The Fragility of Consciousness

Faith, Reason, and the Human Good

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Frederick G. Lawrence
Randall S. Roseberg, Kevin M. Vander Schel
Lonergan Studies
  • Toronto, ON: 
    University of Toronto Press
    , January
     456 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Frederick Lawrence’s Fragility of Consciousness, a collection of his essays—both known and unpublished—is a helpful and important contribution to the history of twentieth-century continental philosophy and theology. The work, edited by Randall S. Rosenberg and Kevin M. Vander Schel, gives a truly impressive presentation of the relationship and development of Lawrence’s thoughts gathered loosely around the theme found in the title, “The Fragility of Consciousness.” The breadth and scope of the project defies all-but-the-most generic of descriptions as reminder of the inherently fragile and imperfect character of human actions, and of our need to discover our place in creation. Other major themes in the text are “conversation as praxis,” “faith and reason,” and crisis of culture. The book is divided into two major parts: the first “The Hermeneutic Revolution and the Crisis of Culture,” and the second, “Theology and the Human Good.”

Lawrence clearly has mastery over the subject, and readers can learn a great deal from his weaving together of the important relationship between twentieth-century continental philosophy, and its reception—particularly by Bernard Lonergan. While Lawrence has a clear grasp of the thoughts of the various thinkers with which he engages, the uninformed reader would do well to steer clear of this book. In an almost breathtaking fashion, the lead essay—“Martin Heidegger and the Hermeneutic Revolution”—sweeps the reader into the development of hermeneutics, from Augustine to Lonergan, with Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadmer in between, in a matter of a few pages. Consequently, though Lawrence traces interesting and though provoking themes through these diverse thinkers, the text is rather inaccessible to those not already familiar with the authors in question. This work is, by no means, a work for beginners.

Those equipped to tackle the text, however, will find themselves rewarded with illuminating and fascinating connections. For example, this reader was struck particularly by this account: “What [Levi] Strauss and [Jacob] Klein learned from Heidegger about liberating the original thought of the genius from the sometimes choking, sometimes concealing tendrils of tradition, Lonergan learned on his own in the course of doing two studies on Thomas Aquinas’ thought on operative grace published as Grace and Freedom” (123). This observation by Lawrence is illustrative in that it is at once straightforward and profound. It simultaneously reminds the reader that Strauss, Klein, and Lonergan all had a broadly-speaking, common project—and at the same time points to the very different sources of their learning. This uniquely shows the relation of the work of Lonergan to “tradition,” even as it emphasizes how Lonergan sought to be liberated from it.

Nor does Lawrence settle for specious connections. Even as he draws remarkable parallels between Strauss and Lonergan, he sees the marked contrasts. Thus he notes, “Hence, although Strauss’s fear that many or most proponents of the empirical notion of culture end up sacrificing all normativity in their investigations, Lonergan . . . deemed that bringing historical integrity into Christian theology meant jettisoning the normative notion of culture in favor of the empirical notion” (134). Which, of course, pertains to the overarching theme of the book as a whole?

If one were to find fault with Lawrence’s essays, it would have to be that he has his clear “favorites.” While he certainly draws insight from all of the writers with whom he engages, there are some with whom he is far more willing to disagree than others. Gadamer and Lonergan are notably preserved from any substantial criticism. While this does not, in the end, take anything substantial away from Lawrence’s work, engagement with some of the criticisms of the various claims of all of the authors would make for a more thorough and useful book.

The twentieth century experienced what has been characterized as a hermeneutic revolution that contributed to a crisis of culture that presented a formidable challenge to the philosophers and theologians of the time. Lawrence attempts to walk a fine line, appropriating post-modern “authentic hermeneutic subjectivity,” without succumbing to relativism or nihilism. He does this by taking Lonergan as a guide so that he “takes relativity seriously without being relativistic—and that takes the absurdity and apparently random and chaotic dimensions of our world experience fully seriously without capitulating to nihilism in any form”(230). Whether this project is finally successful is beyond the space and purpose of this review. Regardless, any who are interested in Lonergan studies, will find this text a valuable resource.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Lendman is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Ave Maria University.

Date of Review: 
July 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frederick G. Lawrence is an American hermeneutic philosopher and theologian, and a specialist in Bernard Lonergan, teaching in the Department of Theology at Boston College.

Randall S. Rosenberg is an assistant professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.

Kevin M. Vander Schel is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University.


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