9/4/2007--The theologian Bernard Lonergan in his book Method in Theology, has a thought-provoking way of approaching the question of God—one that does not link God to existence as a being. It is also a way that is not abstract, but has definite moral implications. One is led to say that Lonergan’s God is real and makes demands on every person. But on the other hand, Lonergan’s God—that is, his God only in one book since Lonergan was a loyal Roman Catholic—is the sort of God many atheists could also affirm.
Lonergan says that “Man achieves authenticity in self-transcendence.” That is, in the realm of intelligence, I make judgments, to the extent I am not deluding myself, as to what is in fact so. These judgments are independent of me. They are beyond, trans, me. This is a form of cognitive self-transcendence, that is, self-transcendence in thinking.
Then, according to Lonergan, every human being moves to moral self-transcendence by asking whether the world as it is, or parts of it, are truly good. This is not a question of advantage or preference but of objective value. To live in what E. L. Doctorow calls “moral consequence” is to ask questions about the good, answer them and then try to live by the answers. Lonergan calls this “living a moral self-transcendence.” Herein, he says, lies
"the possibility of benevolence and beneficence, of honest collaboration and true love, of swinging completely out of the habitat of an animal and becoming a person in a human society."
All this is a human capacity, which becomes actual when we love.
You may object that this is all within the human being. What does it have to do with God? For Lonergan, there is no self-transcendence unless we are stretching toward “the intelligible, the unconditioned, the good of value.” Our horizon, in other words, must stretch to eternity if we are to practice the self-transcendence that allows for human authenticity. There is within this horizon “a region for the divine, a shrine for ultimate holiness.”
This space, this possibility of holiness, might resolve nothing since the atheist pronounces this space empty and the agnostic says it is inconclusive. Yet, reality is such that this possibility, the possibility of ultimate transcendence, cannot be ignored. And in fact the possibility is never ignored even by atheists. In fact, it is sometimes derided by atheists, who call it the religious instinct in people. But it is present in the atheist’s relationship to reality, too. This possibility is built into us and into the reality we encounter. With this possibility of ultimate transcendence, we have come to God, and not God entirely of our making.
What I find important in Longergan’s approach is his insistence that humans must transcend their self-regarding natures and that this is not mere moral carping but is our destiny in this universe. We live in accordance with reality only when we strive to live this way. When we do not, there are consequences. Some atheists hate consequences for behavior. But even a child knows that there are such.
Other thinkers have come to somewhat similar conclusions about the shape of reality. The crucial similarity among them is that this shape is independent of man. It is something man must take into account, rather like not wanting to walk into a dresser in the dark.
So, C. S. Lewis begins Mere Christianity with the transhistorical and transcultural notion of taking your turn, which is an intelligible demand wherever there are people, whether they always follow this rule or not. Apparently taking your turn is a real value, as Lonergan would put it, one that is built into reality.
Walter Brueggemann writes in his classic work, Theology of the Old Testament, that the ancient Hebrews discovered something else at the heart of reality:
"a hidden cunning in the historical process that is capable of surprise, and that prevents the absolutizing of any program or power."
Of course, they called this cunning, God. God, they said, was ultimately in control of history rather than we.
The theologian Edward Schillebeeckx wrote of our experiencing “reality as a gift which frees us from the impossible attempt to find a basis in ourselves.” This is the mystery of graciousness at the depth of human experience.
Even John Dewey, who was not a theist at the end, wrote of the awareness of the whole of reality that human beings experience. This sounds very much like Lonergan’s horizon.
I quote these religious thinkers, and I could go on, in order to demonstrate that they are all making the claim that reality calls to human beings and invites their participation in accordance with certain norms. And that this is the case with regard to individual lives, societies as a whole and history in its entirety. This is what I mean by God and it is real. In fact, it is the most real that there is.