Thursday, January 24, 2008

Alison Bender's Response to Fr. Ivo Coelho

Alison M. Benders, abenders AT

Fr. Coelho begins a difficult effort to apply the functional specialty of dialectic from Lonergan’s work to the problem of the metaphysical status of maya and brahman in Sankara, an early proponent and commentator on the philosophical tradition of Advaita Vedanta. Given my recent doctoral thesis, a comparative study of self-awareness and self-transcendence in Lonergan and Sankara,[1] I was intrigued by his ideas and would like to contribute to the discussion. My comments fall into two broad categories: method and substance.

Method: Fr. Coelho has chosen to practice Lonergan’s functional specialty of dialectic on “the interpretation of Sankara’s Advaita, or Sankara on the relation between Brahman and the world.” He is not attempting to make any connections to Western/Christian metaphysics. In contrast, I have tried to practice dialectic as a method of comparative theology. Learning from this misguided attempt, I would like to offer a suggestion relevant to Fr. Coelho’s project, which is to explain more fully why he has chosen his subject matter – the study of Sankara as a Christian theologian.

In a preliminary draft of my dissertation I had attempted to use a simplification of Lonergan’s functional specialties as the method to compare Sankara’s thought on self-awareness with Lonergan’s explication of self-appropriation. The central moment in that effort was evaluating the absence of conversions in the thinkers. No one endeavoring comparative theological study will be surprised with the outcome of my first effort – when one uses Western philosophical achievements as criteria for evaluating non-Western philosophies, the result will be decidedly in favor of the Western comparative partner. That is, when I asked if Lonergan’s work showed evidence of the presence of intellectual, moral and religious conversion, I obviously found that it did; when I asked if Sankara’s work showed evidence of these same conversions, I found him obviously deficient (principally with respect to Lonergan’s notion of intellectual conversion). The effort felt meaningless to me; actually, it felt a great deal like the trimuphalism of early Christian efforts at theological-doctrinal comparison, where all other religions inevitably failed to meet the clear superiority of Christian truth.

In the final version of my thesis, I used a dialogical method suggested by Frank Clooney, S.J., who is recognized by religion scholars for his expertise in Hindu-Christian comparative study. Clooney’s article “Theology and Sacred Scripture” demonstrates a four-step approach to interreligious dialogue for a Christian exploring an unfamiliar religious tradition.[2] The purpose of a comparative study is to generate new learning about one’s home tradition and another faith, which learning will in turn contribute to the general academic and practical project of religious literacy and, in the end, to the theologian’s own growth. The steps are:

1. Explain clearly the theological idea or religious event under examination and why it was chosen. This includes a full understanding of the relevant texts, including information about each text’s speaker, the main ideas and their relationship to the wider tradition (212-15).

2. Explore the texts thoroughly - reading, reciting and absorbing them (215-221).

3. Conduct dialogue among the texts by placing the themes from each tradition side by side to understand and evaluate the similarities and differences and reasons for them (224-230).

4. Draw conclusions about what succeeds in the conversation and what fails (230-233). Note what has been uncovered, especially with respect to one’s home tradition.

These steps in “Theology and Sacred Scripture” correspond neatly with the normative conscious and intentional operations of Lonergan’s general empirical method and with the functional specialties of theological method. The initial contextualization step combines the conscious operations of experiencing and understanding directed at the broader theological situations of the comparative partners; in terms of functional specialties this step comprises both research and interpretation. Clooney’s second step corresponds to the operations of experiencing and understanding as well, but the focus is expressly on understanding the concepts identified for comparison. Again the functional specialties of research and interpretation are operating here, as well as history, which is to judge the meaning and interconnection of the elements according to what the authors intended. The third step correlates closely with the operation of decision and the functional specialty dialectic, because it invites not only comparison but the critical and intelligent understanding of differences. Comparison is dialectic, in Lonergan’s terminology, to the extent that the differences are understood and expressed in terms of differentiations of consciousness, including intellectual, moral and religious conversions. The final step corresponds to the conscious operation of decision and the functional specialty foundations, since it elucidates and evaluates what is uncovered in the comparison. Thus, Clooney’s first three steps are a unified mediating phase that brings the texts forward to present them for understanding, including a comparison of their similarities and their differences; his final step mediates what has been judged (uncovered) into the wider theological conversation.

Fr. Coelho’s project is not a comparison of Hindu thought with Christian thought, so his projects does not suffer the defects I found in my first comparative attempt and I do not fault him for not anticipating a question that I now raise. Nevertheless, Clooney’s work offers some wisdom for all Christian scholars as they venture into other faiths. Most important is the question of why we (as Christian theologians) are attempting to understand a fundamental question in another faith. By understanding our own motives, we can establish a firm foundation for our investigation and uncover inevitable biases and inauthenticities in ourselves. Beyond this, I would affirm that the seminal reason to study the theological and philosophical systems of other cultures is to promote our own growth toward authentic humanity. With full appreciation of Fr. Coelho’s dialectic study, I ask myself how I will move from understanding and judging what Sankara says about brahman and maya to deciding how this knowledge can shape my interactions in the world and my engagement with the divine.

Substance: Fr. Coelho investigates the metaphysical nature of brahman and maya in Sankara’s thought through several respected scholars’ interpretations. Quite appropriately, he highlights the main difficulty for anyone studying Sankara’s positions:

The first step is to assemble the various interpretations of Sankara. These are, of course, very many. But my attempt to demonstrate dialectic would not be completely vitiated if I were to limit myself to a few: Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, T.M.P. Mahadevan, Satishchandra Chatterjee and Dhirendramohan Datta, Richard De Smet and Sengaku Mayeda. For the same reason, I trust I will be forgiven if I base this attempt on ‘spot samplings’ of these authors rather than comprehensive and scholarly interpretations as would be required even by a full and proper use of the method.

In my dissertation study, I also attempted to expound what Sankara taught about the relation between brahman and conditioned reality, limiting myself to the important teaching text the Vivekacudamani (The Crest Jewel of Discrimination),[3] which has been attributed to Sankara. Instead of assembling a respectable cadre of scholarly interpretations, I rashly attempted my own interpretation, based on multiple translations and accompanying textual comments.[4] I asked to be excused for this hubris because my project was to establish interpretations of parallel ideas in the work of Lonergan and Sankara (of self-awareness and self-transcendence) and compare these.[5] From this study, I would like to offer three comments that may assist in understanding what Sankara means by brahman and how brahman relates to atman and maya.

1. It is problematic to study brahman as an epistemic concept divorced from the soteriological thrust of Advaitin thought. “[T]he broadest context of Sankara’s works is the problem of suffering and the hope of liberation, so his metaphysics is decisively indexed to soteriology. … More specifically, his work concerns the nature of experience per se and the appropriate methods to access it.”[6] The purpose and terminus of Sankara’s teaching is not metaphysical knowledge for its own sake, but personal knowledge of the true self through direct intuition of brahman as the supreme non-dual reality. Whenever Sankara teaches about the nature of brahman, his emphasis is, I think, better understood as existential formation – the teaching creates the possibility for disciples to realize their eternal, non-dual identity with ultimate reality itself. Once students realize the nature of the true self, as identical with brahman, the teachings revealed in the Upanisads become immaterial; experience of brahman vitiates the need for any intellectually coherent articulation of that reality. For Fr. Coelho's project, this may indicate that the cogency of Sankara’s teachings must not be measured according Western critical methods, but must be evaluated according to their efficacy in leading seekers toward the experiential realization of reality itself.

2. Much of Fr. Coelho’s discussion focuses upon the fact that brahman is unsubratable reality or being. While this is certainly true, I found that I was able to understand the truth of non-dualism more readily when I grasped the intelligibility of brahman as being-consciousness-bliss, rather than as being alone. Brahman is often described as consciousness meaning pure subjectivity, awareness that does not intend any object; it is consciousness-as, not consciousness-of. This point helps refocus the discussion from a question of whether conditioned existence (the multiplicity that we apprehend through the senses) is really real to a question of how brahman can actually be the eternal, indivisible reality of all that we experience. When brahman is conceptualized as consciousness, the identity of atman and brahman becomes more intelligible.

3. For my final point, I am hijacking Fr. Coelho’s project, to insert a point about the commonalities in Lonergan’s understanding of God and Sankara’s understanding of brahman. I would welcome discussion on these ideas. I quote here from my dissertation:

God for Lonergan and brahman for Sankara present similar qualities. For example, God and brahman are constituted by and entail existence, consciousness, active knowledge and an element of value (either bliss or love).[7] In Insight, Lonergan speaks about God as the unrestricted act of being, knowing and loving, to which human self-transcendence is oriented; in Method he expresses the realm of transcendence as God’s love ‘poured into our hearts’ and as being in love with God. For Sankara, brahman is being-consciousness-bliss, consciousness itself and ‘one without a second.’ Brahman is the ground of reality, but also absolute knowledge, perceiving all else. The similarities are striking, but more than this they are predictable and can be explained according to Lonergan’s interiority analysis and Sankara’s teaching on the sheaths surrounding the self.

“To depict this point graphically, I have adapted the chart of Lonergan’s conscious operations by adding the corresponding sheaths, according to the Vivekacudamani, and the attributes of ultimate reality in both traditions.[8] For Christians, God is infinite being, infinite love and infinite intelligence. Advaita understands brahman as sat-chit-ananda. These attributes can be likened to the highest or innermost dimensions of human subjectivity.

conscious operations

levels of consciousness and Precepts


Attributes of God

Infinite being

Attributes of brahman Absolute Being

Realm of full self-transcendence-

Be in love.

Realization of brahman

Infinite loving

Absolute Bliss



Be responsible.

Bliss sheath –pleasure from virtuous action

(God as eternal unchanging actuality)

(brahman as eternal, unchanging)



Be rational.

Knowledge sheath – weighing and judging

Infinite intelligence in act[9]

Consciousness as ‘absolute knowledge’



Be intelligent.

Mental sheath – tool for understanding perceptions



Be attentive.

Gross body and vital air sheaths

“This rendering shows a correspondence between the level of rational consciousness, the knowledge sheath, God as infinite intelligence and brahman as absolute consciousness or knowledge. To the extent that human beings are in the image of God, that atman is brahman, they share intelligence as an essential quality; both Lonergan and Sankara identify a subjective human dimension corresponding to knowing. But human beings move from knowing to choosing or acting. Therefore, the chart likewise depicts at the next higher level a correlation between self-reflective consciousness (which, according to Lonergan, is the level at which people decide about themselves as moral agents) and the bliss sheath (which, according to Sankara, compares with pleasure experienced in virtuous action). Here, there is no direct correlate in God or brahman because both of these realities are understood to be fully actualized, never changing, choosing or acting - unlike human beings who must act in created or conditioned reality. But, beyond knowing and acting, in Lonergan’s terms, human beings love and are fundamentally oriented toward love; in terms of Sankara’s sheaths, beyond knowing, there is bliss. Therefore, at the highest level I have located the realm of full self-transcendence and the realization of brahman, which are acknowledged by Lonergan and Sankara to be the apex of human experience, transcending ordinary knowing. In addition, Lonergan characterized full self-transcendence as being in love with God. Therefore, I have identified full self-transcendence and moksha with Infinite Loving and Absolute Bliss, at the highest level of consciousness to suggest that these dimensions constitute the innermost essence of human subjectivity as well as the ground of existence. Finally, I have not depicted a dimension of human subjectivity that corresponds to Infinite Being or Absolute Being, because these are not distinct attributes separable from the transcendent experience of ultimate reality. Speaking in Christian terms, God’s essence is existence, knowledge and love; speaking in Advaitic terms, atman is brahman, which is absolutely non-subratable being, not different from consciousness and bliss. In summary, the main purpose of presenting the conscious operations in this chart is to reveal an interesting correspondence between the explication of consciousness in both thinkers and the ultimate reality as each thinker understands it. The correspondence is, I suggest, more than coincidence; it evidences a normative a priori structure of human subjectivity that is isomorphic with absolute reality, a claim more easily recognized in the expressions of faith: imago dei and tat tvam asi.

Conclusion: I appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with Fr. Coelho through this website. The work of dialectic can be both challenging and rewarding. I hope that my contribution here adds to the work of Lonergan scholars and comparative theologians as we together strive for authentic engagement with the world and with the divine reality.

[1] Benders, Alison Mearns. A Comparative Study of Self-Awareness and Self-Transcendence: What do Lonergan and Sankara have to say to each other? Director: Francis X. Clooney, S.J. (Boston College, 2006). Please note that some portions of this entry are direct quotations from my dissertation project, which is now under revision for publication.

[2] Clooney, Francis X., S.J. ---. “Theology and Sacred Scriptures Reconsidered in the Light of a Hindu Text.” Theology and Sacred Scripture. Eds. Carol J. Dempsey and William P. Loewe. The Annual Publications of the College Theological Society. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001, 211-36.

[3] The Vivekacudamani is an accessible distillation of Advaita in the form of a dialogue between guru and disciple. Sankara’s teaching in the Vivekacudamani shares with Lonergan’s work the non-negotiable insistence upon personal experience as the foundation for transhistorical, transcultural certainty and, one might say, for transcendence. The primary point of the Vivekacudamani is not to prove logically or discursively the validity of non-dual reality, but to model the necessary pedagogy and meditative practices, that enable the disciple to appropriate this transformative truth as a personal, existential experience.

[4] Like Fr. Coehlo, I am not familiar with Sanskrit, beyond recognizing a few transliterated words, so I worked with multiple translations of the original text to provide a better nuanced understanding.

[5] To quote from my dissertation abstract (presuming there might be interest in the conclusions of my work): “Both Lonergan and Sankara demonstrate methods by which the problem of self-awareness is solved through a more adequate apprehension of the self, which apprehension, in turn, transcends ordinary perception and knowledge. Both thinkers require a turn inward to promote an affective and experiential realization of transcendent reality, as the appropriate response to the confusion and uncertain meaning in the world. The experiences result in existential conversions as permanent alterations in people’s relationship to reality – the experiences lead to self-transcendence. Thus, these two quite different thinkers make the same shift to appropriate subjective operations and events, with similar results in terms of existential self-transcendence. Furthermore, the realms of transcendence then provide common ground for understanding the human horizons of intellectual, moral and religious meaning.

“The study also reveals that both Lonergan and Sankara have distinguished the same interdependent operations of intentional consciousness, lending credibility to Lonergan’s claim that these are normative. They share a common critical realist approach to ordinary reality and articulate a way of knowing ultimate reality that might best be characterized as immediate apprehension or direct realization. Moreover, it is possible to demonstrate through Lonergan’s interiority analysis that both Lonergan and Sankara lead people to precisely the same ultimate reality, which is experienced and expressed according to individual structures of meaning. Finally, the study [explains] how Lonergan’s interiority analysis may critique Sankara’s epistemology and how Sankara’s practical instructions on right discrimination may assist Lonergan to integrate intentional consciousness with the notion of full self-transcendence.”

[6] Forsthoefel, Thomas. Knowing Beyond Knowledge: Epistemologies of Religious Experience in Classical and Modern Advaita. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing (2002) 38.

[7] Certainly, there are nuances, for example, within Christianity God is often expressed as personally engaged with individual human beings, while Advaita understands brahman to be supra-personal.

[8] This chart will prove instrumental in grasping comparative points in the ensuing discussions.

[9] ‘Intelligence understanding itself’ is another way that Lonergan expresses the agent intelligence of God (depending on Thomas Aquinas), in which there is no distinction between the eternal operations of understanding and judging, as there is when people can distinguish the elements of temporal human knowing.