Bernard Lonergan on Conversion as Falling in Love

In one of my recent essays I drew upon Bernard Lonergan’s conception of conversion as ‘falling in love.’   It’s something that I intend to explore further and, if I have seemed a little preoccupied with sex and romance, is partly responsible for that intellectual adventure.

Lonergan thought that being in love was the best analogy for religious conversion because it described the type of total absorption of the experience.  It’s prompted by something wonderful (God) and draws our whole selves into relationship with that Being.  It’s more than intellectual, more than feelings, more than physical, more than conscious, and in the end, we would give our very lives just to Be With our Beloved.  Being in love inspires us to see the world in a whole new light and we become open to adventure, to wonder, beauty, goodness and the mystery of life!

This is the relevent section from my essay (read the whole essay here) – reads like a MTh essay I must say – big words!!

Lonergan explicated an epistemological method which made very careful distinctions in the process of consciousness.  At the core of his hermeneutical method he describes coming to know something as a type of conversion.  Unrestricted questioning about all that is ‘other’ is “the radical intending that moves us from ignorance to knowledge”(Lonergan 1973, 11).  In other words, we cannot know new information about ourselves as subject or an other as object, without the prompting of our lack of understanding.  We cannot become conscious of what we know, until we are aware that we do not know.  Within Lonergan’s framework, he describes this as a process of objectivising, that is, externalizing, our subjective knowing within which there are three stages of cognition.  He refers to this as experiencing, understanding and judging.  The first is the world of common sense;  the second is the commencement of theories or hermeneutical constructs; and the third is an integration of the two (Lonergan 1973, 93).  The stages are not experienced as distinct but rather the beginnings of the next stage evolve in process with its prior stage as previous knowledge begins to fail the knower as an adequate epistemological tool for their life experience.

When Lonergan applies this epistemological process he distinguishes between intellectual, moral and religious conversion: knowledge that is cognitive, performative and transcendental respectively.  They are distinct and, yet again, not unrelated.  “To achieve the good, one has to know the real.  To know the real, one has to reach the truth.  To reach the truth, one has to understand, to grasp the intelligible.  To grasp the intelligible, one has to attend to the data” (From a 1969 lecture. In Lonergan 2004, 37).  In most cases, one can expect intellectual conversion to be prior to moral and/or religious conversion, but, Lonergan argues, knowledge of God is a special case because God subverts the process by loving us first (Romans 5).  “As this gift of love animates and subsumes all other forms of loving, it gives intelligence a clouded awareness of a mystery, to provoke its own kind of questions and to lead to its own kind of answers.  The gift of God’s love occurs as something of a holy disruption in the routine flow of life, with religious, moral and intellectual consequences” (Kelly 2008, 11)

In relation to the recent research on sex, romance and long-term love which I’ve been blogging about, I am really intrigued as to how those universal human experiences might continue to play out as analogies for the religious life.  For example, the passionate romance of new love subsides into something much stronger, stable and secure over the longer term.  That certainly describes my own Christian life.  And a marriage that has lost it’s romance and/or it’s sex is dry and monotonous – which seems to describe the spiritual experience of many Christians who are turning up to church but nothing is actually happening in their Spirit anymore.  There is also mature (able to look beyond ourselves) and immature (self absorbed) versions of sex, romance and long-term love so it’s important to distinguish between a teenage crush on Jesus and a gracious love affair.

I’m collecting a list of authors to read on this subject, so if you have suggestions let me know!

If you want a general intro to Lonergan click here to go to Wiki.  Or you can go here for an overview of his philosophical work.

3 thoughts on “Bernard Lonergan on Conversion as Falling in Love

  1. First, onto grammatical errors: “it’s sex is dry” should be “its sex is dry.”
    Second, this is a good essay. I like your blog. It’s good.
    Third, you definitely need to read Works of Love by Kierkegaard. Also, The Little Prince is good stuff, too!
    Kierkegaard’s conception of love is arguable one of the most thorough and brilliant.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. Kierkegaard doesn’t do it for me, and once my thesis is published you’ll be able to read why. But I’m glad he’s helpful for you and happy to post your comments and essay links for others to explore.
      For me, it came down to a philosophical disagreement about LIMIT SITUATIONS and a divergence between Plato and Kant. In the end I am persuaded that writing about love must resist any kind of final philosophical definition.
      All the best, Chelle

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