A Deeper Understanding

In new book, Philosophy's Fr. Flanagan explores the work of late colleague Bernard Lonergan, SJ

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The late Bernard J.F. Lonergan, SJ, is regarded by some as one of the finest Catholic minds since Aquinas and Cardinal Newman, a theologian and philosopher whose insights paved the way for dialogue across religious and academic boundaries.

Assoc. Prof. Joseph F. Flanagan, SJ (Philosophy), knew Fr. Lonergan as something else - a friend and movie-going companion who loved hockey games and reading The New Yorker when not mulling deep questions on human understanding.

"I had read some of his material, and when I was first going to meet him, I expected he would be an unusual human being," recalled Fr. Flanagan, department chairman when Fr. Lonergan taught there as a visiting distinguished professor from 1975 to 1983. "It turned out he was as intellectually gifted as I had expected - but I hadn't expected him to be a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, or to tell jokes."

Fr. Flanagan reflected on his late colleague recently while discussing his new book, Quest for Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Lonergan's Philosophy. The work offers an introduction to Fr. Lonergan's influential book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding , and its theory of self-knowledge in relation to contemporary schools of philosophy.

At a time when ethnically and culturally charged "identity politics" are in vogue in many academic circles, Fr. Flanagan said, "I show there is a much richer, deeper identity - our human identity with the historical community of all people."
Assoc. Prof. Joseph Flanagan, SJ-"I hadn't expected [Fr. Lonergan} to be a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, or to tell jokes." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Fr. Lonergan (1904-84), a native of Quebec who entered the Society of Jesus in 1922, taught systematic theology at Gregorian University in Rome and Regis College in Toronto before finishing his career at Boston College. He was a prolific scholar whose works inspired the founding of the Perspectives and PULSE programs at Boston College, and whose donated works form the core of the Lonergan Center.

Fr. Lonergan sought to devise scientific methods of inquiry that could be brought to bear on questions of philosophy and theology, said Fr. Flanagan. His approach followed in the tradition of Descartes, who sought to use the advancing scientific methods of his day to examine personal existence. This view held that disputes over the nature of existence would be settled if formulas could be agreed upon for proving philosophical theorems as readily as mathematical puzzles.

Similarly, Fr. Lonergan set out in search of a methodical approach to knowing one's self, said Fr. Flanagan. In the book, Fr. Flanagan describes Fr. Lonergan's conception of a "transcendent" human identity that overrides the ethnic and cultural differences dividing so many today.

"Fr. Lonergan came to believe that sanctifying grace was mediated through all the world's major religions," said Fr. Flanagan. "He found that all people are naturally religious, and that there is a religious foundation in human nature that grounds all the major faiths.

"The significance of this is that it gives an ecumenical foundation that respects all religious traditions, and allows for critiquing the shortcomings of all," he continued. "I've always thought that was the most significant development of Lonergan's method - that it led to a foundation for a new ecumenical dialogue."

As people across the world are unified in the application of modern science to medicine, communications and technology, said Fr. Flanagan, so, too, might people of diverse cultures discover their common humanity through a scientific approach to philosophic inquiry.

"'Knowing yourself' is to know you have an intellectual identity, a moral identity and a religious identity, with the whole human community," said Fr. Flanagan. "You find there is something common to all human 'knowers,' and further, that there is something common to all human choosing and loving. These are the bases for communications between academic disciplines, between religions, and between cultures."

Return to Jan. 29 menu

Return to Chronicle home page