Friday, February 1, 2008

Feb. 1, 2008 Jeremy Blackwood: Mixing Oil and Water

Jeremy W. Blackwood, Ph.D. student, Marquette University

jeremy.blackwood AT

When I started my graduate work here at MU (fall 2004), I met a fellow student who has since become one of my best friends. He once made an off-the-cuff comment that has remained with me and serves as a very good indicator of the issue that tends to occupy my attention lately. In discussing the varying theologies in the Catholic world, he noted that “everyone’s concerned with orthopraxis and orthodoxy, but no one ever talks about orthopathy – right feeling.” At the time, I thought his comment interesting, but I didn’t give it much weight (I should note here that he is very interested in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar). Even as I began to become more familiar with Fr. Doran’s own elaborations and developments of Lonergan’s work, which themselves are deeply involved with notions of affectivity, it wasn’t until recently that it really began to sink in just how important that observation may have been.

GEM Background

Human knowing and action are subject to the transcendental imperatives: Be Attentive, Be Intelligent, Be Reasonable, Be Responsible. They thus depend on experience that lends itself to proper understandings that are really true and can be valuably acted upon. Failure to Be Attentive stunts experience; data can be ignored, and then the insight that could arise from them will not occur. Unfortunately, it is commonly the case that we never become conscious of such ignorance.

This, in very brief terms, is the issue to which Fr. Doran addresses himself in discussing psychic conversion. It is the mechanism of the ‘censor’ that determines preconscious ignorance, and Doran sees psychic conversion as the change in the role of the censor from repression to construction: rather than holding back images that might be painful, the censor brings forth images that are needed for proper insights.

Connected with psychic conversion but distinct from it, I think, is the issue of the cultivation of our feelings. If, after all, “values are apprehended in feelings” (MiT 30-31) (giving proper due to Fr. Doran’s more recent relating of this to Ignatian discernment), does not the proper apprehension of values demand a proper development of feeling, just as the proper grasp of intelligibility requires a proper development of intelligence? And further, if ‘mystical experience’ is to be conceived as the experience of the fulfillment of the transcendental notions, then should we not note as well that the authenticity of this experience demands a cultivation of feeling?

The Eastern Christian Element

Enter my other major interest: Eastern Christian mystical theology. Fr. Alexander Golitzin is our primary expert on this area here at MU. An Orthodox Christian who studied under John Meyendorff at Oxford and did a dissertation on how non-Platonic are the writings ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, Fr. Golitzin is also an individual who seemingly does not understand my dual interests (and I can’t say I blame him, from his perspective); they appear to him as oil and water.

Yet it may already be apparent just what it is that I see in the monastic and mystical literature of the Christian East: they spend a great deal of time with a watchful eye on the non-intellectual movements of the human subject. Fr. Golitzin has, in class, made comments that seem to suggest his disagreement with the assignment of Eastern Christian theology to an “affective” category (his reference is usually to the writings of Irénée Hausherr, if memory serves), but although I would put them in such a category, I do not mean by that assignment what Fr. Golitzin seems to fear.

I would suspect that what Fr. Golitzin fears is the subordination or denigration of Eastern Christian theology by its being consigned to the category of the “affective.” But my own position, and what I would maintain should be the position of Lonergan scholars in general, is that the categorizing of a particular sort of theology as primarily “affective” does not denigrate that theology; rather, it situates it in its relation to other sorts of theology that might be termed “intellective.” I would not, for instance, label Charles Hefling’s work on the self-knowledge of Christ as “affective”; it is “intellective,” theoretical. On the other hand, I would not for the most part label the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian (c.306 – 373) as “intellective”; they are “affective,” aesthetic.

The affective elements of human interiority should not be, for Lonergan scholars, subordinate to the intellectual elements. This subordination is intellectual baggage many of us still carry from our Enlightenment heritage, and we need to let go of it. Affect, in reality, is integral to the authentic functioning of the intellect: without it, as Lonergan himself says, all our intellectual operations would be “paper thin.” Work that focuses on and develops the affective dimension of human being is no less important than work that focuses on and develops the intellective dimension of human being; both are connected and necessary.

What I would suggest is that if one has steeped oneself in the aesthetic beauty of Ephrem’s hymns, the insights in Hefling’s work are both more readily apparent and much more personally meaningful. On the other hand, if one has steeped oneself in the theoretical rigor of Hefling’s work, Ephrem’s hymns are that much more aesthetically moving. There is an opening here for the interpenetration of explanatory theology and affective theology: both, in their own way, come to rest in a deepening of one’s relationship to God, and that deepening is all the more effective if they come to rest together in one’s relationship to God. This, I would maintain, is the key to one’s ability to be both an authentic Christian theologian and an authentically theological Christian.

Irreducible, Not Irreconcilable

However, this is not necessarily an easy position for contemporary theology, inside or outside the Lonergan community, to accept. It is something of a commonplace in Western theology to see a rift between devotional reflection and theological rigor. It is the difference Doran has pointed out between scholars working out of a ‘Lonerganian’ horizon and those working out of a ‘Balthasarian’ horizon. Essentially, this is the past conflict between monastic theology and the theology of the universities, and it continues to be a dividing element both within Western theology and between Christian East and West.

Yet my proposal is that we ask, with Fr. Doran and others, whether that irreducibility is also a liability, or whether it might be more properly and fruitfully understood as a complementarity. If the end of theological reflection – and here I mean any theological reflection – is the edification of the Church, then theological reflection as a whole must edify all the dimensions of the human subject, spiritual and psychic. Now, granted that devotional literature can at times be intellectually stimulating and that rigorous theology can at times be aesthetically pleasing, it remains that those are not their primary emphases. They are two different modes of theology, both authentic, both important. They cannot be reduced to one another, nor should they be. Each has its role to fill, each has its place. The intellect offers us tools for a careful use of symbols and affective communication; the affect offers a depth to meaning and intellective communication. Understanding is hampered without affect; affect is uncontrolled without intellect.

Concluding Remarks

To return to my own biographical illustrations, my interests in both Lonergan scholarship and Eastern Christian mystical literature are not the forcing together of oil and water. In fact, I don’t want to force them together at all. In no way should a project such as I envision result in the reduction of one type of theology to another. I want to maintain their distinctiveness; I want to let Eastern monastic theology be monastic, and I want to let Western systematic theology be Western and systematic. If they cease to retain their differing characteristics, I have nothing left to do!

What I do hope to accomplish, in for example my dissertation, is twofold: a development within the functional specialty of foundations that accounts for the affective in as full a manner as possible, and an examination of trends in Eastern Christian monastic literature that shows its conformity to the points developed in my foundational work.

As a final brief note, I expect there to be a long-term benefits in another direction. Fr. Doran has remarked both in and out of classes that a major pressing need for theology in the 21st century is pneumatology. I, for one, suspect that any pneumatology developed without reference to both the intellective and affective dimensions of theology and Christian life will be far less fruitful than it might have been, and I hope my own work might contribute to that endeavor.