8.02.2005

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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5 Comments:

Blogger Talmida said...

I look forward to reading more.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Dick Moodey said...

Lonergan has been a source of inspiration and guidance for me during a long career as a sociology teacher. Like tamida,I look forward to reading more. Another source of inspiration has been the work of Michael Polanyi who, like
Lonergan, emphasizes the importance of tradition. The journal of the Polanyi Society is called "Tradition and Discovery." I am especially interested in making connections between the thought of Lonergan and Polanyi.

Richard W. Moodey

8:42 AM  
Blogger Dick Moodey said...

First, I apologize Talmida, for getting your name wrong in my earlier comments. And to Prickliestpear (whom I shall refer to as PP), I apologize for being so long-winded in this comment. I like to think that my criticisms of Lonergan are in his spirit. I have selected passages from the original posting by PP, but PP’s full text is readily available above.

The Problem of Authenticity

PP: 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. (Third Collection,120)

DICK: In Insight, Lonergan is very clear that the authencity of the human subject involves being attentive to, and responsive to, the pure desire to know and the moral desire to follow one’s own conscience. On pp 428-9 he contrasts the authenticity of the scientist in relation to his scientific tradition, and the authenticity of the philosopher in relation to diverse philosophical traditions. I suggest that the authenticity of the religious believer is very similar to the authenticity of the philosopher, as Lonergan describes it here (Insight, 429):
It follows that, while the reasonableness of each scientist is a consequence of the reasonableness of all, the philosopher’s reasonableness is grounded on a personal commitment and on personal knowledge. For the issues in philosophy cannot be settled by looking up a handbook, by appealing to a set of experiments performed so painstakingly by so-and-so, by referring to the masterful presentation of overwhelming evidence in some famous work. Philosophic evidence is within the philosopher himself. It is his own inability to avoid experience, to renounce intelligent inquiry, to desert reasonableness in reflection. It is his own detached, disinterested desire to known. It is his own advertence to the polymorphism of his own consciousness. It is his own insight into the manner in which insights accumulate in mathematics, in the empirical sciences, in the myriad instances of common sense. It is his own grasp of the dialectical unfolding of his own desire to know in its conflict with other desires tht provides the key to his own philosophical development and reveals his own potentialities to adopt the stand of any of the traditional or of the new philosophic schools. Philosophy is the flowering of the individual’s rational consciousness in its coming to know and take possession of itself. To that event, its traditional schools, its treatises, and its history are but contributions; and without that even they are stripped of real significance.

I have quoted this whole paragraph as background for my comments about what PP has to say about authenticity-inauthenticity "on the minor level."

PP: 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 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. (TC, 121)

DICK: This sounds as if Lonergan would reject what I said above about the authenticity of the religious believer being very similar to the authenticity of the philosopher. It sounds almost as if Lonergan is saying that the Christian tradition is quite clear about what a genuine Christian is, and that the reasons for an unauthentic appropriation of the tradition are "selective inattention," "a failure to understand," or "an undetected rationalization." Perhaps Lonergan, or PP, would also say that these same reasons account for unauthentic appropriations for Protestant, Muslim, or Buddhist traditions as well as for the Catholic tradition. Whether this is an ecumenical problem or just a Catholic one, it seems to me that the work needed to avoid these failures is quite different from the work needed to be an authentic philosopher. In the passage I quoted, Lonergan points to the various dimensions of that work, work that leads to "the flowering of the individual’s rational consciousness in its coming to know and take possession of itself." Philosophy’s "traditional schools," "treatises," and "history" "are but contributions" to the flowering of the individual’s rational self-appropriation, and without that flowering, even the schools, treatises, and history are "stripped of real significance."

From my reading of Lonergan, I have always understood him to be saying that rational and moral self-appropriation are steps on the way to spiritual and religious authenticity. Does Lonergan believe that devout adherence to the Catholic tradition do away with the need to work towards the kind of personal authenticity he demands of the philosopher?

From a passage in Method in Theology (p. 80), I would say "No": "As Kierkegaard asked whether he was a Christian, so diverse men can ask themselves whether or not they are genuine Catholics or Protestants, Muslims or Buddhists, Platonists or Aristotelians, Kantians or Hegelians, artists or scientists, and so forth."

PP: 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)

Dick: I ask, "By what criterion can an individual judge something to be wrong in the tradition in which he has been socialized?" My tentative answer is that the criterion of judgment here has to be the rational, moral, and religious self-appropriation of the individual doing the judging. It seems to me that we have to come back to the need for the authentically religious person to engage in a labor of personal self-appropriation no less strenuous than that required of the philosopher.

The Progressive Enterprise

PP: 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.

DICK: I agree with you judgment that this is a highly questionable circular argument. I look forward to reading your "deconstructions" and "reconstructions." One of the things I believe might help with this is a reflection on the different meanings of "tradition." I distinguish at least three. One I take from Edward Shils book Tradition. It is anything handed down from generation to generation. The second I take from Alisdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? He says that a tradition is constituted by arguments, extended in time. There are two kinds of arguments: those among insiders to the tradition, and those between insiders and outsiders. One of the key functions of these arguments is to maintain the boundaries of a tradition. Insiders can argue themselves into the position of being outsiders. The third meaning of tradition I take from A. N. Whitehead’s process philosophy: a tradition is a temporally linked series of events. The significance of this definition can only be appreciated by reflecting on some of Whitehead’s ways of characterizing "events" as "actual occasions," and "prehensions."

I have written this as a word document, and, being new to blogs, I have no idea whether or not a document this long can be pasted into the little box provided on the blog for "comments."

Dick

8:16 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Dick,

Thank you for your thought-provoking comments. You've raised some issues I've given quite a bit of thought to in the past, so I welcome the opportunity to discuss it.

Does Lonergan believe that devout adherence to the Catholic tradition do away with the need to work towards the kind of personal authenticity he demands of the philosopher?

I agree with you that the answer is "no."

Self-appropriation is a necessary precondition of an authentic appropriation of a given tradition. It is also necessary in order to make any judgments about the authenticity of that tradition on the major level.

It sounds almost as if Lonergan is saying that the Christian tradition is quite clear about what a genuine Christian is...

Being "clear" is one thing, being "correct" is something else. This is the problem of authenticity on the major level. Now, church leaders might assert that it is not for the individual to judge whether the tradition as it is being passed on is authentic or not. If this is correct, then one should only strive to be an authentic Christian, and pray that the tradition is authentic. But I think this notion -- that the individual cannot judge whether the tradition as he or she has received it is authentic or not -- is deeply mistaken. If I wish to authentically appropriate the authentic Christian tradition, I first have to know what the authentic tradition is, which requires an attentive, intelligent, and reasonable investigation on my part, and such an investigation requires my own self-appropriation. Without such an investigation I risk authentically appropriating an inauthentic tradition.

And this is precisely what Lonergan claimed: "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." (A Third Collection 121)

In other words, I believe your understanding that Lonergan believed "that rational and moral self-appropriation are steps on the way to spiritual and religious authenticity" is quite correct.

I ask, "By what criterion can an individual judge something to be wrong in the tradition in which he has been socialized?" My tentative answer is that the criterion of judgment here has to be the rational, moral, and religious self-appropriation of the individual doing the judging.

I would describe self-appropriation as a precondition rather than a criterion of judgment, but I think you are essentially correct. Of course, self-appropriation is probably a relatively rare achievement. First of all, it requires a degree of cognitive development beyond what many people attain. And secondly, even those who attain that level do not necessarily achieve religious, intellectual and moral conversion.

As for the meaning of tradition, that is something I'm going to be discussing soon.

PP

10:47 AM  
Blogger Dick Moodey said...

For some reason, the comment I wrote yesterday has not been posted. I'm sure it has something to do with my unfamiliarity with the
process. I seem to have to log in twice for each comment.

9:47 PM  

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