Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Return

In Topics in Education, when thinking about the agents of positive change that can reverse processes of social and cultural breakdown, Lonergan writes that he has
spoken simply of the process--situation, insight, counsel, policy, new type of action, new situation, new insight, and the snowball effect of the entire cycle. The agents may be called a succession of creative personalities. The situation can be wholly transformed if there is a succession of personalities who are not simply sunk into the existing situation, immersed in its routines, and functioning like cogs in a wheel, with little grasp of possibilities, with a lack of daring. They withdraw, perhaps even physically, but at least mentally. They are detached; it is because of their detachment that they can see how things could be different. They may be accounted as nobodies while they are withdrawn, but when they return, they transform the world. In their withdrawal they become themselves, and they return with a mission (Topics in Education, p. 51-52).
This is such an incredibly rich passage. From a philosophy of history perspective, Lonergan here has taken great strides towards integrating the genuine insights of the Great Man approach to history, which focused upon agents of change, with the legitimate insights of historiographies that focus more upon broader social and cultural movements. It help us to understand how transformative figures--Moses, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Muhammad, Aquinas, Luther, Marx, to name a few of particular historical import--manage to transform our concrete human reality. A product of said reality, they consciously withdraw from immanent engagement with that reality, precisely in order to gain what we might describe as a transcendent understanding of its qualities. This withdrawal allows them to cultivate their subjectivity, becoming themselves and thus able to operate fully at the level of their time: precisely what Lonergan defines as genius. When they (or their disciples) begin to more fully engage with the world, they have a sense of what must be changed so as to produce a better world. This, perhaps, is the existential origin of such phenomena as the cult of the saints: the commemoration of past persons who came to operate at the respective levels of their respective times, whose operations facilitated comparable transformative experiences in their successors. It is no doubt the existential origin of the church: in his withdrawal--his years spent as an artisan, the time spent in praying and fasting--Jesus became himself, and upon his return he began to fashion the community that would eventuate in the church. Commemorating Jesus was thus not merely antiquarian, but in fact aimed at transforming the world in the here and now, precisely because Jesus was one who saw not only that transformation was necessary but had an at least initial sense of how that transformation must look. Likewise, the origins of the sangha, the mosque, and the like. Through the operations of such geniuses operating at the level of their times new spaces emerge--spaces in which other persons can likewise withdraw sufficiently to become themselves--and this with the guidance and example of previous transformative figures.

We know such figures from our own or at least more recent times, and not surprisingly many of these hail from marginalized groups (after all, it is easier to withdraw when one has already and unjustly been relegated to the fringes). To name just a few: Sojourner Truth; Frederick Douglass; Susan B. Anthony; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; bell hooks; and indeed Lonergan himself, whose work has released a slew of intellectual energy that is still changing the world. The great story continues: one of redemption from the constant entropy that threatens to overwhelm our social and cultural lives.

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