The Holiness of its Adherents

Have Christians, in general, demonstrated greater holiness than Buddhists, in general? Or Hindus? Or the adherents of any other religion?

John Hick (a theologian that I admire, even though I disagree with him a lot), suggests that this is often assumed. "But," he says, "as a factual claim this is extremely dubious. In fact, I would say that it is manifestly false. It would certainly be most unwise to let the Church's claim to unique centrality stand or fall by it" (source).

It's a curious argument, in any case -- especially considering the fact that when the sins of the church (the centuries of persecuting non-believers and heretics, the Crusades, etc.) are used as an argument against the truth of Christian beliefs, conservatives immediately insist that the behaviour of past Christians has nothing to do with the validity of their beliefs. In other words, holiness among believers is an indication that their belief system is true, but sinfulness among believers is not an indication that their belief system is false. There's something fishy going on with that.

The Limits of Reason

I don't think "reason" can demonstrate, or even suggest, that traditional Christian truth claims are clearly true in a way non-Christian religious truth claims are not. Which raises the question: if one cannot decide on the basis of reason, is one's decision to believe them not arbitrary?

One of the leading philosophical defenders of Christian exclusivism is Alvin Plantinga, a Calvinist who teaches at Notre Dame. He insists that it is not arbitrary because the believer does not see his or her beliefs on an "epistemic par" with the beliefs of other religions. Which is a classic demonstration of "how to respond to a question without answering it." We only need to rephrase the question: if it cannot be determined on the basis of reason, how does one determine that one's beliefs are not on an epistemic par with the beliefs of other religions? [1]

The Irrelevance of Dogma

In a previous post, I said that progressive Christianity, as I conceive it, is primarily interested in undoing the "inauthenticity" of the tradition, returning to the ideals found in the teachings of Jesus, and disposing of anything that obscures those ideals. The emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy -- that is, in "believing revealed truths" -- falls in the latter category.

I am not suggesting that beliefs are not important. The belief that all humans are created in the image and likeness of God is, I would suggest, an important belief. It can actually influence the way you live your life, if you strive to act in accordance with it. The belief that justification is by grace would mitigate against works-righteousness, if it was understood and actually adhered to. But that's a subject for another post.

Dogmas are irrelevant. I often find people arguing over whether or not Jesus was conceived virginally, but I don't think this is really the issue. The bigger issue is, why does it matter? How could it possibly be important that people believe it?

Instead of arguing with conservatives over whether or not a particular dogma is "true," wouldn't it be more fruitful to ask them why they think it even makes a difference? My guess is, they won't have a coherent answer to that. At the very least, they won't be able to answer that without identifying church authority with divine authority, which is an inevitably circular (and therefore fallacious) argument.


[1] The quotation from Plantinga is from note I made in my journal a few years ago. I'll try to find the exact reference later.

Works Cited


The Difference Between "Knowing" and "Believing"

This is a pretty basic issue, and I should have covered it earlier. In an earlier post I explained Lonergan's explanation of how we attain genuine, objective knowledge, but I neglected to explain Lonergan's definition of "belief."

In that earlier post I explained how it is true that when people refer to a place called "Texas," I can be reasonably certain that they are referring to a real place, even though I've never been there. The fact is, while I can conceive of an alternative explanation to explain the various references to the state of "Texas" that I've encountered in my life, I cannot reasonably affirm that this explanation is true, or even plausible. When a person "grasps the evidence for excluding alternative views, then he does not believe but knows" (Lonergan, Method 42).

Obviously there are a lot of things that we affirm as true, even though we are aware that alternative views exist, and that there is evidence to support them. This latter point is very important -- the mere existence of alternative views is not enough to downgrade an affirmation from knowledge to belief. There are, after all, people who deny the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide, but these views are easily excluded by intelligent, reasonable, and responsible people. It is only when one does not grasp the evidence for excluding alternative views that a particular affirmation is considered a belief.

Non-Religious Belief

"Belief," as Lonergan understands it, is not only important in religion, but also plays a large role in "most other areas of human activity," including science (42). Scientists, after all, rely heavily on the work of other scientists. As Lonergan puts it, "it would be a mistake to fancy that scientists spend their lives repeating one another's work" (43). They can attain "immanently generated knowledge" in their own work, but this will likely be founded upon "beliefs" about the validity of the work of others.

Knowing and Believing in Religion

Sometimes people will affirm something as true, and will strongly believe that they have "evidence for excluding alternative views." This does not necessarily mean that they "know," just that they think they know. What are called "religious beliefs" are almost invariably beliefs, but there are people who believe that they can affirm these with certitude. Why do they do this?

St. Thomas Aquinas argued that "it is dangerous to dispute in public about the faith, in the presence of simple people, whose faith for this very reason is more firm, that they have never heard anything differing from what they believe." (ST II-II 10.7). It is difficult to imagine someone having "never heard anything differing from what they believe," even in the most religiously homogeneous societies, but when alternative beliefs are held only by people outside of one's society, it is easy enough to demonise those people and thereby dismiss there beliefs as a consequence of their moral perversity, or some other serious failing.

The fact that Jewish people have denied Christian claims about the divinity or "messiahship" of Jesus has often been explained by Christians as a sign of their "perfidiousness." So Christians raised in such an environment have, in their experience, encountered two types of data relevant to the issue: Christian claims that Christian beliefs were true, and Christian claims that heresies and non-Christian beliefs (or the non-Christian failure to affirm Christian beliefs) are attributable to the moral failings of heretics and non-Christians.

If a person raised in such a environment never encountered any reason to question this view, they might think that they "know" that their beliefs are true, because as far as they are concerned, they have evidence for excluding alternative views.

On the other hand, Christians living in a pluralistic society knows that non-Christians do not believe differently because of some moral failing. The "evidence" for Christian views is hardly decisive, and it is not the case that non-Christians cannot point to similar "evidence" to support their own views. In the absence of any decisive evidence for the "truth" about these matters, knowledge is not to be had. All we can know is that we cannot "know," we can only believe.

Belief and Faith

Religious belief has the same structure as non-religious belief, but, as Lonergan says, "now the structure rests on a different basis, and that basis is faith" (118). The distinction Lonergan makes between "belief" and "faith" is rather different from the official teaching of the church:
Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. (emphasis in original; CCC §150)
The word "inseparably" would seem to suggest that Lonergan's distinction between the two is implicitly excluded. Indeed, Lonergan notes that, in making this distinction, "we must acknowledge the existence of an older and more authoritative tradition in which faith and beliefs are identified." Nevertheless, he says making this distinction is justified because in doing so "we are departing, not from the older doctrine, but from the old manner of speech" (123).

I think I'm going to return to this topic with a fuller treatment in the future.

Works Cited


Zen and Christian Mysticism

D.T. Suzuki, calling Zen "the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion," explains that

Zen is not necessarily the fountain of Buddhist thought and life alone; it is very much alive also in Christianity, [Islam], in Taoism, and even in positivistic Confucianism. What makes all these religions and philosophies vital and inspiring, keeping up their usefulness and efficiency, is to the presence in them of what I may designate as the Zen element. (Zen Buddhism 111)
This is a classic example of what is generally called theological "inclusivism": my religion is true, your religion is useful if it brings you close enough to the truth of my religion. I have a bit of a problem with this kind of theology (which I'm going to get around to blogging about someday), but today I'm going to explain why I don't think this does justice to Zen, and obscures that part of Zen that the adherents of other religions can most benefit from.

In my last post I wrote, I think Christian mystics often affirm, rather uncritically, an understanding of the experience that includes elements that are not present in the experience itself. If Zen teaches us anything, it is to be judicious in our affirmation of whatever it is we understand from the experience.

Interpreting Mystical Experience

In his chapter on interpreting texts in Method in Theology, Bernard Lonergan describes what he calls the Principle of the Empty Head:
According to this principle, if one is not to "read into" the text what is not there, if one is not to settle in a a priori fashion what the text must mean no matter what it says, if one is not to drag in one's own notions and opinions, then one must just drop all preconceptions of every kind, attend simply to the text, see all that is there and nothing that is not there, let the author speak for himself, let the author interpret himself. In brief, the less one knows, the better an exegete one will be. (157)
Lonergan affirms that these contentions are right in trying to avoid a common problem, the tendency people have "to impute to authors opinions that the authors did not express," but they "are wrong in the remedy that they propose, for they take it for granted that all an interpreter has to do is to look at a text and see what is there" (157).

This principle, I think, is operative in Suzuki's contention that "the Zen element" is present in other religions. In Zen, he seems to be saying, the experience is pure. Other religions begin with this pure experience, but pollute it with ideas that are foreign to it.

A Note About Terminology

A "pure experience" is what I would call simply a "mystical experience." St. John of the Cross defined this experience as "pure contemplation," which is ineffable, as opposed to other experiences in which "the communications the soul receives are particular, such as visions, feelings, and so on" (Dark Night 2.17.5). I would not consider the latter type as a "mystical experience." When I say "mystical experience," I am referring to what St. John calls "pure contemplation."

This experience is basically the same as that which Suzuki calls satori. That this experience is expressed in different ways by people in different religions has to do with the interpretation of the experience rather than the experience itself.

All Experience is Mediated

It is not the case that in Zen, one has a pure experience, adds nothing to it, and therefore attains pure knowledge, while in non-Zen traditions, one has a pure experience, adds foreign elements to it, and therefore attains impure knowledge. Suzuki never says this in quite this way, but this is what I take him to mean (especially in his description of Christian mystical language on p. 106).

The knowledge we attain from experience is always mediated by our understanding and judgment. We understand the experience more or less correctly. We are more or less reasonable when we judge whether our understanding is correct.

Zen is not exempt from this, as I think Suzuki suggests. But it does urge us to be more judicious in our judgment of whether or not our experience is understood correctly. We cannot forego interpretation, but we can avoid reading into the experience something that is not there. I think Christian mysticism would benefit from doing this.

Words Cited

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Zen in the Light of Lonergan's Cognitional Theory

One problem with which I have been preoccupied lately is the compatibility between the cognitional theory of Bernard Lonergan and the "intuitive" knowledge attained in Zen, as described by D.T. Suzuki, perhaps the best-known interpreter of Zen in the West.

For a time it seemed to me that there was no conflict between them. Then it definitely seemed to me as though there was, and I was prepared to side more with Suzuki than Lonergan. Now I'm starting to see that the problem is in Suzuki's expression of his understanding of Zen.

So this is what I am going to do today: first, I'm going to offer a somewhat brief explanation of Suzuki's description of the satori experience (sometimes also known as "kensho"), which he describes as "the Alpha and Omega of Zen Buddhism" (84). Then I'm going to explain why that description is inadequate in the light of Lonergan's cognitional theory. Then I'm going to offer what I think is a more adequate description of Zen.

Satori According to Suzuki
By personal experience it is meant to get at the fact at first and not through any intermediary, whatever this may be. Its favourite analogy is: to point at the moon a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon; a basket is welcome to carry our fish home, but when the fish are safely on the table why should we eternally bother ourselves with the basket? Here stands the fact, and let us grasp it with the naked hands lest it should slip away -- this is what Zen proposes to do. As nature abhors a vacuum, Zen abhors anything coming between the fact and
ourselves. (Suzuki, 8-9)
For Suzuki, the experience of satori is characterised, above all, by immediacy. Zen, he says, appeals "directly...to the facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge" (7). The experience must be "independent of any ideational representation" (13).

Satori, as Suzuki describes it, actually covers a lot of different things. It is at once the "the Zen experience" itself (84), as well as the knowledge one attains by having the experience (103-104).

This might seem plausible enough, but in the light of Lonergan's cognitional theory, it can be shown to be somewhat simplistic.

Satori in the Light of Lonergan's Cognitional Theory

Lonergan noted that the word "experience...commonly is used as a synonym for knowledge," and so someone is described as having "experience" in a particular field, they are understood as possessing some kind of knowledge in that field (116).

Experience by itself, however, does not yield knowledge. To put that another way, knowledge cannot be attained by a pure, unmediated experience -- something I think Suzuki seems to claim. The act of coming to know something is invariably more complicated than this.

Zen may "abhor" anything that comes "between the fact and ourselves," but it cannot eliminate it. What Suzuki calls "the fact" is what Lonergan would call "merely potential" (117). Not until it is understood correctly and affirmed as true does "the fact" become something known by the human subject.

"The fact" is "merely potential" until it is understood. Satori, as Suzuki points out, involves an insight. He is correct in saying that that this insight is not "reached by reasoning," but I think he errs when he says that it "also defies...conceptualization" (103). I think what it "defies" is not "conceptualization" but "adequate conceptualization" -- if what was experienced was not conceptualised, there would be nothing to affirm and therefore no knowledge attained.

Insight always culminates in some kind of concept, a point I made in my last post. Without this concept, the person would retain nothing of any value from the experience. The concept is what remains to be talked about. Zen, as I understand it, seeks not a non-concept, but a concept that draws from the experience alone, without reading into it anything that is not there. This is one thing that often afflicts Christian mysticism -- as Suzuki himself points out (see 106-107).

Zen vs. Christian Mysticism

I think the difference between Zen and (most) Christian mysticism can actually be explained with reference to Lonergan's cognitional theory.

The experience leads to an insight, which leads to a concept. The concept then has be affirmed or denied. I think Christian mystics often affirm, rather uncritically, an understanding of the experience that includes elements that are not present in the experience itself. If Zen teaches us anything, it is to be judicious in our affirmation of whatever it is we understand from the experience.

Suzuki notes the absence in Zen (vis-à-vis Christian mysticism) of references "to such personal and frequently sexual feelings and relationships as are to be gleaned from these terms: flame of love, a wonderful love shed in the heart, embrace, the beloved, bride, bridegroom, spiritual matrimony, Father, God, the Son of God, God's child, etc. We may say that all these terms are interpretations based on a definite system of thought and really have nothing to do with the experience itself" (emphasis added; 106).

This is not the only difference, of course, but I'll discuss this a little more in my next post.

Towards a More Adequate Expression

I don't think it can be asserted that Zen culminates in an immediate experience of reality, whereby intuitive knowledge is attained without conceptualisation. What Zen provides is an approach to understanding the experience.

Suzuki calls Zen "the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion" (111). He writes,
Zen is not necessarily the fountain of Buddhist thought and life alone; it is very much alive also in Christianity, [Islam], in Taoism, and even in positivistic Confucianism. What makes all these religions and philosophies vital and inspiring, keeping up their usefulness and efficiency, is to the presence in them of what I may designate as the Zen element. (111)
I understand what he means by this, but I think a more adequate (and modest) description is needed. Which will be the subject of my next post.

Works Cited

Lonergan, Bernard. A Third Collection. Frederick E. Crowe, ed. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

Suzuki, D.T. Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki. William Barrett, ed. 1956. New York: Image Books, 1996.

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Lonergan, More Precisely

In my last post I explained why Bernard Lonergan said that genuine, objective knowing is the result of nothing other than one's attentive experience, intelligent understanding, and reasonable and responsible judgment.

He called this invariant pattern of operations "transcendental method" -- a term used by several others (Kant, Maréchal, Rahner, etc.), but not in quite the same way. Today I'm going to describe the stages of understanding and judgment with greater precision.

The Level of Understanding

Whenever we encounter any kind of data -- whether data of sense or data of consciousness -- it comes to us first as mere scraps of information. The prompts the question for understanding -- "what is it?"

The question for understanding is answered with an insight. Insight is a sudden release from the tension of inquiry, when we get the point, when we see the solution. The insight culminates in a concept. Distinguishing between insights and concepts is not easy, but I tend to think of the insight as the event, and the concept as the product of this event.

The Level of Reflection

Judgments occur on the level of reflection. Like the level of understanding, this level begins with a question -- the question for reflection -- "is it so?"

The answer to the question for reflection is simply "yes" or "no." This is where we make a judgment about the accuracy of our concept that was the answer to the question for understanding.

Between the question for reflection and the judgment comes the reflective insight -- when it becomes clear to us whether there is sufficient evidence to affirm our concept or not. If not, we have to reformulate our concept until we find one we can affirm.

We therefore find six distinct stages within the two levels:

Level of Understanding
  1. Question for Reflection - "What is it?"
  2. Insight
  3. Concept
Level of Reflection
  1. Question for Reflection - "Is it so?"
  2. Reflective Insight
  3. Judgment
An Example

Imagine you are entering your house through the front door, and you hear an unfamiliar telephone ring. You wonder -- "what is it?"

The first thing that pops into your head is that it could be the TV. You've had an insight culminating in a concept.

But you're not sure if this is right. No one else is home right now, so there's no reason why the TV would be on. This is confirmed when you get into the living room, and find that the TV is, in fact, off. You have to conclude that, no, it is not the TV.

Meanwhile, the phone is still ringing, and it is clear that it's coming from the kitchen. Then you remember -- you got a new phone, and you hadn't heard it ring yet. This is a second insight, culminating in a second concept. In this case the judgment is almost instantaneous -- just as soon as you thought about it, you realised that it is true. But you still go through the process.

Inverse Insights

Sometimes we do not come to an understanding because we realise that there is nothing to understand. These are called inverse insights. Imagine someone was to ask you, "how do you draw a square circle?" When you realise that this is not possible, you have had an inverse insight. In this case, the fault lies not in the answer, but in the question.



Lonergan's "Three Basic Questions"

"What am I doing when I am knowing? Why is doing that knowing? What do I know when I do it?" (Lonergan, Method in Theology 25)

A person's answer to these questions will be their cognitional theory, their epistemology, and their metaphysics. Bernard Lonergan has his own answers for these, which I'm going to talk about today, because I think he happens to be right, and because these are essentially the foundation of everything else that I'm going to write.

Lonergan is one of those philosophers who gives a lot of people headaches with his clear-as-mud writing style, so it is perhaps not surprising that his ideas are not as widely known as they probably ought to be. But the stuff I'm dealing with today is surprisingly simple, and once it has been understood, it seems completely obvious. Whether or not I can explain it in a single post remains to be seen, but that won't stop me from trying.

Cognitional Theory: "What am I doing when I am knowing?"

To answer this we need to pay some attention to the structure of our cognitive process. The first step must involve experience, because whatever else knowing might be, it cannot take place in the absence of experience. All knowledge begins with the experience of some kind of data -- whether data of sense, or data of consciousness.

The data we experience is itself just scraps of information. If we are attentive to this data, we may or may not have an insight. That is, we will come to some understanding of what it is, we will form a concept, we will see how things hang together in an intelligible way. And then we will make a judgment about whether or not this understanding is, in fact, the case.

In order to do this successfully, we have to experience attentively, understand intelligently, and judge reasonably and responsibly.

This is not usually something I am conscious of doing at the time it happens, but when I look back at the things that I know, I will find that this process invariably took place. But more on that later.

Epistemology: "Why is doing this knowing?"

Lonergan is sometimes accused of "subjectivism." The problem, though, is that whenever we think, reason, decide, reflect, judge, etc., we do so as subjects. There is no getting around that. The error made by some of Lonergan's critics is in seeing "objectivity" as opposed to "subjectivity." If this is the case, then epistemic "objectivity" is not possible -- a conclusion that some people have affirmed.

Lonergan, however, insists that objectivity is not a matter of non-subjectivity, but is rather "attained only by attaining authentic subjectivity." (Method 292). In other words, objectivity is not attained outside of our subjectivity (which would be impossible, given that we can only know as subjects), but within it. Our subjectivity is "authentic" when we are attentive in our experiencing, intelligent in our understanding, and reasonable and responsible in our judging.

Metaphysics: "What do I know when I do it?"

If "knowing" is the result of experience, understanding, and judgment, it follows that what can be known is experience-able, intelligible, and affirmable. This is not "being" in its fullness, but "proportionate being": that is, "being that is proportionate to human knowing." That "being" might extend beyond this can be affirmed by intelligent understanding and reasonable judgment, so in addition to "proportionate being" there is also "transcendent being."

How do we know that any of this is true?

Lonergan's epistemology and metaphysics are easy enough to grasp once one has understood his cognitional theory, but perhaps it is not clear what he meant by this. I will explain with some examples.

I might ask myself how I know that there is a place called "Texas." I've never been there, but I've heard about it, and I'm reasonably certain it exists -- but how do I know this?

In my experience, I've certainly encountered a lot of data suggesting that there is such a place. I've read about it. I've seen pictures of it. I know people who claim to have been there. I've watched sporting events that were allegedly played there. Early in this process I gained an understanding of what this name "Texas" refers to. I developed a concept of this place.

Does this necessarily mean it exists? Not really, because I can also have concepts of fictional places. But I made a reasonable judgment. This didn't happen consciously, but when I look back, I can see that it must have happened.

How do I know it was reasonable? I simply need to look at the evidence that led to the formation of the concept. I could explain it by judging that "Texas" does in fact exist, or I could try and come up with some other explanation for the data. I could suppose that there is a massive conspiracy involving countless numbers of people. Everything I've read, and all the images I've seen, could all be fabricated evidence. The people I know who claim to have been there could have been among the conspirators, or maybe they were tricked into believing that they had been there. The sporting events that supposedly took place there could have actually taken place somewhere else -- it could be that all of the people who were present were also among the conspirators. The more I think about it, the more ludicrous it becomes. For me to judge that Texas does not exist would require me to completely abandon my reasonableness.

The only reasonable judgment I can make is that Texas does, in fact, exist. And I am justified in claiming to know this objectively.

Cognitional Structure as Self-Justifying

I might also consider what would be involved if I was to deny Lonergan's description of the cognitional process. Lonergan called it the "method," but this term is unnecessarily confusing -- as Lonergan himself often pointed out, when people hear "method," they tend to think "recipe" -- so for now I'll just call it "the concept."

If I was unaware of the concept, I would not be in a position to deny it. So I would have to have some experience, either by reading about it, or having someone explain it to me. Experience is therefore necessary.

In having this experience, I could understand the concept, or fail to understand it. If the latter, I would either know that I don't understand it, or I would think that I've understood it, without actually having done so. If I know I didn't understand it, I could not reasonably deny it. If I understood it incorrectly, what I would be denying is the misunderstood concept, not the real concept. So to deny it would require understanding.

So all that remains is judgment. The concept, remember, is that we know by experience, understanding, and judgment. But to deny it would be to make a judgment. So whether I accept it or deny it, I'm proving that its true, because either way, I'm making a judgment!

Anyone who doesn't think it's true either hasn't heard about it, didn't understand it, or is contradicting themselves by verbally denying that they are doing what they are doing.

Isn't that exciting? I sure think so.


Through the process of attending to my own interior operations, I take possession of myself as a subject. Lonergan called this process "self-appropriation." It is through this process that we discover the foundation of our knowledge.

Lonergan said that his 1957 book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding was essentially written to help people through this process. It's over 800 pages long. It's not necessary to read it for this process to take place, of course, but I mention this to explain why I don't imagine that anyone has become "self-appropriated" simply by reading my brief summary here.

It actually took me several months before I grasped not only what Lonergan was saying, but why it's so significant. I had the good fortune of studying with a professor who happens to be a recognised expert in Lonergan's thought. Obviously this helps, but it isn't necessary, and it's not enough: the truth of Lonergan's answers to the "three basic questions" can ultimately only be discovered by examining one's own conscious-intentional operations (experiencing, understanding, judging) and their contents. And if you should come up with better answers than Lonergan, I'd love to hear 'em.

Works Cited

Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology. 1971. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Recommended Reading

Grace, R. Jeffrey. "The Transcendental Method of Bernard Lonergan." Online.

Meynell, Hugo A. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Bernard Lonergan. 2nd Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Tekippe, Terry J. What is Lonergan Up to in Insight? : A Primer. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996.

Also worth checking out is Mark Oppenheimer's fun Boston College Magazine article "Beautiful Mind," which is about Lonergan and his independent-thinking non-disciples (which is what Lonergan told his followers to be, although some of them haven't listened).



On the Need for a Critical Theology

Religion as an Accident of Birth

The German existentialist Martin Heidegger used the term Geworfenheit – literally, “thrown-ness” – to refer to the fact that we do not choose to exist, but unavoidably find ourselves already existing, as if we were “thrown” into existence. And what is true of human existence in general is true of religious existence in particular: most of us who are Christians, for example, did not initially choose to be Christians – at some point we just found ourselves that way.

A lot of Christians seem to be okay with this. The simple fact that they were raised to believe the things they believe is, for them, evidence enough that these things are true.

In most cases, people are aware of belief systems other than their own. Insofar as this is true, their religion does not remain “unchosen.” We can choose to assume that our beliefs are correct, or we can choose to critically examine (and possibly change) them, but we cannot avoid making a choice. For those of us who are not content to assume that our childhood beliefs are correct simply because we were raised to believe them, this means undertaking the long, difficult process of critically examining the structure of our belief system. In this way we take responsibility for our belief system.

Finding the Basic Foundation

If you ask a typical Christian why they believe, for example, that Jesus was virginally conceived, they will likely point out that it says so in the Bible. And so it does. But they’ve explained their belief in one doctrine by pointing to another doctrine. Ask them why they believe the Bible is true, and they will give another doctrine – e.g., because the leaders of the church say so, etc.

No doctrine, however, can serve as the foundation of a person’s belief system. This is because there would always be the question of why they believe that doctrine. The basic foundation is never a doctrine, but is comprised of the basic criteria by which we make judgments of fact and judgments of value.

The Implications for Theology

A lot of people are reluctant to affirm this, but the foundation of our belief system is always our self. The starting point for theology is not a set of doctrines as defined by some external authority, but a set of beliefs held by the theologian, as determined by the theologian’s basic criteria of judgment. Of course, these might happen to coincide with the doctrines defined by the authority, but only if the theologian understands his or her beliefs the way the authority means for them to be understood.

Historically, most theology has been strictly speculative: that is, it began with doctrines as its premises, presuppositions that were simply taken for granted. The premises were the “articles of faith,” as understood by the theologian (although this was not usually explicitly acknowledged). The conclusions, in a sense, were always determined in advance. Theology was simply about joining the dots, filling in the blanks, systematising what was unsystematic, making explicit what was already implicit. It worked within a given doctrinal framework, and the framework itself was not questioned.

Various historical factors have led to the recognition that there is a need for a more critical theology. Beliefs can no longer be taken for granted. Some people will insist that Christian theology has to begin with explicitly Christian beliefs, but I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

Quentin Quesnell, describing this kind of theology, suggests that

The role of the past is not to provide objective norms outside the theologian and the community to whom the theologian speaks. The past fulfills its role when it has formed the theologian and the community to be what they are. (132)

"Christian theology" starts from any background that calls itself "Christian" and that sees its own work in terms of loyalty to what it considers "the Christian message" (133).

Obviously there are a lot of Christians who would disagree with this. So in a sense, critical theology, as defined here, has a limited audience. Personally, I don’t write with a conservative audience in mind. I’m not doing “liberal apologetics,” because I don’t particularly care if people agree with me or not. I am, then, writing for a small segment of the Christian community, and anyone else who might happen to be interested.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

Quesnell, Quentin. "On Not Neglecting the Self in the Structure of Theological Revolutions." Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lonergan, S.J. Timothy P. Fallon and Philip Boo Riley (eds.). Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1987: 125-133.



Complete Works Cited Page


Ascent - The Ascent of Mount Carmel (St. John of the Cross)
AYBD - Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary
CCC - Catechism of the Catholic Church
BDAG - A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament..., 3rd ed.
Dark Night - The Dark Night (St. John of the Cross)
HCBC - HarperCollins Bible Commentary
JB - Jerusalem Bible
NAB - New American Bible
NJB - New Jerusalem Bible
NJBC - New Jerome Biblical Commentary
NRSV - New Revised Standard Version
RSV - Revised Standard Version
SCG - Summa Contra Gentiles (St. Thomas Aquinas)
ST - Summa Theologiae (St. Thomas Aquinas)
WBC - Word Biblical Commentary

Quotations from the Bible are (unless otherwise specified) from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Quotations from Summa Theologiae (cited as ST) by St. Thomas Aquinas are from the Second Revised Edition, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920.

Quotations from St. John of the Cross are from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Revised Edition. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991.

Quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church are from the English translation, © 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

Other Works Cited:

Bauer, Walter, F.W. Danker, W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Aslan, Reza. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam. 2005. London: Arrow Books, 2006.

Aune, David E. "Revelation." HarperCollins Bible Commentary. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000: 1187-1202.

Aune, David E. "The Revelation to John (Apocalypse)." HarperCollins Study Bible. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993: 2307-2337.

Borg, Marcus J. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

Brown, Raymond E., SS, et al, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. 1989. London: Chapman, 2000. [Quotations from the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (cited as NJBC) are referenced by chapter and section rather than by page number.]

Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. 1865-1871. Martin Gardner, ed. London: Penguin Books, 1970.

Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

de Mello, Anthony. Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. New York: Image Books, 1990.

de Mello, Anthony. One Minute Wisdom. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. 1974. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.

Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Dunn, James D.G. Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Dunn, James D.G. The Epistle to the Galatians. Black's New Testament Commentary. 1993. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006.

Dunn, James D.G. Romans. Word Biblical Commentary 38A, 38B. Dallas: Word, 1988.

Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. 1998. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006.

Ford, John C., and Germain Grisez. "Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium," Theological Studies 39 (1978): 258-312.

Fowler, James W. Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Fowler, James W. Faithful Change. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. 1981. New York: HarperOne, 1995.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

Heim, S. Mark. Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995.

Hick, John. Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion. London: Macmillan, 1993.

Hick, John. An Interpretation of Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Hick, John. “The Latest Vatican Statement on Christianity and Other Religions.” December, 1998. (online)

Hick, John. The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age. 2nd Edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985.

Kanaris, Jim, and Mark J. Doorley, eds. In Deference to the Other: Lonergan and Contemporary Continental Thought. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004.

Knitter, Paul F. Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

Kyabgon, Traleg. Mind at Ease: Self-Liberation through Mahamudra Meditation. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2003.

Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. 2003. London: Phoenix, 2004.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. 1940. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

Lonergan, Bernard. "Cognitional Structure." Collection: Papers by Bernard Lonergan, S.J. 1967. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Vol. 4. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988: 205-221.

Lonergan, Bernard. "Dialectic of Authority." A Third Collection: Papers By Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J. Fredrick E. Crowe, ed. New York: Paulist Press, 1985: 5-12.

Lonergan, Bernard. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. 1957. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Vol. 3. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, eds. 1992. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Lonergan, Bernard. Letter on contraception and the natural law. September 6, 1968. Edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran. © Bernard Lonergan Estate, 1989. Reprinted in Lonergan Studies Newsletter 11 (1990): 7-9. (Available online in pdf format.)

Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology. 1972. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Lonergan, Bernard. A Third Collection. Frederick E. Crowe, ed. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

Mander, William J. "God and Personality." Heythrop Journal. 38 (1997): 401-412.

Manji, Irshad. The Trouble With Islam Today. 2003. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2006.

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What I'm Doing Here

As I said a couple of days ago, I decided to take a new direction with this blog. In this post I'm going to explain, in very broad strokes, what I plan to do. First I am going to look at part of the philosophical rationale for this project, drawing from the work of the Jesuit philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan, whose thought I will return to often in the future. Then I will explain how this relates to the enterprise known as "progressive Christianity," to which this blog represents a small contribution.

The Problem of Authenticity

In a pair of lectures published in his Third Collection, Lonergan discussed the problem of authenticity in religion. In our time, he says, an "agonizing question" has arisen, "namely, how can one tell whether one's appropriation of religion is genuine or unauthentic and, more radically, how can one tell one is not appropriating a religious tradition that has become unauthentic." (130)

Authenticity is a problem on two levels. On a minor level, there is the problem of authenticity in the human subject – that is, the individual – in relation to the tradition. On a major level, there is the problem of authenticity of the tradition itself. (120)

On a minor level, individual people might "ask themselves whether or not they are genuine Catholics or Protestants, Moslems or Buddhists," etc. They might conclude that they are, and they may be correct – but they might also be incorrect. They may have appropriated some of the ideals demanded by the tradition, but there are others in which they have diverged from the tradition.

Whether from selective inattention, or a failure to understand, or an undetected rationalization, the divergence exists. What I am is one thing, what a genuine Christian is is another, and I am unaware of the difference. My unawareness is unexpressed. Indeed, I have no language to express what I really am, so I use the language of the tradition I unauthentically appropriate, and thereby I devaluate, distort, water down, corrupt that language. (121)
Note that this is not something that people do consciously. Those who unauthentically appropriate their tradition, as Lonergan describes it, are not aware of this fact.

This can also happen on a major level, when the "unauthenticity of individuals generates the unauthenticity of traditions." When a tradition falls away from it’s original ideals, the best an individual within the tradition can do is "authentically realize unauthenticity. Such is unauthenticity in its tragic form, for then the best of intentions combine with a hidden decay." This makes authenticity particularly difficult for individuals:

Not only have they to undo their own lapses from righteousness but more grievously they have to discover what is wrong in the tradition they have inherited and they have to struggle against the massive undertow it sets up. (121)
"Tradition" is not itself the problem. The problem is "unauthenticity in the formation and transmission of tradition. The cure is not the undoing of tradition but the undoing of its unauthenticity." (121-122)

Lonergan points out that we could not rid ourselves of tradition, even if I felt it was desirable to do so:

It is only through socialization, acculturation, education, that we come to know that there is such a thing as tradition, that it has its defects, its dangers, its seductions, that there are evils to be remedied. To learn as much is already to be a product of the tradition. (122)
Lonergan points out that any changes we might bring about "will always just be another stage of the tradition…whose motives and whose goals – for all their novelty – will bear the imprint of their past." (122)

The Progressive Enterprise

The question of what constitutes the "authentic" Christian tradition has been fought over since the time of the apostles. Even if Christians were to agree that the teachings of Jesus should be held as normative, the question over what constitutes the authentic teachings of Jesus would remain to be answered. The realisation that the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament cannot necessarily be accepted as reliable has been accepted by some of us, to varying degrees, and rejected by others. I have nothing really to say to people who fall into the latter category. The belief that Jesus actually said all of the words attributed to him in the New Testament cannot be argued, it can only be asserted dogmatically.

Even those of us who recognise that the gospels are the product of a developing tradition are not necessarily on a common ground. After all, this view is affirmed by the magisterium of the church, as expressed in the "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," Dei Verbum (n. 19). But they explicitly reject the notion that Jesus’s teaching was in anyway distorted during this process. They insist that the teachings of the magisterium cannot in anyway represent a divergence from the original teachings of Jesus because they are themselves the sole authentic interpreters of his teachings. Therefore the teachings of the magisterium represent "authentic" Christianity.

The arguments that are given for this are inevitably circular: only if Jesus himself gave the magisterium the authority to be the sole interpreter of his teachings would they, in fact, have this role. If he did not, then they cannot rightfully claim this role – but they insist that anyone who makes such an assertion is incorrect, because they alone can interpret Jesus's intentions, having been given this role by Jesus himself.

I reject circular arguments on principle. I see no reason to make an exception for this one. "Unauthenticity" crept into the Christian tradition early on, as different groups made competing claims to be the sole true heirs of the apostolic faith, and its been with us ever since. Those of us who have recognised this are faced with a problem: what if we want to authentically appropriate the Christian tradition, but find that the tradition itself is unauthentic? Undoing this "unauthenticity" represents a massive enterprise -- much larger, I think, than is often recognised by most self-described "progressive" Christians.

The process of "deconstructing" the problematic aspects of the tradition has been going on for a long time, and has borne much fruit. The process of "reconstructing" it has been somewhat less successful. I feel that I have my own small contribution to make to both of these, and that is what this blog is going to be for. Starting now.

Works Cited

Bernard Lonergan. A Third Collection. Frederick E. Crowe, ed. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.


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