Cultural Crisis and the Long Game: Fr. Lonergan’s Contemporary Relevance

The Church, it is sometimes said, thinks in terms of centuries, not years or decades … or election cycles. Without intending to minimize the importance of this upcoming election and its implications for economic and foreign policy matters, it’s worth reminding ourselves that a long game is being played as well, a game with civilizational and cultural stakes.

While I’m generally skeptical in the face of apocalyptic fears, there can be no doubt that we find ourselves grappling with the loss of a pre-modern world where we oriented our institutions and selves in keeping with objective cosmological, ontological, and communal orders. Lacking thick accounts of who we are, what we’re for, what we should do, and for what we hope, we are unmoored and adrift, all the while celebrating this very absence of structure as evidence of our freedom and autonomy. Further, the correlation between the unmoored or disencumbered self of contemporary life and some of the current crises seems fairly strong—the rejection of traditional notions of marriage, for example. This cultural malaise results from the absence of robust understandings of human nature, personhood, normative relations, and integral human flourishing. And the same could be said for many of the other issues under deliberation as we enter the voting booths in a few days.

Despite the seriousness of the immediate issues, the thought of the Catholic intellectual Bernard Lonergan, S.J., one of the too-frequently forgotten giants of the previous century, prompts calmness and clarity in the face of alarm bells but grave concern on the prospect of longer decline. Lonergan understood well the massive sea-change wrought by modernity on the friendly and ordered universe of our ancestors; he knew that a return to a cosmos luminous and drenched with moral meaning was unlikely in the face of modern science, rejection of teleology, secularization, and disenchantment.

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Yet Fr. Lonergan displayed no panic, nor any attempt to roll back the clock and return to a world existing no longer, but instead went to work, articulating how the achievement of Thomas Aquinas and other medieval masters was deeply compatible with the scientific method and spirit of inquiry of the modern, but he also retained orthodox standards in thought, morality, and faith. While his thought is not identical with that of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), they shared a common stance in the face of the modern world, namely, “Be Not Afraid.”

In his mature work, Lonergan articulated an account of the human good that neither sought a return to an ancient cosmology nor embraced the thinness of a merely procedural liberalism. Along with Aristotle, he called us to identify those goods which are objects of an individual’s appetite and need, things such as food, drink, shelter, and so on. Humans, moreover, collaboratively shape institutions through which to attain particular goods in a coherent, expansive, and progressive way—as he puts it, “as appetite wants breakfast, so an economic system is to ensure breakfast every morning.” We don’t merely eat, we create economies; we don’t merely investigate, we create universities; we don’t merely breed, we marry, and so on.

If we stopped there, Lonergan would have provided not much more than a kind of utilitarian view of the human. But his view of the human is personal (and Catholic), and no view of the person could be anything other than truncated which overlooked the constituting role of cultural, personal, and religious goods transcending the mere attainment of appetites in a systematic way. To spell that out a bit, cultural values are the stories and images, rituals and practices through which humans express their social nature. Personal value is the capacity and thrust of the human being towards freedom, authenticity, dignity, and religious value; it is that thrust of the person to enter into communion with the divine.

Our deliberations and policies can be in keeping with this scale of values or not, and in a functioning system we will naturally have variations and disagreements about the means and processes by which we prudentially attain particular goods and maintain goods of order. Given human finitude and the uncertainty of particular action, we should not be surprised that we do not always know how best to provide and maintain all our needs and higher wants, nor should we be surprised by—or begrudge—others who may see things differently. That’s just the human condition, and disruptions in goods and systems are also to be expected given our finitude, the complexity of systems, as well as human unreasonableness. A glut of soybean oil, or a stock bubble, or even a recession, while undesirable, are not (generally) long-term cultural calamities but short-term disruptions. We may respond to them well, or poorly, we may make the situation worse or even severe, and the consequences may be extremely painful—and yet, cultural, personal, and religious values tend to survive and continue.

Given these human limits, we happily queue at the polling stations to exercise our liberty and duty as we deliberate about policy option. Our neighbors may vote differently about how best to attain and systematize goods—and this is normal, this is as it should be, and we should have no fear.

In addition to short disruptions, however, there is what Lonergan would call a longer pattern of decline, caused less by shortages in goods and processes of production, but in fragmentation, truncation, or even refusal of cultural, personal, and religious values. Such may even occur in the full flourishing of the lower goods, perhaps if a community determines to ignore or even repress all goods other than those of appetite and need.  In this situation, the human good is distorted, bent from its fullness towards a part, and bent from its vertical transcendence into a self-enclosed iron cage of the secular and the animal. So perverted, the values required for the flourishing of the human person are removed and vanquished. Furthermore, since human intelligence distorts, eventually even the lower goods of appetite and system become out of sync and the cultural and civilizational resources needed to recover are no longer present. In other words, by refusing the values of soul to attain those of body, we first lose soul, but eventually also the body. In an inordinate love of having and doing, we can lose the good of being, and then also having and doing. Quite simply, we can lose everything, for progress is not inevitable and decline is possible.

It’s not fully clear to me whether the upcoming election is primarily about short disruption or longer patterns of decline. If a short disruption, then we are voting about how best to manage an economy, safeguard property, distribute goods, deliver healthcare, educate the young, and so on. Vital concerns, but also concerns allowing for a legitimate plurality of viewpoints and policies, concerns requiring sober deliberation but also civil discourse and polite disagreement.

If, on the other hand, the election implicates deeply the status of cultural, personal, and religious value, then the election is about more than prudential variation, it is much more serious. Still requiring sober deliberation, but also fervent prayer and fasting; still civil discourse, but also non-compliance with evil; still disagreement, but also prophetic witness.

Even if we face the more serious option, Lonergan, a sound theologian, reminds us that the reign of sin is not overcome by political platforms, politicians, or human effort, for the reign of sin requires the law of the cross, requires redemption. Or, as Tracey Rowland somewhere wrote, “beware those who tell you that politics can take the place of the Cross.”

We’re playing the long game here, the game of cultural renewal, redemption, and the restoration of all things, the way God plays in the drama of salvation history. This game requires steady vision and constancy of purpose, something like a journey by the pilgrim people of God. And while we cannot forgo short games, for we must also care deeply about providing breakfasts and economic systems making breakfast likely, we place those things within the horizon of the total human good, a good provided by the Cross.

In that we hope, and in that we wait.


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