The spirituality of the question

The spirituality of the question November 5, 2014

What drives the life of the intellect is something that itself is not intellectual: namely, a desire to know. Philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan, SJ described this dynamic in his massive tome Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, which examines different kinds of questions that human beings raise: mathematical, empirical/scientific, metaphysical, ethical, transcendent/religious. In all these, the common denominator is the questioning person, or, in Lonergan’s terms, “the pure, unrestricted desire to know.”

Bernard Lonergan, SJ (1904-1984) 


Thoroughly understand what it is to understand and not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding. (Insight, Introduction)

Lonergan, schooled in the work of Aquinas, both appreciated the breadth of scholastic philosophy and yet saw its limitations. He came to critique the static view of the cosmos and of God that this fundamentally Aristotelian system produced– a system that the scientific revolution completely exploded. Lonergan was fond of quoting a historian of science on this issue:

Since that revolution overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world—since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics—it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.

(Quoted in Lonergan “Questionnaire on Philosophy” Philosophical and Theological Papers, 1965-1980, Collected works of Bernard Lonergan, Volume 17, edited by Robert Croken and Robert M. Doran (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2004), p. 353. Thanks to Gerard Whelan SJ for this article.)

Lonergan understood something fundamental that many Christian thinkers failed (and still fail) to grasp: that the very method of knowing that unfolded in the scientific revolution completely upended the classical approach to knowledge that prevailed from the time of the Greeks all the way through the middle ages and into the Renaissance. Starting with first principles and arguing to their implications simply cannot suffice for modern knowledge, whether it be arguments about motion (e.g. planetary orbits) or about theology (“Thus says the Lord”). Scientific method–empirical method– begins with concrete observations of reality rather than a priori abstractions. Tad Dunne writes succinctly of Lonergan’s approach to this method in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The success of the empirical methods of the natural sciences confirms that the mind reaches knowledge by an ascent from data, through hypothesis, to verification. To account for disciplines that deal with humans as makers of meanings and values, Lonergan generalized the notion of data to include the data of consciousness as well as the data of sense. From that compound data, one may ascend through hypothesis to verification of the operations by which humans deal with what is meaningful and what is valuable. Hence, a “generalized empirical method” (GEM).

This was a key insight for Lonergan: that while scientific method did explode classical methods of Christian theology (“God says” or “the Bible says” or suchlike), it nevertheless opened an entirely modern approach to knowledge, to which theologians must adapt their methods. That method cannot have as its origin an ancient text, or a structure of religious authority, but must arise rather from the structure of a person’s understanding.

The immanent source of transcendence in man is his detached, disinterested, unrestricted desire to know. As it is the origin of all his questions, it is the origin of the radical further questions that take him beyond the defined limits of particular issues. (source)

There is, then, a kind of “spirituality of the question” (my term), because it is in the very act of questioning itself that a human being experiences self-transcendence. In his later work Method in Theology (overview by Tad Dunne here), written after a long period of learning from modern historians of thought, Lonergan connects the desire to know with what Christian theology means by the word “God”:

It … rises out of our conscious intentionality, out of the a priori structured drive that promotes us from experiencing to the effort to understand, from understanding to the effort to judge truly, from judging to the effort to choose rightly. In the measure that we advert to our own questioning and proceed to question it, there arises the question of God.

Yet the spirituality of the question is not merely intellectual; it also involves the heart. For if one asks a question, it is because there is first a desire to know something.

Within the context of the empirical discovery of self-transcendence (I experience a desire to know something), there is then room for properly theological discourse, and specifically Christ-ian discourse. For Christ did things and taught things that raised questions, providing an heuristic (a framework within which a person can discover something for himself or herself) for encounter with God (in the sense above, of self-transcendence eliciting love). The story of the Road to Emmaus is illustrative here: the risen Christ walks with people who are excited by the events of the recent days, and they find that their “hearts were burning” inside them because of the stories that Christ tells them. This is the fundamental pattern of all authentic Christ-ian conversion: one experiences a desire to know, leading to questions; and the process of self-transcendence that leads one to the satisfaction of questions gives rise to love. That love is then expressed in a new manner of living.

Catholic education, I would argue, is about providing an heuristic framework that allows for questions that move in all directions: mathematical, scientific, historical, cultural, and so on. No questions are out of bounds. It is also about the humility of providing the kind of experience that the disciples on the road to Emmaus had: suggesting that something unique happened in the person of Jesus. From this perspective, offering the opportunity for such an encounter–offering Jesus–is neither naive religiosity nor cultural hegemony. It is rather the sharing of a gift, the import of which Lonergan described this way:

The Christian message is to be communicated to all nations. Such communication presupposes that preachers and teachers enlarge their horizons to include an accurate and intimate understanding of the culture and the language of the people they address. They must grasp the virtual resources of that culture and that language, and they must use those virtual resources creatively so that the Christian message becomes, not disruptive of the culture, not an alien patch superimposed upon it, but a line of development within the culture. (Method in Theology)

The key term is “development within the culture.” It is not about imposing doctrines on a foreign culture but, to use an analogy, more akin to a person dying of thirst sharing knowledge of where he has found fresh water. (The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman also comes to mind: she provides a story, but ultimately they discover for themselves who Jesus is.) To be sure, then, there is no specifically Catholic mathematics or physics or history or social work. There is, though, a right way of asking questions in all these areas of inquiry, and a Catholic approach means doing that while at the same time paying attention to what is unfolding in us as human beings as we raise those questions. That is the beginning of a Catholic theology, which discipline itself will help to shed light on that process of questioning.

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