skip to Main Content

The Fragility of Consciousness: Faith, Reason, and the Human Good

The Fragility of Consciousness: Faith, Reason, and the Human Good. Frederick G. Lawrence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017. 4


This collection of essays offers both an intellectual and a spiritual journey through the main currents of modern and postmodern thought, and Lawrence provides clear-sighted and comprehensive guidance through its twists and turns.  Part I, entitled “the Hermeneutic Revolution and the Crisis of Culture,” presents a more or less historical account of how the intellectual culture of Europe and America shifted from the modernism of the Enlightenment (mainly of Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza) to the various currents of postmodernism, which Lawrence treats both critically and sympathetically.  His guiding light throughout is the thought of Bernard Lonergan, and he explores that in great depth, including Lonergan’s work on political economy as well as theology and cognitional theory.

In the essays dealing with intellectual and cultural history, he discusses Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Benedict XVI, Jürgen Habermas, and Ernest L. Fortin at length, with brief discussions of some other figures, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.  Part II, entitled “Theology and the Common Good,” broadens the focus to include politics and economics along with an extensive discussion of theology and the nature of the inner transformation involved in what Lawrence and Lonergan call “conversion”—that is, a shift from one way of asking questions and looking at issues that has run up against its inherent limitations toward a breakthrough to a new, more open and adequate one.  This kind of conversion can take two forms, intellectual and religious or spiritual.  Lawrence discusses them in terms of a distinction between “horizontal and vertical exercises of liberty.”  Horizontal “chooses among alternative courses of action within an already fixed horizon; but a vertical exercise of liberty places one in an entirely new horizon; one becomes a new self.”  These two possibilities of intellectual and spiritual breakthrough are an underlying theme running through the collection as a whole.

Lawrence begins by talking about what he and many others would consider a key moment of transition in twentieth-century philosophical thinking: Martin Heidegger’s rejection of all previous forms of philosophical inquiry, from Plato on, by condemning what he called their “forgetfulness of being,” by which he meant the way earlier philosophy had sought to understand being as a sort of abstract metaphysical object.  Heidegger’s own approach focused on existence as concrete act and experience and as “primordially interpretive.”  The main currents of “modern” philosophy from Descartes through Kant and the neo-Kantians of Heidegger’s own time sought to purify knowing and attain perfect objectivity by careful perceiving of objective reality while minimizing the subjectivity of interpreting.  As Lawrence puts it, Heidegger’s (and Gadamer’s) “hermeneutic phenomenology chose the tree of life instead of the tree of knowledge.”  He goes on to explain, “This means a refusal to accept Kant’s account of the theoretical sciences of mathematics and of the subhuman natural sciences as the exclusive normative framework for philosophical inquiry.”  Rather the focus of hermeneutic phenomenology would be on the way concrete human beings make sense of their actual experience of their own finite and questionable existence.

This radical intellectual conversion from one philosophical vision to a new one is the point of departure from modern to postmodern.  The postmodern hermeneutic revolution, says Lawrence, begins with Heidegger in philosophy and Barth in theology and continues through Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, and others, including Lonergan.  Lonergan’s contribution to this is crucially important in Lawrence’s view, because the postmodern break-out from ancient, medieval, and modern cognitive regimes has posed the danger of irrationalism and even nihilism.  “Heidegger,” says Lawrence, “is sufficiently equivocal on the issue of propositional truth to spawn a followership that, in the name both of a caricature of propositional truth and of arguments based upon Kant and/or Nietzsche, unambiguously rejects truth in the sense of a verifiable possibility.” “The rejection of truth in the ordinary sense—often considered synonymous with ‘postmodernism,’” he says, “can be read positively as a thoroughgoing critique of all notions of the truth based on fallaciously extrinsic criteria,” but it can derail into relativism and skepticism about the possibility of any truth at all.  Rather, the “proper hallmark of postmodern hermeneutics” should be that “the human attainment of propositional truth is conditioned by the more intricate criteria of the truth of existence.”

These “more intricate criteria” are worked out in the cognitional theory of Bernard Lonergan.  There is no need to explain that in detail here (Lonergan’s Insight is 748 densely packed pages).  I will just mention a few points pertinent to the topics Lawrence takes up.  To begin with, the fundamental starting point of a great deal of inadequate cognitional theory is what Lonergan calls “naive realism,” the idea that cognitive objects are “already-out-there-now-real things” that can be known by “taking a look.”  This is probably the way most people begin thinking about what is real and how we know it, and this always remains a stubborn habit of mind for many.  The problem is that it does not take account of the role that interpretation plays in all of our knowing or the fact that careful interpretation needs to be followed by critical reflection on the adequacy of the interpretation in relation to the experiential data that are being interpreted.  Interpretation and critical reflection are subjective operations (i.e., operations performed as the acts of a subject) that, properly enacted, take place in a sequence, advancing through three levels: (1) attention to the data of experience, (2) interpretation of the possible patterns of meaning that can be found among them, and (3) critical reflection that compares an interpretation with the data that constitute the evidence for it and also with any other possible interpretations of the relevant data and concludes with a judgment regarding which interpretation is the most relatively adequate, at least for the time being, pending the discovery of further experiential evidence and the possible future development of even better interpretations.  This is why reason is inherently dialogical or, as Lawrence says, “conversational”:  the search for adequacy of interpretations must always be open to many voices contributing their own experience and insights.

The pertinence to the topics and thinkers Lawrence addresses in his essays are easy to see.  Relativistic postmodernism, for example, discovers the inadequacy of naive realism and the fact that all inquiry must involve interpretation, but it gets stuck at that point.  It sees through the earlier cognitive ideal of certainty but can see no other goal, so that, enchanted by its one-sided hermeneutic of suspicion it ends up floundering endlessly in a sea of possible interpretation and fails to advance to the level of critical reflection and judgment regarding not certainty but relative adequacy.

This failure also subverts postmodernism’s frequently professed value of appreciation of “otherness.”  Lawrence says, “In the posture of sensitivity to otherness and difference that goes together with agnostic pluralism, radical postmodernists fail to come to terms with the way in which it takes correct judgments adequately (if never exhaustively) to come to terms with the other as other.  As Lonergan so eloquently put it: ‘Condemnation of objectivity induces, not a merely incidental blindness in one’s vision, but a radical undermining of authentic human existence. … not treating [persons] as persons.  To treat them as persons, one must know and one must invite them to know.  A real exclusion of objective knowing, so far from promoting, only destroys personalist values.’”

Or for another example, in the essay on Lonergan’s study of economics Lawrence talks about how money and credit play roles in an economy and how money is a symbolic construct that represents “promise” (to expand surplus, basic goods, and culture) and how people who want a gold standard are tempted by the idea that gold is an “already out there now real thing” and so distrust credit and the promise represented by economic money.  Lonergan believed in free enterprise but also that its success would depend on intelligent and critically informed human beings in society capable not only of understanding the economic concepts of money and credit, but also what it means to be human in the full sense—a point beyond simply cognitional issues.  As Lawrence explains, “modern culture makes the accumulation of money in the form of profits into the goal of the economy.  As a result, economy tends to subordinate politics to itself, which inverts the normative order of civil society.”  The field of economics tends to reduce human persons to what economists call “self-interested rational economic actors,” pursuing the Lockean goals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.”  The ideology of “modern individualism,” Lawrence explains, with “the modern principle of liberty” that goes with it, “has detached freedom from the normativity of human intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility governed by the pure, detached, disinterested, and unrestricted desire to know.”  The result is a “disoriented freedom” in which “the preference for mere life over the good life” binds one to an individualistic craving for lesser particular goods and the eclipse of the true human and common good, which is a life of love in a community of love.

This conception of true freedom in a community of love is the focus of the final essays on “The Human Good and Christian Conversation,” “Grace and Friendship:  Postmodern Political Theology and God as Conversational,” and “Growing in Faith as the Eyes of Being-in-Love with God.”  I mentioned earlier the inherently dialogical or “conversational” character of reason in its quest for adequate interpretations.  In these last essays, Lawrence addresses how this relates to the theological dimension of this quest.

In modern culture the summum bonum (self-transcending love) tends to become replaced by the summum malum (fear of death, deception, and deprivation).  Both forms of Western liberalism—“conservative” (“enlightened self-interest in private good) and “progressive” (which tries to generate from “natural selfishness … a secular kind of compassion”)—seek protection from this summum malum.  Power, property, and “comfortable self-preservation” become the primary goal of life, and the common good becomes only a collectivity of private goods, while “as Leo Strauss argued, Lockean liberals are truncated subjects caught up in the ‘joyless quest for joy.’”

The cure for this can be found by a return to an older and better conception of political community combined with a deeper, more open and “conversational” understanding of faith.  Regarding political community, Lawrence refers to Aristotle’s Politics: “As Eric Voegelin saw, Aristotle founded justice on philia [friendship], and philia on the actualization of the full self in community.”  Political health, he says, depends on friendship and the self-transcending love that Christians call caritas.  The modernisms of Hobbes and Locke marginalized friendship in society “because once you accept the state-of-nature account of humanity, sin is regarded as natural, and people cannot be expected ever to transcend their concupiscent desires.”

The solution requires a political theology, and that in turn requires an adequate theology as such, because as Lonergan put it, “the unauthenticity of individuals generates the unauthenticity of traditions,” and “if the subject takes the tradition as it exists for his (or her) standard, he (or she) can do no more than authentically realize unauthenticity.”  This has been the challenge for the Roman Catholic Church’s two modern ecumenical councils, Vatican I and Vatican II.  Vatican I tried to construct an impregnable system of defense against the dangers of modernity, but in doing so it also threatened to stifle the possibility of the kind of authenticity that could deal with its challenges dialectically.  Vatican II tried to open that possibility again, and Lonergan’s own career as well as Lawrence’s have carried that effort forward.

In Lonergan’s case, this involved a kind of conversion that he himself went through between his work on cognitional theory in Insight and his later writings, especially Method in Theology.  Insight had been an effort to break out of an inauthentic tradition of Thomism, centered on an objectivist metaphysics and a faculty psychology, by rediscovering Aquinas’s own understanding of the subjective activity of intentional operations.  But while doing that Lonergan was still tending to think of belief as assent to propositions, which might be based on careful interpretation and critical reflection, but which in the cognitive regime promoted by Vatican I tended to mean “assenting to truths on the basis of someone else’s communicating them to us without our having marshaled and weighed the evidence to be able to affirm them personally.”  As Lawrence describes the transition Lonergan went through, he subsequently came to recognize “that love, not knowledge, plays the determinative role in people’s personal orientation and authenticity, and so in their lives” and that “faith, which precedes belief’s assent (at least in the religious sphere),” is in Lawrence’s beautiful phrase, “the eyes of being in love with God.”

To read Fred Lawrence is to undergo a thoroughly enjoyable stretching of one’s mind.  I am grateful to Lawrence and his editors for having put together this immensely valuable collection of his essays, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in our era’s intellectual and theological history.


Eugene Webb

Eugene Webb received his BA in Philosophy from UCLA, and his PhD in Comparative Literature from Columbia. He is the author of eight books, among which are Eric Voegelin, Philosopher of History (Washington, 1981), Philosophers of Consciousness (Washington, 1988), World View and Mind: Religious Thought and Psychological Development (Missouri, 2009), and In Search of the Triune God: The Christian Paths of East and West (Missouri, 2014).

Back To Top