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)
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