Before Truth

Lonergan, Aquinas, and the Problem of Wisdom

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Jeremy D. Wilkins
  • Washington, DC: 
    Catholic University of America Press
    , September
     2018.
     418 pages.
     $65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780813231471.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Anyone with even a casual awareness of the contemporary landscape of the theological and religious studies academies can recognize that the field is characterized by a disorienting plurality of approaches. It remains a live question whether, and how, contemporary scholars and religious leaders will be able to recognize such plurality as a gift, and moreover, whether we will develop the tools to engage such plurality well. Jeremy Wilkins’ excellent Before Truth: Lonergan, Aquinas, and the Problem of Wisdom provides precisely the kind of reflection needed for our disorienting situation.  

To be sure, Before Truth’s particularity is constrained by its focus on Bernard Lonergan’s (1904–1984) own historical work on Thomas Aquinas, and Lonergan’s constructive application of what he learned from Thomas for contemporary problems. But readers will miss out on the profound usefulness of Wilkins’ work within the contexts I have identified above if they pigeon-hole it as a work on either Lonergan or Thomas of sole interest to those already initiated into the scholarly communities committed to those Catholic thinkers. At the outset, in fact, Wilkins lays bare how Lonergan’s detractors (including many scholars of Thomas) have irresponsibly and unfairly dismissed Lonergan’s own work (see chapter 1). For scholars of Lonergan’s work, and especially for those Thomists and others who have dismissed Lonergan without actually understanding him, Wilkins’ book is worth its price for this section alone.

Wilkins goal is not simply to offer an apology for the value of Lonergan’s work, though. His more significant purpose, which he achieves admirably, is to demonstrate how Lonergan’s work is, or can be, revolutionary for theological reflection in our contemporary crisis of authority (see chapter 2). He accomplishes that task through first carefully tracing Lonergan’s own theological development from his early interpretations of Aquinas, through his constructive work Insight (University of Toronto Press, 1992) on human consciousness, knowledge, and metaphysics, finally through Lonergan’s groundbreaking work in Method in Theology (chapters 4-6).

Along the way, Wilkins carefully differentiates Lonergan’s approach to subjectivity and method from those of Immanuel Kant and René Descartes (165-77). Wilkins follows that work on Lonergan’s “fundamental methodology” (11) by demonstrating its applied usefulness as evident in Lonergan’s treatments of the development of doctrine in early Christianity (chapter 7), the meaningfulness of psychological analogies for the Trinity (chapter 8), and the difficult question of Christ’s knowledge (chapter 9).

Each of these chapters is worthy of careful attention because each treats relatively understudied achievements in Lonergan’s work, but historical theologians interested in the development of doctrine should take special notice of Wilkins’ work in chapter 7. Wilkins compellingly demonstrates the relationship between the clarity of the New Testament message and the later clarity of the development of doctrine, most clearly in the pronouncement of Nicaea and the formula of Chalcedon (see especially 199-202, 235-77). The final two parts of the book also demonstrate the continuity and connectedness of Lonergan’s lifework, and scholars of Lonergan’s work ought to pay careful attention to such connections. It will no longer do to treat his achievements, philosophical, cognitional, theological, and economic, in the piecemeal ways they have sometimes been treated. 

While it is addressed both from and to Christian theologians, and particularly those of a Thomistic bent, the precepts of Lonergan which Wilkins adroitly recovers and masterfully explains are of worth for all scholars of religious thought and practice. Theologians and religious scholars are in the business of doing certain kinds of work, and Lonergan’s chief contribution in Method in Theology (University of Toronto Press, 2017) was to get a handle on the tasks and commitments involved in such work that are necessary for its success. As Wilkins shows, focusing on such tasks provides a practical aid to doing such work well, and it simultaneously helps those involved to take a long view, recognizing their work relative to past accomplishments and oriented towards future ones (183). “Lonergan’s first philosophy,” Wilkins writes, “is ‘know thyself.’ Its precepts are self-attention, self-discovery, self-knowledge, and self-appropriation” (143). Attending to that fact, as Wilkins has done, and as Lonergan did, is an open invitation to the first task of philosophy, the task of becoming wise, which provides a basis for all subsequent reflection.

In summary, Wilkins has demonstrated how the regular critiques and dismissals of Lonergan’s works fail. He has concurrently demonstrated that what Lonergan’s work can midwife in those who read it is in fact precisely what is needed in the situation as I have described it above. It is not that Lonergan himself, or Wilkins, is the panacea needed. It is that Wilkins and his Canadian Jesuit magister, and for that matter, even that ancient Dominican master Thomas Aquinas, can help us to discover ourselves, and so take responsibility for faithfully completing the work of knowing and doing that is before us. “For the fact is that theology is under construction still, and we are its constructors” (Before Truth, 210). Religious studies also remains under construction, and its constructors can benefit from the salient insights of Before Truth. I hope, therefore, that Wilkins work is welcomed, engaged, and digested by the wide readership it merits. My hope is not for the limited promotion of Wilkins’ own work, or even Lonergan’s for that matter, but for the promotion of the self-transcendence in attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness, responsibility, and love which constitute us, theologians, historians, religious scholars, psychologists, anthropologists, human persons, all.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph K. Gordon is Associate Professor of Theology at Johnson University.

 

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeremy D. Wilkins is Associate Professor of Theology at Boston College and Editor of two volumes of Bernard Lonergan's collected works.

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