Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A perhaps not numerous center

At the very end of Collection (the first of three volumes of Lonergan’s collected essays) Lonergan writes that

[c]lassical culture cannot be jettisoned without being replaced; and what replaces it cannot but run counter to classical expectations. There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development, exploring now this and now that new possibility. But what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait.


An initial word is in order regarding the use of the term "classical culture." Throughout his work Lonergan regularly poses "classical" against "modern" culture. By the former he means the ways of thinking associated with Platonism and (given his Thomistic heritage) especially Aristotleanism. Classical culture sought invariant laws; it conceived of truth as something located only in the universal and never in the contingent. It began to face major challenges with the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, but survived via a transformation into a mechanical view of the world that sought refuge by defining the world as a sort of unvarying and non-contingent clockwork. As this mechanical view broke down in the face of the more dynamic understandings of change brought about in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the full appreciation of the contingency of development across the various spheres of human knowing--notably via relativism in the study of physics, evolution in the study of biology, historical-mindedness in the emergence of the human sciences--this classical culture finally had to give way to the full emergence of a modern culture that cannot locate truth strictly in the invariant but must seek truth also and perhaps even most fully in statistical regularities. This is the move from thinking about science, natural or human, as the study of necessary laws to thinking of it as the study of probabilities.

The "solid right" develops whenever there is a refusal to move from valorizing the necessary to foregrounding the probable. This "right" is not self-identical with what we call the "right" politically or religiously, although certainly much if not most or all of the hermeneutical wrangling that falls under the rubric of "biblical inerrancy" would indeed be part of the solid right. Biblical inerrancy is simply a way to avoid the hard work of empirical investigation by making a grand sweeping a priori claims regarding the invariant and necessary historicity and veracity of the literal words of the biblical text; put otherwise, it identifies "historicity," "veracity," and "literal" as virtual synonyms, a move that no one in fact made before perhaps the 19th century--and for good reason. Yet the sold right also takes the form of the dogmatic opposition to anything that looks "supernatural" or "miraculous." Whenever one reads that a miracle story simply cannot be true because miracles necessarily cannot happen you are dealing with an instance of the solid right, one that would rather rely upon sweeping and pre-empirical metaphysical pronouncements regarding the invariant state of the world than it would upon the difficult work of actually slogging through and seeking to genuinely understand the relevant empirical data. This of course is not a defense of "supernaturalism" but rather of the inane sloppiness of thought that mistakes metaphysical for historical thinking.

We see the scattered left in various turns to literary, feminist, Marxist, queer, post-structuralist, linguistic, etc., criticisms. I want to be clear though, lest I be mistaken: there is much to be learned from all these criticisms. They are compelling precisely because they hit upon genuine insights. These insights provide powerful correctives to our pre-existing ideas, simultaneously deepening our knowledge of the world. They must be affirmed wherever it is reasonable and responsible to do so, and indeed failure to thus affirm those genuine insights would constitute a refuse of reason and responsibility. The problem emerges when those insights are affirmed not via the result of attentive, intelligence, reasonable, and responsible inquiry into the truth of the matter at hand but rather via ideological commitment or a desire to be perceived as avant-garde. Again, the religious "right" is just as implicated as the religious "left." In my experience many of the most ardent devotees of what Lonergan calls the "New Method Laundry" are evangelicals who desire to show themselves conversant with the broader human sciences.

Similarly, the "perhaps not numerous center" will potentially consist of persons who are religious and politically on both the left and the right. I saw "potentially" because one cannot rule out a priori that those who most diligently seek to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible will not thus consistently fall on one or the other side of the traditional left-to-right spectrums vis-à-vis religion and politics. This however would emerge precisely a posteriori, precisely because of diligent attention, intelligence, reason, and responsibility, one that is possible precisely because one has refused to succumb to the temptation to allowing ideological fiat short-circuit the process of inquiry. The positions that emerge would in fact be stronger than those advanced on a simple ideological basis; for instance, I am confident that women must have full equality with men precisely because any alternative condition would be demonstrably unintelligent, unreasonable, and irresponsible. My argument however is not from a personal preference or an ideological commitment but rather the result of diligent inquiry into the very nature of things, and thus my argument is significantly stronger than those who have not undertaken such diligence. The same is the case of course with regard to the study of the New Testament: show you your exegesis without reason and I will show you my exegesis by reason.

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