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Clarity About Ambiguity

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The Ambiguity of Being
Lonergan and the Problems of the Supernatural
By Jonathan R. Heaps
Catholic University of America Press, 250 pages. $85

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). What is grace? How does it save me? Why does God give it? Is grace an interference in my life, an add-on I need? And so the questions go.

It should be obvious that having some understanding of grace is important in order to value what God gives us. It goes to the heart of our relation to God as humans, and our relationships with God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The problem is that grace is divine, but it is also created. It is “supernatural” but also in some way “natural” as well.

Jonathan Heaps has written an important and ambitious book, outlining what is in essence a new program for theology today — and not just for Roman Catholics. He is the director of the Bernard J. Lonergan Institute at Seton Hall University, one of 11 study centers around the world working to extend Lonergan’s extremely rich legacy.

Right away, I need to say that this is not just another “Lonerganian” book that regurgitates the Canadian’s transcendental method for connoisseurs. Lonergan would have hated that his opus founded a school, which is antithetical to his life’s work, but it did inevitably happen.[1] Heaps incorporates and then goes beyond Lonergan to develop a creative approach to the vexed question of the supernatural in Christian theology. From there he develops his fresh approach to theology in general.

Today the word supernatural in daily parlance means the paranormal: phantoms, fairies, “ghoulies and ghosties, and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night.” It is opposed to the “natural,” meaning a rational grasp of reality which brooks no mystery that science cannot elucidate, including the dogmas of religion, of course.

But this is modern. “Nature” in ancient and medieval thought, up to the 18th century in fact, meant first the creation, and second, in philosophical speculation, the quiddity (or whatness) of creatures. For Plato and Aristotle, individual animals of a species had a common nature: doggishness of dogs, cattishness of cats, humanness of humans.[2] In Christian theology, the question arose about the nature or natures of Jesus Christ: human and divine? And that led to the further question of the relation between humans and God, the author of our nature: between the natural and what is above natural.

What links our nature and God’s supernature? God created all that is, giving every relative being with the absolute divine Being. Paramecia, parrots, and Parisians all exist because of God’s Being. In a famous statement, Thomas Aquinas postulated that “God is being through essence, and all others by participation” (Summa Theologiæ 1.4.3.). In other words, we live and move and have our being because God sustains us. Because sin seriously damaged our nature, in particular our awareness of our relation to God, there is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), grace, to accomplish God’s original intent that we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4.) Grace enables participation in that nature. In other words, through it our human nature can “bathe” in the supernatural divine.

After Aquinas came a host of commentators who tried to elucidate this grace. It is created, yet divine. But God and creation are separate. If they are not, then we are not talking about the God of the Scriptures. As Heaps notes, “God and only God exists by nature, which is why God is the only necessary being” (p. 97). One possible solution is to ask what human nature is by itself, a “pure nature” before humankind sinned. This is part of vociferous arguments that Katherine Sonderegger notes raged among 17th-century Roman Catholic theologians concerning

the very nature of God, the scopus and perfection of His knowledge, the workings of His victorious grace, and the freedom of His creatures … At this level of doctrinal seriousness, no final verdict was reached. The painful calumnies, the calls for inquisition and condemnation, the relentless polemics, personal and ecclesial: these had to stop. But this explosive argument … between two ways of receiving the heritage of the sainted Doctor, must now be regarded as a “difference of the schools.”

With the revival of Aquinas studies in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, this difference of the schools returned to the fore, concentrating on the notion of a “pure nature” and whether there is a “natural” desire to see God — to enjoy “the beatific vision.” The French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, in a series of articles in the 1940s, attacked it, pointing out that this was an impossible abstraction that separates the natural from the supernatural action of God in grace. The reaction was severe: Pius XII condemned it in a 1950 encyclical and de Lubac was forbidden to teach or write. Yet his view won out, and he was named as a theological adviser to the Second Vatican Council.

The problem of the supernatural remains, however.

Here Heaps follows Lonergan’s analysis closely, especially his earlier works on Aquinas. He distinguishes between the medieval problem of grace and the “irreducible modern problem of the supernatural.” The medieval problem has a specific side, which is how God’s grace makes a difference in creation and in human life. The generic side is how God’s action makes a difference in these (p. 43). The modern problem of grace asks specifically what God is doing in free human action, and generically what God is doing in the cultural realms of human meanings in which those actions are conceived and take place (p. 209). The lasting value of Thomas Aquinas’s opus tempts many to make an essentially medieval answer to the modern challenge, but Heaps shows that this is not possible. However, he argues, it is also not possible to develop any satisfactory answer to the modern challenge without taking into account the medieval solution.

There is a “prephilosophical commitment,” Heaps says, that people face, which is the decision whether to believe in a divine being. Until René Descartes in the 17th century, theology was the “queen of the sciences,” and philosophy her handmaid. Since then the two have become separate disciplines. Heaps contrasts Maurice Blondel, a believer who analyzed human action using what he called a “method of immanence,” with Jean-Paul Sartre, the atheist existentialist. From this clash of positions, he distills an underlying ambiguity. Blondel the believer says that free action should be taken as if there is ultimate meaning. Sartre says that freedom is nothing in itself. Neither can justify his position by philosophical reasoning — both are ambiguous.

Heaps then shows that the modern question of what God is doing in free human action cannot find a satisfactory metaphysical answer. It is intrinsically hermeneutical, seeking to interpret rather than explain definitively. As a theological hermeneutic, it will inquire into “common funds of meanings and values,” meaning cultures. This work would not seek some overarching interpretive key, say, like Martin Luther’s reading Scripture through the lens of the Epistle to the Romans. Rather this enterprise would examine doctrines in their cultural context, with the hope that these disclose possible divine meanings, “to investigate what human action has concretely meant in its cooperation with God” (pp. 211; 206-7, and 207.n21)

Finally, he proposes a heuristic along three interrelated “axes” of inquiry to do critical methodological theology. The first is theories of transcendence (from atheism to process theologies), the second is a study of cultural, horizonal, and contextual differences among these theories, and the third plots transformations of development, decline, and redemption (pp. 218-24). Theologians will need to allow for divergences, resulting in what Heaps calls a “speculative pluralism.” The openness of communications is “essential to theology’s self-realization and also rather extravagantly beyond its present means” (p. 225).

Heaps is a good writer, and he navigates his very dense material with a sure hand and a ready sense of humor. His proposal for a new approach to the doing of theology is backed by vast research, and, I believe, a certain frustration with some of the limitations of current theology (which I share). Repeatedly he states that we need no “great man” now. Although his analysis and proposal are clearly based on the opus of Bernard Lonergan, he does what a good Lonergan student should do: develop. Transcend the master who never wanted to found a school.

I must make a few remarks about his use of Lonergan. He tends to stick with the early studies of Aquinas, and rarely mentions the two most familiar books, Insight and especially Method in Theology. Lonergan’s work on Aquinas is itself creative, and he moves far beyond the school approach he had to endure as a student. Heaps does not get into the controversies among Thomists and others concerning Lonergan’s positions. Although much of the basic thrust of Method in Theology is present, its presence is mainly felt through its influence on the author of this book. I think this is wise. Method is brilliant, filled with concepts that continue to inspire to this day. But Lonergan began writing it sub specie æternitatis in 1965, after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. As a result it hurries to say what needs saying. In order to experience the breath of his thought, people who read it should also complement that with (at least) the three collections of essays, his treatise on the Trinity, and of course, Insight.

And along the way, read Jonathan Heaps, The Ambiguity of Being: Lonergan and the Problems of the Supernatural.


[1] When my coauthor John Raymaker and I chose a title for our book on Lonergan’s economics as an exemplar of his transcendental method, we decided not to put his name in it. It should not be off-putting, but it can be, because of certain claims by members of the “school.” See “Attentive, Intelligent, Rational, and Responsible”: Transforming Economics to Save the Planet (Marquette University Press, 2023).

[2] Summing up the change from fixed nature, Lonergan wrote, “If one abstracts from all respects in which one man can differ from another, there is left a residue named human nature and the truism that human nature is always the same.” It is true that, in this way, “one can apprehend man abstractly through a definition that applies … through properties verifiable in every man”; and indeed, one can know human being as such, but “man as such, precisely because he is an abstraction, also is unchanging.” If we leave human being at that, “one is never going to arrive at any exigence for changing forms, structures, methods, for all change occurs in the concrete, and on this view the concrete is always omitted.” In “The Transition from a Classicist Worldview to Historical-Mindedness,” Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 13: A Second Collection: Papers by Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J. Edited by Robert M. Doran and John D. Dadosky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016); 1-10; 3.

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Pierre Whalon
Pierre Whalon
The Rt. Rev. Pierre W. Whalon served as Bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe from 2001 to 2019.

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