Q&A with Jonathan R. Heaps

We are exceptionally pleased to have our author Jonathan R. Heaps discuss his book The Ambiguity of Being on our blog. Jonathan R. Heaps is Director of the Bernard J. Lonergan Institute at Seton Hall University.

Q: Can you talk a little about how your book discusses our need to engage with Bernard Lonergan in a more detailed way?

A: Someone interested in either the controversy over the supernatural from the 1940s or its anglophone revival at the beginning of this century, one might only have glancing encounters with the work of the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan (1904–1984). In 1949, Lonergan was invited by the president of the Jesuit Philosophical Association (and close friend of Henri deLubac), Gerard Smith, to be on a panel about the natural desire to know God. Lonergan had already by then taught his seminary course on grace in Montreal twice and drafted his supplementary scholastic manual, De ente supernaturali in the process (which is now available in Lonergan’s Early Latin Theology, volume 19 in the Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan). The editors of Lonergan’s Collected Works even indicate the existence of notes for a course lecture appraising de Lubac’s Surnaturel from that same time. But Lonergan had not made a public intervention in the debate to this point and I don’t believe he ever returned to it directly. But the 10 pages or so he applied to it for Fr. Smith’s panel might simply have obviated the need for more in his own mind. In my opinion, they really do slice through the seemingly knotted problem quite neatly—so neatly, in fact, that I did not feel the need to spill too much ink expositing them in the book! But if folks are curious, I cover it at the start of Chapter 8. However, Lonergan addresses several related questions about grace in his dissertation, “Gratia Operans,” which was subsequently revised as a series of articles in Theological Studies. Both are now published together as Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, volume 1 in the Collected Works. But instead of dealing with the problems in terms of metaphysical topics like “nature,” “powers,” “desire,” and “end” (which is the usual procedure), Lonergan relocates the whole question “up” a level to talk about operation, action, and agency. I discovered that this gave Lonergan the ability to approach a whole set of problems about divine and human action in general, including divine and human cooperation, and this in addition to the specific problem of human cooperation with God’s redemptive initiative in the world—that is, God’s grace. Lonergan has a great line in Grace and Freedom, though, where he notes with dry wit that controversies on these topics had tended to proceed on “the somewhat ingenuous assumption that everyone knows precisely what it is to ’cause,’ ‘operate,’ ‘cooperate’,” such that “past discussion may have suffered from a neglect of more fundamental ideas.” And so this means that if you want to take advantage of this compendious vantage Lonergan has to offer on the problems of grace and the supernatural, you need to be willing to wander away with him to fully explore these “more fundamental ideas” like agency and causation or, as I get to in later chapters, rationality and freedom. And that withdrawal takes patience and not a little persistence, especially when so much of the richness of Lonergan’s analysis is buried in the footnotes of his dissertation from the 1940s! So, my hope is that The Ambiguity of Being serves to bring Lonergan’s breakthroughs up to the surface so that folks interested in these important questions about God’s grace can take them in hand more quickly and easily than I was able to at first.

Q: How did Lonergan engage with St. Thomas Aquinas, and how do you connect them in this work?

A: Lonergan spoke of spending years “reaching up to the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas,” both during the writing of his dissertation, and then through his teaching career first in Quebec, and then later in Rome. Lonergan is everywhere keen to see what’s holding it all together for Thomas, and so his citations tend to reach beyond the locus classicus on some topic and out into texts and questions that touch on underlying ideas. So, for example, when retrieving St. Thomas’s theory of action, Lonergan gives a great deal of attention to Thomas’s commentaries on Aristotle, noting how Thomas takes up Aristotle’s arguments and ideas, but also where and how Thomas augments them with his own. Or, in one case I explore in the back half of the book, Lonergan notices how St. Thomas seems to have gotten frustrated with Aristotle’s way of speaking about the deep roots of rationality, and so sets out on his own strategy. And Lonergan notices too how attending to these underlying questions can have a big pay-off on bigger, weightier question. Taking that same example from his Verbum articles, Lonergan spends a long time retrieving Thomas’s subtle distinctions between kinds of process and the different ways that action and passion can be predicated within them, all to help clarify Thomas’s analogy for the procession of the Son from the Father from the intellectual process of human rationality.

Q: You note that this book offers a “radical re-conception of modern theology’s scope.” Can you expand a bit on what you mean by that and how you would envision that happening? 

A: One of the most important, but also most challenging arguments in the book is that the actions of rational, free agents (like humans and God) are what they are because of what the agent means by them. And so while the first half of the book is concerned with a metaphysical question about how it can be that God acts in human action, in the second half, we eventually turn to the question, what is God doing in human action? And this question requires that theology be not only a metaphysical enterprise, but also a hermeneutical one. In other words, we need to be able to interpret what God means by what God is doing in human action. And because the earlier part of the book establishes that there are not parts of creation where God is not acting—God, after all, is the maker of “all things”—that means that the data for this hermeneutical project are given not just in some particular “religious” area of human action, nor in one particular institution or one culture or one community, but in and through all of the product of human action in every human community in every place and every time. It means that the theological enterprise, considered at its most fundamental level (and my book is probably best understood as a work of “fundamental theology”), is as wide and deep and tall as human history itself. Moreover, I argue that this hermeneutical task can’t be reduced to metaphysical principles, because that just restates the problem: we can say how God is acting, not what God means by doing so. Instead, following Lonergan, I think that modern theology needs to pivot to considering what kind of collaborative methods it can set up to help coordinate the efforts of theologians all over the world investigating every human culture in every time and place so that we aren’t just raking up the leaves of history into big theological piles, but generating a cumulatively and progressively deeper understanding of what God has been and continues to be up to in human communities. I suppose one could say that my book concludes with a renewed exhortation for modern theology to be truly ‘catholic,’ in the etymological sense of ‘universal’. But I also argue it can’t achieve that by trying to retreat back to the intellectual techniques that got us where we are (though, as I hope I show at great length, we can’t just abandon those either). Instead, modern theology has to develop new techniques to meet new challenges that the achievements of the past, like those of St. Thomas and Bernard Lonergan, can help us now appreciate.

Q: What was the most interesting and/or surprising thing you discovered during your research? 

A: I don’t know if I can think of one glaring thing, but here’s a sampling: As I mentioned above, realizing that once I followed Lonergan away from the nature/desire/end framing of the problem of the supernatural problem over to the agency/operation framing, there really wasn’t much to be said about the former anymore. I suspect readers familiar with the usual way the problem of the supernatural is discussed are going to be surprised how very tersely I treat the usual questions. I have a chapter that is somewhat modeled on Alastair MacIntyre’s “Nietzsche or Aristotle” chapter in After Virtue where I set up Maurice Blondel and Jean-Paul Sartre as embodying a basic philosophical alternative. In the course of writing that, I was surprised to realize that I think Sartre’s philosophy in Being and Nothingness is, by his own definition, in “bad faith.” As I was turning towards the final part of the project and began to start writing about the Thomistic philosophy of freedom, I had this sudden realization that I needed to take a step back and give a theory of human rationality or the theory of freedom would be really shallow and unconvincing. So I stopped everything, opened my books back up again, got out a notepad and got to work on figuring that out. I should have probably anticipated it, but it snuck up on me. But I think it’s the chapter I’m most proud of, even if I have had some early readers say it’s the most challenging.

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