Academic journal article Theological Studies

Bernard Lonergan and the Recovery of a Metaphysical Frame

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Bernard Lonergan and the Recovery of a Metaphysical Frame

Article excerpt

IN HIS MAGISTERIAL WORK, THE SECULAR AGE, Charles Taylor details the narrative of a major cultural shift, "a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace." (1) In that narrative Taylor identifies a number of contributing factors: the collapse of the classical metaphysical notion of the "great chain of being," (2) the disenchantment of the natural world, (3) and the emergence of an "immanent frame." This frame is marked by a turn away from the outer world, an interiorization leading to a growth in the vocabulary of interiority, of thought and feeling. (4) The emergence of this immanent frame drives "a new form of religious life, more personal, committed, devoted," (5) but it also creates a new distinction: "this frame constitutes a 'natural' order, to be contrasted to a 'supernatural' one, an 'immanent' world, over against a possible 'transcendent one." (6) Within such a worldview, "the inference to the transcendence is at the extreme and most fragile end of a chain of inferences; it is the most epistemically questionable." (7) Natural theology as traditionally conceived has become a bridge too far, and the possibility of a natural theology, despite the teaching of Vatican I (which Vatican II repeats verbatim in Dei verbum), is hardly taken seriously. (8) At least in Catholic theological circles natural theology is all but dead. (9)

Part of the story of this cultural shift is the collapse or, at best, the distortion, of a distinctly metaphysical frame to address reality. The issue, which I briefly discuss below, is one of confusion between the nature of scientific explanation and that of metaphysical explanation. As long as this confusion reigns, the prospects for a revival of interest in the question of natural theology remain slim. And where theologians fear to tread, others are more than willing to go. The most recent example is the claim by Lawrence Krauss that physics is well on the way to explaining how the universe arises "from nothing." (10) Nowhere is this blurring of the distinction between physics and metaphysics more evident. Krauss has barely concealed contempt for the work of theologians and philosophers who seek to address this traditionally conceived metaphysical issue. Yet he is not alone in failing to be able to properly distinguish the two realms of enquiry. Philosophers and theologians also struggle to recognize a proper distinction between them. Much of the literature on the science-religion debate is taken up with discussing the implications of quantum mechanics for our understanding of reality. (11) Fascinating as quantum mechanics is, the claims that insights into its account of physical phenomena give rise to a privileged metaphysical stance betrays an implicit metaphysical reductionism that is relatively unchallenged in that literature.

Of course, one is not going to "win" the debate with Krauss and others by engaging with the scientific material directly. Even to begin to understand the issues requires a serious mathematical background beyond the reach of most people, and there is a sense in which such an engagement misses the point. (12) It perpetuates the confusion that somehow this is where the real issues lie. Indeed this confusion is the product of what Lonergan calls the myth that reality is somehow "already-out-there-now" waiting to be seen, a myth that has its origins in our biologically-oriented extroverted consciousness. (13) It holds that knowing is looking, or at least something like looking, that reality is what is to be seen, and that objectivity consists in seeing what is to be seen and not seeing what is not there. To break out of this myth is to undergo an "intellectual conversion," which involves a fundamental shift in one's criteria for reality. (14) Within this new horizon, knowing consists of a threefold process of experience, understanding, and judgment; reality is the objective of the desire to know; and objectivity lies in fidelity to the dynamic norms within the desire to know. …

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